Precarious Existence and Capitalism: A Permanent State of Exception

35 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2015

See all articles by Tayyab Mahmud

Tayyab Mahmud

Seattle University School of Law - Center for Global Justice

Date Written: April 21, 2015


The contemporary neoliberal era is marked by an exponential expansion of contingent and precarious labor markets. In this context, the construct of precarity emerged to signify labor conditions of permanent insecurity and precariousness. Coming at the heels of the era of Keynesian welfare, precarity is mostly seen as an exception to the normal trajectory of capitalist formations. The basic argument of this paper is that under capitalism, for the working classes precarious existence is the norm rather than the exception. Precarity is the outcome not only of insecurities of labor markets but also of capital’s capture and colonization of life within and beyond the workplace. Commodification, the primary logic of capitalism, unavoidably engenders destruction, disruption, dislocation, insecurity, vulnerability, susceptibility to injury and exploitation. For non-capital-owning classes, precarious existence, both as condition of labor and as ontological experience, is the natural and enduring result. Precarity, like capitalism, unfolds on different spatial, temporal and embodied registers differentially. Consequently, the scope and quantum of precarity engendered by capitalism varies across space and time. This differential and variation result from differing levels of commodification, exploitation and colonization of life by capital. While precarity is an unavoidable historical and structural feature of capitalism, neoliberalism has expanded and deepened it. Along the scale of precarity in the era of neoliberal globalization, undocumented immigrant labor represents the condition of hyper-precarity.

Keywords: Capitalism, colonization, neoliberalism, labor, economy, class, commodification, migrant labor

Suggested Citation

Mahmud, Tayyab, Precarious Existence and Capitalism: A Permanent State of Exception (April 21, 2015). Southwestern University Law Review, 2015, Forthcoming; Seattle University School of Law Research Paper No. 15-12. Available at SSRN:

Tayyab Mahmud (Contact Author)

Seattle University School of Law - Center for Global Justice ( email )

901 12th Avenue, Sullivan Hall
P.O. Box 222000
Seattle, WA n/a 98122-1090
United States

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