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Reviewed by:
  • Precarious Liberation: workers, the state, and contested social citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa by Franco Barchiesi
  • Yousuf Al-Bulushi (bio)
Franco Barchiesi (2011) Precarious Liberation: workers, the state, and contested social citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa. Albany: SUNY Press

I don’t know what’s my job description, I don’t have one. I no longer know what answer I am supposed to forward to my children who ask ‘dad, what job are you doing?’ I am supposed to be called multiskilled because I am on the floor, I do the loading, I am in the office, I run around, I do the administration, come back here, answer the phone. The guys at the machine, I don’t think they have a job description either.

Respondent Two, Precarious Liberation

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

As the global economy struggles to regain pre-2008 growth levels some theorists have renewed debates about a terminal crisis of capital. Others have struggled to defy the ideology of austerity as both inhumane and inadequate to restoring economic balance. Yet few are willing to accept what appears to be a potential long-term outcome of the current crisis: long-term unemployment as a central feature of life in many developed and underdeveloped countries alike. The surplus populations no longer merely [End Page 94] constitute a reserve army of labor, but in many places, begin to appear to lie beyond the realm of remunerated wage labor altogether.

A second, more long-term, tendency of our current conjuncture concerns the unceasing expansion of what has been termed ‘precarious work’, for those who are lucky enough to get work at all. Precarity is commonly used as a term for the changes in working conditions within the overall shift from a Fordist regime of accumulation to one premised upon flexible accumulation. A decline in long-term contract stability, the rise of labour brokers, the imposition of intellectual alongside manual labour, the erosion of workplace benefits from healthcare to retirement, and the agglomeration of tasks and skills required of the social worker who replaced the mass worker are just a few central facets of this transition (see, for example, Harvey 1989 or Negri 1988). While much of the original literature on Fordism and flexible accumulation emerged out of studies that took the United States, Europe and Japan as empirical case studies, recent studies of the global South have expanded the term to include non-work attributes such as the precarious living conditions found in slums. All of these factors are characteristic of an increased precarity that is defining our neoliberal age of flexible accumulation.

Franco Barchiesi’s Precarious Liberation: workers, the state, and contested social citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa proposes to use the term precarity to define the condition of liberation in contemporary South Africa. He uses it to fight a number of intellectual battles. Rather than accept as unproblematic the idea that South African society is comprised of two economies – a formal one of stable work and an informal second economy of precarious living and working conditions – Barchiesi chooses to examine the supposedly privileged sector of the unionised first economy in order to highlight the pervasiveness of precarity beyond the supposedly ‘excluded’ sectors. In so doing, he confronts the central post-apartheid ‘technique of rule’ that he terms the ‘wage-citizenship nexus’. Challenging the idea that South Africa poses for the rest of the African continent a kind of promising future where economic development can provide for basic means of survival and generally improved social conditions, Barchiesi adopts and extends Mahmood Mamdani’s critique of the entire line of ‘South African exceptionalism’. If apartheid can be framed as evolving out of a prior British policy of indirect rule that was the...


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