Pathways for Transformative Economics and Politics

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A Comment on Albena Azmanova’s “Precarity for All”

Precarity at Large

There is much that is timely, compelling and original in Albena Azmanova’s essay, which shows persuasively that our growing concern with inequality has blinded us to precarity. She is careful to distinguish precarity from precariousness, following Butler (2004). Precarity is not a feeling but a condition, characterized by long-term economic insecurity in neo-liberal economies which have made it their mission to get the people off the back of the state (rather than the reverse). Neo-liberal states intervene selectively to enhance the advantages of the already wealthy, so as to enhance their own competitive advantage, which would be threatened by genuinely laissez-faire policies. Today’s neoliberal states, on both sides of the Atlantic, are selective de-regulators, correcting the mistakes of the Thatcher-Reagan era, which had a less discriminating belief in deregulation. As Azmanova shows as well, precarity affects almost everybody, and inequality does not. She also offers a sobering picture of the ubiquitous and endemic nature of precarity in our times, which provides a receptive audience for various right-wing brands of populism. Her broad solution to these major challenges is to push for states to provide more substantial and reliable social supports across the range of classes affected by precarity. 

Azmanova makes an original case for the specificities of privatization and deregulation over several decades, the important shift from competition to competitiveness which drives states to play favorites in the market, and the steady shifting of state responsibility to citizens (for health, pensions, education) and a corresponding increase in state power, which disempowers citizens progressively. These powerful and original points (also developed in her other published work), provoke me to think of some elaborations and extensions of her arguments.

The ‘capacity to aspire’ blend with ‘the revolution of rising expectations’ to contribute to the sense of a growing deficit which can induce a sense of precarity

The first involves aspiration, on which I made an intervention in 2004, where I proposed the idea of “the capacity to aspire” as a fruitful path beyond the “recognition versus redistribution” debate (Appadurai 2004). I argued there that at the turn of the 21st century, even the poorest populations in such societies as India, had developed this capacity, itself unequally distributed, in the face of radical inequality, vulnerability and adversity. For the poorest urban classes, this capacity is part of a politics of “voice” which has brought about small but striking changes, especially in regard to urban housing. I now see that this capacity can ignite revolutions of rising expectations, an idea generally attributed to the American Cold War diplomat Harlan Cleveland, which builds on Tocqueville’s insight that as social conditions and opportunities improve, frustration often increases, because the real economy does not usually match the horizon of new aspirations. This insight, sometimes referred to as the Tocqueville paradox, takes on fresh force with the last century of intense and sophisticated advertising, “capitalist realism” (Schudson 1984) in every medium, the worldwide spread of the ideology of human rights, the failed promises made by the triumphal free market prophets of the 1990’s and the end of the Soviet Union. The widespread disappointment with the promises of neoliberal evangelism left a powerful sense that both market and state have failed many classes and masses in delivering the measurable goods of a better life. Thus “the capacity to aspire” blends with “the revolution of rising expectations” to contribute to the sense of a growing deficit which can induce a sense of precarity even if net social/national wealth has grown and relative inequality may have declined in some countries. Taking the capacity to aspire into the equation linking inequality to precarity introduces a new dimension into the analysis.

We also need to say more about the social implications of risk. Azmanova criticizes previous lines of argument, notably those of Ulrich Beck, whose work on the growth of the “risk society” she sees as “apolitical”. In her view, Beck fails to see that the global expansion of risk calculations by states, in such areas as climate, population, health and insurance, is part of a deeper neoliberal push to transfer downside risks to the general population while saving the upside of risk for corporations and the super wealthy. Azmanova is right on target with this point but there is a fuller story to be told about the place of risk in the global financial economy. 

The critical structural factor that links the size of the global derivative markets and precarity worldwide is the size of the growing global debt

In my own 2016 book on the logic of the derivative form, which dominates and drives the immense growth in the size of global finance capital (Appadurai 2016), I joined various other thinkers (Bryan and Rafferty 2005; Konings 2018, Lee and Martin 2016) who have shown that the logic of the derivative form is part of the long-term process through which the commodification of risk became the single biggest feature of finance capital since the 1970s, when both theorists and practitioners discovered new techniques for monetizing uncertainty. They created a new trade in financial products which created mega-profits for a small group of traders, investment banks and hedge funds, while creating a large class of losers through the dynamics of debt, mortgage defaults and pension funds wrecked by speculative investments. 

As I also argued in this 2016 book, the intellectual revolution which opened the door to this geometric growth in the financial markets was a landmark work by Frank Knight (1921), which distinguished risk from uncertainty and pointed to the potential for profit-making through the smart management of risk. But it was not until the early 1970s that this crucial intellectual discovery was turned into models for profitable trading on the future values of financial assets, through such instruments as mortgage backed securities and asset backed securities, as well as a host of more technically complex derivative products. The underlying financial resource on which this galactic mountain of financial transactions was built was DEBT, both consumer debt and corporate debt. As borrowers, shareholders, pension and insurance beneficiaries and as simple consumers of goods, a large percentage of the population (in some sense almost everybody) was either coerced or seduced into borrowing in search of the promised returns of the financial market. The big players made trillions out of these debt-fueled transactions, but a very large part of the losses which were inevitable in any speculative, derivative and future-oriented operation fell on the backs of ordinary citizens. There were corporate losers too, but they were protected by huge payouts for fired CEO’s, bankruptcy protections for major stockholders and junk bond pickings for financial scavengers. Financial assets outweighed the global GDP by 2:1 ($225 trillion to $105 trillion) in 2023. And this calculation of global financial assets does not match the 2023 valuation of the global derivatives market which was more than $700 trillion, seven times the global GDP. In plain English, this means that every dollar of goods and services in 2023 supported seven dollars of risk-based transactions in future value. And we must note that this $700 trillion market is based on a host of instruments which have successfully commodified risk in a manner which rewards a tiny class of risk-transactors and penalizes almost everybody else.

The big players made trillions out of these debt-fueled transactions, but a very large part of the losses which were inevitable in any speculative, derivative and future-oriented operation fell on the backs of ordinary citizens.

Here then is the single most compelling factor which forces us to distinguish precarity from inequality. Almost everyone lives substantially through the operations of borrowing, debt and credit, whether as consumers or as pension funds, banks, states or corporations, through massively leveraged corporate growth municipal bonds for towns and cities, sovereign funds for countries, major investments in the bond markets by insurance companies and pension funds, and debt based transactions between countries through the World Bank, the IMF and national central banks. 

The critical structural factor that links the size of the global derivative markets and precarity worldwide is the size of the growing global debt (the total borrowing of corporations, states and individuals) which has crossed the $300 trillion mark. It is this debt that fuels the $700 trillion derivatives market. “In 2022, the last year with data available, low- and middle-income countries paid an unprecedented $443.5 billion to service their external public and publicly guaranteed debt, according to the World Bank’s International Debt Report 2023,” (Masterson and North 2023).

It is important to note that public debt (which is created by governments at all levels from municipalities to Sovereign Wealth Funds) is not an undifferentiated source of precarity. Public debt which funds social expenditures with low exposure to risk can be a positive form of debt (as much earlier observed by Keynes). Likewise, public debts with national monetary boundaries can be much better regulated than public debt involving foreign currencies. Yet, no government can maintain thick walls between private and public debt, national and international financial flows, and low and high risk uses of debt. Thus, the road to precarity is paved by many sorts of debt, including various forms of public debt. The commendable norm that governments should use debt for socially valuable expenditures is under constant pressure from the infinitely intricate instruments of the global financial markets.

The appetite of the global financial markets for risk-based borrowing encourages the increase in debt for all the actors in the global economy, thus opening virtually everyone to the structural precarity of debt and its servicing at all levels.

Though much more could be said about the dangers of this massive global debt, its effects on recessions, cuts in social spending, and its dangers of reduced jobs and economic slowdowns, the basic point is clear. The appetite of the global financial markets for risk-based borrowing encourages the increase in debt for all the actors in the global economy, thus opening virtually everyone to the structural precarity of debt and its servicing at all levels. This appetite for debt benefits directly from the growth in the “capacity to aspire” and the revolution of rising expectations which I discussed earlier, since borrowing is the quickest way to close the gap between income and new consumption horizons.

The high degree of the financialization of global capitalism since the early 1970s has been accelerated in recent decades by high-frequency trading, poor controls on international financial flows, digitalized tools for corruption and tax-evasion and massive leaks of public funds into the gray or black markets of arms, drugs and human trafficking. These latter black markets and the mafias and cartels which control them add an independent vector which contributes to precarity across the world. 

The two topics I have touched on so far, aspiration and risk, as supplements to Azmanova’s analysis of precarity, also open up an additional line of argument about the global swing to the Right, on which both Azmanova and I have written extensively, including in this Forum. No serious analyst doubts that there is some connection between economic distress and the growing turn to right wing populist leaders in societies as different as Argentina, the USA, the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey and India. What is less clear is the basis of the causal chain. 

Inspired by Azmanova’s argument in this essay on precarity, and the observations about aspiration and risk which her essay has triggered for me, I would now offer a further conjecture about the road from economic insecurity to what I have elsewhere called “democracy fatigue” (Appadurai 2017). The revolution of rising expectations, now enhanced by the growth of the capacity to aspire, is a critical inducement to the growth of debt at every level, including individuals, corporations and governments. This debt is now the fuel of global financial markets which are by definition volatile. This volatility creates both the reality and the fear of protracted recessions, sudden inflation and cuts in social spending. The major victims of these adversities are the vast majority of the population, which depends on debt-based financial vehicles (from credit cards and insurance policies to health insurance) for their sense of well-being. 

The turn to the populist right, and the implicit rejection of liberal democracy, are a form of doubling down on precarity, by turning to leaders and messages which also promise high returns, quick results and windfall mobility

Thus, the turn to the populist right, and the implicit rejection of liberal democracy, are a form of doubling down on precarity, by turning to leaders and messages which also promise high returns, quick results and windfall mobility, if one is willing to enter the riskiest zones of political life, far from the abstract utopias of working-class solidarity and the slow and incremental machinery of liberal democracy. In this perspective, we need to consider the possibility that, counter to the widespread opinion that the source of the growth of right wing populisms is rising inequality (e.g. Piketty and Cagé 2023, Herzog in this symposium) or alternatively, the need for security and stability in uncertain times (e.g. Azmanova 2004, 2020; Shapiro and Graetz 2020; Shapiro in this symposium), the pull to the right is better viewed as an expression of a new found popular appetite for risk, transferred from the economy to politics. This is a surprising change, since we generally associate all forms of conservatism with risk-aversion. Right wing risk-taking is a by-product of financialization which will require new progressive responses.



  • Appadurai, A. 2016. Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Appadurai, A. 2017. “Democracy Fatigue”, in H. Geiselberger, Ed. The Great Regression. London: Polity Press.
  • Azmanova, A. 2004, “The Mobilisation of the European Left in the Early 21st Century”. European Journal of Sociology 45/2 (2004): 273-306. 
  • Azmanova, A. 2020. Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Butler, J. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.
  • Bryan, D. and Rafferty, M. 2005. Capitalism with Derivatives: A Political Economy of Financial Derivatives and Class. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Cagé, J. and Piketty, T. 2023. Une histoire du conflit politique. Elections et inégalités sociales en France, 1789-2022. Paris: Seuil
  • Knight, F. 1921. Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. New York: Houghton Miflin.
  • Konings, M. 2018. Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Lee, B. and R. Martin (Eds.). 2016. Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Masterson, V. and M. North. 2023. “What is ‘global debt’ and how high is it now”? Davos: World Economic Forum (Annual Meeting).
  • Shapiro, I. and Graetz, M. 2020. The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It. Harvard University Press.

Dr. Arjun Appadurai is a prominent contemporary social-cultural anthropologist, having formerly served as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at The New School in NYC. He has held various professorial chairs and visiting appointments at some of top institutions in the United States and Europe. In addition, he has served on several scholarly and advisory bodies in the United States, Latin America, Europe and India. Dr. Appadurai is a world renowned expert on the cultural dynamics of globalization, having authored numerous books and scholarly articles. The nature and significance of his contributions throughout his academic career have earned him the reputation as a leading figure in his field.His latest book (co-authored with Neta Alexander) is Failure (Polity, 2019). He is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Polymorphous Populism

Restating the Puzzle

Many public intellectuals and liberal social critics have been trying to explain the global rise of right-wing regimes, sometimes called ‘populist’, sometimes called ‘autocratic’, always seen as anti-democratic. These efforts, including my own, can be criticized for subscribing to a kind of hydraulic theory, in which the rise of the Right is directly connected to the decline of the Left, either as effect, or as replacement. My argument in this essay is in part an effort to get out of this variety of social physics, and to offer a less mechanical and more illuminating approach. This effort takes me into the domain of emotion, recently re-labelled as ‘affect’, and quickly upgraded to ‘affect theory’. It also leads me to Herbert Marcuse whose work was a huge presence when I arrived at Brandeis University from India in 1967. Marcuse, who initiated an invaluable synergy between Marxian social critique and Freudian psychoanalysis in order to inquire into the enabling conditions of a non-repressive society,  is now seen as a benign but marginal voice1. As a point of departure for my reflections I will take a sometimes misunderstood trademark of autocratic populism, the socio-psychological phenomenon of demagoguery – the leaders’ penchant for playing to common prejudice and passions over reason in mobilizing popular support.


All demagogues are angry but each is angry in his own way. Like the idea of propaganda, the category of ‘demagogue’ is frequently treated as an explanation, when it is only a label, a first step towards explaining the rise and fall of ideologies. The two labels are connected, since the circulation of propaganda is often associated with the rise of demagogues and propaganda is treated as the other of truth, just as demagogues are treated as a toxic subset of genuine charismatic leaders. But neither term has been thoughtfully analyzed, and both belong to a tradition of labeling which has its roots in the preferential use of the term ‘ideology’ to malign the truth claims of one’s opponents. These are all terms which thrive by being naturalized and treated as commonsensical, thus evading critical examination. 

A demagogue is widely defined as someone who incites anger against elites by inflaming the passions and playing to the emotions of ordinary people. Propaganda is a way to forcefully circulate untruths or partial truths, often by demagogues who have seized power. ‘Ideology’ became the loosely liberal term for the ideas of those who employ demagoguery and propaganda, thus departing from its original 18th century meaning as the world-view of an epoch (Lichtheim, 1965).

We must ask which demagogic claims find emotional resonance among ordinary audiences

Today’s liberal left regards such figures as Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, Erdogan and Modi as demagogues who have captured power by exciting the emotions of common people and who aim to maintain power through the employment of propaganda. This analysis is not wrong, but it fails to ask which demagogic claims find emotional resonance among ordinary audiences, thereby attaining the status of commonsense. Absent such distinctions, these labels are no more than invective.

I look more closely at two examples, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – acting in vastly different political contexts, they both strive to retain power or return to office in 2024. They have both won the battle for the emotions in their countries. Modi has achieved demigod status among his followers, is seen as the one-man cause of the national success of his party, the BJP, and is among the most popular leaders on the global stage as well. Trump has a remarkably resilient following among Republican voters, and has something close to parity with the incumbent, Joseph Biden, in many polls, in spite of a mountain of evidence of his lies, corruption and contempt for the Constitution. Modi and Trump are both demagogues whose divisive messages have tapped the terrain of popular affect. But the differences are also massive. Modi is a supremely smooth, charming and skilled user of elections, law and mass media in building his following. He is a masterful manager of the rabble-rousing messages that work on the Indian campaign trail and the soothing doubletalk needed for international dealings and his global PR successes. He is supremely rational. Trump is of course a walking commercial for the Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders. These similarities despite differences invite us to look deeper than what mere labelling allows. We need to look at the USA and India as very different but equally propitious terrains for the capture of the anti-democratic psyche.

Dumont’s Comparison

A cogent matrix of comparison between India and the West was introduced by French anthropologist Louis Dumont, who observed that while individualism was the governing ideology of the modern West, hierarchy was the encompassing ideology of India, which prioritized the (hierarchically structured) social whole rather than the individual (Dumont, 1966, 1977). This led Dumont to juxtapose the Western and Indic ideologies of inequality on account of the radical difference between their umbrella ideologies. Notwithstanding the numerous objections that Dumont’s analyses have inspired, his basic insight is useful, since it helps to distinguish hierarchy from stratification, caste from class, and religious from secular justifications for inequality.

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, the rise of Modi’s party, the BJP, and its enduring electoral success since 2014 is a remarkable phenomenon as it comes in the wake of more than six decades of rule by the Indian National Congress with its secularist, socialist and developmentalist approaches to India’s struggles against poverty and inequality. The recent victories of the BJP in the state assembly elections in five states in India have been a shocking blow to the Indian National Congress led by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, both heirs of the Nehru mantle that merged anti-colonial nationalism with secular humanism and a commitment to social democracy. These victories are widely seen as sure signs of Modi’s enduring popularity and the likelihood of winning a third electoral victory in 2024 and a third term as Prime Minister. What is the basis of the popularity of a political leader who has broken so decidedly with the progressive Nehru/Gandhi heritage?

In India, the emergent individualism is entirely about mobility and not about equality, merit or fairness; it is anti-democratic because it remains hierarchical while seeking upward mobility.

Modi is widely seen as ignorant about economics, has been criticized for allowing massive cronyism, and failing to stem electoral corruption of huge proportions. And yet, his personal and political appeal only grows. Modi’s global status has benefitted from the chaos in Latin America, the dark Western view of China and Russia, the openly anti-democratic basis of most Arab states and the increasingly oppressive regime in Israel. Still, none of these important analyses account for Modi’s masterful capture of the terrain of popular emotions by responding to the psychological needs of the anti-democratic individualism developing within contemporary India. The idea of anti-democratic individualism seems oxymoronic from a modern Western liberal perspective. But in India, the emergent and sometimes aspirational individualism of many citizens is entirely about mobility and not about equality, merit or fairness. It is anti-democratic because it remains hierarchical while seeking upward mobility. 

To get a grip on Modi’s remarkable mastery of the realm of affect in Indian electoral politics, one needs to look at him though the Dumontian lens and see how he has revolutionized this terrain. India is a hyper-holistic (as the opposite of individualistic) society, as can best be seen in the survival and resilience of caste as the hegemonic ideology of this society over almost two millennia. Caste is itself a cellular and invertebrate order which spreads and reproduces itself without any visible central organization, church or leadership. There are leaders of castes but not of caste. No political party can ignore caste in its electoral calculations, but no party controls the workings of caste. What Modi has done is to allow the emergence of a Western-style individualism at all levels of the steeply stratified social order, that is, an actor or agent who makes his own markets, advances his own interests, cultivates his own aspirations and seeks personal recognition and rewards, while ostensibly paying obeisance to group values such as nation, ethnicity, region, caste and family. Whereas in the West individualism nurtured a taste for social equality (a feature which Tocqueville extolled as the basis of democracy in America), Modi has enabled the rise of individualism without the equalization of social status – individualism within traditional hierarchies that is antithetical and even hostile to democracy. Modi’s demagoguery is a dog whistle to his audiences to forget the public wellbeing and to optimize their own personal benefit within the constraints of the corporate entity to which they belong. In India, such an assault on the social and the relational would normally be regarded as a form of cultural treason, because of what Dumont saw as an orientation towards the (hierarchically structured) social whole.

But Modi’s skill is to wrap this treason in the rhetoric of Hindu majoritarianism, and aggressively anti-democratic sentiments, thus reconciling individualism and hierarchy in a manner which contradicts standard liberal social theory. In this case, the god whistle (Hindu nationalism) is not the real dog whistle. The true dog whistle is a call to an exit from the inclusively social to what is better seen as an exclusionary social – it is a call for an exit from democracy. 

All autocracies call for an exit from democracy. But the appeal of this call works differently in its various contexts. Also recall my earlier observation that propaganda and demagoguery do not always work.  In India, Modi’s call has a specific configuration. First, the long hegemony of caste has exerted a conservative, anti-revolutionary force on Indian society for centuries (Moore 1966). Second, the religious world-view underpinning caste has always seen kings as incarnations of divinity, a link that has been made for charismatic leaders like Modi. Third, the Nehruvian heritage of socialism, secularism and central planning has lost its appeal as in many other countries, but in India especially by the failure of the Congress Party (Nehru’s party) to overcome its reputation for corruption, dynastic rule and excessive bureaucratic interference in the economy. Finally, Modi has added the toxic sentiment of the scapegoating impulse, by invoking Muslims as a dangerous anti-national minority, as secret supporters of Pakistan, and as hidden terrorists. 

What now of the very different context for Trump’s success in capturing the affective imaginary of perhaps a third of the US electorate? What Trump captured is the rage of many Americans about the tyranny of neo-liberal individualism. Trump’s dog whistle is a call not just to rage about intellectuals, liberals and ‘globalists’, but also to rage about that variety of liberal individualism which seeks to protect academic freedom, religious diversity and pluralism in politics. Trump has succeeded in painting this latter sort of individualism as a Trojan horse for socialism, whose true object, in the Trump narrative, is to liberate racial minorities, sacrifice American jobs and hold white Americans down.

Trump seduces with a promise to break the chains of liberal individualism as a basis of inclusive and egalitarian society, and replace it with an amorphous, libidinal, anti-social union.

The analysis of Trump’s followers and of their complete indifference to his proven record of greed, misogyny, lies and his larger contempt for every institution of liberal democracy has befuddled most critical analysts. I had earlier thought that Trump’s success was one variation of a worldwide ‘democracy fatigue’, a new level of impatience with the slowness of deliberative democracy, and a new level of receptivity to leaders who promised quick and total fixes (Appadurai 2017). What this global syndrome fueled is a generalized ‘exit’ (in Albert Hirschman’s terminology) from democracy through democratic means, especially through elections. Today, almost eight years after Trump’s initial electoral triumph, we need to add something to the idea of ‘democracy fatigue’, and pay attention to the constitution of a new horizon of the social which is entirely opposed to liberal individualism. This phenomenon has something in common with earlier forms of ‘exit’ from liberal democracy, which characterized the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is also a product of several new forces which characterize the first decades of the twenty first century. The most important is the rise of social media which has encouraged the rise of fake news, one-way opinion broadcasting and flash mobs of many kinds. The second is the obscenely growing wealth of the top 1% which promotes a new combination of aspirational envy among the exploited working and lower middle classes. The third is the new mixture of racism, nationalism and anti-elitism which defines the MAGA constituency. What Trump has identified is a means of converting all these factors into a potent strategy to capture the terrain of the emotions.

Even more than the appeal to racism, economic frustration and perceived cultural marginalization, what Trump has crafted is a dog whistle for a revolution of and in the social, which draws aggrieved ‘individuals’ into a form of the social which is virulently antisocialist. The appeal to affect here is the appeal of a promise to break the chains of liberal individualism as a basis of inclusive and egalitarian society and to enable the emergence of a majoritarian liberalism2, which urges a break from the entire edifice of Enlightenment liberalism. This appeal must necessarily be to the limbic zone, the zone in which affect, instinct and feeling emerge and merge, and where logical contradictions (liberalism versus exclusion, universalism versus majoritarianism, democracy versus autocracy) can be blurred and blended. This is the appeal which justifies my call for a revival of attention to Herbert Marcuse.

Marcuse Redux

It is widely known that the members of the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm) all shared a deep interest in Freud because of their shared interest in why the proletariat in the West was a willing participant in its own oppression. This led each of them to explore ideas about the libido, about the Superego, about human drives and erotic impulses, which they encountered through Freud. Marcuse, who moved from Europe to the USA in 1934, had the longest immersion in the most deeply capitalist social order in history, where much of the socialist heritage of Europe had been abandoned to produce the ‘one dimensional man’ identified by Marcuse in 1964. But it was in an earlier classic by Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (1955), that he showed how Freud’s pessimism about the social potential of the libido in the face of civilizational repression could be turned in a more positive, optimistic direction. The technical details of Marcuse’s views on Eros, liberation, repressive tolerance and polymorphous perversity as a recoverable human drive, cannot be explored here. Relevant here is his insight  that no repressive order, however ‘tolerant’, can entirely sublimate the libidinal economy, which remains active even in the most administered, culturally insidious economy of advanced capitalism. What especially interested Marcuse was what he called ‘surplus repression’ (Marcuse, 1955). Because I see this concept as the most useful pivot to understanding the capture of the terrain of affect by the global Right, I must briefly spell out its place in Marcuse’s larger critical project. 

For Marcuse, there were two types of repression, ‘basic’ and ‘surplus’, both of which contributed to oppression.  Basic repression was the minimal control of the libido required for humans to enjoy the benefits of civilization and cooperation without infringing on the freedom of others. Surplus repression was the sort of additional repression required by an advanced capitalist order which requires the constant expansion of surplus value for the benefit of the order of domination. Thus, the performance principle (required by the economy of artificial scarcities) and the reality principle (Freud’s idea of the minimum repression needed for any viable civilization) come together, so that labor now becomes alienated and the worker works for the growing needs of the apparatus, which are increasingly artificial.  We know that Foucault, Lacan and the ever-polemical Zizek found Marcuse’s views of repression, alienation and liberation far too humanist for their tastes, because it saw civilized human life as an achievable goal. Marcuse’s humanism was not imbued with Foucault’s critique of the category of ‘Man’, Lacan’s famous argument for the superior freedom of machines and Zizek’s subscription to Lacan’s idea of the subject as constituted by lack. And yet it is now evident that human beings, not humanists, have ruined the planet.

Still, Marcuse’s concept of surplus repression can be surprisingly helpful to explain the success of the global Right in colonizing the domain of affect. But to make this connection we need to take a very different approach to liberation, repression and libidinal energy than either Marcuse’s own, or the views of his many critics (Foucault, 1978; Fromm, 1941; Kolakowski, 2005), all of whom argued that capitalism had a serious investment in controlling libidinal energy. But like their descendants today, they had no real insight into the proletarian right wing.

How can we identify some concrete examples of surplus repression in advanced capitalist societies?  Consider the rise of Incel (involuntary celibacy) culture which has been fruitfully analyzed as a form of misogynistic nationalism, closely tied to social isolation, economic exclusion and racial resentment among young males in the USA (Arruzza et al., 2019; Kracher, 2020; Fraser, Braitich and Banet-Weiser, 2019). Here is a clear case of a self-damaging form of anti-libidinal discipline which is a clear symptom of the excesses of capitalist extractivism. Another example of surplus repression can be seen in the ‘hikikomori’ of Japan, who have been classified as a psychiatric category, consisting of youth who have withdrawn from most forms of routine social interaction, including work, study or social networks. Like ‘slackers’ in the USA and in the UK, these youth have reacted to artificial scarcities in the economy by a complete shutdown of all social and libidinal energies. A third example of surplus repression can be found in a whole gamut of health and fitness regimes, from cross-fitness to plastic surgery, which encourage extreme ideas of thinness, beauty and sexual attractiveness. These examples have in common the excess self-disciplining of the body as a displacement of the evaporation of jobs, social security and economic mobility.

The real battleground is not the economy, but affect.

I seek to channel Marcuse to account for the right-wing capture of the terrain of affect. I believe that the real battleground is not the economy, by any definition, but affect, also broadly defined. The forces of left liberalism lost the battle over the economy, because of the world-wide increase in wealth, wages and social extras, because capitalism delivered on its promise for affluence, be it unequally distributed. In truth, the poor got either poorer or less equal, worldwide.  But the geometric increase in wealth and GDP in most countries opened the door to aspirations for upward social mobility, a new aspirational horizon which appeared to require just a bit of patience and some luck, even as inequality sharpens. 

It looks as if the Left is losing the battle in the terrain of affect, as well. But here I focus on the obverse question, which is:  how did the Right capture this terrain? The usual answer is rarely stated explicitly, but it relies on the liberal view of demagoguery and propaganda, in which demagogues appeal to the baser instincts of mankind and are an easy path to the hearts and minds of poorer, less educated, subaltern populations. They are viewed as catering to demotic prejudices, vulgar pleasures and vernacular ressentiment. They are an ideological version of those circuses which seek to distract from the scarcity of bread. In short, in this view, insofar as the life of emotions is reductive, inflammatory and pre-rational, the Right has a natural appeal to the untutored mob. It is evident that this view of demagoguery and propaganda is itself elitist and prejudiced, since it sees the terrain of affect itself through a Cartesian lens, in which the Left is Reason and the Right is Emotion. There is a more thoughtful way to account for the emotional currency which the Right has made its own.

Polymorphous Populism

I use the term ‘polymorphous populism’, to invoke Freud’s idea of polymorphous perversity, creatively transformed by Marcuse, notably in Eros and Civilization. Freud saw children as living in a world where all sites of sensory contact could produce erotic pleasure, and their socialization into adulthood and civilization as whittling down this diffuse eroticism and leaving only the genitals as the focus of permissible erotic sensation. Freud saw this narrowing as both necessary and desirable. Marcuse, as well as some of Freud’s more unruly followers, such as Sandor Ferenczi (1938), refused this reduction. Marcuse, instead, made the restoration of polymorphous perversity the main strategy in the battle against ‘surplus repression’. Marcuse believed that polymorphous perversity would open up the terrain of affect to a wider sensory palette and thus offer a profound erotic complement to the battle against capitalist discipline, alienated labor and administered sexuality. The subsequent debates about Marcuse’s revision of Freud have been intense, but they are less relevant to us than the idea itself.

‘The People’ become an amorphous organism that defies all normative constraints.

What does the idea of polymorphous perversity offer us in our effort to understand the success of the Right? I suggest that the object of polymorphous perversity – a diffuse multi-sensorial erotic economy which resists restriction or localization – has been shifted by the Right from the Body to the People, who are now presented as an amorphous, tactile, erotic organism, which refuses reduction to the electorate, the citizenry, the population or any other demographic criterion. And the People, in this polymorphous construction, do not need the courts, the Constitution, the official media, or even the usual forms of public opinion. Polymorphous populism is the deep connection between leaders as different as Trump and Modi, and it installs the People as a pre-political erotic category, with no prior limits, boundaries or regulations. The Right captured the terrain of affect by replacing the very idea of Democracy with the idea of the People as a pre-political, quasi-biological, entity. And this idea is not just an appeal to masses, mobs and crowds, the usual sociological exemplars of rule by emotion. It is an appeal to a different collective horizon, one constituted by networks of emotions rather than by actors, agents and persons linked into groups. These networked emotions are anchored in a mass sensorium, which then recodes actually existing citizens into followers of leaders who tap this polymorphous populism.

This effect cannot be fully understood without reference to the biggest social fact of our times, the digitalization of everything, and most directly relevant to the terrain of affect, the rise of social media – Facebook, X (Twitter), Instagram, TikTok, and their many regional competitors. How does this array of social media vehicles enhance the network of emotions I have referred to above? The primary way in which the easy availability of social media has assisted the capture of the terrain of affect by the Right is that it enhances the sense of connection and communication without requiring genuine solidarity or shared interests. It is unregulated and allows spontaneous expressions of hate, anger, and contempt for opponents to flow through digital circuits, thus multiplying the ethos of a sensorial network which is more rapid and effective than conventional crowds, assemblies and protests. It is a kind of flash democracy – or direct action – which feeds on the Rightwing impatience with deliberative democracy. The digital world is something Marcuse did not experience. However, I suspect that if he were to have made a critique of digital politics, it would also involve some variant of his idea of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos in mass capitalist society. 

Back to the Local

Earlier in this essay, I contrasted the appeal of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, in their respective nations, by drawing on Louis Dumont’s ideal-typical contrast of Western ‘individualism’ and Indic ‘holism’ (‘hierarchy’ in Dumont’s terminology). I argued that Trump offered a revolution against the tyranny of the Individual and Modi an inverse revolution against the tyranny of holism, (Dumont’s definition of hierarchy), which does not imply a revolt against caste, but only a new push towards the economic mobility of individuals.

Trump’s followers mistook their experience of sensory populism for an escape from job loss, the opioid epidemic and the social rise of racial minorities — a remarkable hijack of socialist utopia by neo-fascist propaganda.

What is most compelling to me about Marcuse in engaging these different populisms is his endorsement of polymorphous perversity as a marker of the liberation of the exploited members of capitalist society. What Marcuse could not have anticipated is that polymorphous perversity would be captured and redefined by the Right Wing to disguise surplus repression as polymorphous populism. This is the crux of the value of Marcuse for understanding such recent autocrats as Trump and Modi. In the American case, the joyous spirit of the mobs that attacked the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021, was decisive evidence that Trump’s followers had mistaken their experience of sensory populism for an escape from job loss, the opioid epidemic and the social rise of racial minorities. In India, the pleasures of violence against Muslims, the steady diet of propaganda about defending national integrity against Pakistan and China, and the steady replacement of Muslim mosques by Hindu Temples, offers the pleasures of Hindu populism to conceal or deflect the realities of farmer suicides, rape videos, mega-corruption in elections and the capture of many regional legislatures by known criminals. These different varieties of populism succeed in re-presenting surplus repression as polymorphous perversity. This is a remarkable hijack of socialist utopia by neo-fascist propaganda. 

In light of this discussion of Marcuse, I offer a refinement of the Modi/Trump comparison, by saying that both leaders appeal to the terrain of affect by recoding the social into the polymorphous space of the People, thus freeing ordinary Indians from the tyranny of democracy as representation and ordinary Americans from the tyranny of the Individual. This recoding of the social appeals to the terrain of affect without reducing it to a single object or focus. In both cases, it allows a direct attack on the Courts, the Constitution, the Legislature and on the whole edifice of deliberative democracy as a form of liberation of the pre-political organism of the ‘demos’ from civilizational constraints. I hypothesize that other successful right-wing leaders (Orban, Erdogan, Meloni, Wilders, Milei) have similarly recoded the social in their own cultural milieus, though this wider hypothesis would require careful contextualization.

The main point of this essay is that we need to understand the rise of the Global Right not by reducing its leaders or followers to an irrational common denominator, signaled by the simple and overused term ‘populism’, but by seeing its rise as a dispersed revolutionary effort to recode the social as a polymorphous networked energy. 

The failure of the Left to gain any real foothold in the terrain of affect requires an analysis which would have to begin by noticing that the key words of the Left, so far as the social is concerned, are enmired in older terminologies of class consciousness and interest, and older institutional identities such as worker, proletarian and organizer. But let me hazard a proposal about the particular failure of the Left in the terrain of emotion. It cannot be fully explained much by the massive effort to smash unions, to disrupt working-class organizers and to discredit all forms of socialism, both in Europe and the USA for more than a century. Nor can it be seen entirely as a by-product of the large-scale efforts to promote consumerism, mobility myths and celebrity wealth cultures through much of the world in the last half century. And the uses of nationalism to siphon off class consciousness cannot do the whole explanatory job either.

The dismal truth about the failure of the Left to capture the terrain of emotion – anger, passion, love, desire – among the many losers in today’s capitalist world, is because it is still marked by its devotion to the great virtues of Western scientific reason, which put great store by facts, evidence, logical thinking, sober arguments and plausible predictions. Marx himself embodied these virtues in his writings (though not in his personal style) throughout his life. Even the biggest twentieth century communist leaders – Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro – never let a strong intellectual argument go to waste. This ‘scientific’ element in all the socialist arguments we have ever known always eclipsed the logic of the emotions. And when the great communist leaders did tap into the emotions of their audiences it was usually by appealing to national sentiments (Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese and the like), and not to the primordial rage against exploitation, extraction and repression by the wealthy classes. The Left always tried to provide reasoned arguments for the capture of the means of production by the working classes. But they paid too little attention – either theoretical or practical – to the capture of the means of the production of emotions. Here the global Right has left them far behind. There is virtually no movement in the Global Left which draws on affect to make its case for a liberated humanity. The cerebral left is the logical reminder and remainder of this failure.

On January 23, Arjun discussed Modi’s inaugural opening of the Ayodhya Temple and the rise of Hindu majoritarianism in an interview with Selcuk Gultasli at the European Center for Populism Studies. Read the full interview at this link.



1. The marginalisation of the analytical perspective Marcuse forged is in part due to the sweeping Lacanization of Freud by various critical theorists.

2. Azar Dakwar and Albena Azmanova (2019) have called this ‘the inverted postnational constellation’ in which liberalism is endorsed as the privileged territory of select insiders, and turned actively against select outsiders.


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  • Bartech, J. and Banet-Weiser, S. 2019. “From Pick-Up Artists to Incels: Con(fidence) Games, Networked Misogyny, and the Failure of Neoliberalism”, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 13; Feature 5003–5027. 
  • Dumont, L. 1966. Homo Hierarchicus: Essai sur le système des castes. Paris: Gallimard.
  • Ferenczi, S. 1938. Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality. London: Karnac Books (1989). 
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  • Freud, S. 1905. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. In J. Strachey, & A. Freud (Eds.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII (1901-1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works (pp. 123-246). London: Hogarth Press.
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Dr. Arjun Appadurai is a prominent contemporary social-cultural anthropologist, having formerly served as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at The New School in NYC. He has held various professorial chairs and visiting appointments at some of top institutions in the United States and Europe. In addition, he has served on several scholarly and advisory bodies in the United States, Latin America, Europe and India. Dr. Appadurai is a world renowned expert on the cultural dynamics of globalization, having authored numerous books and scholarly articles. The nature and significance of his contributions throughout his academic career have earned him the reputation as a leading figure in his field.His latest book (co-authored with Neta Alexander) is Failure (Polity, 2019). He is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Precarity for All

An epidemic of precarity is engulfing our societies. Insecurity, instability, and uncertainty are hallmarks of modern life, inevitable consequences of humanity’s ambition to author its own destiny. In contrast, precarity – a peculiar form of politically generated and hence perfectly avoidable disempowerment – is the hallmark of the 21st century.

The emergence of a novel social pathology at the dawn of the new millennium was quietly signaled by the arrival of a new entry in the English-language dictionaries: precarity. The term first appeared in the Collins Dictionary in 2017, then in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018, as a sign that the existing concept, precariousness, is somehow deficient in conveying the nature of the vulnerability that has beset societies. While most reference books tend to equate the two terms, the Oxford Dictionary has added, as a second connotation, “a state of not having a secure job or income, especially over a long period of time”. Indeed, the insecurity of livelihoods is at the heart of precarity as a singular social pathology.

The Covid-pandemic that erupted in early 2020 made us (somewhat) aware that we are witnessing a very special kind of insecurity

This condition went unnoticed for some time as, until recently, it was the striking growth of inequality that fixed the attention of pundits and publics. On the one hand, unlike inequality, precarity is difficult to detect and measure, and is not as spectacular to report. On the other hand, insecurity tends not only to be seen as an endemic feature of modern life, but is often celebrated as an engine of innovation and creativity. However, the Covid-pandemic that erupted in early 2020 made us (somewhat) aware that we are witnessing a very special kind of insecurity. The public health crisis did not just bring into view the precariousness of our frailty as mortal beings, what the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin has called our “cosmic dread”: the anxiety we experience in the face of the infinitely enormous and powerful forces beyond human control, angst that is at the very foundation of human experience and thinking. We don’t need a pandemic to remind us of our mortality. However, we had to make sense of the striking fact that a grave public health crisis was caused by a pathogen that was well-known to science and not extraordinarily deadly or resilient, and yet even the most affluent, scientifically advanced and politically sophisticated societies struggled with their response and made grave errors of policy. This absurdity brought into view another kind of fragility, namely precarity as a condition of politically generated economic insecurity and social vulnerability that harms not only people’s material and psychological welfare, but also society’s capacity to cope with adversity and to govern itself.

In what follows, I will address the four signature features of precarity: (1) its essence as disempowerment, rather than uncertainty, (2) its roots in specific policies and politics (3) its ubiquitous nature and (4) its political effects.

Disempowerment, not uncertainty

A look at the etymology of the word will help direct our attention to the man-made nature of the phenomenon. The word ‘precarity’ is rooted in the Latin ‘precarius‘ which means obtained by entreaty (by begging or praying), given as a favor, depending on the pleasure or mercy of others (from the verb ‘prex’ — to ask, entreat). Importantly, the core feature of precarity is not so much the lack of certainty but powerlessness — it literally means ‘depending on the will of another’.

Sociologists of modernity from Max Weber to Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman see insecurity as being endemic to modernity; Ulrich Beck (1992) has argued that late modernity marks the ascent of ‘risk society‘, whose axial principle is not the distribution of goods, but the distribution of dangers — the ‘bads’ generated by industry and science. However, this perspective de-politicises insecurity. In Precarious Life (2004), Judith Butler drew attention to the social origins of precarity, as she distinguished it from ‘precariousness’ as the basic human condition of physical/biological fragility. Precarity, in her account, is socially generated vulnerability resulting from social marginalization, poverty, economic insecurity, political disenfranchisement, and/or violence. While Butler sees inequality of power to be an enabling condition of precarity, we might note that certain factors such as the ecological crisis can make us all precarious, irrespectively of how the resulting precarity is distributed. In my research on precarity, I have noted that the key political technique of precarity-production consists in creating an imbalance between responsibility and the power to act: public authority increasingly transfers its responsibilities to individuals and societies who are less and less equipped to assume these responsibilities and to carry them out (think of hospitals poorly equipped to cope with rising infections or our efforts to remain employed and employable when the political economy does not produce stable jobs). This is experienced, at both individual and societal level, as incapacity to cope (Azmanova, 2020, 2022).

The corollary of responsibility-without power is power-without-responsibility. While citizens are disempowered and societies weakened, central authority grows stronger and increasingly arbitrary – hence the rise of autocracy even in the ‘mature’ Western democracies. Political arbitrariness, originally enabled by economic precarity, becomes an additional source of disempowerment, aggravating precarity further. If this is the political logic of precarity, what are its political logistics?

Precarity’s political origins

The inception of what I have named ‘precarity capitalism(Azmanova, 2020a) happened in the 1980s and 1990s through the extreme liberalization of the economy via privatization and deregulation. Precarity arose from the increased exposure of societies to the competitive pressures of globally integrated markets in the late 20th century, particularly due to competition from countries with cheap labor and loose enforcement of environmental standards. An important policy shift accelerated the process: a shift from competition to competitiveness. At the beginning of our century, national competitiveness in the global economy became the top policy priority, trumping both growth (the priority of welfare capitalism) and maintaining competition within unencumbered domestic markets (a priority under neoliberal capitalism). This shift first became conspicuous in the Lisbon Strategy the European Union adopted in 2000 – a ten-year action plan for economic development that pledged to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”.

The story is by now well-known. Governments across the political spectrum rushed to implement so-called structural adjustment reforms as part of national strategies for international competitiveness. Thus, accross Europe, the US, and much of the developed world, first in the name of competition and then competitiveness, enforced painful reforms of labor markets, social security systems, and public services through deregulation, privatization, and dis-investment. The liberalization of labor markets reduced job security, which gave businesses the flexibility they needed to compete globally. In their competition to keep businesses in their national jurisdictions, states reduced corporate taxes, which, in turn, has led them to reduce spending on public services such as healthcare (the ‘sweetheart deal’ between Apple and the Irish government is an extreme example of a general practice). The privatization of public assets (especially in infrastructure such as transport and energy production and provision) left these sectors at the whim of imperatives for profit that often meant reduced safety.

The shift from competition to competitiveness as a policy priority implies a significant change in state–market and state–society relations. Within the paradigm of competition as a constitutive attribute of the free market, the role of public authority is to ensure a level playing field among economic agents, not only by active liberalization and deregulation of the economy, but also via legal action through antitrust law against the creation of monopolies. This has been the avowed formula of neoliberal capitalism. In the late 20th century, however, even sectors that in principle cannot be properly exposed to competition (energy infrastructure, rail transportation, broadband) were privatized and deregulated, thus giving their owners and managers the privileged status of rentiers.

With the new political commitment to competitiveness in the global market, the state began taking on the duty to aid specific economic actors — those who are best positioned to perform well in the global competition for profit. Although it has been a long-established practice for the private sector to feed off the state’s initial investment in product development and innovation, a peculiarity of contemporary capitalism is that public authority handpicks the companies on which to bestow this privilege. This results in the deliberate creation by the state of market monopolies. This, however, dramatically alters the distribution between opportunities and risks, as opportunities for wealth creation are actively aggregated to those economic actors who already have an advantage in the globally integrated markets, while risks are offloaded to the weakest players.

Thus, states used the redistributive tools they had honed under the welfare-state capitalism of the three post-war decades to shift resources from the weak to the strong — to the most competitive market players (i.e. large corporations) in the hope that these corporations would enhance their nations’ competitiveness in the global marketplace. The “stepmother state” of the neoliberal 1980s and 1990s replaced the “nanny state” of welfare capitalism — a state that used its authority and institutional means to enforce personal self-reliance. At the turn of the century, this was replaced by the “rich uncle state” — one that lends support to those who are already best placed to ensure the competitiveness of the national economy (the family business, so to speak) — they get all the opportunities, at a minimum risk.

Thus, left at the whim of global markets, crushed by competitive pressures, we were weakened as individuals while being made responsible for things beyond our personal control – our health, our digital sovereignty, our employment, the protection of our environment and the upbringing of our children. Collectively, as societies, we were also weakened because public services were starved of funds and subjected to market logic. This is how we found ourselves in a condition of responsibility-without-power: the essence of precarity.

Importantly, not all forms of economic insecurity generate precarity. When job flexibility is voluntary, it amounts to empowerment, as we have a better grip on our life trajectories. The capacity to enter and exit the labor market separates the winners from the losers in the contemporary economy. Thus, the highly stratified distribution of (institutionalised) risk and opportunity through secure exit from, and entry into, the labour market has become the apex of the social question in affluent societies (Azmanova 2012).

Precarity is in particular generated by two contradictions of contemporary capitalism – what I have discussed in Capitalism on Edge (2020) as ‘surplus employability’ and ‘acute job dependency’. The first contradiction consists in the fact that, on the one hand, automation has made it possible, in principle, to produce the necessities of life with minimum human labor (the decommodification potential of modern societies is enormous), yet on the other hand commodification pressures have also increased (the pressures on all of us to hold a job are heavy). The second contradiction (acute job dependency) is rooted in the tension between, on the one hand, the increased reliance on a job as a source of livelihood, and on the other, the decreased availability of good jobs. This has resulted in the generalization of work-related pressures and the spread of precarity – experienced as incapacity to cope — across social class, professional occupations, and income levels.

The austerity policies with which governments faced the financial collapse of 2008 reinforced these orientations and practices and worsened their social impact. The new industrial policy that the EU and the United States have recently launched consists of providing public money to specific industries, or even specific companies, in order to improve their competitiveness in the economy worldwide. It is a redistribution from society to the market – entirely within the logic of ‘precarity capitalism’.

Precarity is now ubiquitous

Who are the victims of precarity? Without a doubt, economic insecurity affects the poor most acutely, as well as those who, like immigrants, lack the support of immediate and stable social networks. But, as I noted, the intensified competitive dynamics of capitalism in conditions of globally integrated and digitalized markets are causing a wide-spread destabilization of livelihoods, even in conditions of low unemployment and solid growth.

Our societies have become more fragile because the public sector has shrunk and public authority has transferred its responsibility for the common good to individuals and markets. A perfect illustration of this problem is the European Commission’s failed attempt to pursue its 2017 idea of developing a vaccine against pathogens like coronavirus as part of the Innovative Medicine Initiative – a public partnership between the European Union and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, whose function is to finance research and innovation in health. Pharmaceutical companies rejected the idea as unprofitable and the project was abandoned . We can expect an economic actor like a pharmaceutical company to be driven by profit considerations; but the European Commission, as the executive arm of the European Union, is a public authority which has a duty to preserve public well-being. It adopted market logic to the detriment of the common good. This policy logic has not changed after the pandemic. The issue is not about profit and growth – every society that reasonably manages its resources would realise surplus. The culprit is the dominant role of considerations of profit (the profit motive) in public policy.

Exposure to global competition has increased work pressure for everyone, including highly skilled workers in state-owned companies; let us recall the wave of suicides at France Telecom in the 2000s. Job insecurity is the reason why those with nominally stable and well-paid jobs are afraid to quit or slow down in the rat race, even if they would prefer to enjoy more leisure and family life. A 2015 survey of US residents with a net worth of over one million dollars found that, while 87 percent of those interviewed would rather quit the treadmill in favour of other pursuits, they remain at work out of an ‘ever-present fear of losing it all’. While the precarity of the poor is expressed by debt and impoverishment, that of the ‘ privileged’ is reflected in an epidemic of mental disorders such as burn-out, as well as a higher divorce rate.

Importantly, this malaise is not confined to the working class. The engine of precarity surpasses the wage relation. This is the case because the proliferation of forms of professional tenure and property ownership (i.e., flexible employment and fluid ownership status), has changed the status of property ownership in the distribution of life-chances. In the context of the 19th century and much of the 20th century, the private ownership of the means of production afforded economic advantages to capital owners while also sheltering them from the social risks that participation in the pursuit of profit entails. Risks, instead, accrued to wage labour, which not only did not benefit from the opportunities for affluence that property ownership creates but also failed to profit from the social protection that property ownership grants. In the current context, however, the predominant formula of property ownership – holding equity in publicly listed companies operating within globally integrated capitalism – exposes all participants, including the workers whose pension funds are invested in these financial vehicles, to the risks of the competitive pursuit of profit. Diminished are both the protections that exclusive ownership used to supply to capital and the compensatory social policy democratic welfare states used to provide for workers. Thus, the distribution of opportunities and risks in the context of globally integrated capitalism, and the related social suffering, are more strongly affected by actors’ exposure to the competitive pressures of capital accumulation than by their status within the capital-labor relation. The impact of these dynamics cut across, rather than along, the capital-labor divide.

That is why I prefer to speak of insecure livelihoods (which includes investment), rather than employment; the former term reflects better the scope of the phenomenon of precarity as surpassing the wage relation. Thus, technically, one can be exploited but not be precarious, while exploiters can actually be precarious when their livelihoods are under strong competitive pressures. One of the most precarious groups nowadays are the self-employed, as these people are strongly exposed to the pressures of the profit motive yet typically do not benefit from the social protections granted to labor, such as unemployment insurance. Precarity now runs to the heights of the social pyramid, as we hear stories about lawyer burnout and young Goldman Sachs bankers begging for an 80-hour week cap as they struggle to cope. Thus, even as precarity is strongly stratified and some are exempt from it, it is a transversal injustice that cuts across social class, professional occupation, ownership status, income and education levels. It is a social disease that affects almost everyone. Contemporary capitalism has generated not just a precarious class, what sociologist Guy Standing called ‘the precariat‘, it has created a precarious multitude.

Precarity is politically toxic

Precarity takes its toll. It affects the way we fight poverty, support the green transition, treat migrants or deal with epidemics. Let me address some of the political damage it is causing. I already commented on the impotence of governance that precarity induces – it was the reason why our societies, which are so rich and scientifically powerful, experienced such astonishing difficulties in dealing with the pandemic. But there is more.

Experienced, perceived, or anticipated threat to livelihoods induced the insurgent anti-establishment movements which began to mobilize, many forget, not after the economic crisis of 2008 but well before – already during the 1990s. At the time, unusual parties and movements gained popularity, such as the Pim Fortuyn list in the Netherlands and ATTAC in France. If the 1990s were the most prosperous decade of the 20th century in terms of economic growth and a time of low unemployment, this was also the time when the social impact of the neoliberal combination of free markets and open economies became tangible. The common denominator of these ideologically very diverse formations was the search for social protection in a context marked by economic and political destabilisation. It was around this time that the Front National’s electoral support in France rapidly increased, as the party traded its liberal stance on economic policy for calls for social welfare. The anti-establishment insurgencies that have mushroomed since then (typically called ‘populist’) express a very specific agenda of demands comprising four elements: concerns about physical insecurity, cultural estrangement, political disorder and economic insecurity. Populism, is thus a political mis-articulation (through the short-cuts of xenophobia) of a valid grievance about insecure livelihoods, itself an outcome of specific social and economic policies (Azmanova, 2019, 2021; Apostolidis, 2021).

As it is breeding anxiety, precarity is fostering public demands for security and safety, which translates into conservative, even reactionary, political preferences – hence, the rise of the right and the far right in electoral politics across the world. It is this longing for stability that opens the slippery slope to autocracy. As I noted, the corollary to precarity as a condition of individual responsibility-without-power is a public authority that accumulates power-without-responsibility: autocracy. Ruling elites keep the scared populations quiet by feeding their ‘fear of freedom‘ (Erich Fromm). The more vulnerable people feel, the more they are willing to rely on political strongmen to provide instant stability. Political elites across the Left-Right divide have indeed responded to these demands by increasing their stronghold on society through law-and-order policies. This leads to a vicious cycle: economic insecurity breeds autocratic attitudes that propel strongmen to power whose assaults on the rule of law further disempower citizens, leaving them at the mercy of despots – a tendency also at work in ‘mature’ democracies (Azmanova and Howard, 2021). The World Justice Project – the Independent NGO that measures authoritarianism – has registered the unfolding of a global rule of law recession since 2016, as civil justice systems weakened, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of religion all declined widely (WJP, 2023).

Precariousness undermines solidarity, because everyone is concerned with preserving their own social status. The educated middle and upper-middle classes have traditionally been champions for the poor, who are less politically active. Currently, the affluent are abandoning the poor, and the working classes are once again turning against immigrants for fear of job loss. Various minorities are competing for victimhood, as this is the only apparent avenue to social protection, while ruling elites source their power from the patronage they bestow to select minorities. The conflicts among forms of precarities and the competition among precarious groups for ever diminishing resources of stability and safety are among the gravest obstacles on the path of progressive politics. Fourth, precarity tends to sharpen the propensity of democracies to prioritize the concerns of the present over those of the future. In the words of one Yellow Vest protester regarding climate change concerns, “You are asking us to worry about the end of the world but we worry about the end of the month“.

The insecurity of livelihoods is deeply detrimental to political entrepreneurship. “We are the people of this generation bred in at least modest comfort,” opens the 1962 Port Huron Statement with which the rebellious youth embarked on inventing a new future. It is neither poverty nor affluence, but security of our livelihoods that enables intellectual and political experimentation, because it helps us to stand tall and think big. Conversely, just as economic insecurity nurtures a longing for stability and safety, it also stifles both economic and political experimentation. At its extreme, precarity is politically debilitating, as it leaves us neither time nor energy to deal with the big questions of social design: not how to cope with the pressures of the day, but what kind of lives we want to live and what societies we want to inhabit. Precarity deprives us of agency. In this sense, it is a technique of social control.

Conclusion: Capitalism is doing very well. Society is in a meta-crisis

Diagnoses about crises have been with us at least since the financial meltdown of 2008. It appears that we have been in a crisis, a situation of severe instability, now for over 20 years. However, the notion of a 20-year crisis defies the definition of crisis as a radical but short-lived challenge with three possible outcomes: death, recovery, or thorough transformation. Instead, we are stuck in what I have described as a ‘meta crisis‘ (a crisis of the crisis): that is, the crisis is stuck in a crisis of its own as none of the three exits are available. Like a person suffering a chronic illness, our societies have been in a state of perpetual low inflammation – a feverish, restless stasis (Azmanova, 2017, 2020b). Capitalism as an engine of profit-making is not in crisis, it is doing just fine. Society, however, is in a meta-crisis.

The extreme focus on inequality of self-identified ‘progressive’ actors contributes to this state of affairs (see Ian Shapiro’s contribution to this symposium). Proposals that advocate a dramatic redistribution of wealth and power from rich to poor, from capital to labor, are now advocated as a form of radical opposition to neoliberal capitalism. But to think in terms of inequality is to engage in a logic of comparison between individuals and the groups in which they congregate, and thus present social justice in individualist terms – as a question of personal circumstances, of private wealth. Such a focus on individual circumstances is in fact a hallmark of the neoliberal mentality. This eliminates the notion of collective well-being which has always been fundamental in the socialist project – a project that espoused a solidaristic economy without emphasizing either equality or prosperity. It is also worth remembering that the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe created societies that were egalitarian but certainly not solidaristic, because the combination of discretionary political power and a poorly governed economy created an atmosphere of mutual distrust and competition for rare resources. Equality in prosperity is not a socialist idea; solidarity in well-being is.

In fact, it is worth asking why we are so bothered by inequality if it is not only an inextricable feature of capitalist societies but also of communist ones. The distribution formula Marx advocated is not equality, but “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (Marx 1875). Moreover: the harm of inequality cannot be equated with that of poverty. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt points out, the poor suffer because they do not have enough, not because others have more (Frankfurt, 2015). We can have egalitarian but very poor and precarious societies. Being equal in poverty and precarity won’t be much of a progress, will it?

Our unusual preoccupation with inequality is symptomatic. Inequalities trouble us, they have become politically and socially significant, due to the proliferation of the invisible fragilities ubiquitous precarity engenders. It is precisely because we can no longer count on a strong public sector and social safety net that personal resources become so important – hence our outrage with inequalities. Having personal financial means becomes extremely important when public assistance is deficient. But whatever level of equality our societies achieve, without a strong public sector we will remain precarious. No one will ever be rich enough (except perhaps the top 1 percent, hence the rage against them) to afford good quality health care, as this requires enormous investment in research, education, and medical provision.

Generalised precarity has indeed become the social question of our time and requires urgent attention. I noted that the essence of precarity is not insecurity and uncertainty, but disempowerment. To counter precarity, we therefore need not so much policies that deliver stability, but public measures that foster empowerment. If precarity is a politically manufactured vulnerability, and this we must fight against policies that generate precarity, instead of attributing it to the complexity of modern life and advising its victims to accept the realities or to strengthen their resilience, as we hear it said too often these days.

Apart from building solidaristic communities of purpose and value (from trade unions to reading societies), that is, collectivities driven by cooperation rather than competition, empowerment can come from two directions: one is economic, the other political. First, we must fight against precarity by eliminating its economic source: the dominance of the profit motive in public policy, deepened by the policy commitment to competitiveness in the global economy, itself designed as a free market. Increased economic safety (stable livelihoods and solid commons) will eliminate the thirst for stability that breeds autocracy. We need a solid social protection system, not just a meager ‘safety net’. Tax the rich – yes, but not simply to equalize private resources, but to strengthen the commons. An industrial policy, yes: but not a policy that subsidizes private companies with public funds and thus allocates the gains to private economic actors while society bears the costs, but a policy that builds public companies to serve the public.

We find ourselves at a rather strange historical juncture: the desire for change is evident, we know exactly what needs to be done, but society, exhausted by precarity, does not have the energy to act. The importance of socially responsible governance by political actors – from governments to social movements is therefore crucial. The reduction in inequality that occurred in high-income countries between the 1930s and 1970s was largely because social movements pushed the state to play a greater role in protecting the vulnerable. This vulnerability has become omnipresent. We all need to up our game accordingly.



  • Azmanova, Albena. 2022. “Six ways to misunderstand precarity: Reflections on social angst and its political offspring”, Emancipations 1:3, article 2.
  • Azmanova, Albena. 2021. “Populism and the Recasting of the Ideological Landscape of Liberal Democracies,” in M. Oswald (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Populism. Palgrave Macmillan; pp. 379–385.
  • Azmanova, Albena. 2020a. Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia, New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.
  • Azmanova, Albena. 2019. “The Paradox of Emancipation: Populism, Democracy, and the Soul of the Left”, in Philosophy and Social Criticism 45/9-10 (2019): 1186-1207.
  • Azmanova, Albena. 2020b. “Anti-Capital for the XXIst Century (on the metacrisis of capitalism and the prospects for radical politics),” Philosophy and Social Criticism 46/5: 601-612.
    Azmanova, Albena. 2017. “The Crisis of ‘the Crisis of Europe’,” in Ash Amin and Philip Lewis (eds.) European Union and Disunion. London: British Academy: 41-46.
  • Azmanova, Albena. 2012. “Social Justice and Varieties of Capitalism: An Immanent Critique,” New Political Economy 17/4: 445-463.
  • Azmanova, Albena and Howard, Bethany. 2021. Binding the Guardian: On the European Commission’s Failure to Safeguard the Rule of Law. (Brussels: European Parliament)
  • Apostolidis, Paul. 2021. “Desperate Responsibility: Precarity and Right-Wing Populism,” Political Theory (January 2021)
  • Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage
  • Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.
  • Frankfurt, Harry G. 2015. On Inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, p. 13-30 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970).
  • WJP. 2023. Rule of Law Index, World Justice Project  (accessed 18 November, 2023).

Albena Azmanova‘s most recent book is Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020), and with James Chamberlain (eds.), Capitalism, Democracy, Socialism: Critical Debates (Springer, 2022).

Insecurity, Not Inequality

In 2016 both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran populist campaigns attacking mainstream parties and elites, trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, and job loss to globalization more generally. Both promised to restore working-class and middle-class jobs that had been atrophying since the 1970s. There were also major differences. Trump demonized minorities and unleashed an endless stream of racist and anti-immigrant invective. Sanders did not. Sanders campaigned on universal Medicare and free college for all. Trump did not.

Both garnered what was at the time astonishing traction. Trump vanquished sixteen Republican contenders and went on to win the Republican nomination and then the Presidency. Sanders didn’t do as well, but he gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money. He won 43.1 percent of Democratic primary voters to her 55.2 percent and underscored her image as an out-of-touch member of the privileged Eastern elite, in the pocket of Goldman Sachs, and agent of the globalist policies that were eroding middle-American incomes and prospects.

There was one other notable difference between the two campaigns. Sanders railed endlessly against inequality, particularly the obscene accumulations of wealth and the astronomical incomes of the top one percent and even the top zero point one percent, calling for aggressively redistributive policies. Trump boasted endlessly about his wealth (even exaggerating it) and never mentioned inequality, let alone promise to reduce it. Yet he still managed to garner 63 million votes in the general election, a third of which came from voters below the median income for a family of four ($50,000), a third from voters with family incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, and only a third above that.

Many factors account for the different fortunes of the two campaigns, but here I want to concentrate on this last one: Trump’s myopic focus on economic loss and insecurity as distinct from Sanders’s preoccupation with inequality, and in particular on the wealth of people at the top. This insecurity has been getting more extreme for decades in all the capitalist economies. It has more to do with the advent of populist politics in many countries than has been appreciated – especially on the political left. Understanding it is vital for thinking about the best political response.

The catalyst for these recent populist eruptions was the elite-centered response to the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath (bailing out the banks and other financial institutions while doing comparatively little for those most badly hurt), but economic insecurity has been compounding since the 1970s. It has had four related causes: the disappearance of industrial jobs with the transition to service economies that provide lower paying and less stable jobs for most people, increased capital mobility due to globalization, the technological revolution, and the decline in the size and political power of trade unions.

Until the 1970s, most people in the older capitalist democracies spent their entire working lives in one job working for one employer. This ended with the baby boom generation. Today, on completing their education most workers will change jobs between twelve and fifteen times over their working lives. Moreover, only three or four of these changes are when they are in their early twenties (and perhaps accounted for things like college jobs). Most people will have to find new jobs multiple times throughout their working lives. This change has been most pronounced for middle-aged men, who used to have the most secure long-term employment of all demographic groups.

This doesn’t matter for everyone. Someone on the upside of the information revolution might graduate from an elite college, spend a few years consulting at somewhere like McKinsey or as an associate at a hedge fund or investment bank, or perhaps work in a few startups while paying off student loans and accumulating significant savings. Then they might get an MBA or other professional degree which creates access to new networks and opportunities. For them, changing jobs is moving from one lucrative opportunity to another.

But for the vast majority of working and – increasingly – middle-class workers, it’s an opposite reality: growing vulnerability and downward mobility. Full-time employment with union protections and good benefits gives way to intermittent or part-time employment with fewer or no benefits, working as an “independent contractor” in low-paying low-status service sector jobs. And they see no end in sight. In a historic first for the US, most people doubt that their children will do as well as them. Expectations of upward mobility were never as strong elsewhere in the older democracies as those embodied in the American Dream, but there is little reason to anticipate that many of them will do better.

Aggregate statistics show family incomes in the bottom 90 percent as stagnant in real terms since the 1970s, but that ignores the widespread move from one- to two-breadwinner households over that period. Most people are working harder and paid less to stay in the same place, and they do not save. They have virtually no margin for error. In 2022, 37 percent of Americans reported that they would be unable to find $400 for an emergency without borrowing it – up by 5 percent on the previous year and by 13 percent since 2013. People living in this world are one or two paychecks away from having their car repossessed, not to mention losing their home.

One indication that this insecurity is more potent, politically, than the endlessly documented rise in inequality is that right-wing populists like Trump and the far-right parties in Europe are picking up most of their support from less educated working- and lower middle-class voters. Social democratic and other traditionally left-of-center mainstream parties like the British Labour Party and the American Democrats rely increasingly on government workers and college-educated elites in high end service sector occupations like university teaching and financial services. They value the technical expertise that populists despise. They have mostly been incredulous that these economically vulnerable voters support parties and politicians that ignore inequality in favor of ethnic nativism or even – as with Trump – enact regressive tax policies once in power.

It’s hardly news that workers seldom display much class solidarity. Marx was surprised that the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848 didn’t morph into revolutionary politics. As he rethought his theory in the basement of the British Museum, he and Engles eventually began flirting with “the parliamentary road to socialism” – hoping that the workers would do at the ballot box what they had not done at the barricades. When they failed even to do that and many of them even supported fascist movements in the 1930s, neo-Marxists and critical theorists posited one theory after another to explain the failure of class consciousness to materialize – from “the authoritarian personality” to “the relative autonomy of ideology,” to class relations being determinative only “in the last instance.” Liberal intellectuals in the non-Marxist tradition have often been no less incredulous when working-class voters fail to act in their class interest, demanding to know: What’s the Matter with Kansas!

There have always been skeptics. Many have noticed that it’s easier to mobilize political support with appeals to nationalism or national liberation, ethnicity, and other tribal forms of identification than universalist ideals like equality, socialism, democracy, or human rights. Benjamin Disraeli championed expanding the franchise in 1867 because he believed that the Tories would benefit from the conservatism of the English lower orders who the Liberals disdained. His Times obituary summed it up:

“In the inarticulate mass of the English populace which they held at arm’s length he discerned the Conservative working man, as the sculptor perceives the angel prisoned in a block of marble.”

It turned out to be a pretty good bet. The Second International collapsed in 1916 after it failed to persuade European workers that they had no interest in fighting one another in national armies. That was a portent of things to come. Even after World War II, workers in capitalist democracies voted in significant numbers for social democracies, but these never became way stations on a path to socialism – let alone communism. And the resurgent conservatism that began in the 1980s garnered significant lower middle-class and even working-class support.

Egalitarians today who think they will achieve change by pointing to the top one percent are preaching to the converted. They are unlikely to mobilize anyone who does not agree with them already. In this respect, economists who study inequality do the left a disservice by focusing so much attention on the returns to capital of the very rich and calling for new political institutions with broad redistributive powers. Outside their usual constituencies, they are shouting at the wind.

It’s not that people abjure invidious comparisons; they don’t. But the evidence from anthropology, sociology, and social psychology is that they compare themselves to similarly situated others. Auto workers compare themselves to steel workers, not to their CEOs. This is true up and down the socio-economic ladder. A professor will be much more upset to learn she earns $10,000 less than the professor down the corridor than to learn that she earns $500,000 less than the attorney down the street. Knowledge about what others have does move people, but it must be about others who are close to their lived experience – what philosophers refer to as knowledge by acquaintance rather than knowledge by description. Otherwise, the empathy gulfs are just too big. There is some evidence that people who live in heterogeneous communities demand redistribution more than those in homogeneous ones. But in a world that is increasingly stratified by geography and media habits as well as race, ethnicity, occupation and income, the prospects for far-reaching egalitarian demands are – if anything – receding. And vulnerable people focus first and foremost on their vulnerability, not the success of others.

The thesis that fear and insecurity trump other sources of human motivation has been around at least since Hobbes wrote Leviathan. And we know from Kahneman and Tversky that it need not be fear of destitution. Anticipating losing anything of value leads people to violate basic canons of economic rationality – even to forgo larger possible gains. As the experience and fear of loss that has been creeping up the socio-economic ladder accelerates due to the technological revolution, those who appeal to that fear will keep finding it easy to mobilize political support.

Activists and aspiring leaders ignore this reality at their peril. The brilliance of “Make America Great Again!” and Trump’s Inaugural slogan “American Carnage Stops Right Here, Right Now!” was their premise that something had been taken away from middle Americans that he would stop and reverse. Hillary Clinton’s recycling Ronald Reagan’s “America’s Best Days Lie Ahead!” was tone deaf to their world. Reagan used it effectively in 1980. But that was just at the beginning of what would become decades of working- and middle-class economic stagnation. In 2016, invoking that sunny optimism signaled that she lived in a bubble.

The identity politics that populists invoke and many on the left are reluctant to criticize operates as a giant diversion from the underlying causes of economic insecurity and the remedies that are needed to address it: substantial and ongoing investments in rebuilding the human capital of displaced workers for the endlessly changing economy we now live in and meaningful safety nets that guarantee health insurance, childcare, and adequate retirement income regardless of employment status. The best agenda for the left is to build as broad as possible a coalition of the economically precarious in support of these goals, not to get caught up in conflicts over affirmative action, gender, religion or other social issues. Failing to do this makes it more likely that the politics of the coming decades will be a replay of the 1930s. That didn’t end well, and there is no reason to believe that this would either.


Ian Shapiro is Sterling Professor of Political Science and Global Affairs at Yale University. He has written widely and influentially on democracy, justice, and the methods of social inquiry. His most recent book is The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It, with Michael Graetz (Harvard University Press, 2020). His new book, Uncommon Sense, will be published by Yale University Press in 2024.