The Subtle Art of Precarity

Most of the leading thinkers on adapting to the economic problems of the 21st century are poor.

This is not coincidence. The situation globally is, in reality, very different from the models which are typically used in the media, in academia and in government. People who are documenting and thinking about at reality are often operating outside of the “fundable sphere” of government and other large funding bodies, with the result that if the work is to be done at all, it’s done alone or with only tiny amounts of support. Several of my close associates: Michel BauwensChris Watkins, Alan ChapmanKevin Carson, Marcin Jakubowski and Dougald Hine all walk a fine line, and yet between them comprise a very substantial contribution to good outcomes for all of us. I myself, as I’ve written about before, have supported the Hexayurt Project for years while living as a member of the precariat: literally those who walk on the edge. Edgeryders.

the precariat

a social group consisting of people whose lives are difficult because they have little or no job security and few employment rights

My own challenge today is housing. Let me tell you the tale. I’d burned out in London last winter, 2010, trying to start a company called Buttered Side Down, which was a consultancy looking at managing economic collapse and state failure in Europe. As you can imagine, trying to explain the risks to people in 2009 was very difficult: we were much, much further outside of the “fundable sphere” than we realized! This is a pretty typical experience of my generation - big risks, heavy personal investment, and only occasional success. It’s the standard model of the “.com” startup company, and as we all know, most new companies fail. But those guys, when they win, win big and are supported by a massive investment system. It’s not so easy for non-tech companies.

Failure happens. I moved to Ireland to help start a green digital fabrication/“permafacture” facility at the Cloughjordan Ecovillage, a blend of the fablab local manufacturing concept with green production techniques. It was an inexpensive, rural place to rest, regenerate and (frankly) I got very attached to the place and planned to quit the high investment, high burn environment of London permanently. This is a very common pattern for people like me, to “quit the game” and move to some rural location, cut the financial burn rate, slow down and try to be more effective outside of the most intense areas. Now this is a very good move for some people, and it was a very, very good move for me. I love living in rural Ireland, and most of what I do I can do online.

But not all of it. I was offered a small role at Hub Westminster, an enormous new social enterprise incubator in the very most central part of London. 1200 square meters about 100 yards from Trafalgar Square and the other tourist shrines, but more importantly, less than half an hour from almost anywhere in London. The role I have here, curating a series of art and culture events called Truth and Beauty is a job which can only be done here, a brining together of people and a weaving of threads into a fabric. Not everything is portable. Not all locations are equal. Sometimes you need the density of the city to work the magic. Come along one Tuesday night if you’re in London! (see #truthandbeauty on Twitter for details)

So I’m trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get back on the damn merry-go-round. Rents in London more or less require somebody to sell out to find a place to live, or be lucky. But the amount of luck required typically takes either miracles or a lot of time, trial and error. People treat looking for a place to live as a disease: “oh, you’re looking for a place to live, I’m sorry.” And it’s not surprising: rents are maybe double what would allow ordinary people to
live well, and a substantial part of that cost is property speculation: people are storing their wealth in the form of housing in London, and so the competition is not simply on the use value of the homes, but there is also competition on competition, value created simply because other people give these places value as stores of wealth. The systemic problems of housing turn into massive personal strife and distorted lives - immense commutes, lives stripped of everything but work to support a decent place to live. In my case, I handle it by being a drifter. I’m Precariat, System D, a nomad: I need a place I can let go of as soon as the money dries up, and move somewhere cheaper. I need a place which doesn’t freak out about four countries in five years.

Some parts of my experience are very individual - my life path is deeply unconventional and likely unique. Other areas are very typical - unable to manage both my personal cause and acquisition of the trappings of adulthood like a mortgage and a car, never mind the fruits of adulthood like children. I exist as a perpetual boy, my possessions not all that different from what I owned in my 20s, even as I approach the last weeks of my 30s. I’ll hit 40 with an international reputation as a deep thinker on issues government - generally speaking - cannot handle, with too few possessions to fill a moderately-sized taxi. A charitable term for this is neoteny, extending the child-like phase of life far into maturity as a way of accessing continued growth and development. Less charitably, it’s failing to stand up as an adult. But my perception that the choice was to do something directly about the condition of the world, or push all that energy into winning the social and economic games of the society around me. Many of my peers have made similar choices, we’re an unstudied group, a set of people making choices which should be important to government, in that we’re exactly the people goverment used to fund as academics, as tenured professors, and instead we’re System D, hanging on my our fingernails to the right to intellectual freedom in a land without tenure.

This is why we need Edgeryders. It’s the first sign I’ve seen from a major governmental institution -the Council of Europe - asking how people are managing the new environment. To identify the trend in youth unemployment, in lack of educational opportunities unburdened by unpayable infinite debt, and ask “so how are you coping? what have you figured out?” I’m telling you the story of my precarity, and it’s one data point. It’s one space where we’ll be exploring, in future missions: how are you managing housing? My answer, right now, is “badly, because I have to, because my work is in a city I can’t afford to live in, and my own morality won’t let me abandon the opportunity or sell out.” But the only place I know of, right now, to push this kind of realization and this kind of analysis of our experiences into government is Edgeryders.

It’s a cutting edge study not just of precarity, but of the whole phenomenon of being young in a time without abundance. Different places feel the pain in different ways - I hear that in Italy it’s internships until you’re thirty, but that people live at home with their parents and that’s become OK. In Greece, it’s worse and more complicated, and increasingly difficult.

So. Edgeryders. It’s a place we can meet and discuss the issues. It’s a place to get the data into the eye of government, in a place which is interested, sympathetic and asking the right questions - and actually wants the real answers. It’s a place to talk about our human experiences, and about the new stuff which is working, in these difficult times, to collect and learn from the best examples we have, the “positive deviances” where the new work is poking through the grinding gears of the old. There is a creative edge to this Edgeryder business, places where incredible new things are happening, new forms as distinct as laminates and composites like carbon fiber in comparison to old materials like steel. Something wonderful is happening, but you need a quick, subtle eye to appreciate it. The most profound innovations, while they are small, do not appear on the covers of magazines!

We’re deeply interested in working together to tell our stories, and we’d like you to join, take part, and support this. I’m fully behind this because it matters, and I want your support.

What can you do?

  1. Sign up to the platform
  2. Identify other ways of getting people involved - organizations to Alberto and Lyne, individuals generally speaking send to me.
  3. Start doing the deep thinking about what kinds of policy recommendations we'd like to present next year now.
The scope and breadth of the potential for thinking through a new social settlement in Europe is here.

All we need is you.

It removes loads off shoulders

Trafalgar Square is really lovely! If I were near this square, I’d be sending most of my free time at the British Museum, staring at Assyrian art. I don’t know why their depictions of lions bas relief panel carved in limestone attract me this much. Probably because the lion’s expression of suffering – of great dignity struck low – are so palpable that I felt compelled to them…

I don’t know how you manage to live in London. It’s insanely expensive to live there!

Thanks for sharing your story. It had a therapeutic effect on me!

I feel sad, when I find out that many thinkers on adapting the economic problems live in precarity and are poor. It’s really sad. But at the same time, it brings me some consolation. Because the same can be said about leading thinkers in other fields.

A couple of weeks ago, I read your bio on your blog, ‘I am one of the world’s leading thinkers on infrastructure theory, state failure solutions, and managing global system risks including poverty/development and the environmental crisis.’ Houlà. I was very impressed, and never imagined that someone corresponding to this description would have encountered failures and lived in precarity.

#Monday confession. Until very recently, I thought that I was not a thinker at all. I was also sure that I had really terrible, very low poor skills in business development. This feeling was reinforced, via various chanels, when I found out that my ideas ‘do not correspond to business criteria’. The fact that I personally haven’t been successful in business for a number of years was stressed to reject the ideas. I was blocked access to an employment program designed for precarious workers. I became trapped in a vise, vicious circle.

I thought that I was obviously lacking many other skills, like marketing, for instance, after someone from another government gave me this remark. Unable to market myself. A nuisance to business (I was absolutely horrified when I realized I drove my ex-partner to precarity too). I was carrying loads of feelings of guilt. I was deeply convinced that something was very wrong with me.

Thanks to Edgeryders, it is possible to meet fascinating people like you, and many others. And take off from the shoulders some of the bad load of guilt.

Bon succès! (sorry, it’s impossible to translate this in English… good success… I never say ‘Good luck’). To you, world leading thinker, and the rest of us.

Hipster (bohemièn) neighborhoods as lifeboats

The systemic problems of housing turn into massive personal strife and distorted lives - immense commutes, lives stripped of everything but work to support a decent place to live.
I've seen this time and again. I grew up in a small town, so when I moved to cities as a young man I could immediately feel the challenge. The politics of encouraging people to own their homes rather than rent pushed young people into competing in an ever-narrowing market: in Italy there is perhaps one apartment for rent each ten for sale. In London I lived in university accomodation, that was all I could afford.

My last-but-one city of residence was Milano. There I was able to find a satisfactory solution (though by no means cheap) by moving onto a hipster neighborhood, Dergano-Maciachini). Lots of old small industrial buildings, or even older apartment blocks that would host one-or two men companies making mattrasses or tailoring clothes. I lived in a loft scavenged from the premises of a small company that put meat into cans. Outside, the area was (still is) immigration intensive and a bit rough. Immigrants from Egypt, China, Romania, Peru and many other countries live side by side with an earlier wave of Southern Italian immigrants, who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, and with the indigenous Milanese families. Me and my crowd were the most recent waves: professionals, students, more or less precarious, moving in attracted by the relatively cheap spaces, good public transport network and proximity to the center. It worked for me - but not for everyone. A disconforting number of people in the area support the xenophobic Lega Nord party.

As I consider my next move, I am investigating hipster neighborhoods. I don’t think it makes sense to even try to live anywhere else. There is a sense of community: the cafes are cheap and open late; there is at least some cultural diversity; space is still relatively cheap. Still, I wonder if we are building ghettos for the precariat; or if people like me are going to drive the prices up and the original communities out as the neighborhood gentrifies. Until we ourselves are driven out by the next wave of gentrification.

Precarity is a way of life that is not chosen for its perks. It does not suit the larger societal goals to have those who are working together to help manage the coming economic upheavals worry about where their next meal will come or where they will rest their heads.

A model that might work for this is sponsorship in return for a place in a sustainable community. Sponsorship across and between the city and the various linked up resilient communities.

Suppose that Margaret lives in London and has a well-paying job and wants to support the efforts of people like Vinay, but is not yet ready to chuck it all to go build anew in the country. And perhaps she is a member of Hub Webminster and her business revolves around the city so she can’t easily move without putting herself into the precarity too which will only add to the problem.

If things get tough, it may be too late to move to the country. There might be many more people than spaces and those without preexisting ties might not be welcome because there simply won’t be enough room or food. So she’d like to have some way of building ties to the community, but she can’t do the work that full-time residents would do.

Right now, there are a lot of people hoarding gold in case of calamity, seems much better to establish good human bonds of friendship. You won’t be able to buy food with gold if food is in short supply, but your friends will help you if they can, especially if you have helped them build their community to make it resilient. So people will go to the country. How much better will it be to have friends there already.

I suspect there will be many who feel this way who have sufficient money to be able to sponsor those who are working to prepare the way.

Perhaps a three-way beneficial trade could be established that might create the means to alleviate precarity. In our example, Margaret could establish a relationship with a particular resilient community that consists of:

  1. Margaret and the community deciding they are a good fit culturally so she’d be accepted into the community.

  2. Margaret contributing a monthly fee to the community which will reserve her a spot in the community at any point in the future that she decides to join on a full-time basis.

  3. The community sponsoring people like Vinay and others who are doing work in resilience. Perhaps a group of communities even sponsor a hostel or apartment within the nearby cities to act as the group’s base of operation for those they are sponsoring.

In return, Vinay and the others agree to act as ambassadors between the city and the community. Regularly traveling back and forth. Helping build the future living quarters of the sponsors, with the sponsors like Margaret coming out to help as much as they can.

What do you think? Any other ways we can help the precariat so they can work on the more important work ahead?


Inflector, I like this. Basically, you are suggesting there would be city people who want to keep a foot into rural communities (Margaret) and people who act as links, or ambassadors between those city people and rural communities (Vinay). The two kinds of people would help each other: accomodation in the city in return for access to social ties in the rural community. Did I get this right?

Just to clarify: when you say “community” do you mean a physical rural community? Or do you mean a community of people gathered around some sort of magnet - in your example, that would be The Hub Westminster?

Yes, that’s it.

When I say community, I meant a localized rural resiliient community. A place in the country that is getting prepared for tough times ahead and working to avert them if possible.

Now, there is no reason that Hub Westminster couldn’t be associated with several such rural communities, and vice versa, no reason any given rural communty couldn’t be associated with more than one city organization.

  • Curtis

“Precarians” please! start acting…

…don’t wait for someone else to solve your problems

Hello everyone,

I have been invited to this discussion, as a member of my movement I am glad to have an opportunity share solutions to this big problem related to the price of property and lettings.

The indignados movement in Spain has been “retrieving” some abandoned public and private buildings and using them to host families who lost their homes, people who lost their jobs and can’t afford to pay a mortgage.

Depending on each case some judges have pronounced sentences that protect these places from eviction (there are indignant judges and lawyers) they become legal and set a precedent for future social actions.

Vinay said above that edgeryders is an opportunity to submit our personal issues to higher structures of government. I don’t think it will be of much use, mainly because I don’t think the CE/EC has the power to solve (as in imposing policies and regulations) our local social problems. Specially in the case of London, because this month, what we call Europe and the UK broke up, the word there is “divorce”

I would personally take this forum as a place where youngsters finally give themselves the chance to talk about and admit that the “American dream” is over.

I will now use this opportunity to describe the problem in Spain: the 1978 constitution states CLEARLY that citizens are entitled (or have the right) to have access to a decent home (not necessarily as in property) it also states that authorities should put in place policies and make laws that guarantee this by preventing (or avoiding) speculation; and what is the reality? the whole story very weell explained here:

In my opinion, any solution to precarity goes only through direct local action, citizens have and are able to organize and fix things, projects within Transition Network offer many examples: and also by putting in place tacit agreements between community members, which are based on solidarity rather than greed. Chances to overcome precarity is more on our hands than in the government’s hands, saving time and energy as well.

That’s just what I wanted to ask

Vinay, thanks for your relentless interest and services about all things sustainable. Have to say that you, Marcin and Michel Bauwens have been much of a role model for me. Seriously. Will have to find my own way, but I learn a lot from you pioneers. And I always wanted to ask how you in particular manage to make a living. So thanks for this post - now I know.

And on a short note:

Most of the leading thinkers on adapting to the economic problems of the 21st century are poor.

To frame it the other way round: Few of the rich-born people get around to become leading thinkers on global sustainability. Because life seems to work out for them - yet. Experiencing precarity is key ingredient to the thought process how to overcome it.