Selected Publications

“The origins of informality: the ILO at the limit of the concept of unemployment”

Journal of Global History 14, 1 (February 2019), pp. 107-125.

Official histories suggest that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the term ‘informal sector’ as a replacement for ‘traditional sector’, which, in its pairing with the ‘modern sector’, had fallen out of favour. This article argues that the adoption of the informal sector concept is better understood as arising out of a different context: the ILO’s postwar efforts to generate a globally operational concept of unemployment for use in the developing world. ILO officials abandoned this project in the late 1960s when they realised that, where work for wages did not constitute a widespread social norm, an accurate measure of what they called ‘disguised unemployment’ was impossible to construct. That led the ILO to develop alternative constructs, including ‘employment in the informal sector’. However, it proved difficult for the agency to operationalise those, too, and it soon found itself losing control of the policy implications of the measures that it was producing. 

“Demography and Dispossession: Explaining the Growth of the Global Informal Workforce, 1950-2000”

Social Science History 43, 4 (Winter 2019), First View online.

Since 1950, the world’s urban labor force has expanded dramatically, a process that has been accompanied by a large increase in informal employment. Accounts of these phenomena generally assume that urban workers without formal work are mostly recent migrants from the countryside. This article shows that outside of China, most of the growth of the world's urban workforce has been the consequence of demographic expansion rather than rural-to-urban migration. A large portion of the world’s growing urban-born workforce has ended up in informal employment. I develop a concept of demographic dispossession to explain the relatively autonomous role demographic growth has played, first, in the proletarianization of the global population and, second, in the informalization of the urban workforce. I then explore the reasons why demographic growth in low- and medium-income countries tended to be more rapid and urban than demographic growth had been historically in the high-income countries.

“Automation and the Future of Work 1”

New Left Review, II/119 September/October 2019, pp. 5-38.

Silicon Valley titans, techno-futurists, left-wing social critics, and even a long-shot presidential candidate have united in arguing that we are living in an age of rapid technological automation, heralding the technological overcoming of work as such. Coming from very different places, politically, these “automation theorists” advance from their predictions to a broader social theory about the consequences of the ‘end of work’ for society, drawing on basic income proposals and speculative fiction, including Star Trek and Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series, to describe the contours of a possible future, as well as to trace a poltical path that might get us there. In this two-part article, I aruge that we are not living in a new age of automation, but I my aim is not only to show that the automaton thinkers are incorrect. They are our late capitalist utopians. From within a world of catastrophic thinking, the automation theorists are some of the only people trying to figure out how to push through to the other side, to imagine or invent a positive future for humanity—and therefore to see in the end of work a new sort of beginning. By critically investigating what they say, we can build our own account of what abundance is, and how we might achieve it.

“Crisis and Immiseration: Critical Theory Today” (with John Clegg)

The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory, eds. Beverley Best, Werner Bonefeld, and Chris O’Kane, London: Sage Publications, 2018, 1629-48.

The critical theorists of the 1960s lived in an epoch marked by full employment, despite rapid increases in levels of labor productivity. The potential free-time of society was rising, but this potential failed to realize itself since people continued to work long hours. In an era of extremely low unemployment rates and high rates of real wage growth, these theorists could scarcely imagine what was soon to follow: by the mid 1970s, the growing potential free-time of society would reveal itself not as an expanding realm of leisure, but rather as a crisis of overproduction, accompanied by a dramatic rise in rates of unemployment and underemployment. These trends made, not for a revitalization and transformation of the labor movement, as the critical theorists imagined might be possible, but rather its tendential dissolution. Because so much of their work was based on a rejection of the theory of economic crisis and immiseration, it is of limited use in explaining current trends within capitalist societies. This article attempts to revitalize the critical theoretical project for an age of economic insecurity and rising inequality.