Prebednaries and Precari
What ever happened to all those uplifting songs about work…
Not long ago, I was in an Italian city waiting for a train to Vienna. It was cold and the train was nowhere in sight, but the PA system had announced that it was leaving from track five. Wheeled suitcases squeaked into motion and passengers started scrambling; when they arrived at track 5, they protested indignantly at the early departure of the train which had, however, not yet arrived. According to the Italian writer Aldo Nove, this is how the precari or précaires – flexible temporary workers the Italian labour code refers to using strange abbreviations like co.co.co., project-based labour or ex-co.co.co (see www.generazione1000.com). Their train hasn’t arrived yet, but they all still feel as if it had left already. Some have monthly contracts, some weekly contracts, others start work when prompted by an SMS sent in the morning and there are even précaires at phone centres whose contracts are renewed by the hour: today might be from three to seven and maybe form eight to eleven, too. ‘Their stories are hard to tell; they’re like films being constantly interrupted by commercials.’ – wrote Aldo Nove about them. The words precario or précaires in Italian and French respectively derive from the juridical Latin term precarium – that which is acquired for use at the petition of another, that which is requested. In the wider sense, it means a state whose duration is not determined, such as temporary fortune or an ephemeral advantage. According to one dictionary, precarium denotes a contract by means of which a thing is given to another to use as long as the owner pleases. In old Czech, such a contract was called a výprosa [supplication] and the contracting party was called a prekarista or výprosník [supplicant]. Today, the dominant meaning of ‘precarious’ – risky or unstable – shows that living at the behest of another is not easy. Recently, crowds of students demonstrated in the streets of Paris along with the unions against a law that would have made young French people precari-status workers for two years and young citizens mere precarious temp workers for ‘the use of two years’. Under the pressure of sustained massive demonstrations, the law was rescinded. It was an unprecedented victory in the struggle against the ‘heightened flexibility of the labour market’ or against the growing inequality between the rights of employees and those of employers. It is a surprising victory, for this generation of precari is unfamiliar with the class solidarity of their fathers and grandfathers, who spent entire decades taking the same route to work, greeting each other with a friendly wave in the morning haze. The battles citizens wage against forces that want to make precari out of them are transversal and metapolitical – transversal because they proceed crosswise (they are not confined to one country), even though in certain places they might proceed more quickly and on a larger scale; and metapolitical because they are not battles between one political party and another, but battles over new relationship between the Enlightenment concepts of the citizen – the state – work which have framed politics over the last two centuries. One of the shibboleths of postmodern society is a growing chasm dividing the ever-dwindling class of wealthy prebendaries from the ever-growing class of poor precari – between trustees and petitioners. The trustees are bound tightly by a global class solidarity – they have the same fringe benefits, speak the same language (managerial English), have the same enemy (workers’ rights) and are monocultural (observing the mores of the Western market economy); the petitioners, by contrast, make up quite a motley crowd – they split off into numerous currents and are multicultural. Prebendaries support the ideology of multiculturalism because it divests the petitioning masses of the courage needed to turn their interpretation of society as ‘universally valid’ into a political programme – it is in the very fact that cultures are all ‘de-politicised’ that they are equal. In contrast with the trustees, the petitioners are not a social class; they are nothing but a mass of people. Thus, class struggle in postmodern society is a struggle between class of trustees which is constantly growing smaller and closing ranks and a growing mass of petitioners.
According to the Robert French Dictionary, the word prébende (Lat. Praebenda) denotes a steady income granted to a dignitary (a holder of high office or rank); the dictionary gives an example of the word in use by Victor Hugo: ‘Un de ces hommes dorés, rentés, qui ont de grosses prébendes’. From a less classic, but more down-to-earth source, the dictionary puts forward the sentence: ‘All regimes have their sinecures and prebendaries.’ One Czech dictionary defines a prebend as a lucrative office and a sinecure as a lucrative position with no responsibilities. Prebendaries – or (multiple) trustees – are also people who have many guaranteed forms of income. In France this past Spring the representatives of multiple-trustees were defeated in a postmodern ‘class struggle’ – and that is good news. Let’s take a closer look at the class of prebendaries, in whose interest young French citizens were supposed to be degraded into mere ‘petitioners of work’. Prebendaries do not get into ‘precarious economic situations’; they have golden security nets, five-star health plans and mountains of fringe benefits. A few figures from the poorest of the G8, Italy: the yearly income of the top ninety trustees, known as ‘top managers’ ranges from 22 million euros (for the richest among them) and 8–11 million for middleweight managers, to 935 thousand euros a year for the poorest of them. Nonetheless, the prebends of the trustee class have not an economic function, but rather a magical, ritual and theological function: they symbolise their supernatural power and are intended to convince us of their ability to ‘work miracles’. A prebendary sprinkles dead businesses with enchanted water brought from over the hills and far away and – behold! the businesses rise from the dead. Such shamanic rites are referred to as ‘rational business management in a world of global competition’. In reality, prebendaries raise the value of a company’s stock by turning employees into precari and integrating companies into one great big non-transparent network. The dividing line between legal and illegal on the global market is becoming increasingly blurry. Prebendaries foist the political and social responsibility for the effects of their ‘enchanted water’ on the state, which they blackmail with the threat of ‘delocalising’ or abandoning its territory unless they get a variety of ‘tax benefits’. In the West, their prebends play the same role as the colourful clothes of the shaman or the guacamaya-feathered headband of the Native-American Kemenets tribe. They are meant to convince us of their privileged relationship with the gods. Do you recall the salaries Czech trustees made following the Velvet Revolution – particularly the bank managers? In 1996 their prebends had already surpassed, in some instances, six million crowns a year, whereas the average salary in the country was, if I remember correctly, about eight thousand – surely a wider gap than that between the prebend of a communist trustee like Milouš Jakeš and the average pre-Velvet Revolution salary. In the end, the debts incurred by Czech banks and the salaries of the managers that ran them were passed off onto the Czech taxpayer. The prebends of the trustee class are a sign of the process of ‘desecularisation’, a return to magical practices that characterizes postmodern society. Other signs are to be found in the power of advertising, (so convincingly illustrated in the documentary film Czech Dream, for example), the massive popularity of different religious sects and the war campaigns of the American Empire whose motto seems to be ‘Sow the seeds of fear and dread’. This Easter, the pope announced that ‘accumulation is theft if it doesn’t enable others to live with dignity’ and ‘the world is divided into two camps: in one they waste; in the other, they waste away’. Waste in the trustee camp is a magical rite, a symbol of their supernatural powers.
I shall call the beneficiaries of prebends and sinecures the ‘hyperbourgeoisie’, to use a term coined by French sociologist Denis Duclos. They compose a ‘paranational’ elite that endeavours to abolish all the limits with which nations have tied down economic rationality over the last two centuries
The hyperbourgeoisie offers sub-prebends and sinecures to journalists and intellectual lobbyists willing to attack the remnants of political philosophy and moral attitudes that stand in the way of ‘global economic growth’, that self-moving force which crushes everything in its path, that omnivorous planetary monster, that lethal plague afflicting all living things, that fuming, rapidly growing landfill each one of us tries (in vain) to live as far away from as possible. The price of real estate with views away from it are mounting higher and higher; only prebendaries can afford it. In nation states, economic growth was subordinated to Enlightenment ideals, represented by the old national bourgeoisies, the ‘leading forces’ of the nation; the communist nomenklatura which inherited the legacy of the old bourgeoisie aspired to rapid economic growth within the framework of the nation state and forced us to read czech autors Alois Jirásek and Božena Němcová; communism was the fast track for backward nations to attain industrial status.
The old bourgeoisie and its illegitimate radical offspring – the communists – played a central role in the story of the establishment of industrial nation states in Europe; they backed the disseminators and inventors of their foundational myths. By contrast, the global power of the hyperbourgeoisie is founded on a lightning-quick ‘invasion, pillage and retreat’; this paranational class doesn’t want to be the ‘leading force of the nations’ where the ‘means of production’ have been moved to temporarily, under their control.
In his final years, the controversial – but crucial for the 20th century – German political philosopher Karl Schmitt was working on the ‘theory of the partisan’. According to Schmitt, the ‘century of revolutions and extremes’ had seen the emergence of a new type of fighter whose historical role was fundamental – the partisan. The revolutions of the previous two centuries had succeeded thanks to their partisans: for example, revolutionary ideas had turned the American settlers and the French Chouans into partisans. Napoleon’s expansionary war had made partisans out of Spanish and Bavarian peasants, Nazism out of inhabitants of the Protectorate and occupied France: then, after the war, the inhabitants of the colonies led a partisan struggle against the representatives of colonial states.
And what is it that characterises partisans?
First of all, their irregularity, their illegality: they reject all official authorities, take command of themselves and their leadership is decentralised. Secondly, they are extremely mobile, omnipresent, and able to blend into their terrain. Thirdly, partisans (partigiano) are stalwarts who consider their aims to be so righteous and imperative that they fight with all their might; the partisan is a product of an age of ‘civil wars in Europe’ (as German historian Ernest Nolte designated the 20th century), an age when a citizen’s political engagement may no longer be given the ‘(uni)form of a struggle between official political parties’ and subjected to legal authority. Partisans see the enemy in all representatives of ‘officialdom’; they fight to achieve their ends with unofficial means. For example, Leninist theory considers both legal and illegal forms of class struggle to be equally legitimate; the choice between them depends solely on considerations of effectiveness.
The fourth characteristic of the partisan is designated by the term ‘telluric’, which means ‘related to the earth’. A partisan is always a political representative of a piece of land who is ‘recognised by the people’. So, for example, the Zapatistas in Mexico are ‘telluric warriors’ as is José Bové, the French opponent of genetically modified foods or the ‘ecoterrorists’ fighting for the rights of trees, rivers and animals on their territories.
In contrast with the old bourgeoisie, which acknowledged legal authorities and fought for its aims using regular means, the hyperbourgeoisie represents irregular forms warfare, organising its businesses in the partisan spirit, delocalising, outsourcing, implementing lean production and just in time inventory systems – it is everywhere and nowhere as well. We get our telephone bills by e-mail and the voice of a girl at some ‘call centre’ might try to sell us new services, but when I want to change something, I have to write a registered letter to some village in Piedmont. There’s no office I might go to, just a metallic over-the-telephone voice: ‘If yes, press one; if no, press the star key...’ We regular citizens are assaulted by irregular partisans who hide away in cyberspace, emerge suddenly, attack our homes and disappear again into the cyberjungle, leaving behind nothing but bad phone numbers, outstanding bills and snuffed-out skyscraper windows. This is referred to succinctly as ‘global flexibility’.
The partisans of globalisation are fanatics fighting for a global market as the highest goal of humanity – nothing is allowed to derive values from any source other than the stock market. The global economy can’t be hemmed in by any sort of ‘legal framework’, as has been shown in countless scandals in the EU, the US and, most recently, Korea. It cannot be submitted to the laws approved by the legitimate representatives of the people living in some territory ‘of their own’, because an economy organised in the partisan spirit always escapes the power of the state. Legality in a complex society is under the control of armies of lawyers who deal with it in a Leninist spirit, interpreting it from the standpoint of efficiency: will it be more advantageous to transcend it, find loopholes in it, or take advantage of it in the partisan struggle for higher profits on the global market?
The hyperbourgeoisie is not, by contrast with the old bourgeoisie, the acknowledged representative of any territory; in this respect, the partisans of global economics are rather like pirates – they attack all lands in the new seas of cyberspace. We might say of Zlín that it is Baťa territory (the famed shoe manufacturer came from Zlín) or of Mladá Boleslav that it is ‘Škodaland’; for the hyperbourgeoisie, all places on the globe are interchangeable, as are all languages and cultures.
‘Bourgeois tightwad, what a clod; top hat and cane, what a bane!’ chanted the young French. But they were wrong: in fostering industrial development, the bourgeoisie built nations. In Prague, in the district of Smíchov, F. Ringhoffer built a neat colony of small houses for his workers and transported them to work in special wagons. He was a member of a political nation, not of the hyperbourgeoisie – he was just old bourgeois. The history of human societies is the history of class struggles; the bourgeoisie simplified class contradictions and split the whole of society into two enemy camps – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – wrote Marx. And that was his greatest mistake. Nation states had a formidable centripetal force. The bourgeoisie did not break away from the proletariat; it formed a single nation with them. Today nation states are collapsing under the blows delivered by the partisans of a global revolution; the capitals of the West are being swept over by pied hordes of precari. Are the hordes building a new state, or is globalisation new in the very fact that it no longer recognises statehood? The French Republic – a state born out of Enlightenment ideals, the first state of political modernity in Europe – had decided to humble its young citizens by turning them into petitioners who, with a well-formulated CV and a motivational letter in a sweaty hand, must apply for jobs ‘au titre révocable’ which can be taken back at any moment and given to another, cheaper petitioner. Under pressure from mass demonstrations against the policy, the French state renounced its plans.
It wasn’t just a case of the feisty French, as many right-wing journalists lobbying for prebendary interests would have us believe. Behind this conflict lies the greatest political question of our times: does it make any sense to defend the state as an inalienable legacy of the West against the partisans of the global economy, or is the state just another one of those outmoded historical institutions the partisans of globalisation must defeat in order to clear the way for their victorious revolution?
What is a state?
The word ‘state’ was invented by Machiavelli, the first great political figure of modernity. According to his famous theory, the highest aim of the state is to secure peace among people living in their verità effettuale (Italian: effective truth), in their ‘human truth’ – in their blindness, ardour, depravity, contradictoriness, ignorance, greed, and so on. The emergence of the modern state is conditioned on having the courage to take one’s time in this world seriously, and that means drawing a clear line between life in this world and life in the beyond.
The state is an order people create when they understand that life has only been given to them in trust, that they may be required to return it to its owner at any time and that the gods will not help them in such a ‘precarious situation’ – they will have to help themselves. The state is a contract people enter into to define that which shall remain stable in the ‘precarious’ time of human decision-making on the basis of fallible judgements and opinions; it is a great invention of the West. Islam, for example, does not view the state in the same way; nor does communism, which applied its power through a sort of ‘party state’ in which the time of human decision making was subordinated to a time ruled by the gods of historical necessity.
Modern people invented the state so that, backed by a contract between them, they might counterbalance the uncertainty and fear rooted in their precarious situation as mortals, so they would not be enslaved to their fear or have to acquiesce to be ruled by the representatives of Absolutism. Today in the West we have to protect the historical role of the state against the fanatics of globalisation who are waging a ruthless war against the contractual certainties the modern secular state has guaranteed its citizens.
Marx did not understand the concept of the state. In ‘The Communist Manifesto’, he defines it once as a committee that administers that common interests of the bourgeoisie and then as the proletariat organised into a governing class. And Lenin added, in The State and Revolution, that the state as an instrument of ruling-class oppression would become extinct upon the arrival of communist society and its embodiment of the motto ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. The communist ‘state’ lacked only one of the constituent characteristics of the state: its sovereignty must be grounded in some sort of shared idea of human nature, of universal human interests which the state was supposed to protect against the aggression of various groups (such as the Czechoslovak Communist Party) that wanted to subject others to its particular aims. Among other things, 1989 represented a return to the idea of statehood – its deliverance from having being reduced to a mere instrument of the power of ‘one party’.
Marx is often quoted from his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘The difficulty lies not in understanding that Greek art and epic poetry are dependent on certain forms of social development. The difficulty lies in that they still afford us aesthetic experiences and in a certain sense retain validity as a norm and an unattainable ideal.’ Marx did not understand the deep meaning of the issues he raises here; he deals with them in a banal manner – he would have us believe that we, as advanced and seasoned human beings, are still charmed by the spirit of childhood represented in Greek art. Politically misguided works surpassed by history such as The Human Comedy Marx so admired by the monarchist and reactionary Balzac ‘afford an aesthetic experience’ only because they testify to ‘human nature’, to the precariousness of our plight here on Earth and the yearning to escape it into the ‘beyond’, into new theologies.
Here is the core of the idea of the state: just like art, it cannot be merely ‘proletarian’ or ‘bourgeois’ or be conflated with the interests of a particular class – it is based on a shared understanding of human nature. And on a defence of the contracts into which we have transformed that understanding of our plight and which give us the relative security we enjoy in the precarious time allotted to us on Earth. Transforming one’s fellow citizens into debased precari in the interest of prebendaries is thus the worst possible betrayal of the idea of the state. It is a good thing the French government changed its mind in the end.
I remember how we used to play partisans and soldiers in my neighbourhood, Žižkov, when I was a boy. One of us would always close his eyes, bend down, another would thump him on the back and cry out ‘I beat and I beat on my drum. Who is so and so? And then he would point at someone and the boy-drum would say: partisan or soldier. Back then we all wanted to be partisans; they were all the rage thanks to the post-war films we would go see every Saturday afternoon. Today I think I think it is more important to be a soldier: to defend the significance of the state against the partisans of globalisation, against their insidious ways of fighting, against their attempts to divide the world into a camp in which people waste and another in which people waste away. And to defend the state today means defending that which must be stable enough to enable people to weather the storm of changes brought into their precarious lives by a modernity in which the present is sharply distinguished from the past. The West is the ‘mother of all revolutions’ and partisans have been honoured as the vanguard of those revolutions. But I believe, along with Masaryk and Erazim Kohák, that revolutions are nothing more than faith and miracles in modern guise. And revolutionaries are nothing but prebendaries in disguise.
 Work Song -- hymn to the working class, written in Vienna in 1868 for the choir of the Vienna Worker's Educational Association. Lyrics: J. J. Zapf, engraver.
 Bělohradský, V., Malý příruční slovník globalizace: deset hesel k porozumnění a obraně [Short Globalisation Glossary: Ten Expressions for Understanding and Defence]. In Společnost nevolnosti [Society of Malaise]– essays from a later period, Prague: Sociologické nakladatelství Slon, 2007.