Concern has been steadily mounting, across the globe, that a “world without jobs” is fast approaching. And that wage labor as we know it is disappearing. “Work,” it seems, “is not working, for ever more people, in ever more ways.”1 But there is little agreement about how, why, where, or in what measure this is actually happening. Or what might take the place of mass employment as the grounding of economy and society in the foreseeable future. Why do we – scholars, citizens, politicians, people at large – seem congenitally unable to think beyond a universe founded on wage labor, both proletarian and white collar? After all, capital has always striven to free itself of a dependency on that labor to the greatest extent possible – to the degree, as it is now becoming more commonplace to note, that wage work has been an ideal rather than an actuality for many, perhaps most, people at most times across the planet.
The implication? That paid employment has always been more or less precarious, always a living anachronism, always threatened by the possibility of erasure. Why, then, has it remained so central both to popular and to theoretical understandings, alike left and right, of life under capitalism (Denning 2010), all the more so amidst anxieties about its immanent demise? To be sure, work has been said to “dominate and pervade everyday life – especially in Britain and the US – more completely than at any time in recent history.”2 So what exactly is unique about the contemporary moment? As we fail to conceptualize an age after labor, we seem ever more to be haunted by nightmares of our own redundancy, by surreal images of a world in which value is produced by other means – or by workers who are simultaneously living-and-dead, present-and-absent, human-and-nonhuman: zombies, robots, mutant species, and other assorted humanoids. What does this tell us about the afterlife of homo faber?
Might we enrich our answers to these critical questions by moving beyond the Archimedean limits of Euro-America? The latter may be the source, and the ultimate horizon, of so much of our theory-work on capital and labor. But, we shall argue, a more comprehensive history of global capitalism must embrace the enduring entailment of the Euromodern world in its antipodean others – the source, after all, of much of its animating energies as well as labor power in its most precarious, most devalued, most dehumanized forms. It is a history, we shall see, whose southern past the north appears to be re-living in this, as in so many other, respects (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012; Beck 2000).3
In the late 1999’s, we wrote about the sudden appearance of zombies in the South African popular imagination (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999a). While it was foreshadowed in local figures of predatory evil, this specter took late modern shape at a particular moment, a moment when the already fragile infrastructure of black male working life had been threatened, quite abruptly, by a radically shrinking labor market. There was a cruel irony here: wage work, or at least a large proportion of it, was made superfluous at just the time when decolonization was supposed to transform the racial capitalism of apartheid into a social order that promised fair pay and a better life for all. The “transition to democracy” coincided here with a worldwide wave of neoliberal reform: reversing the high point, in the global north, of state-centered social welfare, regulation, and redistribution after World War 2 (see below), propertied elites sought to reassert their class interests against the rising power of labor on a planetary scale by pushing to liberalize capital, to open up free trade, to give the market full reign, and to champion the private sector (Harvey 2005).
As part of a rising hegemony, Western development agencies, under the so- called Washington Consensus, pressured governments in debt-strapped, emerging economies to outsource the functions of state, to open their borders to corporate capital, to accede to its demand for flexible, minimally protected labor, and to encourage processes of financialization – with dire consequences for most ordinary citizens (see e.g. Stiglitz 2002). In the upshot, post-authoritarian societies like South Africa experienced democratization as an ambiguous mix of enfranchisement and dispossession, simultaneous in- and exclusion; this as their new administrations sought to square liberal political freedom with the effects of mandatory laissez faire. In point of fact, global processes of deregulation had been gaining traction in such contexts since the 1970’s. But they accelerated appreciably in the 1990’s, when the dramatic decline in employment was accompanied by a surge of so-called “jobless growth.” As The Economist put it of South Africa, “the economy is doing nicely – but at least one person in three is out of work.”4
It was then that public talk about the intervention of an army of surrogate workers became audible: talk of an “invasion” of abject migrants (makwerekwere) who would take on any degrading job, and, more tentatively and even more abjectly, of ghostly beings raised from the dead, who toiled in a nocturnal economy for their avaricious owners. Zombies (dithotsela; also diphoko), specters that lacked speech and the animating qualities of personhood, bodied forth in popular rhetoric, song, media, even magistrate’s courts and industrial conflicts (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999a). They bore testimony to an occult force that appeared to exist “by sucking living labor” (Marx 1976:342; see also Carver 1998:14).5
Thus it was that wage work, at once valorized and rendered superfluous by the changing shape of the industrial economy, returned again in phantasmic guise, making inchoate threats to the established bases of human existence. Zombies, of course, have been a ghostly presence, a “profane illumination” (Benjamin 1978:179) one might say, throughout the long history capitalist modernity. Their historic associations with the predations of slavery and colonial extraction migrated into the US vernacular, probably during the occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1943, where they were transmogrified by the insatiable culture industry into the “scientifically-reanimated, undead”: cannibalistic consumers – rather than ravaged producers – who became versatile figurations, across the world, for various sorts of late modern monstrosity, predation, and horror.6 Not least, in this regard, were the rapacious effects of ever more arcane modes of accumulation; hence, in recent times, the circulating tropes of “voodoo economics,” “zombie banks,” and “zombie companies” (Kane 1992; Comaroff and Comaroff 2012:40);7 South Africa’s deeply indebted electrical supplier, Eskom, said to be “the world’s largest power utlility,” has been described as a “state-owned zombie apocalypse.”8 Adds Aditya Chakrabortty from the UK, “The undead maraud around our popular culture,” but “[they are] also us. Britain in 2018 is stalked by zombie ideas, zombie politicians, zombie institutions.”9
As the product of ghoulish greed, the zombie bears uncanny resemblance to other recent figures of proletarian undoing, like the genetically engineered “equisapiens” of Boots Riley’s luminous allegory of capitalist alchemy, Sorry to Bother You (2018). The human component of this hybrid species is not left to chance: it is black and male. In writing about racial capitalism Hylton White (n.d.), draws on Moishe Postone’s (1980) argument about anti-semitism and the figuration of the abstract power of capital: if Jews appear as the “racial body of money,” as “will without labor,” blacks are “labor without will…labour-in-itself: a brute biological force in need of mastery.” Riley’s “horse people” are the artifacts of WorryFree, a corporation that, in the words of critic Jordan Miner, is in the business of creating “creatures that are only valuable because of the extra labor” – the horse power – “they can produce.” Robots, he adds, “aren’t as efficient.”10 Shades here of the “animal spirits” that have appeared, variously, in theorizing the essence of man under capitalism, from Marx (1976:229ff), who associated them with the force that “heightens the efficiency” of the worker, to Keynes (1936:161-2), who saw them as “[the worker’s] spontaneous urge to action.”
The robot, patently, is the other great nemesis of homo faber in these times. A recent study, tellingly titled, “‘You’re Fired,’ Says the Robot,” describes the prevalence, in the American workplace, of “technophobia,” an anxiety-related syndrome centered on new technologies, most notably robotics and artificial intelligence (McClure 2018). Similarly anguished is a 2018 op-ed essay by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg.11 It features a prominent picture of the “first humanoid robot in South Africa” (Figure 1): the deceptively endearing “Pepper” has a map of Africa on its white metallic chest12 and the national colors around its neck. It stares intently into the eyes of its creator, a brown man, who apprehensively returns its gaze. Labor locks eyes with its mechanical replacement, whose artful, anthropomorphic form seems surplus to functional requirement. Like the zombie, the android, a robot in human form, re- presents, as a dialectical image, the figure of proletarian laborer both in the honor in the breach. Even as it is being rendered redundant, we remain entrapped in the fetishistic logic of wage work. It appears perpetually to come back, in archetypal human form, if only an agonistic measure of its effacement: an “estranged recognition” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2011:149), perhaps, of the fact that “it is capitalist accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant working population…” (Marx 1976:782; Denning 2010).
In one of his last essays, “Critical Theory and the Historical Transformations of Capitalist Modernity,” Moishe Postone (2017a:148ff) reiterated his long-standing disagreement with what he termed “traditional Marxism.” It concerned the role of labor under capitalism. Rather than the means by which humans transform nature to their purposes at all times and in all places, labor, he insisted, is a “form of mediation” peculiar to capitalism (p.149). Put more plainly, capitalism is an historical formation, one “in which labor” – proletarian labor, that is – is the iconic source of surplus value, and “the primary constituter of the social world” (Jay 1993:183). Marx’s own project, added Postone, was a critique of proletarian labor aimed not at its realization in unalienated, meliorated guise, but at its total overcoming. Read from this vantage, capitalism could not be transcended by way of a more equitable distribution of the fruits of industrial manufacture or by the collective seizure, on the part of workers, of surplus value. Both would leave existing relations of production intact.13 They would leave intact, too, the so-called “treadmill” that drives forward the process of accumulation and, hence, the contradiction at the core of capitalist modernity: that, with technological and other advances, proletarian labor becomes “increasingly anachronistic” (Postone 2017b:50), increasingly irrelevant to the generation of wealth or to brute productivity – and yet it remains essential to the economic system of which it is a constitutive part. And to its endogenous sense of how value is to be created.
Thus it is that, historically, capitalism “ceaselessly generates what is ‘new,’ while regenerating what is the ‘same’,” moving beyond the necessity of proletarian labor while continuing to assert its indispensability (2017b:48,50). While it may produce the possibility, out of its own internal workings, of giving way to other kinds of social system, to different social formations, it seems systematically to prevent their realization. Thus it is, too – and here we add our own gloss on Postone’s statement of the contradiction, and its anticipation in Marx’s concern with the deskilling, devaluation, and demise of labor14 – that, as wage work comes under threat, it typically returns in refigured, re-imagined, dehumanized forms. Among them, as we note in our opening fragments, are the specters of the zombie, the android, the mutant: the laborer who requires no pay, whose toil is pure surplus value, who has the bodily form of a human worker but none of the needs. A ghostly figure of human labor under erasure this, one that simultaneously retains its original meaning, says Derrida, yet is “rub[bed] out” (Anderson 2012:4; cf. Derrida 1976:61; Comaroff and Comaroff 1999b:290). But the zombie, an illumination from the suppressed underside of the long story of capitalism, also makes evident something more: the invisible story of disenfranchised, racialized labor born of historic plunder and imperial dispossession. Labor ab initio deemed deskilled, devauled, archaic. And frequently, wageless.
Modern conceptions of work, whatever their provenance, tend toward the metaphysical. However prosaic and utilitarian their definition of material production, they draw on the suppressed theological roots of liberal thought that takes labor to be a defining attribute of human being, the capacity that permits the species to separate itself from nature, acquire property, make history, and reach for the gods. Marx (1976:127) was not alone in seeing labor as the essence of an “exclusively human” ability, a mindful practice. But, like Postone after him (above, p.0), he also insisted that, in its prevailing proletarian form, it is the unique product of capitalism; an historical paradox this, given, as we noted earlier, that capital, under the sign of producing value, has always sought to free itself from its dependency on wage work by alienating and discounting it, by maximizing the surplus extracted from it, by quite literally dehumanizing it.
This paradoxical proposition – that labor is essential to the ontology of human life under capitalism, and yet is undone, at the same time, by the conditions under which it has evolved – is critical to any understanding of the history of the past in the present. And to contemporary debates about the nature of work and its futures.15 Not only was wage employment, for the most part, a consequence of dispossession but, in the world at large, wagelessness has always been more common than paid labor (e.g. Denning 2010; Broad 2014:214). That said, Romantics early and late have insisted on a vision of toil that transcends instrumental function: it is artful, ethical, redemptive (Hughes 2007). Liberal and Marxist thinkers, too, have evinced a sense of its intrinsically moral aspect (Weeks 2011:12; Muehlebach 2012). But they have tended to sustain a more restricted, normative conception of work as a materially productive, remunerated activity. Feminists, by contrast, see this normative conception as irredeemably masculinist, blind to the essential productivity of unpaid domesticity and its contribution to the generation of wealth (Federici 1975; Coulson et al 1975; Beneria 1981).16 Scholars of racial capitalism (Wolpe 1972; Alexander 1979; Robinson 1983), moreover, have shown how the structural articulation of gender and race has served to devalue and debase black labor by shifting the costs of its reproduction onto women, often rural women, operating mainly outside the market economy. Not only does this suggest that waged and unwaged toil are interdependent and alike socially necessary; hence the coining of hybrids like “peasantariat” (e.g. Parson 1984) or “semi-proletariat” (e.g. Wallerstein 1976; Broad 2014:220f.) to describe colonial class formations. It also makes plain that modes of defining and classifying occupations are always ideological, mobilizing intersecting axes of difference (race, gender, age, civic status) and types of activity (skilled/unskilled, kin/market-based, affectivel/material) to prioritize, rationalize, and discriminate in the name of accumulation (cf. Bear et al 2015; Yanagisako 2012). Self-evidently, capital, colonial and metropolitan, past and present, has always been more diverse in its modes of operation than hegemonic narratives are wont to suggest. But the more general point is that the history of capitalism has reenacted, perennially if in different manifestations, the contradiction at its core, asserting the centrality of labor while discounting and disappearing much of it.
As we shall see, the proliferation of occupations, skills, and kinds of compensation attendant on the restructuring of capitalist production from the late twentieth century onward plays out much the same contradiction, the same counterpoint, in a different key. The labile routines, flexible (even “zero hour”) contracts, and deregulated modes of accumulation that comprise lives and livelihoods in the contemporary moment (Bear et al 2015; Calvão 2016) – their uncertainties, their precarities, their ruptured temporalities – may seem unprecedented. In the age of the “gig” economy, of rampant financialization, rising self-employment, and the waning market for formal jobs, they may appear to have emancipatory possibilities. Hence their celebration by “post-workists” (Frase 2016) seeking a “[life] beyond the colonizing power” of formal employment (Frayne 2015:67) and the daily grind of “bullshit jobs” (Graeber 2013); also by those who claim that more fluid, expansive, “intelligent” forms of labor might provide the basis for a new commons (Hardt and Negri 2004:109), a new “grammar of the multitude” (Virno 2004). But much of what look to be new sorts of occupation actually go back a long way – often unmarked, unremarked, unremunerated – only to return in the here-and-now in renamed, rebranded guise. The “flexibility” and “casualization” associated with the neoliberal moment merely puts a techno-economistic gloss – in the ostensible cause of efficiency, growth, profit, even creative disruption – on forms of job insecurity, piece work, un- and underemployment, corporate-friendly contracts, and the scanting of labor protections integral to the longue duree of capitalism (cf. Broad 2000); this notwithstanding its talk of the dignity of the wage. Take, for instance, emergent categories like “affective” and “immaterial” work. They may acknowledge feminist demands for recognition of the unwaged, largely invisible labor of domesticity, nurture, and social reproduction. But they also tend to sentimentalize the very nature of that labor. Which is deeply ironic, since it is precisely their sentimentalization – their “elevation” to the decommodified domain of the “priceless” – that has been key, historically, to the feminization of womens’ activities, their literal de-valuation, and their confinement to the “sacred” space of the home (Fedirici 2008; Bear et al 2015). What remains clear, however, is that being recognized as bona fide labor has not ensured that they are remunerated at anything remotely commensurate to the value they produce or the time invested in them.
In summary, then, what all this points to is a convergence of two processes whose entailment underlies the latest chapter in the unfolding relationship between capital and labor, its intrinsic contradiction, its working out in the “new” global economy – and our reading of this moment, both in theory and in its historical realization. One of those processes lies in the morphing planetary geography of labor. By recommissioning the structures of colonial extraction, corporate capital – facilitated by (more or less “captured”) states almost everywhere – has (re)constructed commodity chains in such a way as to decentralize, distanciate, fragment, and render mobile its sites of operation (cf. Broad 2014). [See brands and their surfeits; Nakassis] Already in the 1970’s, this was anticipated in what was called the New International Division of Labor (NIDL; Fröbel, Heinrichs, and Kreye 1980), a concept criticized at the time for ignoring the persistence of older metropolitan structures and their interpolation with emergent forms, but recently recuperated to take account of the intensified implications of techno-advanced, translocal manufacture on a global scale (Starosta 2016).17 As a result, what had hitherto been proletarian jobs in the nations of the north have migrated to southern reaches: postcolonial worlds erected on a mix of occasional (“flexible”?) contract work in the formal economy and various modes of value production in so-called informal economies (Hart 1973). Much of this activity, past and present, has been centered on the household and its surrounds, on extended (sometimes corporate) kin ties and feminized labor,18 on close social and religious networks, and on locality; a good deal of it involves petty commodity production, micro-marketing, “putting out” for industry elsewhere, and “penny capitalism” of one or another sort (e.g. Tax 1953), often implicating creative credit management (James 2015; see below). These are worlds in which material deficit imposes on individuals and families, especially women, an onus for multifaceted survival strategies. Such strategies, perforce, often include taking the cheapest, least protected, most insecure, most casualized employment made available by capital under conditions of maximal deregulation; this while simultaneously operating in the labile, flexi-environment of the informal sector. Here, at the frontier of “the race to the bottom,” both corporate capital and its rogue competitors – think blood diamonds, coltan, endangered species, narco-commerce – experiment most violently in their efforts to extract optimal returns. Consequently, fabrication tends to be reduced to its most elemental, to one operation in the commodity chain, paid minimally for each productive act and for nothing else. And likely to move on abruptly to another elsewhere, with little notice, if conditions favor doing so. As these sites open up for business, jobs and makeshift infrastructure migrate to them, putting northern labor in competition with, and displaced by, their more abject, more vulnerable antipodean counterparts.
This is where the second process enters the mis-en-scene. As the attenuation of the proletarian labor market has made itself felt in the global north – with our caveat that its economies have never been anywhere near fully proletarianized, always heavily dependent on transient workers and unpaid, feminized toil – there has arisen a lively facsimile of the informal sectors of the south. This creeping informalization, as formal work gives way to diverse kinds of casualization, is partly subsumed by the growing “gig” economy, partly by other “economies” to be described in detail later: such things as the sharing economy, the caring economy, the artisanal economy, the intimate economy (below, p.000ff.). These are neither proletarian nor regularly waged. They depend on deploying the vitalism of the human body, its capacities and it properties, as micro-capital that may be put to the purposes of accumulation: activity centered on the household and, more generally, the private sphere, thus to erase, ever more, the line between sites of production and reproduction, male and female, work and home, normatively separated with the rise of industrialization. And so the infrastructure and accoutrements of the domestic domain – cars, rooms, private computers, smartphones, the kitchen table – are turned into assets that yield disposable income, as may be hospitality and intimacy itself. And so everything becomes capital, in prospect or in practice, everything the object of financialization, including, maybe most of all, the neoliberal self. Of course, many of these tendencies toward the informal, broadly conceived, have always existed, more or less overtly if unmarked, in northern contexts as well. What has changed is their proportionate relation, in labor demographics, to formal wage employment, alike proletarian and white collar, domestic and migrant; their recognition as a measurably significant part of material, social, psychic, and ethical life; and, as we shall see, their partial reappropriation, through various sorts of so-called “platform” business, back into the formal sector that spun them off. In all these respects, patently, the global north is coming more and more to resemble the global south (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012), living its history, so to speak, as Secondhand Time (Alexievich 2017). Another instance this, perhaps, of Rancière’s (1999:113) claim that, under prevailing global conditions, we live the suppressed secrets of modernity shamelessly, unhidden; in this instance, to restate it in slightly different terms, the contradiction that modern capitalism is erected on the elemental necesssity of labor which, at the same time, it seeks constantly to devalue and displace to the point of redundancy.
This contradiction – played out recursively over the past centuries and across the entire world – is also manifesting itself, with rising intensity, in the experiential and political fabric of everyday life in the present continuous.
Thus, on one hand, almost everywhere, public discourse continues to speak as though a waged population remains the norm. Labor as the fons et origo of economy and society – the prime basis of social value, the first and last source of human dignity, the core of material and civic existence – has lost little of its idealized purpose. “Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end,” observe Cedarström and Fleming (2012) in Dead Man Working, a darkly provocative reflection on the zeitgeist of our times, “working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it.”19 If anything, growing anxieties about its precariousness have heightened its psychic centrality: a compulsive preoccupation with employment drives mainstream political manifestos, visions of education, and criteria of self-worth.20 Even the finance sector, where value is accumulated by means and instruments of ever greater abstraction – this by distancing itself as far as possible from manufacture and service, indeed from the commodity economy tout court, to which it denies any anchorage or point of reference – harks back to the language of labor: it refers to what it traffics in as “products,” as though they were commodities yielded by honest toil, to the profits it yields as “earnings,” and to itself as an “industry.”
This is hardly surprising: “Work is the primary means by which individuals are integrated not only into the economic system, but also into the social, political, and familial modes of cooperation,” notes Kathi Weeks (2011:8). It is ”a basic obligation of citizenship.” And, ethically if not legally, also something akin to a right. Hence statesmen everywhere speak in the promissory language of “bringing back jobs” in received proletarian and white collar guise; Donald Trump’s notorious fixation, in 2016 and after, on reviving the largely defunct US coal industry is symptomatic of the nagging impasse between the idealization of blue collar production in America and its cynical decommissioning – its simultaneous presence and ever more blatant erasure under pressures of profitability.21 For their part, voting publics respond by taking promises of job creation seriously; low unemployment is regularly invoked as both an objective and an achievable measure of effective governance – even if a job does not yield an income, a matter to which we shall return.
To be sure, whatever form it may take, however it may metamorphose, wage labor endures, with almost uncanny persistence, as the perceived basis of species-being. In the USA, notes Derek Thompson (2015), “[i]ndustriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and prominence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions.” Similarly in Britain, argues Joanna Biggs (2015:264), where labor gives life meaning “when religion, party politics and community fall away.”22 And not only in these places. Employment, a.k.a. “decent jobs” for its citizenry, is typically portrayed as the most critical function of the nation-state everywhere; hence the millennial prominence, in government manifestos – left and right, north and south, east and west – of putting “the people” back to work, despite the repeated failure to do so.23 Cyril Ramaphosa put it front and center in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to South Africa on 7 February 2019: “jobs” was the single most repeated word, used thirty-three times in a seventy-nine minute speech.24 Every previous president, in every SONA since 1994, has done the same thing, if not with the same stress-by-repetition.
On the other side of the contradiction is the rising apprehension that “the end of work” is already at hand, never again to be reversed. Almost quarter of a century ago, economist Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (1995) echoed that apprehension. It argued that “worldwide unemployment would increase as information technology eliminated tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors,” with a “devastating impact…on blue-collar, retail and wholesale employees.” It also resonated with the fear that “the workplace would become ever more stressful,”25 that corporate managers and knowledge workers might benefit but that the middle class would shrink, many of its jobs, perhaps proportionally more than proletarian ones, replaced by screens and machines.26 Rifkin’s thesis was greeted with a measure of scholarly skepticism (see e.g. Caffentzis 1998 ), among other things for its techno-determinism, for over-reading the effects on the job market of the factors he had identified while ignoring others, and for relying on a simplistic, normative conception of employment. But, like Richard Sennett’s (1998) account of changes in the structure of work-and-career at the hands of “corporate re- engineering”27 under the “new capitalism” – also Ulrich Beck’s bleak “destandardization of work” (1992) and the demise of “work society” (2000) – it captured a dawning American nightmare.
That nightmare is epitomized by a spreading rustbelt, where the flight of industry, the technicization of what remains, and the concomitant eclipse of labor have become iconic of economic, social, cultural breakdown. Hence the terrifying images, conjured up by the culture industry, sociological futurism, and social media, of haunted, cityscapes bereft of the assembly line and the punch card, dotted with derelict stores, boarded up schools, delapidated homes, and abandoned churches, criss-crossed by windswept, empty streets. In sum, a cadaver left behind as industrial capital moves away and what Soules (2014) has termed “zombie urbanism” takes its place, turning decay into revenant assets through financialization and the displacement of production to yet more precarious, exploitable elsewheres across the planet.
The anxiety that work is becoming anachronistic, that is under terminal threat, is anything but new. Like the fact of widespread wagelessness, it is as old as modernity itself. In the late sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth 1 refused to patent a knitting machine because it imperilled the jobs of “young maidens who obtain their daily bread” by handcraft;28 in the early 1800’s, English Luddites attacked the stocking frames that looked to devalue their skill and their livelihoods (Thomis 1970); and, in 1862, grain shovelers in the Port of New York demanded protection against the onslaught of elevators that rendered them redundant (Spann 2002:140). Similarly almost a century later: “Austerity policies, low wages and automation…were also of concern in the 1950s,” a Union Perspective Blog noted in 2015. But the head of the United Auto Worker’s Union, confronted by robots newly placed on the vehicle production line, had his own rather laconic response. He is said to have asked Henry Ford II, in 1952, “Henry how are you going to get [those] robots to buy your cars?”29
Economists might speak of the “Luddite fallacy,” insisting that, rather than displacing skills or destroying occupations, new technologies merely realign existing divisions of labor, often to positive effect. But this hardly accounts for the social and existential dislocation – and the capricious trade off of lives, careers, and futures – occasioned by the radical reorganization of work. Witness, most recently, the felt effects across the world of casualization, outsourcing, and mechanization; of the polarization of employment markets within and between nations; and of the reduced quality of so many waged jobs. Hence Cedarström and Fleming’s “dead man working”; it evokes precisely the sort of fear-inducing zombification with which we began. In what Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) call the Second Machine Age, artificial intelligence and “brilliant” machines have changed the name of the game: they have colonized even some of the most creative, most intuitive professions – from medical diagnostics through criminal detection to musical composition – formerly assumed to be reserved for “humans only” (Thompson 2015). Recall here the fate of horses, once regarded as second only to homo sapiens in their indispensability to divers forms of material production.30 No species, it seems, has the cunning, capacities, or nobility to be secure from the relentless quest for better, more worry-free returns on labor time. Remember, here, those indentured equisapiens from the spooked imagination of Boots Riley (above, p.00): corporate capital might yet find the body of the post-worker, in whole or in part, more lucrative than a mechanical alternative.
Since the 1990s, as our opening fragment suggests, angst about the impact on wage labor of the knowledge economy and of robotics – as well as other AI and techno-developments – has taken on hyperbolic proportions. A widely publicized report by McKinsey Global Institute (2017),31 for example, based on research in forty-six countries, has it that 800m jobs will be lost to robotics alone by 2030; less cited is a passage (p.3) adding that this does not necessarily mean mass unemployment, allowing for shifts in population demography – and, as Thompson (2015) notes for Youngstown, Ohio, iconic in the US for the end of work, the move of the unwaged into other forms of occupation. In equally agitated vein, an Oxford University study forecast, in 2013, that “machines might soon be able to perform half of all US jobs” (ibid.). The anxieties provoked by all this, filtered through social media, are especially acute at the already marginal edges of industrial workforces: among people of color, immigrants, those with limited knowledge capital and digital literacy. Thus a lively, all female YouTube discussion on “Black People vs. Robots,” curated in January 2019 by Data for Black Lives.32 Debate dwelled on the particular vulnerability of African American women, whose gains in personal service jobs since the 1970’s – in sales, transit, bank- telling – have proved especially vulnerable to automation. No sooner had these gains been realized, it was noted, than they were lost again; shades here of the newly enfranchised black South African laborers after apartheid, recognized and reduced to redundancy in a single stoke. The value calculations that drive investments in new technologies seldom factor in the social or material costs of human disposability, let alone their psychic effects. Typically, the loss of work – like falling wages and reduced pensions and other benefits33 – is blamed instead on the inefficiency, or the “unreasonable” wage demands, of the workers themselves.
The precarity of workers at the margins, their structural impermanence in the formal economy, links them to other historically mobile wage laborers: migrants, currently the object of moral panic pumped, in many quarters, by neonationalist politics. Alike in Europe (see e.g. Pijpers 2006), the USA and UK,34 and the global south (e.g. Gordon 2014), these “transients” are popularly thought to seize the jobs of deserving citizens – despite the fact that they are essential to the reproduction of national economies, as Brexit Britain, circa 2019, is fast discovering.35 [Lack of labor is actuall driving emchaniszation in the US, where it is held by ovserers to be less efiicient than human labor. Primed in large part by nostalgic imaginings of homogenous, sovereign political communities, secured against the negative effects of global laissez-faire, these visions evoke a world that never really existed: societies composed of gainfully working members, each according to their abilities. But metropolitan Europe and the US – indeed, capitalist econom ies from their beginnings, as Cedric Robinson (1983) so carefully showed – have always rested on their seamy, suppressed undersides: their shadowy, unfree workers (Calvão 2016), a mass of paupers, in a technical sense, sans permanent jobs or independent means of subsistence (cf. Jones 1971).These were not enslaved and colonized populations abroad, but the semi-indentured back home, usually people from the edges of empire who have been kept well away from sites of secure, formal employment in both industrial and post-industrial times. [as one observer from agribusinee recently obsreved: farm work/food production across the world is in the hands of immigrants.] This reinfoces yet again the fact that it is leess naked economic determinism, but the complex ideological cast of modern captalism that is a key driver: capital strives to free itself from human labor by non-human productive means. The obsession with robotics…even where humans are more efficient…[NYT)
How, then, is the contradiction at the core of the relationship between capital and labor – in both its theoretical/historical and its experiential/pragmatic registers – addressed and resolved in the these, our troubled times? Why do received forms of work, rendered anachronistic, redundant, and/or surplus to contem porary requirement, nonetheless remain their elemental (“ontological”?) significance at the core of late modern capitalism? And why do they keep returning, often in metamorphosed, sometimes spectral, guise. How, more broadly, are we to think an anthropology of labor under capitalism for the twenty-first century?
How, then, is the contradiction at the core of the relationship between capital and labor – in both its theoretical/historical and its experiential/pragmatic registers –addressed and resolved in the these, our troubled times? Why do received forms of work, rendered anachronistic, redundant, and/or surplus to contem porary requirement, nonetheless remain their elemental (“ontological”?) significance at the core of late modern capitalism? And why do they keep returning, often in metamorphosed, sometimes spectral, guise. How, more broadly, are we to think an anthropology of labor under capitalism for the twenty-first century?
How, then, is the contradiction at the core of the relationship between capital and labor – in both its theoretical/historical and its experiential/pragmatic registers – addressed and resolved in the these, our troubled times? Why do received forms of work, rendered anachronistic, redundant, and/or surplus to contem porary requirement, nonetheless remain their elemental (“ontological”?) significance at the core of late modern capitalism? And why do they keep returning, often in metamorphosed, sometimes spectral, guise. How, more broadly, are we to think an anthropology of labor under capitalism for the twenty-first century?
A historical parenthesis at this point, albeit a rather important one. It comes again courtesy of Moishe Postone (2017b:40-1) who, following Piketty (2014) and others, reminds us that the history of inequality, over the past century, has not been linear. To the contrary, it has fluctuated visibly, in consonance with other economic indices. After a period of deepening inequality in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there came a period, around the middle of the twentieth, during which it was sharply reduced, only to be followed by a reversal from the early 1970s: a resurgent, ever more extreme skewing of wealth and political power. This trajectory, he notes, was global, its three periods marked by a distinctive trend in average rates of economic growth: relatively low and slow in the first, more than doubled in the second, and decreasing palpably in the third. The pattern is clear: both growth and per capita GDP rose, especially in the middle phase, as wages increased and levels of inequality dropped; conversely, both have waned as wages have stagnated and levels of inequality risen. Since 1973, Postone adds, standards of living have fallen observably for the majority of Americans – and, he might have added, for many across the planet, both north and south – as income gaps have widened. That optimal second period, post-World War 2, is the one associated, in the archaeology of capital, with state- centric Fordism, underpinned by a Keynesian ideology of economic management. And by sanguine imaginings, at least partly realized, of a world of full employment, workers’ rights, and comprehensive social welfare, extending to the protection of citizens against joblessness, homelessness, ill-health, and indigence.
A quick look at employment figures in this respect – figures that, as we shall argue, are to be read as much for what they hide as for what they reveal – is indicative. In the USA, for example, joblessness in the second half of the 1960s, when much more of the active population was counted than is the case today, never rose higher than 3.8%. In the early years of the Reagan administration, as the Fordist era gave way to the neoliberal, it rose above 8%; 10.8% in 1983.36 What is more, the African- American unemployment rate appears to have been roughly double that of whites for for those late twentieth-century decades.37 Likewise the UK, whose figures for 1945 to 1971 varied between 1.2% and 2.7%; it averaged a slightly higher 3.12% between 1952 and 1967. In 1983, under Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party, by sharp contrast, it reached a startling 12.9% (McGaughey 2018:5) – with blacks even more likely to suffer joblessness than in the US at the time.38 This is all the more striking in light of the fact that, in 1978, the Conservatives had unleashed an election slogan, designed by admen Saatchi and Saatchi, that proclaimed “Labour Isn’t Working.”39
Tellingly, the history of trade unions in the USA and UK echo these trends, although it is as well to keep in mind that a large proportion of the population working without formal wages has never been included in them (Denning 2010). In 1954, 34.8% of all American wage and salary workers were union members, a figure that went down to 20.1% in 1983, soon after the attack on labor by the Reagan administration. It now stands at 11.3%.40 The power of the British unions, at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, was radically eroded during the 1980s at the behest of rising Thatcherism and its corporate backing. As archives released thirty years later show, it set out quite explicitly to “crush” these politically influential organizations41 – although revisionist conservative media prefer to attribute their demise to globalization,42 while another, more technical, view has it that the high inflation of the 1970s created a superfluity of labor that greatly weakened them.43 The ironies here are unmistakeable.
If growth and GDP are taken to be significant indices of material well-being, both the US and the UK were at their healthiest during times when jobless rates were at their lowest, labor unions at their strongest, and inequality at its most attenuated; times, also, when the vision prevailed of an international order of new “developing” nations, aspiring to forge liberal modern economies and democratic societies in the aftermath of colonialism. Of course, there are any number of contingencies that affect fluctuations in employment and inequality, among them inflationary cycles, recessionary pressures, market “corrections,” and political upheavals. But our point does not lie in the specificity of these numbers. It lies in the fact that they speak, if tacitly, to a historical consciousness that recalls the post-W orld War 2 decades, in respect of national economies and societies, in a particular way.
Those post-World War 2 decades – the coming-of-age years of the still powerful “baby boomer” generation – sustains a paradigmatic presence in the sociological imagination. This, in many ways, was the moment at which liberal democratic modernity, as retrospectively remembered, reached its zenith: at which talk of the Great Society, in its various global northern variants, appeared most persuasive; at which poverty and insecurity seemed to recede in the face of the norm of lifelong employment; at which the struggle for civil rights and the recognition of difference, most notably in respect of race and gender, looked like it had made permanent advances. But hiding in the plain sight, just off camera, there lurked persisting forms of exclusion, inequity, and injustice: in the impoverished black ghettos of US inner cities, for example, and the bleak estates of Northern Ireland; in the poorer reaches of immigrant England, the target of xenophobic outbreaks; in the violent theaters of neoimperial warfare in Southeast Asia and in innumerable other places. Recall that Martin Luther King was in Memphis, in early 1968 before his assassination, in support of a strike of African American sanitation workers, protesting their deadly dangerous, poorly paid, minimally protected jobs.
Some saw, in these sites of immiseration, near and far, the possibility of popular struggle against the structures of capitalist power across the West; to wit, C. Wright Mills’ “Letter to the New Left” in New Left Review of September-October, 1960, and the subsequent rise of mass socialist and black power movements. But the superpowers themselves were avidly pursuing Cold War proxy battles for control over nominally independent postcolonial nations, the latter increasingly peripheralized by those setting the terms of international commerce; at the same time, those powers also took pains to crush dissent at home, ascribing it to “foreign interference” attendant on Cold War antagonisms and/or to communist provocateurs. And all the while, in tandem, there was a mounting resurgence of conservative forces that decried any kind of welfare state regime – in the US, New Deal liberalism, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, labor driven socialism – as an unfortunate and dangerous development that undermined individual freedom and pointed towards totalitarianism (Goldwater 1960). And so ended the post-war period, with its aspirations to etatist social democracy. From the 1970’s onward, as we noted earlier, those conservative forces were to capture the political center and push ideological orthodoxy in a contrary direction. Capital responded to the gains made by organized labor and civil rights activism in Euro-America in the mid-twentieth century by devising new free trade mechanisms under a “program of global restructuring…oriented toward altering labor markets and the organization of work” (Broad 2014:215). And so the long, dialectical struggle between capital and labor entered its latest chapter: wherever it could, the former, embodied in an ever more powerful corporate sector, pushed for privatization, deregulation, labor-free financialization, reduced legal liability, and policies of austerity at home – and reconfigured, flexibilized, outsourced production abroad, to places where workers were more abject and less protected.
Still, for all the reverses that have occurred since, the postwar conjuncture continues, in critical respects, to be the normative template against which social expectations tend to be measured, even as the gap between those expectations and reality grows with every passing year. And so it remains plausible to speak, in the future perfect tense, of mass employment and the possibility of secure salaried work for all (see below, p.00) – undergirded by a modernist mythos honed in an age in which labor seemed to approach the most equitable pact possible with capital, in which, as we have said, the liberal idyll appeared within reach. It is a mythos that lingers even as, for more and more people, its promise disappears into the realm of the unreachable, the unreal. And gradually, especially for rising generations, the unthinkable.
Which takes us back into realities present, into the present continuous now almost fifty years in the making, a neo-present without a foreseeable denouement.
Simply put, how, then, are we to read the planetary geography of labor, its empirical lineaments, in the here-and-now? Has work really come to the “end” of (its) history? Self-evidently, many people do still toil in the manufacturing and service sectors of both the global north and the global south. And, with ongoing shifts in the ecology of production, new jobs are created. The low official unemployment figures for most Euro-American nation-states – which we are soon to deconstruct – make that much plain, even if they do not speak to the nature of those jobs.
[[In the global south, long home to a thoroughly racialized colonial capitalism, extractive industries, factories, and sweatshops continue to hire people who have no alternative but to be exploited, people whose labor has never been remotely “free,” whose effective indenture has displaced a rising proportion of Euro-American wage earners. As this reminds us, the imbrication of the south and the north in this respect – long written into the deep history of empire – has intensified since the 1970s with the space-time compression of the global economy (Harvey 1990); specifically, with the increasing velocity and brutality with which capital has taken to extracting labor, land, and resources (mostly) from debt-strapped postcolonies rendered accessible and vulnerable by so-called “structural adjustment.” Hence, for example, the indivisible the link, as Fedirici (2008) notes, between the post-industrial computer worker in Silicone Valley and the pauperized digger of coltan, essential to digital technology, in war-torn Eastern Congo; and, more extemely, the disemployed US garment worker and the lowly child laborer in Cambodia.44 ]]
At the same time, as we have intimated, the mechanization, modularization, and dispersal of wage work has served its devaluation by allowing production to be parceled out, geographically: in the age of the “planetary labor market,” observes Mark Graham,45 “millions of jobs can now be done from almost anywhere on Earth,” even at the level of the micro-task. enabling firms to take advantage of what has been called “the global reserve army” on a “per-click” rather than a per-person basis. Employees in remote reaches of rural Central Africa may work in some of the twenty-first century’s most advanced tech industries, carrying out routine tasks – like basic data recognition and classification – that machines cannot yet perform. These workers are components of an overall process about which they are told practically nothing, including the fact that the very tasks they are performing are likely soon to render them and their kind redundant. And while, in theory, the flexibility of geographies of production could distribute the opportunity to work across the world, in practice, says Graham, they exert “huge downward pressure on wages and working conditions” everywhere; Kaushik Basu (2016:3) – just one voice in a fast growing literature aptly dubbed “Globalization, Labor Markets, and Inequality” (Dadush and Shaw 2012a; a) – refers to this effect of planetary articulation as “labor-linking.” It is no accident, in this light, that the make-shift, open-air factory described by Graham is located deep in the Central African countryside: long histories of violent extraction in colonial contexts, as we have already intimated, have always been the underside of the Euromodernist romance of free labor. Postcolonial work often survives, in the age when labor migrates with less friction than people,46 because African workers are often still cheaper than machines. Even quite highly skilled workers, as Nina Sylvanus (n.d.) shows, may remain less costly to capital than their robotic replacement – as they are in African ports,47 where, unlike in, say, Hamburg or Rotterdam, crane operators have not been substituted by nonhuman “solutions.” At least not for now.
In other words, partly because of the globalization and reorganization of productive work, partly because of the way that capital has come to redefine its relationship to labor and technology, secure, emplaced employment in advanced industrial societies – the sort on which, ideologically at least, livelihoods, social benefits, long-term career trajectories, and local communities were thought to be founded until fin de siècle – has given way everywhere, north and south, to a quite different regime. Whether more or less people are actually “employed” (whatever that may mean today),48 whether there are more or less jobs (however they may be defined), the corporate capture of the state, financialization and deregulation, the rising hegemony of the market, and the re-articulation of the planetary economy have led to an ever greater proportion of received forms of work likely to migrate abruptly to more exploitable sites, to be mechanized, to be casualized, to be reduced to piecemeal (“per unit” or “per click”) operations – or, in the case of extractive industries, to be displaced when its products, like diamonds, are made by new synthetic means.49 Either way, as it has become commonplace to note, real remuneration under the new regime tends either to be largely static or liable to downward pressure,50 open to wage theft by corporations or labor brokers, and perennially uncertain.51 Which compels workers, class and race and gender and generation notwithstanding, to become entrepreneurs- or contractors-of-the-self: responsibilized, risk-bearing persons, possessed of their species being-as-capital; neoliberal subjects, that is, of the sort characterized by Foucault in The Birth of Biopolitics (2008) – and as anticipated in the post-Keynesian economics epitomized early on by Gary Becker’s Human Capital (1964).
For those who find it difficult to remain in the conventional workforce, or to find a “traditional” job – rising numbers across the world, uncounted in national statistics (see below), have stopped trying – the pursuit of alternate means of securing an income presents itself as a matter of brute survival. This may be especially so in the global south, although it is increasingly true of the north as well; after all, “of those who are employed, 60% world-wide are in temporary, part-time or short-term work with falling wages” (Fouksman 2017a:28). In South Africa, for example, according to The Economist, a startling 870,000 formal sector jobs were lost in 2009 alone despite solid economic growth;52 this in the wake of the severe attrition of the labor market over the longer run (Seekings and Nattrass 2005). Yet wageless black South Africans, around 27% of whom are officially unemployed,53 have found creative ways to husband Money from Nothing (James 2015), and, even more, to make a living, albeit often a spare one, from an astonishingly wide range of activities (Steinberg 2013);54 Furthermore, as research has repeatedly shown, most of them sustain a strong desire to find employment and thereby join the salariat (e.g. Ferguson 2015:40; Fouksman 2017b:4; Dubbeld n.d.:22; cf. Barchiesi 2007); this amidst ongoing public debate, echoed in other countries too, over the politics of distribution, the social necessity of cash transfers, and the un/desirability of a basic income grant for citizens who, argues James Ferguson (2015), are owed a “rightful share” of the national wealth (see also Fouksman 2017a:30).55 To wit, many proponents of these distributional transfers – or, as they are now being called in Italy, “citizens’ income” – link them to re-entry into the job market or into petty entrepreneurialism (a.k.a. self-employment), and hence celebrate them as an answer to the “end of work;”56 although, for his own part, Ferguson (2015:20) has it that “wage work…is not going to return.” Perhaps in proportion to its eclipse, wage labor, it seems, is being morally revalued as it is materially devalued. The former, its moral value, as we have noted, has its roots in the theological inscription of labor in the very fabric of modern capitalism; it appears to sustain itself, even to wax, in the age of the Moral Neoliberal (Muehlebach 2012; see above). Contemporary personhood, as this suggests, remains deeply invested in the dignity of work and the socio-psychological significance of an earned income (see e.g. Somavia 2015; Fouksman 2017b:4), all the more so as large numbers of (especially young) people in many parts are suspended in what has come widely to be known as “waithood,”57 a concept first developed in relation to one of Europe’s southern peripheries and now commonly used across the world.
[In the past, development economics tended to have a negative view of the informal economy, the so-called second economy, as impeding economic growth; they tried to merge the informal into the formal; in recent years the informal econ has been rebranded and revalorized as a “hidden engine…of growth” (Boyd on WIPO). Likewise, the World Bank now writes of artisanal mining, still criminalized in many parts of the world, as job creating. However, Emma Stuart et al say that “informal is the new normal”]
And so rising numbers of people across the planet, extruded for one or another reason from formal employment, turn to an ever expanding range of practices that conjoin entrepreneurialism and the capitalization of the self to auto-employed labor in the cause of (more less hand to mouth) primitive accumulation. Thus it is that there has been an explosion of adjectives attached to the noun “economy”; to name just a select few, the artisanal economy, the sharing economy, the caring economy, the affective economy (what Arlie Hochschild  called “emotion work,” aka immaterial) economy, the cultural economy, the criminal economy – some of them subumed under the collective rubric of the “gig” economy. And in each case, the term “economy” may itself be replaced by “labor,” thus to describe the species of activity now commonly associated with it. Each, moreover, has commanded a burgeoning literature of its own, both scholarly and popular. This is not the place to review them in detail. For present purposes, some synoptic sketch notes will do.
Take the artisanal economy. “Artisans,” according to an article published in 2015 by Forbes,58 constitute “a sector now equivalent to the world’s fourth-largest economy,” with the “fourth largest workforce,” although it did not say quite how such a quantum might be calculated; it added a quote by then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to the effect that artisans are a “terrific” “place to begin” looking for “innovative way to help developing countries flourish,” as though they are a new historical phenomenon, unknown in the global south. Still, if has become a “type of entrepreneurship…widely acknowledged as an engine for poverty reduction and economic development.” And so history has been turned on its head: what modernity sought to drag domestic economies away from has become a panacea for reversing the devastation left in the wake of modernization. And, according to Derek Thompson (2015), not just for the global south: it was, he noted, one of the futures for the likes of Youngstown, and other northern cities devastated by the latest chapter in the history of capital.
What is more, an international NGO industry – another sort of entrepreneurial “economy” in itself, one that employs an immaterial army of to manage post-work across the planet – has grown up in support of the artisanal “sector.” NGO’s like the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise (also Artisan Alliance), whose home page claims that the “artisan sector is the second-largest employer in the developing world after agriculture, worth over $32 billion every year.”59 The Artisan Alliance is “hosted” by the Aspen Institute and is sponsor of “a new #ChooseArtisan campaign to bring attention to the importance of the creative economy” (our italics) – which, adds the Forbes article, is a “pathway out of poverty for millions of households.” But it ends a little more soberly, with the “serious roadblocks” that face artisans, such things as under- capitalization, disadvantages of scale, illiquid inventories, ephemeral and unpredictable demand, inability to tap into supply chains and formal markets, and so on and on. All of which tends to ensure that the artisanal economy remains an economy of the poor, producers whose products, if they are successfully sold, continue to accrue profits to people other than themselves. Like IKEA, which “collaborates with rural artisans around the world to create limited-edition collections that are sold in its stores.” Needless to say, we do not know how its profit sharing arrangements, like so many “fair trade” retail marketing contracts, are structured.60 Nonetheless, across the world, artisanal economies are often touted as a panacea for the flight from wage labor into entrepreneurialism – and are often a resort for those who find themselves suddenly un- or under-employed, with few other choices – although, of course, what they obscure is the fact that artisanship is simply labor without a wage, labor with the risk that the commodities produced by the unwaged entrepreneur of her- or himself has also to be marketed, a process for which that producer takes all the risks, and bears allthe costs, involved.
Or take the sharing economy, made globally visible, and typified, by the rise of such megacorporations as Uber and Airbnb. It is a largely “platform” economy in which self-employed laborers deploy their “under-utilized assets” and “flexibile schedules” – i.e. unused, unpaid, unwanted labor time – effectively to become “independent contractors” engaged in “the peer to peer based activity of obtaining, giving, or sharing access to goods and services, co-ordinated through community-based online services” (Hamari et al. 2015:2047). What sorts of operations (eBay? Craigslist?) actually fall within this definition, or cognate ones – and in what sense digital mega-firms are “community-based” – is a matter of some discussion (Yaraghi and Ravi 2017:4-5). Still, the explosion of this economy, whose projected revenue growth from $14bn in 2014 to $335bn by 2025 (PricewaterhouseCoopers [PwC] 2015:14), another occult statistic since such things are hardly knowable, appears to have reached deeply into accommodation and hospitality, transportation and delivery, consumer goods, cash lending, labor swaps; this to the extent that a report by PwC (2015), which defines the sharing economy quite capaciously (p.5) and offers a detailed analysis of who uses it and for what purposes, reports that 51% of US respondents to their survey said that they were likely to be providers and 71% consumers in this economy within two years, i.e. by 2017. For PwC, the rise of this economy is a potential threat to labor, rather than a panacea for those rendered precarious by the new capitalist economy (p.29):
“One of the more controversial aspects of the sharing economy is the impact it has on the labor force, and the perceived shift toward contract-based employment…For some, this is regarded as a benefit, enabling workers to earn wages on their own time and their own terms. For others, it heralds an era of depressed earnings and greater reliance on welfare and other government subsidies. 78% of adults said they expected that in 30 years, working multiple jobs would be the new normal for wage earners.”
The last sentence, however, is its own corrective: PwC’s informants appear to understand that it is their current status as employees in secure, income generating employment that is under threat, making their entry into the sharing economy, past or potential not a problem, but a solution. But one thing is clear: across the globe, the horizons of this economy, however it ought best to be named and characterized – whether it involves government supplied low cost housing in a South African black township being rented to tenants as its owners relocate to a shack in the backyard or a retired chef in a Singapore high-rise using his dining room as a chic restaurant to entertain “guests” – appear to be expanding rapidly as ordinary people across the planet find it necessary or desirable to recommission their possessions or their labor power in the cause of yielding an income.
Thus far, the sharing economy has rested in turning into assets the means of domestic reproduction and everyday life. This, of course, is not new. It has precedents in many parts of the world, especially in the global south – among them, for example, the shebeens of black South African townships during the apartheid years, where, in the absence of private space or family around them, migrant laborers treated the homes of their owners as something akin to a shared “living room,” a place to eat, drink, and socialize around the figure of the female host. It is simply that the practice has spread, especially in the north, and become more explicitly a strategy of accumulation by turning non-commodified objects and services into commodified ones. More recently, however, the sharing economy has stretched away from the domestic into the finance sector, with a major explosion, across much of the world, of peer-to- peer [P2P] lending and debt-based crowdfunding (a.k.a. “crowdlending”), usually brokered through on-line “platform” companies, some of which – in light of the high risk/high return nature of the practice, now referred to as an “industry” – have evinced very sharp cycles of accumulation and implosion;61 sans platforming and the internet, as those familiar with the global south know very well, P2P lending has long-standing foreshadowings in rotating credit groups across colonial and postcolonial Africa (e.g. Ardener 1964; James 2015) and in Islamic finance (Sadr 2017); also Japan, where it is said to go back to the thirteenth century (Izumida 1992).
From sharing to caring, of course, is a relatively short step. The caring, or affective economy, likewise, has become newly revalued as a domain of labor. As we have already noted, feminist critique has long pointed out that unremunerated domestic work and household production, done largely by women – but also, in “traditional” African cultures, by youths (e.g. Meillassoux 1981) – has classically gone unrecognized for what it has always been: an unrecognized, unwaged toil, rendered a free good by a patriarchal, gerontocratic ideology of kinship, family, and matrimony. In recent years, however, many of the forms of labor associated with (uncommodified) care, much of it invested in intergenerational kinship ties, have become a source of paid activity. [Filipino’s across the world; Israel only as example] Hence, for instance, the 30,000 Filipino women who look after the elderly and infirm in Israel (Liebelt 2011) – “Israel’s Invisible Filipino Work Force”62 – whose incomes support their own families back home, thus displacing the work of domestic life, and its reproduction, into the global labor market. A very global market, one that extends far beyond Israel: in Canada, to take another example, a program to import Filipinas to care for children brought almost 24,000 in 2014 alone.63 What is more, public discourse in the Philippines invests the export of its carers with cultural heft. Hence a Manila newspaper: “Being a caregiver is not only a matter of profession… [It is] about deep love, respect and care to someone of old age or anybody else who needs treatment…This is something rooted in Filipino culture and an identity as a Filipino.”64 Thus do culture and selfhood fuse into a brand that is born in the form of putatively unalienated labor that seeks, as it takes on the guise of a commodity, to become a form of monopoly capital. [LONG HISTORY; state labor export policy, with legal and diplomatic mechanisms; on 4 continents; see essay of Filipino state policy in relation to labor exports, M. Scott Solomon. ADD Cape Verde, women migrants in domestic reproduction]
Of course, the line between care and other forms of commodified service can be rather murky; vide Luise White’s Comforts of Home (1990), a study of prostitution in colonial Kenya, which makes the point that “the work of prostitutes” which did not carry the stigma here that it did in Euroe, “was family labor” (p.2) their relationships with their male customers both “intimate and stable” (p.1). Hence the title of the volume, which describes a phenomenon common in other parts of urban Africa – especially those that were host to large populations of single proletarian migrant men; recall South African shebeens, mentioned a moment ago – and made famous in popular culture by the jazz opera, King Kong, in which Miriam Makeba played her debut role as the keeper of “Back of the Moon”65 – which were widely treated as homes away from home. Given the explosion of the caregiving market in many diverse directions across the world – not coincidentally, the anthropology of care has become its own burgeoning scholarly market of late (see e.g. Alber and Drotbohm 2015) – there are many other instances that come to mind, but perhaps none so remarkable as growing Japan’s “rent-a-family” industry (Batuman 2018),66 a commodified service in the supply of care described as “human affection through the form of the family” (pp.51, 57). Companies like Family Romance will supply substitutes for almost any conceivable role, not least to provide “the comforts of home” (p.59): doppelgangers for a divorced parent for an emotionally wrought teenager, a deceased spouse and daughter for a lonely widow, an overweight mother fearful of appearing at school events and embarrassing her child, a bridegroom for a totally staged, fake wedding to appease impatient (proto-grand)parents, a wife’s lover from whom an aggrieved cuckold demands an apology, children for neglected elders and vice versa, and so on, and on. The industry, which appears to have spawned a great deal of prose fiction, has a deep archaeology, as Batuman (ibid.:58) reminds us, and not only in Japan: “people throughout human history have been paying strangers” – typically strangers of less elevated socioeconomic status – “to fill roles that their kinsfolk performed for free.” Or were expected to and, either out of necessity or preference, did (and increasingly do) not. The vast majority of white South African families during the apartheid era devolved (as many still do) some of the intimate functions of motherhood and wifehood to lowly-paid black carers, “maids” as they were known (Cock 1980, Gaitskell et al. 1983) – and dealt awkwardly with the affective ties that grew up as a result. It was an awkwardness expressed once in the cruelly ambivalent treatment of these women less than fully human, certainly not adult, and yet as faux “members of the family,” servants who could be terminated at a whim; Francis Nyamnjoh (2005) refers to the highly exploitative relationship between “maids and madams” (Cock, ibid.) tellingly in light of our present concerns, as “mutual zombification.” [Bougeois families have long paid underclass others to raise their families in the most intimate domains of the domestic; wet nurses, nannies etc]
The Japanese case is quite different, of course, in the nature of the contract and the conditions that have given rise to it; it attaches to the high end of the caring, affective economy, not to its indentured extremes. According, again, to Batuman (2018:57f), the rise of immaterial labor here, in this form, is owed largely to two things: changes in the post-World War 2 economic sociology of the country, which has seen the rise of single person (including older) families, a withering of the extended household, and, with “the deregulation of the Japanese labor market,…the erosion of the salaryman lifestyle”; and a spreading Foucauldian postmodernism that imagines everything to be constructed, including the affective relationships associated with intimate domesticity, thus allowing “the alchemy of the marketplace [to] transform strangers into loved ones” (p.58). And so the affective economy creates a domain of employment that returns an older form of unwaged, intimate labor as respectable, paid domestic work, less a new phenomenon than the re-cognition and re-tooling of something that has always existed as a species of devalued, proto-indentured work. [across the world there have always been paid companions; here it extends into the family and close kinship, a line typically drawn elsewhere to differentiate it from kinship; kinship highly relevant here under advanced capitalism, more so than in many places.]
To which there is yet a further twist. Japan, it appears, lies at the frontier of the expansion of the affective economy into…robotics which, if it ever comes about, will displace the labor of humans in this sector with machines: robot lovers and wives, the largely masculinist anti- or post-human fantasy. Nor will “she” be merely a sexual service provider. She will interact with “owner, understand him, entertain him, offer him companionship, thus to encourage the relationship with her to “develop into love.”67 Unless and until switched off, thereby accruing to the “virtual love industry” the huge advantage of partners, made to desired specification, but sans the usual irritations of living with a spouse. [MARRIAGE rates everywhere dropping; its too expensive; the movie in Shoplifting] Which, some believe, would well suit the culturally inflected needs of the 45% of Japanese men who, according to a state survey in 2011, have no interest in finding a live female partner.68 All of which resonates wth David Levy’s visionary Love and Sex with Robots (2008), which predicts, well, sex and love with robots, culminating in marriage by 2050 – thus, presumably, eliminating spouses from the domain of unremunerated intimate and domestic labor, and rendering redundant their waged human replacements, only to have them return in humanoid form, once the machine age version of an African brideprice has been paid.
The notion of a specifically Japanese proclivity for solving the problem of social isolation by recourse to commodified intimacy, like the presumptive inscription of Filipina caregiving in a primordial Fijian sensibility, opens a opens a bridge to yet another growing species of labor: that accruing to cultural economies, to what we have called, elsewhere (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009), Ethnicity, Inc., a phenomenon that has expanded in some contexts in direct proportion to the loss of wage work (p.11ff.). This phenomenon, too, comes in many guises. In so far as it inflects emergent forms of employment – some of it, of course, manifest in, and articulated with, the rising artisanal economy – it expresses itself in an appeal to essentialized potencies and capacities that are said to inhere in an ascriptive identity: Australian Aboriginal art work, Zulu pottery, Lanna Thai massage, Peruvian Shipibo shamanic medicine, Himalayan Sherpa mountain guidance, Roma divination and fortune telling, Nepalese Limbu weaving, Chinese Miao silver smithing. In many instances, these activities involve self-employment and entrepreneurial engagement; some ethno-providers of goods and services represent themselves as deeply “traditional – indeed, exotically “other” – albeit in strikingly digital-savvy ways as they sell their skills and wares on their own account. Others are employed in the corporate sector for a wage: San (Bushmen) game trackers in the safari industry, “nimble fingered” Bengali tea pickers, Zapotec textile producers, Maori and Samoan rugby players. [This capitalizes on the abundance of culture; money from nothing – ie cultural resources – see Eric Hirsch]
Again, none of this is new. There has long been ethnic and national branding, simultaneously inside and outside the market, simultaneously essentialized and commodified, simultaneously alienable and inalienable. What is notable, however, appears to be the scale with which ethno-prise, amidst a rising consumer appetite for “authenticity,” is increasing the demand for ethnicized labor. On occasion, moreover, that labor has interpolated itself into inter/national imaginaries. Note the case of Fiji. Simon May (n.d.) shows how, in the context of a growing world market for private military power, indigenous Fijians assert a “form of cultural distinctiveness,” founded on their claim to be a “fighting people,” in order “to secure positions for themselves as…contractors within the supply-chain of outsourced warfare” – most notably, in the British army. The means of violence, it seems, is an integral part of the expanding cultural economy. And not only in its licit forms.
Which brings us to another context in which entrepreneurialism of the self, primitive accumulation, and labor conjoin increasingly outside the formal sector: what is sometimes referred to, with more than a hint of racism, as the “black” economy, which stretches, with considerable plasticity, from petty hustling to violent crime. Across Africa, for example, what sometimes begin as hustles often end up as recognized, more-or-less il/licit, jobs in the so-called “informal sector.” These include everything from “car guarding” and “personal security” in South Africa (Steyn et al. 2015) through professional trickery in Nigeria (Hibou 1999 [MORE specific]), kukiya- kiya (“making do”) in Zimbabwe (Jones 2010), and débrouillage (“getting by,” “managing”) in the Francophone west,69 to coastal piracy and high-end smuggling in the Chad Basin (Roitman 2005, 2006). Despite its “informality,” this sector has a major, well-recognized impact on GDP, [NB OF ARTISANAL/SMALL MINING ON GDP/GNP] on the socio-material and moral landscapes of the continent, and on the viability of many nation-states, a good number of which seek now to levy taxation on its enterprises (Dube and Casale 2017).70 Hustling, of course, has a large presence in the global north as well, some of it close to the engines of finance capital and the state (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006), but much of it minor, nestling along the fringes of the “formal” economy.
At its “darkest,” the informal sector merges into criminal or “shadow” economies, which offer a wide, and growing, range of job opportunities across the world; the image of the “shadow,” and of “criminal specters,” having gained considerable purchase in the florescent literature on the anthropology of crime, criminal states, and the murky line between the legal and illegal in the in the contemporary age of global capitalism (see e.g. Ferguson 2006; Reno 1995, 2000; Roitman 2005; Comaroff and Comaroff 2006:16ff; cf. Derrida 1994:83). And, for a disturbingly large number of people, their sole means of survival. Thus, for example, as Levitt and Venkatesh (2000:755) note,72 recent studies of US street gangs – which remark their dramatic corporatization since the late twentieth century (e.g. Taylor 1990)73 – indicate that many of their “members pursue financial activities in response to alienation from legitimate labor markets” (our italics). Levitt and Venkathesh go on to compare average earnings in the drug trade with those in the formal sector: marginally higher, much riskier, motivated less by income in the present than by the prospect of future riches (ibid.). And, of course, the relative ease of finding work. This, we stress, is not to imply that the criminal economy is founded purely on, or shaped purely by, economic necessity or inequality, although such claims are quite often made. Unemployment, as Jonny Steinberg (2000:1f.) has pointed out, is far from the only explanation for law-breaking. People enter into this economy – or resist doing so – for a wide variety of reasons. Our point, simply, is that, along with other “post-work” spheres of human activity, it provides a site, at once material and social, into which people who would otherwise have lived their lives out in the wage labor force might interpolate themselves; or, if rational choice theorists (e.g. Becker 1968; Posner 1981) were to be believed, might choose to enter, basing their decision on a risk-return calculus like any other. [UNDERCLASSES have always lived this way – Dickensian London/ SA: people “choosing not to join the formal economy”]
In public perception, of course, and in much normative sociology, criminal activity is taken to be the opposite of work; as if human endeavor requires a moral imprimature to be regarded as labor, sensu stricto. And yet for many of those who partake of it, crime is work. Serious, skilled work. There is an unforgettable moment in Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014) when, trapped in a brutally violent house invasion, he reports, verbatim, the words of one of the armed attackers: “This is our job. This is how we do our work. You go to your work and we go to our work…You must respect us or we will kill you” (p.250). Less a case of honor among thieves than the honor of thieves. And the dignity of their labor. Also its requisite professionalism. Thus a Johannesburg detective laughs at an inept pair of carjackers, naifs who lacked the necessary proficiency for successful hit: “F—ing amateurs. They didn’t even know what they were going to say” to their intended victim (Altbeker 2000:27). Sometimes, as Paswane Mpe (2000:1) reminds us, this line of business has its own heroic celebrity, by now a Benjaminian (1978:281) cliche: the abiding, if perhaps ambivalent, admiration for the sheer artistry, the accomplished performance, evinced in the clever heist, the daring robbery, the slick take-down of a reviled personage; the assailants in the attack to which Gevisser was a participating witness referred to themselves, proudly, as “heroes [with] guns” (ibid.). In the criminal economy, as this boast implies, the revolver or the knife or the club, relatively cheap objects, are the only required means of production – or, more accurately, of redistribution. At its non-violent end, the chosen tools of trade may be a cheap laptop, a cell phone, counterfeit plastic, a stolen uniform. Criminality-as-labor, self-evidently, offers many points of access, many techniques of extraction, many sources of primitive accumulation. [Hijack Stories: “step away from my associate,” said to a cop] [Criminal behavior in colonial contexts seen as critique of racialized social exploitation, and a form of redistribution; from the much critted Primitive Rebels to Van Onnselin’s Regiment of the Hills.]
Not everyone extruded from the formal sector is able to enter into one of these economies, be it artisanal, sharing, caring, cultural, criminal, or whatever. People who no longer sustain the prospect of earning an income may nowadays find themselves caught up with corporate capital not as labor but as more-or-less dehumanized commodities: as objects from which value is extracted under regimes of radical privatization and financialization, regimes that look, systematically, to profit from anything and everything. [Capital always finds new places to go, more assets to harvest.] Perennial as it has always been to capitalism (Luxemburg 1951:452ff.), primitive accumulation in its postmodern guise, ever more all-consuming (Harvey 2005), seems especially prone to a necropolitics; the “subjugation,” that is, “of life to the power of [social, if not physical] death” (Mbembe 2003:39). To wit, necrocapitalism, as Bannerjee (2008) and others call it,74 expropriates unto itself the very necessities of existence: water, air, food, shelter, security, land, infrastructure, culture. Indeed, the corporate capture of these things has spawned what are now referred to as “living politics” (Chance 2017), the “politics of life” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012:159f.; cf. Agamben 1998:10), “vital politics” (e.g. Povinelli 2016; Muehlebach 2017)75 – all terms for collective action against the (necro?) capitalization of, and profiteering off, assets long held to inhere in citizenship and the social contract, in people’s sovereignty, civil society, and the commons. Specifically, the elemental bases of life itself (Simmons 2016).
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of the transformation of human labor into human life as commodity is to be found in the carceral subject. There is no need here to recapitulate the literature – most developed in the US but echoed elsewhere – on the “penal state” (e.g. Simon 2007; Garland 2013) and “carceral capitalism” (e.g. Wang 2018). Suffice it to say that it ties the fluorescence of neoliberalism to the warehousing of previously working, now disposable people (especially Blacks, Hispanics, but also indigent Whites) in “correctional” facilities (Herivel and Wright 2003), leveraged largely through a “war” on the criminal economy (Wacquant 2009; Comaroff and Comaroff 2016); to the maintenance, in addition, of segregated urban environments, creating zones – ghettos, favelas, banlieus, projects, townships – of containment (Beckett and Herbert 2010; Smith 2013; cf. Massey and Denton 1993) and “hyperpolicing” (e.g. Tibbs 2010); to the practice of “governing through crime” populations said to be uncivil and worse (Simon 2009; cf. Foucault 1977); to the “farming” of fines from the poor, itself a source of their spiraling, unaffordable debt and high rates of imprisonment (Stillman 2014:5); to the more or less permanent elimination of convicted felons from the labor market. It is by these and other means, disenfranchisement among them, that citizenship is annulled, rights removed, humanity negated. And the formerly employed reduced to a corporeal reservoir from which surplus value may be gleaned. In times past, penality carried with it, at least ideologically, the promise of rehabilitation and a return to the workforce. Not any more. In many places, crime and punishment are about permanent exit, social death, zombification – thus to make the prisoner’s body, sans sentient civility, an instrument of accumulation.
How? Well, for one thing, by privatizing prisons, parole, and other institutions of the criminal justice system – or, more often, outsourcing their operations – which licences carceral corporations to charge the public purse for accommodating, feeding, guarding, and providing other “facilities” to inmates; this at the same time as making the latter pay, often extortionately, for basic goods and services76 – all at minimum cost to themselves. The culture industry, epitomized in the USA by Orange is the New Black (dir., Jenji Kohan 2013-present), offers vivid ethnographic illustration of quite how comprehensive, and profit-seeking, is the business-managerial treatment of convicts and their bodies. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of evidence to the effect that firms operating in the prison-industrial complex lobby actively to keep captive populations as large as possible; the paroled population, as well, from whose supervised “freedom” hefty returns are also to be earned. At the same time, prison labor itself, often thought to be a prime site of exploitation, is a rather limited enterprise: in most correctional facilities relatively few do productive work for the private sector. Most who toil at all do so menially, usually servicing the institution itself (see Comaroff and Comaroff 2016:44).77 It from working on them, sustaining them in a condition of relatively spare life, that money is to be made.
The point need not be labored. The carceral subject-as-object is just one instance of a growing economy in which humans, reduced to their bodies, are commodified in the cause of neo-primitive accumulation; “neo-,“ since this, too, is far from new. Per contra, it has a history as long as history itself, in which modern slavery and racial capitalism are epochal moments from whose effects a good part of the planet is still having to recover. Its twenty-first century forms, alike, do not require to be spelled out. Trafficking, in all its hydra-headed guises, is said to be a “pandemic…[from] which no country is immune”: according to UNICEF, there are 21m people being trafficked around the world, yielding annual profits of $32bn.78 Contemporary slavery, says one authoritative source, embraces some 40.3m people today;79 in 2016, estimates varied from 21m (International Labor Organization) to 46m (Global Slavery Index).80 Migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers also present themselves as embodied, for-profit opportunities to those who deal, legally or otherwise, in transporting, managing, and servicing displaced persons. To be sure, the categorical distinctions separating different types of exploitable subjects are often murky, porous. But, more to the present point, in the world “after labor” it is the line between the working and the worked-on that draws our attention, a line that tends increasingly to be crossed in one direction – away from the former toward the latter. Which returns us to the paradox: if this is so, if conventional forms of wage labor are disappearing, or morphing in so many directions, how do we explain the low official unemployment rates in so many places – or, almost everywhere, the fairly common presumption, indeed blind faith, that economic and social problems may be resolved, alchemically, by “creating more jobs”?
Once again, let us distinguish between the empirical, the conceptual, and the phenomenological dimensions of the paradox.
Take the first first. Empirically-speaking, as we have already said, there has never truly been a time of full employment. Or anything near it. The ideology-speak that continues to pretend to the possibility (see e.g. Stiglitz 2003:292f.; Schmid 2008:vii) – and/or claims that, under felicitous conditions, it has been “achieved”81 – wilfully ignores the fact that capital has always sustained, more or less c/overtly, a “reserve army of labor” (Marx 1976:781 et passim);82 or that, as Cedric Robinson (1983:24) insists, slavery and indenture has always been a critical element of capitalist production in and beyond Europe, and that, along with discounted, insecure immigrant labor, were a significant proportion of national proletariats. Nor is this all. As Kasmir (2018) observes, even at the height of Fordism in the US, the ur-case of this ideology- in-action, “whole segments of the population were excluded” from the workforce. As she and others have intimated, the precarity of the poor and the pigmented, the domestic and the disabled, the marginal and the migrant – those, in short, unembraced by organized labor and discounted as unemployable – may have become a scholarly preoccupation of late (after Butler 2004; cf. e.g. Standing 2011). But it has been an immanent feature of the history of capitalism all along, epitomized by racially-saturated colonial contexts like South Africa. What is more, Michael Denning (2010) recalls, Marx himself observed that the “wageless,” having been expelled en masse from work, were rendered invisible to political economy, indeed to polite society, from the first. This was especially so in the global north, we would add, during the post-World War 2 years, the heyday of Keynesian hegemony (above, p.00), when, in Denning’s words, “the wage [as] the source of capitalist ideolog[y],” of its notions of freedom and equality and the good life, were most palpably fetishized – thus to obscure the fact that wageless life is not a side effect, but “the starting point in understanding the free market,” past and present.
Herein lies a critical element in the resolution of the paradox: its empirical erasure at the hands of the ostensibly value-free pragmatism of formal economics and modernist political discourse; specifically, of its occulting of reality by recourse to statistical reason.83 Put it this way: if, in a population, a significant percentage of those who lack employment are made to disappear from sight by literally discounting their very existence, the remaining proportion, those who do have jobs, will, statistically- speaking, appear concomitantly large. Under these conditions, there is no army of jobless people to be concerned about, nor does the “end of work” seem imminent. Per contra, full employment looks to lie well this side of the horizon of possibility and of public policy – thus to sustain the dignity of labor, and an honestly earned paycheck, as the mythic cornerstone of the good life.
Thus in the USA, for example, the official unemployment rate hovers below 4% at present, which conjures the illusion of a largely working population. But this figure only takes into account those who are positioned to look for work and are doing so. It ignores entirely the “employment-population ratio.”84 The latter, by contrast, embraces everyone of working age, including those who are no longer in the formal job market: those who, unable to find anything else, have taken themselves out of it to enter into other – recall, artisanal, sharing, caring, affective, cultural and criminal – economies; or those who are prevented from entering employment by virtue of disability, injury, imprisonment, forced retrenchment, early retirement, custodial responsibility for others, and so on; or those who have simply become unavoidably indigent. In April 2018, this ratio was just 60.3%; in other words, almost 40% of the able bodied citizenry of America, their sociological profiles highly predictable, were not in waged jobs. These figures, trust them or not, come from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.85 The discrepancy between the employment-population ratio and official jobless numbers, which are the ones most touted in the political sphere and the academy, derives, in major part, from the uncounted carceral population; the mass of primarily Black and Hispanic inner city residents to whom the formal economy is effectively closed; people, mainly women, compelled by the lack of state welfare to look after others; and laid-off laborers in places from which manufacturing and extractive industries have decamped.
Nor is the US alone in the way it dis/counts. In the U.K, according to a study undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University, “unemployment is three times [more] than the official count,”86 notwithstanding the fact that this much-heralded count, 3.9% at the time of writing, is the lowest since the pre-Thatcherite Labour Party administration of the mid-1970s. The Hallam study echoes both public discourse – which acknowledges that “there is more hidden unemployment than suggested by the official statistics”87 – and scholarly accounts. In respect of the latter, economist David Blanchflower (2019), in his forthcoming Not Working, puts it bluntly: “don’t trust low unemployment numbers… Standard economic measures are often blind” to the very large numbers who are radically “underemployed or have simply given up trying to find a well-paying job”; extraordinarily, 55% of all jobs created since 2008 are part-time, that is, in the gig economy. He adds, also, that “wages have fallen more [in the past decade] than ever in recorded history” – and that the self-employed, who boost the myth of “rosy employment figures,” earn significantly less those in paid jobs.88 Another case, this, of hiding the radical transformation of contemporary labor, of its structural demography, in a form of occult numeration that, simultaneously, makes phenomena reappear as they disappear, rendering them at once absent-and-present in the moment of their re- presentation. Likewise Italy, often said to be a southern nation in the global north (Wagner 2017; Dainotto 2011; Cassano 2012),89 where the official unemployment rate is 10.5%, where migrants who work for “hunger wages…in conditions of slavery” are blamed for almost everything and are the object of rising racist violence,90 and where a large slice of the population is “employed in the black [economy]”: the Minister of Labor in its Five Star Movement (M5S) government has actually referred to the uncounted millions living below the poverty line and “on the margins of [the] country,” as “invisible people.”91 The nations of the global south, in general, register rather higher levels than do the USA or the UK; hence our comments earlier about those both officially recognized and publicly discussed in South Africa, whose “expanded” rate – the rough equivalent of the US employment-population ratio – was 37 percent in 2018. Either those nations are less intent to hide their historically low formal employment rates behind a statistical fig leaf, or more of their able bodied adults persist longer in looking for wage employment.
There is another way to make the paradox disappear empirically. It is, in addition to discounting significant numbers of those excluded from work, by “add[ing] more people into the employed category without changing anyone’s actual status.”92 There are two obvious ways of doing this. The first is to count radically under- employed people as if they were properly employed, going as far as to take in those who do barely any work at all. Statistics South Africa, for instance, counts persons those who did wage work for no more than a hour in the week before its quarterly labor force surveys,93 So does the USA, which also includes those who, while formally having a job, were not necessarily doing it for one or another recognized reason.94 As this suggests, so-called “non-standard workers” – who labor on flexitime, under highly temporary and fragile arrangements, or under that oxymoronic absent-presence, the zero-hour contracts,– may inflate formal numbers by a significant margin: along with the self-employed, they made up a full 39% of the entire European Union workforce in 2016 (European Commission 2018:19). At the other extreme are those in a regular position who are paid insufficient to subsist on, and have, therefore, to hold multiple jobs; school teachers and menial service workers in the US come immediately to mind. They are counted just once, hence to enshrine the idea that it is formal employment, under whatever conditions, that is significant, rather than a livelihood – a point to which we shall return.
The second way of making the paradox disappear by making more people appear to be employed is to redefine labor so broadly as to include basically any form of social productivity, be it mental or manual, waged or unwaged, formal or informal, even licit or illicit. This is what the European Commission on the Future of Work, Future of Society (2018:7,19) comes close to doing in the cause of recognizing unpaid exertions as a worthy basis of the dignity classically associated with wage labor: “Traditional concepts of work,” it says, “must be rethought to take in a much broader array of ‘non-standard employment,” including “a range of unpaid contributions to our societies…” Nor is the European Commission alone in this. Finding value in unpaid labor has become a common ideological theme of the twenty-first century, argued alike by feminist and critical race theorists, theologians, neoliberal ethicists, and many others besides. And so not only is the paradox made to disappear empirically by only discounting those who are recognized as officially to be counted, but also conceptually by including more or less anything in the category of value-producing enterprise – and asserting, thereby, the sustained ethico-theological centrality of work as the core of human being in the new age of capitalism. It also contributes to the erasure of “the end of work” from the phenomenology of social experience. For the unemployed, it is not a structural feature of contemporary capitalism that besets them; it is the contingent misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: Youngstown or Flint or the coal towns of Kentucky or factory-shuttered towns of northern England. Or other places from which jobs have migrated. But, if we take this conception of labor, the circle is closed: all those “new” economies in the global north, those long established informal economies of the global south – all those species of activity which have flourished anew with the “end of work” – are embraced within it.
But, while it may be disappeared empirically and conceptually by these means, phenomenologically-speaking, the paradox – the fact that wage labor remains at the elemental core of capitalism, and of species being under its political theology, yet appears as an anachronism, at its historical “end” – has not gone away. Nor have the anxieties, even the social panic, that it provokes. If anything, those anxieties keep reappearing, underscored symbolically by the figures of the zombie, the robot, and the posthuman mutant – and politically in populist promises of job creation and the like. Formal statistics may pretend to low unemployment rates – and my be claimed by politicians as proof of the positive effects of their policies – but experience tells otherwise. Not merely that work is dispersing itself into distant geographies and new temporalities, but also into the yawning disconnect between a job and an income.95
Again, we have anticipated the point.
– Recall David Blanchflower (2019; see above, fn.00), who says what amounts to the same thing in pointing out that the illusion of high employment rates in the UK in the past decade or so – he might have added that it applies to much of the world – has been sustained by a palpable drop in real wages and by the rise in underemployment counted as though it were employment, Put another way, if a significant proportion of people cannot subsist beyond the poverty level on their pay, there opens up a significant gap between a job and an income. This is precisely what has happened in many places: people who have jobs, either paid or self-employed, who are earning below the minimal needs for life and who, therefore, need more that one source of income to survive, are fundamentally misrepresented by official employment figures, whose very real predicament they hide. As Steven Shaviro, among very many others notes – this in a review of Lisa Adkins’s The Time of Money (2018) – “[w]ages are no longer sufficient to meet household needs, even if women as well as men enter full time into the workforce,”96 thus forcing almost everyone to accumulate debt. Given the number of people who hold jobs or work for remuneration insufficient unto their needs, national employment rates would need to be far in excess of 100% even to approach something akin to full employent; the gap between jobs and incomes hides the real state of inequality and material well-being. And disappears the contradiction between capital and labor from visibility by sustaining the illusion that most people have jobs either in the formal or in the gig economy – an illusion that is less untrue than it hides precisely what it reveals, i.e., that capital is succeeding, in significant measure, in erasing labor, replacing it by technology, outsourcing it into the gig universe, and the like, while celebrating a neoliberal economy in which everyone is at once an entrepreneur of themselves, a contractor of their own energies and capacities, and/or a commodity.