Precarious Lives, Democracy and ‘Affective Politics’

“…politicians don’t live our lives and have no intention of living our lives – you with me? They just make the decisions about our lives, even though they know nothing about it.”

This was one of the participants from our recent Everyday Life in Salford project, but it reflects what a lot of people feel. Many of us are living precarious lives, and there seems little that our democratic institutions seem to be doing about it. This contributes towards people becoming increasingly disillusioned in the potential for party politics to be a positive force for progressive social transformation that can improve our daily lives. It can sometimes seem as if politicians may as well by governing from the moon.

The structures of the labour market creates for many what Tracy Shildrick and colleagues have called “poverty and insecurity: life in ‘low-pay, no-pay’ Britain”, in which there is alternation between low-paid, insecure jobs and periods out of work. This is described as a “longitudinal pattern of employment, instability and movement between low-paid jobs and unemployment, usually accompanied by claiming of welfare benefits.” The dominant politics of poverty of the UK constructs this as individual character faults of people not trying hard enough, rather than focusing attention on the structural inequalities created through the political economy.

Research conducted by the Social Action & Research Foundation and the Open Society Foundations in Higher Blackley, north Manchester revealed a community with a strong work ethic facing economic difficulties as a result of the proliferation of low-paid and insecure work, which shaped people’s lives in many different ways. Higher Blackley had once been full of industry. At its peak in 1961, ICI used to employ 14,000 people. The legacy of de-industrialisation has continued to have a significant impact on working-class communities; As Paul, a thirty-five year old man who had lived in the area his whole life declared: “Working class nowadays, you’re struggling anyway.”

Precarious lives leads to the generalisation of social insecurity. Sitrin and Azzellini argue that this is not a good basis for democracy as it reduces the possibilities that we might speak up, challenge, get organised and express solidarity between and across groups. Not only has economic democracy been undermined over the last few decades with inequality becoming rampant and wages stagnating, but our means to be able to challenge it collectively have been concurrently weakened.

Sitrin and Azzellini draw on the concept of ‘politica afectiva’ that emerged in Argentina following the crisis there in 2001. This translates in English to ‘affective politics, and draws on the basis of identifying our relationships as a necessary means of building an alternative society; collective social responsibility is developed that is based on cooperation and mutual support, in contrast to competition. Through this process, the foundations for a transition towards a future society that is not grounded in capitalist principles are established. In light of this, we can imagine how radical social change can be based upon the development of social relationships of solidarity and connection with other people’s daily hopes and struggles. It also seeks to develop alternative conceptions of value. We can see such relationships existing in many working class communities and between people who have been marginalised due to different causes; these relationships are an crucial asset that can be built upon.

Of course, this does not substitute for the need for significant change to the political economy, but locating politics in our social life can provide a foundation for a more transformative approach that is rooted within our shared community strengths. As Edwards and Gita have argued, the transformation of systems of power is critical to a sustainable and equitable future, but unless our social relationships are also transformed to be more cooperative then it is unlikely that this will happen.

Research with three local foodbanks that I have been involved in shows evidence that people who have to rely on food aid experience higher levels of daily anxiety than the wider population (not surprisingly) – but that the relationships that people are developing through foodbanks and extended activities are serving to foster this ‘affective politics’ – increasing solidarity, sharing and mutual support. In the ruins of austerity, there is hope that can be drawn upon.

In the face of insecurity in our daily lives caused by the state and the market, we draw on the strength and stability of our connections with people close to us. To begin to use this as a basis for social change creates new possibilities and a firm ground for democratic transformation.

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