Precarity and its Vicissitudes: The Reproduction of Poverty in Vancouver

I) Vancouver’s ‘Reserve Army’

For Vancouver’s unemployed and working poor, social and economic life is increasingly precarious. Ruled by a post-Fordist economy determined by risk-finance and the micropolitical strategies of the crisis-State — flexibilization, dispersion of workers, a developer-run city hall — Vancouver’s poor confront employment, health care and housing needs with greater peril and uncertainty. While in the post war period large segments of the labour force experienced relative stability, assured employment and a regulated working day under Fordist production, the last couple of decades in Vancouver have seen a deepening of precarity.

In the contemporary labour field, precarity is understood as a general lack of guaranteed contracts, stable schedules, and secure employment, in which working time and leisure time fuse together in a mystical union. The irreverent alliance between capital and the State has historically waged persistent, running battles with labour in order to cut ties with stability, welfare and support, and for the last thirty years the balance of forces has veered in favor of profit and crisis. Submerged in the present recession, traditional labor is only a small part of the productive system within a city like Vancouver, constituting an unsubstantial rate of profit and little technological development. As structural underemployment entrenches itself, finance calls the shots from a safe distance. In Vancouver and elsewhere, the security of Fordism appears no longer the norm, but rather the exception, while precarity becomes the standard experience of life and work as such.

Made up of a motley crew, Vancouver’s precariat is its “reserve army,” to use Marx’s term for the unemployed. Temporary unemployment, underemployment and unstable contracts have become a general regime of the economy as the flexible precariat becomes the general norm for the labour field. In Vancouver precarity has historically been associated within women’s and migrant’s work (domestic or otherwise), but has grafted onto a litany of identities: low-income workers, students, unemployed, sex workers, artists, migrants, other social identities, all forced to accept the scraps of the service industry or other forms of cheap labour. Without a guaranteed living wage or income, coupled with the rising cost of rent and wholesale goods, labourers take on two or three jobs, work in flexible industries, work on short-term contracts, solicit work for temp-agencies, and not least, rely on friends and family for assistance. All the while, they attempt to construct a life at a distance from exploitation by over-paying for education, plunging deep into debt, getting drunk, or worse, retreating within the calming shelter of a veiled commodity culture and its latest consumption trends.

In Capital, Marx outlines three types of capitalism’s reserve army: one that is “floating” (workers who have been initially integrated into the commodification of labour power and even fully employed, but who have been, depending on the industrial cycle, discharged, fired or otherwise); another that is “latent” (a population that has not been fully proletarianized, i.e. women and children have not been drawn into the labour force, or a peasant-agarian population, or petite-bourgeoisie-artisan class); and finally, one that is “stagnant” (entirely unemployable, or what Marx calls the “hospital of the active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army,” a group that is so marginalized they are not brought into the labour field).[1]

The difference today is that the precariat is always floating, latent and stagnant at every point, and the experience of precarity could be characterized by the nebulous drifting between these states. Indeed, though workers may be fully employed, they may also have another foot stuck in a block of concrete, spiralling within the unavailing circuits of poverty.

In Vancouver there is no stable set of attributes for this type of work. Regardless, there remains a disparate connection of perverse symptoms: a prevalence of temporary jobs; long hours for some and cut-backs for others; insatiable working patterns (part time, little or no benefits); high levels of mobility; passionate attachments to work (web designer, artist, social media entrepreneur); bottom-barrel pay; informal work environments; not to mention overwhelming feelings of depression, stress and anxiety concerning the prospects of finding other work, paying rent, as well as intense nervousness about earning enough money while remaining abreast in a rapidly changing city. Capital at every moment profits precisely from this pervasive insecurity, vulnerability and despair.

II) Temporal Poverty

Under precarity it is no longer helpful to assume that when the labourers or the poor consume their disposable time for themselves they “rob the capitalist.” Today, the labourer’s working day is no longer disciplined by the temporal weight and rhythms of the factory: one cannot simply clock-in and clock-out. As the disciplinary apparatus of the factory disappears, so too does the division between “working time” and “leisure time.” As Hardt and Negri claim in Commonwealth, precarity enforces a new regime of time.[2] It has shifted from a disciplinary apparatus onto a terrain of control. Temporality is redefined under the weight of flexibility in serving the destructive interests of the capitalist class. As social and economic security exits through the backdoor, free time is stored in the attic, or patiently waits in the closet: workers are no longer meant to work all the time, but must instead be always-already available for work. Hence, the dissolution of the working day does not mean that workers are free from capitalist domination. On the contrary, flexibility transforms into a mechanism of constraint that entirely determines the temporality of the poor.

Unemployment disciplines the labour force while simultaneously driving wages down for those who are “lucky” enough to be hired, living under the constant threat of being replaced by someone else from capital’s reserve army. As unemployment figures hover around 10%, the existing working class is forced to do over-time, take on two-to-three jobs as well as intensify their efforts.The manager’s dictum has become: “if we gave everyone full time, then we’d go under and then no one would have a job!” To put it clearly, the mechanism of capital is not simply about un-employing people, but also about exercising political power over its population through the threat of unemployment, exclusively regulated through an expansion and contraction of its reserve army.

At present, 180,000 people are out of work in B.C. and that is not counting the underemployed. Yet according to the B.C. Federation of Labour, B.C. corporate profits are expected to exceed $23.7 billion in 2011 and then rise to $31.3 billion by 2015. All the while the corporate income tax has dropped from 16.5 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2011, leading to a $7.7 billion dollar loss in revenue.

Today, Marx’s general law of capitalist accumulation requires little modification: the greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and therefore also the greater the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productivity of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army.[3] In other terms, the absolute law of capital accumulation states in its own dialectical fashion that the simultaneous increase in wealth and productivity moves in proportion to the accumulation of its unemployed (or, underemployed). Certainly there is great prosperity in the exclusionary zones of the very rich, but in the same breath there is also the clear reproduction of misery, brutality and mental degradation on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital. It must be stressed: what is necessary for such a system to work is that there be a pool of impoverished non-workers who can be absorbed into this continuing expansion of ‘wealth’.

As such, capitalist temporality today is not just a regime in-waiting. Value is “socially necessary labour time” and still remains the general capitalist principle, but the conception of value has undergone a fundamental shift. “Labour time” has left the factory and expanded onto the sphere of everyday life. The ontological category of life becomes ever more precarious as love, friendship and other affective relationships feel the wrath and wreathing pressures of fluctuating intensities, intimately determined by spectacle’s injunction to enjoy.

In this sense, identities, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity or sexual preference, are forced to think themselves as commodities without recourse to political subjectivity. Identity politics has no outside within the logic of precarity. As much as you try to flee, the screw turns tighter. Lives are sucked dry in so far as they become underslept, kept on life-support through a toxic cocktail of coffee, spectacle and whatever else you can get your hands on. Capital holds a mirror up to itself: what does it see? Well, naturally it sees itself as “dead labour,” “vampire-like,” as Marx said. The precariat too become zombiefied-vampires, wandering the streets at night looking for another fix. Exploitation of capitalism’s reserve army through flexible-formlessness is no longer inclined to generate more production, but only more impoverishment.

Besides producing commodities in your workplace — immaterial or otherwise — today you are forced to actively produce yourself in every sense of the term. The precariat remains subjected to the commodified temporalities of capitalist social life. Here, temporal discipline becomes more flexible and subtle, but as a result, more nefarious and devastating. “Moments” continue to act as “elements of profit,” but under the rubric of precarity social life transforms into a special type of poverty, a “temporal poverty,” where workers lose command over their own free time and must be at-work, or worse, ready for work all the time. That is why your manager and your human resources department is completely obsessed with commanding your own time — free-time or otherwise.

III) Spatial Precarity

Poverty, then, in every sense,  is not a “natural phenomena” due to some fictious mix of the poor’s ignorance, laziness, or even some “green” reflection on the scarcity of resources; on the contrary, it is actively produced by the capitalist dynamic. Poverty posses visceral effects — hunger, anxiety, decrepitude, everything else  — and as we just mentioned, it contains a temporal dimension. But it also takes on a spatial fix as well. Spatially in Vancouver, we can recognize this dynamic most clearly through its manifestation in the form of rent.

Unlike other cities where the precariat is often condensed in socially excluded zones within the poor metropolitan periphery, such as the banlieues in France, Vancouver’s precariat is spread over the entire the city in a disparate, disorganized manner, dispersed by a feverish rental market — except, of course, within the small pockets of the very rich. Social space is re-visioned as a mobile network to serve a flexible workforce, just as temporary shelters for the poor often scatter throughout the city, and with a rise in a couple of degrees celsius, can be closed indefinitely. Unable to pay market rates, houses are rented out over-capacity, with rooms bursting at the seams. At times, one room sleeps three to a room while living rooms, attics and basements become temporary shelters for the evicted and unemployed. A 2008 study by the PIVOT Legal Society documented that 41% of immigrant families in the neighbourhood of North Mount Pleasant are living in overcrowded housing (with ‘overcrowded’ defined as three or more residents per bedroom).[4] The livelihood of those who live in precarious situations relies on their ability to remain unnoticed by landlords and authorities. An eviction due to a breach of the lease, or because of tenancy laws, is an opportunity for the landlord to renovate, find new tenants, and increase their monthly income on the backs of the precariat.

Here, rent is not merely a parasitic or superfluous form of accumulation — as the classical economist would like us to believe — but instead it plays a co-ordinating role within the capitalist mode of production and reproduction. Rent, in the most simple sense, is the payment made to landlords for the right to use their land and its resources. For classical economists like Ricardo, rent was an illegitimate form of accumulation that would be phased out by the decline of feudal relationships and the rise of industrial production and wage labour. This attitude existed all the way through to Keynes, who called for the “euthanasia of the rentier class” — the death of the land-owning class that makes its money only by sitting on property and charging rent for land.

But this is precisely where the ambiguous role of finance comes in, and the question of finance as the exact but cruel system of rent. Banking is the charging of rent for the user of money, the name for that rent is interest. The system of interest and credit is the system of rent on money. Credit and interest is precisely what draws finance so close to housing, land, and rent. Finance is the most distant and abstract creation of value subtracted from the labour process. But land, through finance, becomes a pure asset, even though land is not the product of human labour. With this we should reflect on the absurdity of neoliberal solutions to the housing crisis in Vancouver, solutions that desire whole-heartily to pile up more finance onto the already over-wrought housing sector. When incomes do not reflect median home prices in Vancouver, the idea of lending people money to pay their mortgages, or even their rent, assumes that they will have the money later, but as the 2008 recession has exposed, this “later” never comes, because a great number of us are poor, unemployed, or underemployed—outright precarious.

As David Harvey had already warned in Limits to Capital (1982), “Land prices must be realized as future rental appropriation, which rests on future labor.”[5] The irrational rate that regulates housing speculation in Vancouver rests on future rents. Marx said it: “Mortgages are mere titles on future rents.” Yet, in a labour market that is highly fractured and uncertain, the housing crisis will only get worse. Land prices will collapse if they have to rely on local incomes: it is for this reason that Vancouver’s housing market must become increasingly global. The crisis of accumulation built up through the contradictions of rent must be met by re-positioning Vancouver within global flows of capital. Global capital is all too happy to go along: it requires this “spatial fix” in order to secure its floating, over-accumulated self in the wake of neoliberal restructuring and ruling class restoration. For local renters, this only exacerbates the crisis: as the Vancouver housing market becomes saturated through speculation, land values bubble-over and become increasingly unaffordable.

It is for these reasons that the gentrification of Vancouver should be seen as a whole — precisely as a totality that effects every neighborhood, not just disconnected sections scattered throughout the city.

Rent, then, becomes another name for the mechanism of impoverishment — another means to restore and re-instantiate servitude. Precarity will not disappear with the onset of greater crises of accumulation. Rather, its festering symptoms will just lie in situ, trembling, suspended in a general state of anticipation —  awaiting some miraculous intervention by the State to procure its population’s security. The hard kernel of the truth lays exposed: the future of capitalism relies on every mechanism possible to maintain the impoverishment of its population, only in order to keep itself afloat with its own head grasping for air.


**Part II of the essay Precarity and its Vicissitudes: The Uncertainty of Struggle will be published in late September. The author would like to thank Graeme Fisher, the workers at JJ BEAN and the editors of the Mainlander for their thoughtful discussions throughout the course of the project. All images courtesy of coupe l’état**

[1] Karl Marx, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” Capital, Vol. 1, August, 26 2011,

[2] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Commonwealth, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 146-147

[3] Marx, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” (Ibid.)

[4] PIVOT Legal Society, “Cultural Divide”, 2008, August 27 2011,–PivotMOSAIC.pdf

[5] David Harvey, Limits to Capital, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), p. 371