Published by Taylor & Francis Online, May 2023
Author: Niamh Mulcahy
This article considers the conceptual role that contingency plays in class-based inequality, by examining financial insecurity in the UK following the 2008 financial crisis, austerity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing on Althusser’s aleatory materialism, I counter postmodern and poststructuralist ideas of contingency as a universally disruptive challenge to power and stratification, showing instead how a pervasive sense of uncertainty drives working households into debt and diminishes savings, creating ongoing financial strain or poverty. Using Althusser’s concept of the ‘encounter’, I note how the emergence of consumer finance is historically contingent, but has become normalized in the wage relation. Financial risk, with its potential to yield high rewards for institutional investors and financial firms trading stocks, securities, and assets, amplifies uncertainty that working households face in socially reproducing themselves, because it forces those who draw an income as their main source of wealth to manage the potential risk of loss on an untradeable commodity. The encounter between financial institutions and working households is thus unevenly weighted, with precarious households unable to offload risk in unpredictable times. I connect this aleatory reading of inequality with Althusser’s earlier work on contradiction and overdetermination, to understand the implications of stratification on crisis and change.