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Beyond the "Proper Job:" Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man Institute for Poverty, Land And Agrarian Studies

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Abstract

This programmatic article proposes an approach to global political-economic inquiry in the wake of the failure of long-established transition narratives, notably the narrative centred on a universal trajectory from farm-based and “traditional” livelihoods into the “proper jobs” of a modern industrial society. The prevalence and persistence of “informal”, “precarious”, and “non-standard” employment in so many sites around the world, it suggests, requires a profound analytical decentering of waged and salaried employment as a presumed norm or telos, and a consequent reorientation of our empirical research protocols. The authors seek to further such a reorientation by identifying a set of specific political-economic questions that are in some sense portable, and can profitably be applied to a diverse range of empirical contexts around the world. But it is the questions that are shared, not the answers. By generating a matrix of difference and similarity across cases, the paper points toward a research agenda capable both of finding answers to concrete questions that arise in specific settings, and of generating comparative insights and the identification of large-scale patterns.
IN ST ITUTE FOR POVERT Y, L AN D AND AGRARIAN STUDIES (PLAAS)
Beyond the Proper Job:
Political-economic Analysis
after the Century of Labouring
Man
13 April 2018
1 James Ferguson, 2Tania Murray Li
1Department of Anthropology, Stanford University
2 Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto
Insti tute for Pov erty, Lan d And Agrar ian Studies
Fa cul ty of Ec onomic and Mana gem ent Sciences
University of the W est ern Ca pe
Priva te Bag X 17
Bellvill e 7 535
Te l: +27-(0)2 1-9 593733 Fa x: +27(0 )21 -9593732
Website: www. pla as. org .za Em ail : info @plaas.o rg. za
Tw itter: @ PLA ASu wc Fa ceb ook : www .fa ceb ook .co m/PLAASuwc
PLAAS Working Paper 51: Beyond t he “Proper Job:” Political-e conomic
Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
The PLAAS Working Paper Series is designed to share work in progress. Please send any
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©Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape, April 2018
Author: Ferguson, James. and Tania Murray Li
jgfergus@stanford.edu
tania.li@utoronto.ca
Copy Editing and Proofreading: James Ferguson and Tania Murray Li
Layout: Mologadi Makwela
Cite as: Ferguson, J., Li, T.M. (2018) 'Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic
Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man’, Working Paper 51. PLAAS, UWC:
Cape Town.
Insti tute for Pov erty, Lan d And Agrar ian Studies
Fa cul ty of Ec onomic and Mana gem ent Sciences
University of the Western Ca pe
Priva te Bag X 17
Bellvill e 7 535
Te l: +27-(0)2 1-9 593733 Fa x: +27(0 )21 -9593732
Website: www. pla as. org .za Em ail : info @plaas.o rg. za
Tw itter: @ PLA ASuwc Fa ceb ook : www .fa ceb ook .co m/PLAASuwc
ABSTRACT
This programmatic article proposes an approach to global political-economic inquiry in
the wake of the failure of long-established transition narratives, notably the narrative
centred on a universal trajectory from farm-based and “traditional” livelihoods into the
“proper jobs” of a modern industrial society. The prevalence and persistence of
“informal”, “precarious”, and “non-standard” employment in so many sites around the
world, it suggests, requires a profound analytical decentering of waged and salaried
employment as a presumed norm or telos, and a consequent reorientation of our
empirical research protocols. The authors seek to further such a reorientation by
identifying a set of specific political-economic questions that are in some sense portable,
and can profitably be applied to a diverse range of empirical contexts around the world.
But it is the questions that are shared, not the answers. By generating a matrix of
difference and similarity across cases, the paper points toward a research agenda
capable both of finding answers to concrete questions that arise in specific settings, and
of generating comparative insights and the identification of large-scale patterns.
Insti tute for Pov erty, Lan d And Agrar ian Studies
Fa cul ty of Ec onomic and Management Science s
University of the Western Ca pe
Priva te Bag X 17
Bellvill e 7 535
Te l: +27-(0)2 1-9 593733 Fa x: +27(0 )21 -9593732
Website: www. pla as. org .za Em ail : info @plaas.o rg. za
Tw itter: @ PLA ASu wc Fa ceb ook : www .fa ceb ook .co m/PLAASuwc
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ABSTRACT ............................................................................... 3
TABLE OF CONTENTS .................................................................... 4
1. INTRODUCTION ..................................................................... 1
2. WHAT IS OR IS NOT CHANGING ABOUT WORK? ...................................... 6
3. WHAT ARE THE CHANGING USES AND MEANINGS OF LAND? ......................... 9
4. WHAT ARE THE OTHER WAYS IN WHICH PEOPLE ACCESS LIVELIHOOD RESOURCES? . 11
5. WHAT ARE THE CHANGING FORMS OF SOCIAL MEMBERSHIP? ....................... 13
6. WHAT FORMS OF POLITICS EMERGE AFTER THE CENTURY OF LABOURING MAN”? .. 16
7. CONCLUSION ....................................................................... 18
REFERENCES ............................................................................. 21
Working paper 51
1. INTRODUCTION
A long history of understanding matters of poverty, inequality, and global political-
economy in terms of a universal developmental transition has, inevitably, left deep
traces on all of our thinking -- even after many years of sustained critique of such
teleological meta-narratives. In a previous paper (Li 2017), one of us made an extended
argument about the continuing power of such “transition” thinking and the damage it
continues to do. Here, we do not aim to repeat this analysis, but to reflect on one aspect
of it: the fact that economic progress stories promised, as a culmination of the
“development” process, the universalization of waged or salaried employment -- a
society of jobs and jobholders. That this promise has so often ended up a broken one
does not diminish its attraction, as is clear in the rhetorical appeals of politicians the
world over: Jobs, jobs, jobs! The limited ability to think beyond the promised-land of
jobs for all afflicts not only politicians, but scholars as well.
Indeed, the “proper job” has served for so long as a presumed norm or telos of
“development” that we are too often left with a stunted and reactive set of categories
and concepts for thinking about all the other ways in which people make their way in
the world. This is perhaps why discussions of so-called “precarity” often rely on residual
categories of analysis (“unemployment”, informal economy”, non-standard
employment,” instability, insecurity) that render everything outside the world of “jobs”
a kind of negative space, defined by that which it is not.
There was a powerful vision implicit in the idea of an emerging “developed” world in
which paid labor might provide the basis both of a stable livelihood and of a kind of
social membership or incorporation for all. As people left their pre-industrial rural
agricultural or pastoral livelihoods, in such a conception, they would be fitted into the
modern new social order precisely by having “a job” -- that enchanted object that still
provides the normal answer to the question “So, what do you do?” A set of gendered
expectations about the breadwinner and the family; the organization of time and space;
the role of formal education; respectability and virtue; and contribution to the nation
were rolled into the notion of the “proper job” (or less commonly, a “proper business”).
We emphasize that this was not just an academic theory but a very widely shared social
ideal and expectation, both in the global North and (perhaps more surprisingly) across
much of the global South, where waged or salaried labor (especially industrial wage
labor and salaried government employment) often attained a kind of aspirational
universality that it nowhere achieved in reality. Today, as that imagined universality
gradually recedes in the rear-view mirror, its once-dominant status begins to become
visible to us as distinctive, perhaps even strange.
2
Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
As Guy Standing (2002: 7) once memorably put it, the 20th century, in retrospect, now
appears as “the century of laboring man,” a time when the lifeway of what had been a
small fraction of the population (the stabilized urban working class) became, quite
suddenly (and somehow -- for many -- quite convincingly) projected as the future of all.
And if “the century of laboring man” is, as Standing argues, at an end, it is not because
stable waged and salaried labor is disappearing in any absolute sense, but because it is
losing its plausibility as the universal solution, the obvious telos of a worldwide
developmental process. Whether due to the globalization of supply chains and labor
markets that undercuts established working classes, the persistent structural
unemployment and casualization induced by neoliberal restructuring and “austerity”, or
the recent and looming technological developments that threaten to eliminate or
drastically reduce whole categories of paid labor (increasingly including “white-collar”
office work), the old transition story no longer convinces.
One effect of this lost conviction is the apparently worldwide contemporary anxiety
about jobs and the social and economic stability they were long expected to anchor. The
anxiety springs from a perception that increasing proportions of the population, across
much of the world, can no longer rely upon (or even plausibly hope for) the sort of
stable waged or salaried labor that has long counted as a “proper job”. And this worry is
not confined to poor countries where whole populations appear as “surplus” to the
needs of capital (manifest in durably high levels of so-called “structural
unemployment”); in rich industrialized countries, too, the loss of manufacturing jobs
and general economic insecurity also raise the specter of what Michael Denning (2010)
has termed “wageless life”.
Some of this anxiety is about raw unemployment. But even more pervasive is the sense
of insecurity and uncertainty evoked by the now-widespread term “precarious” -- an
adjective that today finds surprisingly broad application across regions and social
classes. The term’s wide application is surely simply mistaken if it is meant to suggest a
single, shared set of substantive economic conditions (as if a freelance computer
programmer in Silicon Valley and a shack-dwelling casual laborer in Lusaka are
somehow part of the same, unitary “precariat”). But, for our purposes, what is
significant about “precarity” is the way that it surfaces a set of issues that go far beyond
purely economic ones. Just as jobs were never only about money, the anxiety we are
identifying here is not just about the loss of income or the threat of falling into absolute
poverty, but also about the wider implications of increasing casualization,
subcontracting, freelancing, improvising -- all the “flexibility”, uncertainty, and short-
termism that so undermines the (real or imagined) certainties and temporalities of the
old “breadwinner” world. The anxiety is thus not just about paychecks, but equally
about issues of identity, gender and family, national membership and so on that we have
suggested were long anchored by the social ideal of the “proper job”.
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3
Our question here is what comes after the demise of this compelling “world picture”?
How can we develop analytical understandings that attend both to the real large-scale
changes that the old grand narratives accounted for (or pretended to) and to the
persistently divergent pathways of labor and livelihoods that empirical research
documents for different sites and regions within a comprehensively inter-connected but
highly differentiated global political-economy? While the old transition narratives were
right that massive disruptions have fundamentally altered the relations of rural
communities to the land, the results of that disruption are much less linear and singular
than such narratives imply. Those expelled from the land do indeed sometimes get
recruited into industrial employment, but others remain in the countryside pursuing
mixed livelihoods which may have little to do with agriculture, while others come to the
city not as laborers but to join the massive populations who eke out livelihoods by
improvising in the so-called “informal economy” and levying distributive claims on
better-resourced others.
Similarly, urbanization has indeed swept across the globe and has now rendered the
majority of the world’s population city-dwellers, as the transition narratives expected.
But this has not involved any neat convergence with “first world” industrial cities -- on
the contrary, strikingly divergent trajectories in different parts of the world have
yielded fundamentally different types of cities that require to be understood as
something quite other than stages on the way to becoming Paris or New York. And if
some local and particular social identities have indeed lost their grip, as both
modernization theory and Marxism predicted, the profusion of identities and forms of
social membership that has emerged far exceeds the orderly categories of national
citizenship or class identity that those theoretical frameworks prepared us to expect.
To capture both the scale and global sweep of some of these changes and the crucial
social and historical differences that result in them taking such different form in
different sites across the world, it will not do to trade a grand progress story for an
equally grand narrative of dystopian failure. Things are both more complicated, and
(sometimes) more hopeful, than that. It is true, for instance, that rapidly-growing new
spontaneous urban settlements in the global South are sometimes sites of misery and
destitution, as Mike Davis (2006) suggests. But they are also often sites of social
advance, places where assertive new urbanites demand their “right to the city by
constructing homes and neighborhoods, and then press the state for services such as
water and electrification, sometimes with the support of social movements and
democratic political mobilization (discussed below). Indeed, a great many of the people
that accounts like Davis’s render as pitiful precarious masses, or as symptoms of a
pathological social order, actually seem to think their lives are improving.
1
In fact, we
do not need to choose between one vision that still anticipates that capitalism will (if we
just wait) bring jobs for all, and another that insists on its failure to do so. Both accounts
1
See the Pew Research Center survey on optimism (2014).
4
Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
are still so fixated on the old story-line of ever-expanding wage employment that they
get in the way of seeing the emergent realities we need to understand.
Instead, we offer a different analytic path: not a single unfolding story-line, but rather a
set of political-economic questions that are in some sense portable, and can be
profitably applied to the analysis of a diverse range of empirical contexts around the
world. We emphasize that it is the questions that are shared, not the answers. By
generating a matrix of difference and similarity across cases, we aim to give central place to
empirical specificities. But in interrogating those specificities via a set of categories and
questions that travel across cases and regions, we also hope to advance the project of
identifying large-scale patterns and arriving at comparative insights (we offer a few illustrative
examples of the kinds of patterns and insights we have in mind in the Conclusion, below). The
questions we pose below are preliminary and subject to revision and improvement. We offer
them here as a provocation, in hopes that researchers across a range of disciplines and using
different methodologies may take them both as a spur to empirical research, and as an
invitation to propose more and better questions.
1.1 No tes and qu erie s for p oli tic al-econo mic ana lys is
The hyphen in political-economic draws attention to the inseparability of access to
resources and unequal powers. The kind of inquiry that follows from this perspective
identifies the resources people depend on for their livelihoods (e.g. land, capital, jobs,
enterprises, state transfers, remittances, public services); the social and political
relations through which they may access those resources, or be excluded from access
(e.g. ownership, work, kinship, national membership); and the outcomes for health,
wealth, wellbeing, and security, among others.
Note that the outcomes are as much social and affective as they are material and this is a
key point. To give an example: if incomes were all that mattered, everyone in low-wage
economies would try to migrate to sites of high wages; yet the great majority stay in
place for reasons that include social membership (kin, community, or national) and the
sense of wellbeing that membership supplies. As we illustrate further below, access to
land or a salaried job often confers membership and holds meanings that cannot be
reduced to material value. Hence political-economic, in our use of the term, includes
social and cultural considerations of meaning as an integral component.
The analytical strategy we advocate is both global and differentiated. By global we do
not intend to counterpose global to local: all localities are formed through processes
that work across spatial scales, and take shape over different spans of time. Rather, we
use the term global to flag both connection and traffics across regions and localities (e.g.
of capital, labor, commodities, images), and the increasing portability of analytic
concepts across north/south, and rural/urban divides. There are of course differences
between the young, educated, unemployed men standing on street corners in India,
Working paper 51
5
South Africa or Spain, but their predicaments have a lot in common. The mixed, flexible,
livelihood strategies of urban and rural households increasingly converge.
Differentiation highlights the multiple ways resources and relations are combined
across spaces to enable or limit livelihoods for different social groups (classed, aged,
gendered, racialized), and their varied trajectories and outcomes. When detached from
grand narratives of progress or immiseration, there is no reason to expect one trend
(e.g. improved income) to line up with others. For example, national health indicators
may be improving even while jobs are scarce; poverty may be reduced while incomes
become more unequal; incomes may increase even as a community experiences
ecological ruin, or insecurity deriving from the absence of family members who have
migrated; land rights may be secure, while economic stagnation leaves people feeling
left out of the march of progress.
The most important political-economic question concerns how differentiated outcomes
arise the processes and powers that bring them about. We propose to approach this
question inductively, without presuming to identify key processes in advance. We do
not assume, for example, that the global expansion of capitalism, or neoliberalism, or
technological advance are the key elements configuring lives beyond the “proper job.”
These processes may or may not be key, and even if they are, they take on highly
differentiated forms as they intersect with other processes and powers shaping
particular conjunctures. Political economy, in our conception, foregrounds a domain of
inquiry which can be used to anchor a research agenda which engages with historical
processes, without smuggling a telos back into its core. It provides the sub-text to the
questions we want to pose, but does not prefigure the answers. In this spirit, and
without aiming to be comprehensive, the following sections pose questions that offer
points of entry for understanding lives and livelihoods, membership and meaning minus
the telos (though not the spectre) of the “proper job.” We do not seek to answer these
questions here. Our focus, instead, is on trying to ask the right questions. In that spirit,
we propose not an argument with a conclusion, but a series of productive lines of
inquiry, which we present as lightly annotated lists, on the model of the old
anthropology field manual, “Notes and Queries”.
2
“Notes and Queries” was not an assembly of research findings, or a review of a scholarly
literature; it was a list of useful questions. In the same spirit, and due to constraints of
space, we do not attempt to cite or summarize the rich and extensive bodies of work
that already explore the questions we pose. We certainly do not imagine that we are the
first to pose any of these questions, nor are we ignorant of the impressive work that has
been done to address them, through many decades and across a range of disciplines.
But the aim of our exercise is neither to review a literature nor to come up with
2
Notes and Queries on Anthropology: For the Use of Travellers and Visitors was commissioned by the British Academy of Sciences. It was
first published in 1874, and updated until the 1950s as a practical guide for field-based research. While these dated texts betray their colonial
origins in a number of ways, the idea of posing a common set of empirical questions across diverse contexts still seems useful.
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
questions never before asked or topics never before researched. Rather, in the spirit of
the original “Notes and Queries,” we aim to offer suggestions that might help
researchers be more explicit and systematic about what questions are worth asking,
where, and why.
We hope that some explicit deliberation about the sorts of questions that can usefully be
asked across many different research locations (and not only in one’s own field site)
might enable a productive cross-over of questions that have proven useful and
productive in one setting or region to others.
When the same question gives rise to interesting but different answers in different
cases, opportunities emerge for inductive thinking, new categorizations and concepts,
and comparative insights. Given these methodological aims, we concentrate here on
explicating the questions themselves, and will cite empirical findings only where
necessary to clarify a conceptual point or to illustrate something about the analytical
approach we are proposing.
2. WHAT IS OR IS NOT CHANGING ABOUT WORK?
The ways that things are changing with respect to work and how we think about it can
be seen in the terminologies with which we discuss it. The ILO, for instance, has long
distinguished a category of employment termed “non-standard”. Non-standard is “an
umbrella term” for work such as “temporary employment; part-time and on-call work;
temporary agency work …; disguised employment and dependent self-employment”.
3
What is striking in this definition is the shadow cast by the notion of “standard
employment,” a presumed norm that renders everything outside it a kind of
miscellaneous “other.”
Today, in much of the world, the “non-standard” is in fact the standard, and a residual
term for what was imagined as a residual category seems wholly inadequate to the
realities it seeks to capture. Indeed, in recent years, the ILO itself has been moving away
from the attempt to rigidly classify types of work, worker, or sector, and now offers the
broad category of “vulnerable employment” to capture the huge numbers of people --
50% of the global labour force, by the ILO’s estimate -- who do not employ others (i.e.
have a “proper business”) or have a “proper job.”
4
So what, then, do they do? If, as
Munck (2013:756) argues, labour relations today are not characterized by a single trend
but rather by “a radical global heterogeneity,” getting a grip on this heterogeneity
requires asking the right questions.
3
International Labour Office, “Non-standard Forms of Employment”. http://ilo.org/global/topics/non-standard-employment/lang--en/index.htm,
accessed on April 25, 2017.
4
Vulnerable employment includes “own account” workers (e.g. micro-entreprepreneurs who sell goods, services, or labour as and when they can)
together with their labour-contributing family members. The number so employed is around 1.5 billion, with a range from 10% of workers in the
OECD to around 80% in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (ILO 2013:143, 145).
Working paper 51
7
One set of questions that might be asked of any setting refers to changing types and
patterns of work. Which sectors of the (global, national, or local) economy are shedding
or hiring formally-employed workers? Who has access to these jobs? Which kinds of
paid work are outsourced, contractualised, temporary or part time? Conversely, which
kinds of worker are subject to bonding, capture or indenture? How are returns to
different kinds of work rising or falling in relation to prices? Who does what kinds of
“informal” or “own account” work (e.g. money lending, petty retail, cottage
manufacturing, intermittent wage labor, home repair, services), and what are the
returns and barriers to entry? How is competition mitigated? What kinds of work have
become commodified (i.e. shifted from unpaid to paid) or decommodified (from paid to
unpaid)? How has technology figured in the elimination of some kinds of work, and the
creation of others? Is the time specific groups of people spend working increasing or
decreasing?
Equally important questions pertain to the changing meanings of work. While we have
argued that stable waged or salaried work became widely viewed as desirable in the
global North and South, and that important legal rights and social status were pegged to
it, this too needs to be checked empirically in different contexts. Looking back in time,
where and when did manual work become culturally recognized for its “usefulness to
the world” (Castel, 1996)? Which types of work and (gendered, racialized) worker were
so recognized, and which types were excluded?
5
What kinds of moral judgement were
passed on people whose forms of work were illegible or hard to discipline? Keeping
such histories in view, for whom is present-day instability in work and income an
alarming shift, new and different enough, as Standing suggests, to produce a distinctive
“precariat” consciousness of loss and relative deprivation? For whom is precariousness
not just routine, but unremarkable?
Gender and generation are likely to be central to different expectations about work, and
about what it means to have or to lack a “proper job.”. Has the massive increase in
access to secondary and post-secondary education in the global South made young
people reluctant to follow their parents’ paths, working on the land or hustling in the
“informal economy”? Do they fear disappointing parents who expected schooling to
yield upward social mobility? Do they see themselves as waiting for work - or as
permanently locked out from the future work seemed to promise? Does lack of a
“proper job” produce delayed adulthood, a crisis of masculinity, and nostalgia for the
vanishing “breadwinner” role? How do women’s expectations about work differ from
those of men? Do they seek recognition for their paid and unpaid work, including the
huge component labelled “domestic,” and work done to sustain social relations (see
section 3)? If so, would such recognition mirror, in some way, the recognition given to
5
For studies of the emergence of what Kathi Weeks (2011) calls the “work society” in the global North and South, see Roderik, 2015;
Cooper, 1996; Barchiesi, 2011; and Lordon, 2014. For a range of perspectives on contemporary forms of labour see the special issue of the
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute on "Dislocating Labour" (March 2018), and the Development and Change Forum on "The
'Labour Question' in Contemporary Capitalism 2014 (45:5).
8
Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
the “proper job” of the laboring man,” or take quite different forms? Is lack of a “proper
job” understood as a personal failing? Or a cultural pathology of particular social
groups? Or the result of government failures in job creation and investment in “human
capital?” When, where, and by whom is the lack of “proper jobs” grasped as a structural
fact - one to which everyone must adapt as best they can?
Alongside a widespread (but variable) nostalgia and longing for the “proper jobs” of
imagined “old days,” there have always been other attitudes and affects toward work.
“Upper classes” in a range of social contexts often mark their status by not working, or
at least not working at anything that looks like toil conducted in the service of others. Is
work seen as “wage slavery,” as an unfortunate necessity, as a curse, as a virtue, or as a
calling - the locus of identity, creativity, and passion? What, in sum, are the
differentiated (racialized, spatialized, gendered, aged) images and affects that attach
people to work or repel them from it, and how are these affects produced?
Like the desire to have a “proper job,” a desire to have a “proper business” is an affective
attachment with a traceable social history. What are the meanings and motives that
lead people to seek their futures in business, or to be (or aspire to become)
entrepreneurs? Is it a long-standing desire (like the desire to have one’s own farm,
hence not to work as a farm labourer), or the assumed natural path for a member of an
established trading family or business-oriented ethnic group? Or is it something new,
perhaps distinctively neoliberal, as everyone is encouraged to think of themselves as
human capital, and their lives as an enterprise in which they need to invest?
Entrepreneurship may be understood as liberatory - a way to escape control by “the
man” or spending time on dirty, dangerous, or pointless jobs. Fostering
entrepreneurship is also a way governments, “philanthro-capitalists” like the Gates
Foundation and other educational, development and humanitarian agencies download
responsibility to ordinary people. In the name of empowerment and a (revised) version
of accomplished citizenship, it is sometimes suggested, everyone, including the young
and the very poor, should devise their own livelihoods, and create their own jobs.
Concretely, then, what are the sites and forms in which entrepreneurial futures are
being actively imagined and promoted for different types of people? A preliminary list
would include entrepreneurship programs for migrants to channel their remittances
into community development; for indigenous people to commercialize their arts and
crafts; for women to engage in micro-enterprises financed by micro-credit; for
engineering students in universities or high school students to “hatch” ideas for start-
ups; and for people seeking less-capitalist “alternatives” to access finance and build
networks of support.
These questions are all elements of potential differentiation. While the portability of the
questions speaks to broadly shared structural problems and challenges, the vast range
Working paper 51
9
of empirical answers to these questions allows us to grasp the strikingly different
resolutions that emerge from specific historical and cultural trajectories.
3. WHAT ARE THE CHANGING USES AND MEANINGS OF LAND?
Old narratives about rural and urban land linked to transition scenarios often suggested
that land was an “under-utilized” resource that needed to be put to more efficient use.
These narratives continue to do powerful ideological work, and serious harms are
inflicted upon a great many people in the name of development, efficiency, growth etc.
At the same time, contemporary narratives about land-grabbing or primitive
accumulation could give the impression that there is a rising tide of global landlessness.
As always, the actual pattern is more differentiated. In some parts of the world, land
frontiers are still open; in others, they have closed down some recently, some
centuries ago.
The ways in which people can be excluded from access to land are also varied:
regulatory regimes for zoning and titling define who can do what, where; market pricing
(the cost to buy or rent) excludes those who can’t afford the price; and brute force (e.g.
eviction by governments, corporations, or ethnic militias) is often in play (Hall, Hirsch
and Li, 2011). Nevertheless, it continues to be relevant to ask who does access rural or
urban land as part of their livelihood strategy, what exactly they do with it, and what it
means to them. A tiny house or rented room; an urban house-garden; a patch of
vegetables beside a railway track; or freedom to hunt and gather may be far more
important both materially and socially than they initially appear.
In the classic agrarian studies literature, the central function of land was as a productive
asset, and its meaning could be understood in class terms: being a “landowner” signaled
a definite position in a social and cultural order. In this agrarian world the haiku
formulated by Henry Bernstein (2010) neatly captures the political- economic questions
that need to be asked: who owns what, who does what, who gets what, and what do
they do with the surplus? The assumption behind the haiku is that land is the key
productive resource, and that modes of work and extraction will be closely tied to it.
Bernstein’s questions still fit remarkably well in some places, notably in the highlands of
Sulawesi described by Li in Land’s End (2014), where farming was the only productive
activity, wage work on and off farm was very scarce, and no one received state transfers
or remittances to help supplement incomes, manage debt, or restart production after a
failed harvest. Highlanders sank or swam based on the size and productivity of their
farms, hence owning land was key, and returns to labour and capital (who gets what)
depended upon it. In much of the rural and urban world, in contrast, land forms part of
more complex livelihood strategies, and is embedded in sets of meanings and relations
that are more diverse. The questions that follow concern what rural and urban land
holding enables, and what it means. Three clusters of questions stand out.
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
First, what is the material role of land in production: do people grow food, graze
livestock, hunt, or gather? Is the food for their own subsistence, or to subsidize the food-
budgets of kin (children away studying; wage-earners hard pressed to make ends
meet?) Do they grow or collect commodities for sale? Does land (and housing) furnish a
source of credit through mortgage, or income through rent? Note that renting out rooms
may be a crucial livelihood strategy in urban areas. Rent may also figure in very remote
rural places, where landholders receive rent in return for allowing corporations (or
small-scale miners) to mine their land, or in return for setting land aside for
conservation or the provision of “eco-system services” and the mitigation of climate
change. The location of the land is often the key to its productive use: in rural areas this
may mean proximity to roads and markets (or mineral deposits and forests); in cities,
having a rented house or room in a busy location enables people to conduct petty trade
and survive on tiny incomes that would not cover commuting costs. Most social
assistance programs require the recipient to have an address.
Second, what role does land (and housing) play in people’s strategies for forging and
sustaining social relations, and harnessing them to collective projects? Households with
no assets - no land or house - tend to be denuded of members; young people leave when
their parents have nothing to offer them, and they don’t necessarily return or remit.
Conversely, land (and housing) may serve as an anchor that draws in family members
and encourages the multi-generational pooling of resources: care for the elderly; a place
to go when injured, sick or unemployed; a site to gather in remittances to invest in
house building or a small business; a demonstration of social status and credit-
worthiness, or value on the marriage-mart; and a place to bury family members,
including migrants whose remittances earn them a proper, social funeral. Truly
destitute people are often those who are not only without productive work, but without
a stable physical space in which to build and sustain social and affective ties.
The third set of uses and meanings of land focuses on national and community
membership. What are people struggling for, when they demand land reform, or
recognition of ethnic homelands and indigenous territories? Distributive land reform
and land formalization programs serve to recognize small-scale farmers as national
citizens, entitled to share in a national resource; and sometimes to revalorize the form
of life associated with the Via Campesina, or “peasant way.” For other kinds of
community - clans, ethnic groups, indigenous people or autochthones - state recognition
of the right to territory is both the fulfilment of ancestral identities, and a claim on a
particular, differentiated kind of national citizenship. What people do with land, in
short, is linked to other elements of livelihood, membership, security and wellbeing. The
meanings of landlessness vary as well.
In India and parts of Indonesia where landlessness has been entrenched for two
centuries, landlessness is nothing new. For Chinese peasants who were anchored on
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collective land for the past 50 years, the government’s plan to remove 300 million
people permanently from the countryside and place them in cities is intended to be a
complete rupture: rural land has been assigned to new uses and new users, and there is
no going back. For better or worse, “losing” land, in this case, means the reconfiguration
of identities, livelihoods, and forms of belonging to communities and the nation, as well
as a radically new relation to the state. How this story will end is anything but clear:
watch this space.
4. WHAT ARE THE OTHER WAYS IN WHICH PEOPLE ACCESS
LIVELIHOOD RESOURCES?
Often even quite poor people receive money or other resources that do not come from
either agriculture, industry, or service-sector labor. Migrant remittances are one of the
best studied examples. The expansion of credit schemes to finance consumption while
mortgaging the future have also received much attention. In addition, with the growth
of social protection programs dispensing “cash transfers,” there is a new recognition of
the importance of state social payments in low- and middle-income countries we are not
used to thinking of as welfare states. But there is huge variation in the amount of these
payments, the range of people who qualify to receive them, the extent to which
conditionality is applied (e.g., requirements for enrollment of children in school or
regular visits to clinics), and the sort of reasoning that is considered (by both “givers”
and “receivers”) to warrant or justify receipt of a social transfer. In some contexts,
transfer schemes are framed as investments in human capital, or linked to coercive
forms of “workfare” or job training. In southern Africa, the old idea of a social grant as a
kind of “help for the helpless” charity coexists with a newer line of thinking that
identifies state services (including social transfers) as a kind of “rightful share” paid to
citizen who may reckon themselves to be owners of the nation (and its mineral wealth).
Do recipients of social transfers express a sense of entitlement? Or are they plagued by
connotations of dependence and shame linked to moralized ideas of the virtue of work
and the shame of “idleness” and “handouts”? As with different forms of work, the
research imperative here is both to build a catalog of different forms of resource
transfer, and to pursue a deeper inquiry into the meanings and effect of these transfers.
Beyond migrant remittances and state transfers, there are many other possibilities for
accessing livelihood resources. Some take the form of dependence on patrons or kin, as
anthropologists have long observed. These various strategies for tapping into streams
of income controlled by others, however, are effective only where there are specific
mechanisms that make them so. While romantic pictures of “moral economies” and
“shared poverty” sometimes suggest a world where poor people spontaneously look out
for each other, the best research shows a more complicated politico-ethical terrain,
where fierce predation and profound generosity coexist. On such terrain, successful
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
access to the support of kin is not automatic, and simply having relatives does not
necessarily prevent destitution and abandonment.
6
Mutual assistance, such as it is, is typically built on forms of reciprocity (even if
sometimes on a miniscule scale), and solidarities are not automatic, but depend on
mechanisms of enforcement and sanction. Street sellers, for example, may “agree” not to
undercut each other both out of solidarity and to avoid a beating. Within families, there
is usually no expectation that care for the elderly or the sick will be reciprocated in kind,
raising important questions about where the boundary around “family” is drawn, and
how it shifts as conditions change. Shifts in practice may be masked by continuities in
moral language (“it is our custom to help our kin”), so the potential gap between what is
said and what is done merits close attention.
What this means is that when people do succeed in accessing material support by
drawing upon their social relationships, they do so only as a result of the prior
formation of loyalties and obligations. This formation is both individual and collective,
insofar as cumulative histories of mutual assistance open up a field of action within
which claims can be made on grounds of care, love, familial duty, and social obligation.
All the activity that goes into maintaining and massaging these relationships itself
constitutes a particular sort of (non-productive) work that can be termed “distributive
labor” (Ferguson 2015). Understanding these typically-small (but for the recipient,
vital) informal flows of resources therefore requires attending to a series of empirical
questions about how social relations enable or motivate distribution. How do people
put themselves in a position where their distributive claims are likely to be attended to?
Who or what are the targets of these claims? What sorts of social, moral, and ethical
arguments or reasoning undergird these claims? What kinds of “petty reciprocations”
(du Toit and Neves 2009) are necessary to attain the forms of membership and
recognition that might support a distributive claim? On what grounds may claimants be
abandoned? Again, a common set of questions will yield very different answers in
different settings.
Note that the modes of support individuals may tap are very difficult to investigate,
methodologically, and the standard social-scientific survey is usually not up to the job.
Consider, for instance, the case where a person (typically, but not necessarily, a young
woman) accesses resource flows via her sexual and domestic intimacy with better-off
others. The situation is familiar enough, but as Jennifer Cole (2010) has shown, it is not
so simple, and the phrase “sex work” does not begin to capture what is entailed. Her
research in the Malagasy port town of Tamatave showed that stable, formal-sector jobs
are only a memory left over from colonial and socialist eras, and little attractive
employment is available for either sex. Hence young women have trouble finding either
6
Even for those turned away by kin and community, accessing the income streams of others (by hook or by crook) may still be a crucial
livelihood activity. Indeed, such access is often central to the practical art of living on the street, with its distinctive practices of hustling,
stealing, collecting, and scamming.
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jobs or local young men who might appear as suitable candidates for marriage. Many
young women therefore pursue a range of different sorts of sexual and romantic
relations with well-to-do older men, especially foreign men who visit the local hotels.
Some of this involves activities that would conventionally be described as sex work, but
there is usually more to it than sex, and there is often a hope (or, indeed, a plan) that a
sexual liaison may become a “relationship” and ultimately even a marriage. The
statuses of prostitute, girlfriend, mistress, and wife are not discrete, and there is much
movement from one to another. The flows of resources that are accessed in this way
support individual women and their kin, who have their own ways of tapping into the
income streams that enter the community via the women’s intimate attachments.
The young women themselves talk of their pursuits not as “making a living” but rather,
in Cole’s translation of a Malagasy phrase, as “making themselves living”. This felicitous
expression is a useful reminder that some of the most important sources of non-wage
and non-farm livelihood today are bound up with the construction of persons and social
relations. These improvised livelihoods do not simply replicate the form of the “proper
jobs” of old (as if instead of clocking in at the factory, the worker now simply reports to
work at the gates of the “informal economy” instead). Instead, such ways of “making
oneself living” involve the whole person, and comprise the whole of social life. What is
true of service work in general is in Cole’s case seen in its most extreme form -- the
“work” entailed is not simply a quantum of labour, but instead entails the cultivation of
relations of intimacy and sociality that are themselves part of one’s whole personal and
familial life. Such ability to access resources in this way occurs (when it does) within
dense networks of dependence, and is the product of all the complex, subtle, and
indirect ways in which poor people “make themselves living”. While surveys can be very
effective ways of assessing resources that are already in some sense socially
standardized (like formal sector occupational categories, the amount of a monthly pay
check, or the size of a legally-surveyed and titled landholding), the diffuse and
improvised distributive labour that underlies so many small-scale and intimate forms of
direct resource transfer requires methodological access to a whole social way of life that
only ethnography can provide.
5. WHAT ARE THE CHANGING FORMS OF SOCIAL MEMBERSHIP?
Throughout “the century of laboring man”, social scientists attended to some forms of
social membership or belonging much more than others. The highlighted forms were
linked to certain real or imagined stable points of reference -- whether communities
grounded in territorial place, ethnic and tribal groups linked by culture, urban identities
rooted in occupation, workplace and neighborhood, or citizens defined by nation-state
membership. The solidity often attributed to such forms of membership was always
something of an illusion, but in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to
understand much of what happens in the world in terms of such units of belonging.
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
Local identities and nation-states alike are increasingly undermined or reconfigured by
the scale and volume of the movement of people while, as we have noted, the image of a
society structured around holders of “proper jobs” has been losing its centrality and
putative universality. What does social membership look like to a petty Somali trader
working out of a shack in a South African township while angling for refugee papers to
get to Australia? His place, his ethnic affiliation, his job, his nationality -- all are moving
targets, the product of continuous improvisation and renegotiation. Anything but solid
and agreed upon, they are, in a real way, up for grabs.
These decenterings suggest a range of questions about how social membership may be
changing or becoming reconfigured. If it is true that membership is today less often
linked to such familiar touchstones as living in a village, or working in a job, or being a
citizen of a nation, what alternatives appear? Note that even those most excluded from
more traditional arrangements do not simply dissolve into an asocial Hobbesian mass,
nor do they necessarily suffer from rootless anomie. So what else is there?
One set of questions about changing forms of members revolves around the troubled
category of “youth,” a contemporary keyword that generally references not so much the
chronologically young as the structurally un-placed. What becomes of job-seekers who
are not job-finders? What place do they find in society? How do they manage the
transition to social adulthood, which has so often been linked to employment (especially
for young men)? Do they continue to be dependent on parents or other kin? What is
the situation with respect to marriage? Are fewer people getting married? Or are
definitions of what marriage is, and who is “marriageable” adapting to new realities?
A related set of questions attaches to education. The old idea that education is a
straight-line conduit to employment is in many places no longer viable. The
unemployed secondary-school or college graduate is a global figure. Yet the demand for
education seems undiminished. What motivates this? What does schooling provide, if
not a job? How important are the non-material payoffs, such as the superior social
status of belonging to the enlightened class of “modern” people? More broadly, in the
eyes of young people who are precariously employed, what kinds of accomplishment or
distinction are linked to what kinds of social membership? The range is huge, and could
include anything from skills in reciting the Koran to having the right phone or a
fashionable hair style.
Where work-based or land-based identities are receding in importance (or simply
unavailable), what other identities or forms of real or imagined membership do people
rely upon? Some involve the ways that people are bound together in face-to-face
communities or associations. Peer groups, gangs, and religious congregations,
especially those with intense forms of sociality forged through frequent, sometimes
daily meetings seem to mimic, in some ways, the daily routines, time discipline and
forms of belonging of the formal workplace. In addition to forms of local community,
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some of the rapidly expanding religious denominations are linked to global aspirations
and imaginaries (e.g. Islam as a global community), and to opportunities (or hopes) for
international travel.
A different sort of membership involves forms of identity that are accessed or claimed
through consumption. Without necessarily meeting face to face, adoption of styles of
dress, musical preferences, and fandom are markers of identity, but how important are
these identities and for whom? What forms of membership and belonging do social
media networks offer? How does this vary by gender, generation, and urban or rural
location? What sorts of mass media are in play, and how do people use them (radio, TV,
DVDs; feature phones and smart phones; computers and internet cafes)?
Finally, it is important to map how forms of membership interact with livelihood
strategies. There is nothing new about this question, but new configurations may be
appearing that make old reference points of identity and belonging seem less solid. For
instance, the school-teacher of-old had a professional identity more or less directly
linked to citizenship and nation-building. But today, fewer people may hold salaried
state jobs, and the petty entrepreneurial identities of “non-standard employment” that
have replaced them may “scale up” quite differently (e.g. to an extended family or a
transnational ethnic diaspora, rather than to the nation-state). Do economic strategies
via out-migration link with issues of membership and identity in new ways? For
example, in places where migration is pervasive, does this make “home” a place of little
value, where “nothing is happening”, and one kills time until the next trip abroad? Are
there new configurations linking place to social standing? A state bureaucrat in
Bucharest, for instance, might once have had a stable and highly-valued social status,
but the sudden availability of mass out-migration to EU labor markets may devalue his
job, and make his commitment to it seem a bit ridiculous. Another person from the
same town may work in Italy cleaning toilets, but be making more money, and position
himself as part of a dynamic and forward-looking “wider world”. How do international
hierarchies of wage scales intersect with mobility to yield other sorts of hierarchies of
value and identity?
Let us be clear: none of the forms of belonging and identity that we are flagging here are
new in any absolute sense. But they were often understood as secondary or peripheral
to the more central and fundamental forms of belonging generated by job, farm, family,
and nation. Today, this centrality is far less certain, and forms of membership and
identity once thought of as peripheral or supplementary may be required to bear more
weight. In any case, the analytical imperative here is to resist the tendency to see the
displacements and disruptions of the contemporary global political-economy simply in
terms of loss and nostalgia for the past, and instead to map a richly variegated
landscape of emerging forms of belonging and aspiration (which may well include
nostalgia and feelings of loss among other elements).
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
6. WHAT FORMS OF POLITICS EMERGE AFTER THE CENTURY OF
LABOURING MAN”?
Labour, consumption, taxes and votes were key pillars attaching individuals to nation
states, and points of potential political leverage and mobilization in the real-and-
imagined world of the “proper job.” Industrial wage work and salaried employment,
whether in manufacturing, mines, plantations or government bureaucracies, produced a
particular kind of historical subject with modes of engagement that were common
across diverse sites. Most obviously, withdrawal of labour served as a potent form of
leverage. Beyond this, in the global North and South alike, the class-based solidarities
that emerged in industrial and bureaucratic settings linked workers to mass movements
and parties that channeled their demands through stable institutions, with varied
results (Rodrik, 2015).
In some cases, organized worker power was viciously repressed. In much of the OECD,
political settlements were eventually forged to mediate the contradictory interests of
capital and labour, resulting in social insurance schemes, regulated workplaces, the
male family wage, and standards of consumption sufficient to enable (some) workers to
identify themselves as “middle class.” Yet a great many people - variously gendered,
racialized and spatialized - have always been left out of the kinds of politics that
accompanied the real-and-imagined “century of laboring man.” More generally, when
labor is in abundant supply, some of the pragmatic reasons that led ruling classes to
invest in the maintenance of a healthy and productive workforce evaporate.
Simultaneously, global markets make the value of citizens-as-consumers much less
certain; so too their value as taxpayers, in contexts where a state apparatus is financed
from resource revenues, donor dollars, or sovereign debt.
Today, in many parts of the globe, the basis for a social contract between citizens, states
and capital is far from obvious; yet people whose existence as workers, consumers or
tax-payers is “surplus” to requirements do not simply disappear. They mobilize, in
varying ways, to make their presence felt, and to make demands. Our questions in this
section probe the kinds of political mobilizations, struggles and settlements that emerge
in the globally differentiated political-economic order we have sketched. How, in short,
do people who cannot assert leverage as workers make - or fail to make - effective
claims to economic distributions and/or political power?
A global and differentiated account would need to identify who mobilizes, and what - if
anything - gives mobilized subjects leverage? For much of the twentieth century, it was
the spectre of socialist revolution that underlay both state violence and a range of
political settlements that sought to incorporate citizens and workers into national and
corporate agendas. Absent the spectre of this kind of revolution, what sectors of the
population need to be incorporated or repressed, in order for capitalists to flourish, and
ruling regimes to be secure? When do “floating” or “dangerous” classes become a
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problem of governance, and how is the problem managed? If new class maps are being
drawn, as Kasmir and Carbonella (2014) argue, what are their coordinates? On what
basis are insiders (we, the selected, included) separated from outsiders (class enemies,
folk devils, those to be abandoned or excluded), and how does the division shape
political subjectivities? Who is involved in collective mobilization of different kinds
(e.g. mass marches, street violence, boycotts)? Which protests directly disrupt
accumulation (e.g. labour strikes, rent strikes, resistance to eviction, collective refusals
to pay interest on debt)? To whom are demands addressed - is it to corporations,
national governments, municipalities, or non-state entities (e.g. humanitarian
organizations, or the UN)? What is the idiom of claiming: a class compact; a rightful
share of national wealth; the promises of the revolution; the “social” in social democracy
that austerity fails to erase; a religious obligation or ethic of care; or universal human
rights? How is the enemy characterized (e.g. the 1%, the migrant, the welfare recipient,
the corrupt politician, the IMF or WTO)? What historical formations make a particular
demand (e.g. for jobs or housing) plausible in some contexts, but unthinkable in others?
Voting is one type of leverage, but there are big differences in whether or not people
turn out to vote (Kenya 86%, South Africa and Indonesia around 75%, India 66%, USA
58%), and what people in different national contexts think a vote can do. There is also
divergence in who or what people vote for: do parties and politicians represent class-
based constituencies, or ethnic blocks? Do clientelist compacts link politicians to voters
seeking access to specific goods, like city services, or are votes simply paid for in cash,
with no expectation of longer term commitments? Do politicians’ promises (e.g. for
infrastructure, “benefit sharing,” jobs) carry credibility? Does the willingness of crowds
to participate in rallies, boycotts, or elections confer important legitimacy on politicians,
or is it irrelevant to them? What is the relation between the nation state as a site of
demands, and the actual capacity of particular national governments to manage a
“national economy?”
Protecting a population through programs of direct distribution (e.g. cash transfers,
subsidized rice) may be understood as self-serving attempts to buy peace, and quiet
disruptive masses. But do they actually produce quietism, or an escalation of demands?
Transfers intended by states, humanitarian organizations, or NGOs to be short term or
exceptional (e.g. in response to war or natural disaster), may be resignified as rights in
perpetuity. Conversely, when populations are abandoned by their governments (or by
humanitarian and other service organizations) what is the idiom in which abandonment
is justified? How does the organization of space enable abandonment (e.g. by keeping
poor out of sight), or disable it (e.g. when migrants succeed in crossing borders and
using their proximity to make claims)? Is there a narrative applauding self reliance, or a
reference to cultures of family and community care that absolve the state of
responsibility? How is the risk that abandoned people might mobilize assessed and
mitigated? This is another field in which apocalyptic scenarios of militarized cities and
embattled mineral extraction zones must be balanced with attention to places in which
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
people seldom mobilize, though they are very poor; or places where violence is
distributed in the population, mafia-style, or deflected towards differently gendered,
racialized, or national groups.
Finally, while it is relatively easy to see how repression, violence, the manipulation of
elections, and the rise of xenophobic movements can divide people, it is less obvious
how the space for inclusive forms of mobilization is expanded, and cross border, cross
class, interethnic or multi-issue alliances are produced. What kinds of cross-cutting
alliances have traction within nations and transnationally? How do outmigration and
the formation of diasporic communities shape mobilizations at different sites and
scales? What is the role of national or transnational religious movements, social
movements, peasant federations, non-government organizations, trade unions, student
unions, and media? Do global rights regimes, transnational solidarity, humanitarian
organizations, and rankings systems (e.g., the Human Development Index, the
Transparency International Corruption Index) have an impact on national political
processes? In view of the historical formation of political subjects we outlined above,
and the ossification that often characterizes political life at the national scale, what
factors have enabled long-repressed subjects (indigenous people, for example) to
emerge as assertive actors making demands? And are these demands for membership -
for inclusion in the dominant order - or for autonomy from it? Are transformative,
revolutionary and utopian programs on the agenda, or are modest adjustments within
existing structures the default mode of mobilization and alliance?
7. CONCLUSION
Our goal in this article has been to reflect on the terrain of global political-economic
inquiry that has opened up with the demise of the “proper job” as the presumed norm
or telos of development. We argued that transition narratives, although frequently
debunked in the scholarly literature, have left a stubborn trace on analytical categories
and research agendas. Too often research is framed by a negative, what something is
not, rather than what it is, hence “non-standard” or “informal” work; “unproductive”
uses of land; distribution as the inferior cousin of production; work based social
membership and class-based political mobilization as the norm from which other
modes deviate in apparently erratic or retrograde ways.
In the aftermath of what is increasingly acknowledged as the failure of grand
developmental narratives that claim to know which way the world is headed, we have
argued for a renewed political-economic analysis of life beyond the “proper job” that is
both global and differentiated. To illustrate what such an analysis could look like, we
have posed some key questions: What is and is not changing about work? What are the
uses and meanings of land? How else -- besides selling their labor or working the land --
do people access livelihood resources? What are the emerging forms of social
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membership? How do people mobilize politically to make effective demands or to
pursue systemic change? To make these core questions more concrete, we have
elaborated with sub-themes in a “notes and queries” style. The questions are many but
they are not random: they are guided by a political-economic analytic that foregrounds
unequal access to resources, and attends to how socially-situated subjects sustain,
navigate, and transform power-laden meanings and practices in diverse and dynamic
ways. We offer them as a preliminary indication of what to look for, where to look, and
how to relate one process to another. They are points of entry into domains of social,
political and economic life that merit empirical analysis at a range of scales, enriched by
a spirit of comparison and a range of methodological tools.
A few brief examples will perhaps help to illustrate the way that we understand the
power of displacing a normative analytical object to open up new empirical questions
and new analytical insights. To take one well-known instance, for much of the twentieth
century, “the family” was (like the “proper job”) a heavily moralized object of
knowledge that shaped both popular and scholarly understandings of what societies
ought to be and where they ought to be going. With “the family” understood as both
norm and telos of a developmental process, early social research often treated what
were in fact diverse and heterogeneous sets of practices and relations either as
derivatives or extensions of “proper” -- read “nuclear” -- families (e.g., the “extended”
family) or as pathological deviations from it (thus the colonial discourse of the
“breakdown” of families, and the distinctions between “normal” or “intact” families on
the one hand, and “female-headed” or “single-parent” ones on the other). When “the
family” was decentered and historicized (in a wave of critical research inspired by
feminist social theory), a range of fresh new questions and research agendas came into
view. To give just one illustrative example, Megan Vaughan’s ground-breaking work in
Malawi (1983) showed that refusing to take “the family” as a transhistoric analytical
object allowed other social realities to be made visible and recognized as powerful (in
her case demonstrating that conceptions of “extended” or “broken down” families in fact
concealed a range of different sorts of interactions between matrilineages and
households, and an important form of non-kin relation linking groups of women termed
chinjira).
Something similar can be observed in discussions of states in Africa, where a literature
on “failed states” is overdetermined by the question of what such “states” are not,
limiting analysis of the diverse institutional configurations that actually exist, how they
are formed, and what they do. Achille Mbembe (2001:9) has decried such approached
as part of a larger pattern, in which Western social science tells us “nearly everything
that African states, societies, and economies are not” while telling us much too little
about what they are. Here, too, displacing the implicit figure of the “proper state” can
help open up more productive analytical research agendas focused on emergent
realities rather than lacks, deviations, and failures.
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
A similar decentering enabled a useful shift in perspective in a project one of us recently
completed on land relations in Southeast Asia. Here, the initial assumption that Li made
with her co-authors, Derek Hall and Philip Hirsch, was that the key process driving
changing access to land was commodification: spurred by the march of capital and
neoliberal policy agendas, the authors thought the book would document the increasing
dominance of markets-markets everywhere. But there was a problem: none of the
authors, each with their own empirical research base in different parts of the region,
found that commodification was the only trend, or even the dominant trend in land
relations. There were moves to de-commodify land access, some generated from above,
some from below. There were powers at work -- brute force, the will to govern space,
and arguments about proper land use -- that jangled awkwardly with market forces.
And the processes driving changing land access were diverse, but consistent across the
region: a desire among ordinary farmers, as well as governments and investors, to
formalize land tenure; the expansion of plantation agriculture and peri-urban land use;
the rise of conservation; class differentiation among smallholders; and the emergence of
ethno-territorial arguments as a basis for claiming land.
To bring these powers and processes into view, the authors had to let go of what they
had thought of as the main story line and pose some rather basic empirical questions:
what are the powers that enable people to gain access to land or be excluded from it?
And what are the processes shaping land access at different sites and scales? The
outcome of this analysis was a comparative, synthetic account of changing relations of
land access across the region that drew upon site-specific examples but was not limited
by them. Moreover the questions generated in the context of a pan-Southeast Asian
account - though not the answers - had the potential to be portable to other corners of
the globe.
Returning to our theme here -- what lies beyond the “proper job” -- we envisage that the
empirical answers that researchers find to the questions we have posed will likewise
bring new patterns, similarities and disjunctures, into view. To get there we have to
abandon both grand narratives and negative or residual framings: we need to know
what is actually there and why is it so, not what is lacking, or why the expected outcome
has not yet emerged. Such an analysis can fruitfully be conducted using a range of
methods, at a variety of scales. A focus on the empirical contours of the present - what is
there, and what is emergent - does not recreate isolated other-worlds, nor evacuate
history, space, or relationality but rather takes them seriously as formative elements of
the conjunctures we study. Grids of difference and similarity organized around a
common set of questions are, at one level, descriptive devices. But if the questions we
have posed are the right ones, they could contribute to a renewed global political-
economic analysis of lives and livelihoods -- one more adequate to our times than the
one that begins, and too often ends, with the absence or presence of the “proper job.”
Working paper 51
21
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Beyond the “Proper Job:” Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man
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