Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting

Lorey, Isabell. ‘Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting’ e-flux journal #17 (June-August 2010) 1-10 []


In the past decade, conversations concerning both the (partly subversive) knowledge of the precarious, and a search for commons (in order to constitute the political), has conspicuously taken place more often in art institutions than in social, political, or even academic contexts.

It became possible to articulate a critique of the ambivalent role of art institutions: on the one hand, institutions in the art field were the site of critical discussions of neoliberal transformation processes; on the other, such institutions were important players in the game of cognitive capitalism and increasing precarization tendencies.


Precarization is by no means a phenomenon that first affects social groups imagined to be at the margins before moving into the center to affect the so-called middle class – those who have secured their position within the capitalist production regime, and who are therefore able to fortify and improve their social position. A model of this kind, based on precarious margins and a threatened center, does not do justice to the remodeling and outright dismantling of social security systems in Europe. It is a development that reached the so-called center a long time ago, with the massive reduction of permanent employment contracts and the increase in temporary jobs sometimes calling for a high degree of mobility, with or without minimal social security benefits such as health insurance, paid holidays, or pensions.

Neoliberal societies are now governed internally through social insecurity, which means providing the minimum possible social security. Precarization is currently in a process of normalization, taking its cue from administrative strategies that were problematic even before Fordism. Just as the Fordist social welfare state represents a historical exception, so too can precarious working conditions be understood as an anomaly or deviation.

This administrative logic no longer focuses on regulating fixed differences in identity, but regulates the “absolute poverty” that could prevent individuals from being competitive.

If precarization has become a governmental instrument of normalization surpassing specific groups and classes, then social and political battles themselves should not assume differential separations and hierarchies. Rather, those who wage such battles should look specifically for what they have in common in the midst of normalization: a desire to make use of the productivity of precarious living and working conditions to change these modes of governing, a means of working together to refuse and elude them.


In addition, particularly among leftists, one has to be reminded that expressions of solidarity with the mostly migrant “others” not only leave one’s “own” position unquestioned, but also victimize the “poor others” and deny them their own capacity for political action.


Within the framework of EuroMayDay, rather than sealing off identity categories between precarious creatives on the one hand and the excluded precarious workers on the other (the white “lower class,” migrants, or illegalized persons), alliances between class and status were forged to bring together precarious cultural producers, knowledge workers, migrant organizations, initiatives of the unemployed, organizations of illegalized persons, and also unions. Thus the subject of repeated debates concerned how modes of refiguring the subject – and thus identitary logics – could be deconstructed to find a new language of politics capable of widening the field of political possibilities.

There is an important presupposition for both a political and a theoretical perspective of the common: the new figure of work based on communication, knowledge, creativity, and affect is by no means productive only for a new phase of capitalist accumulation.

The economization of the social, the confluence of work and life, the demands to involve the whole person in immaterial and affective work – in other words, the capitalization of modes of subjectification – are not total, comprehensive, or wholly determined. There are always surpluses, possibilities for articulation, and potentialities of resistance.

Modes of subjectification are not completely absorbed into the normative state, or into economic interpellations of flexibility, mobility, and affective and creative labor. In insecure, flexibilized, and discontinuous working and living conditions, subjectifications arise that do not wholly correspond to a neoliberal logic of exploitation, which also resist and refuse.

The value produced by forms of work primarily based in communication and affect, on exchange with others, cannot be entirely measured, as these activities transgress the terms required by Fordist industrial labor. 14 What is unforeseen, contingent, and also precarious, emerges at many moments in the process of precarization, and an inherent aspect of this precarization is the capacity for refusal, and hence precarization is a process of recomposing work and life, of sociality, which thus cannot be – not immediately, not so quickly, and perhaps not even at all – economicized.

What was needed in the early 2000s (and is still needed today) was knowledge about both different forms of precarization and the practices of refusal and subversion newly emerging in them.

The practice of militant research seeks to initiate interest, emancipation, debates, social struggles, and to amplify movements searching for better ways of living and working.


The precarious have no common identity, only common experiences.

Precarization refers to the very laborious practice of queering multiple positions and appeals at the same time and one after another. Taken this way, precarization also indicates the impossibility of disambiguation, the impossibility of an identitary standstill.

Here precarization also means the experience of dealing with simultaneous multiplicities, with the heterogeneity of ascriptions and interpellations. Different singularities are not constituted through individuality, through inseparability, but rather through that which they share with others, what they take part in, to what extent, and how they become common with others, how they become a constituent power.

To be able to imagine this becoming-common as political agency, rather than regard the concept of the common as a social ontological constitution (as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri most recently suggested again in Commonwealth), I would like to focus on another concept from Negri that has meanwhile dropped out of sight somewhat, namely the concept of constituent power.

In making demands for political and social rights, it can certainly be necessary to (strategically) refer to an ontologically grounded common, the common that strives for equality, for equal opportunities in the midst of difference. But to be able to act together with others at all, this common has to mean something other than a basic ontological category. Because this “common” is something that must first emerge, that has first to be put together, that does not yet exist. There is no community that emerges here, no association or opportunity for disambiguation, but rather a constituency in the process of fleeing from notions of community.

This kind of constituting is to be understood like a mosaic, as a joining together of many single, already existing pieces, singularities, allowing something new to emerge in the manner of the arrangement.

Conflicts and confrontations, however, are not the sole basis for the common. Confrontations – in the sense of taking apart and taking sides behind different fronts – are an expression of refusals and resistances, on the basis of which a constituent power is first able to develop. Without conflicts, without social struggles, constituent power, which is needed to set a process of constituting in motion, remains a set of merely latent, singular potentialities.

Butler conceives the general precariousness of life, the vulnerability of the body, not simply as a threat or a danger, from which protection is absolutely needed. Precariousness distinguishes that which makes up life in general – human as well as non-human. Butler formulates an ontology that can only be understood as embedded in social and political conditions. Vulnerability becomes an extension of birth, because initial survival already depends on social networks, on sociality and labor.


Precarity – or, in my terms, precarization – as an effect of specific conditions of domination means, on the one hand, that this is not the ontological concept of precariousness, but rather a political concept (as Butler makes clear). Yet, on the other, precarity is therefore not to be understood as determinate but, on the contrary (although Butler does not make this sufficiently clear) as decidedly productive: in its productivity as an instrument of governance and a condition of economic exploitation, and also as a productive, always incalculable, and potentially empowering subjectification.

Unlike ontological precariousness, political precarity crosses all categories of identity and cannot be contained within them.

The European movements of the precarious and their associated theoretical discourses have been able to identify commonalities through precarization – unreasonable demands as well as opportunities – and have left identity politics behind.