My research examines the history of international economic development, the transformation of global labor markets, the history of the United Nations, and the history of transnational projects of social and economic statistics-making. More specifically, I focus on a set of problems that economic experts and government officials encountered in trying to export concepts such as unemployment and economic growth from European countries to formerly colonized countries in the global South. Within this framework, I am interested in historicizing economic categories as a way to open up space for rethinking the ends and aims of economic policy, particularly around the question of the place of work and labor in social life. Since I am trained in both qualitative and quantitative research methods, I am able to approach these issues from two angles. I discuss both statistical changes in patterns of employment and what such employment statistics conceal, namely the expansion of forms of informal, precarious, and non-standard work that are difficult to categorize within the terms of the unemployment/full-employment framework.
A Global History of Unemployment
My first book, A Global History of Unemployment, builds on the work of historians such as Robert Salais, Alexander Keyssar, and William Walters, who showed that unemployment is not an ahistorical economic concept, applying in all times and places. Its emergence was predicated, first, on changes in the character and location of work, which caged people within urban labor markets, and second, on targeted policy interventions—including the provision of unemployment insurance—which reduced the frequency of casual and temporary labor in the economy. My book extends this story into the later 20th century and also transforms it into a global history.
Having discovered unemployment in the prewar period, European policymakers in the postwar era sought to eradicate it. They intended to create a world of full employment, in which bouts of unemployment would be reduced to brief gaps between jobs. This project was not limited to European countries: full employment was written into article 55 of the United Nations Charter in 1945. It was also an organizing aim of economic development in post-colonial countries. I argue that the project of full employment was derailed between 1965 and 1985, in the context of an international economic conjuncture. At that time, the global economy faced the problem of a growing oversupply of labor, due to huge increase in the size of the working population, which was also increasingly caged in urban labor markets. Meanwhile, industrial overproduction—brought on by rapid growth in preceding decades—gave rise to heightened international competition and worsening economic stagnation, leading to a persistent underdemand for labor.
The result of these twin problems was a rise in open unemployment levels, as well as the return of atypical forms of employment—such as part-time work, temporary contracts, and precarious self employment—which were supposed to have been eradicated by government interventions. The expansion of atypical employment has been a huge problem in Europe and US, where governments attempted to reduce unemployment by increasing labor flexibility, but it has been an even bigger problem in the wider world, where an enormous informal economy has grown up outside of the regulated zones of formal employment. My book contextualizes these recent shifts by relating them to the long-term history of the full-employment / unemployment paradigm.
"The Historical Adventures of an Economic Concept: Unemployment at the UN"
My second project, “The Global Adventures of an Economic Concept: Unemployment at the UN,” looks at the role of the UN as an economic development organization. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, officials at the International Labor Organization (ILO)—a specialized UN agency headquartered in Geneva—attempted to construct a globally operational concept of unemployment. My research follows the evolving conversation among European officials, their counterparts in newly independent countries, and UN statisticians as they planned a future of worldwide full employment. Their project came apart in the late 1960s. At that time, unemployment levels were rising across the post-colonial world but were proving frustratingly difficult to measure; meanwhile, in Europe, young people were taking to the streets to protest the world that labor statisticians were trying to create. My research reveals the complex relationship between statistical construction and political vision. At the UN, the failure to produce a globally operational concept of unemployment provoked to the generation of new concepts, outside of the prevailing Keynesian framework, including categories such as informal employment and basic needs.
“The Global Persistence of the Old Regime”
In the course of my research on unemployment, I began work on a second book titled The Global Persistence of the Old Regime. For this project, I have produced a catalogue of countries’ efforts to “catch-up” to US and European income levels in the course of the 20th century. Only a few countries were successful, including Russia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (whether China will sustain its rapid growth remains an open question). I argue that, in these countries, radical land-reform programs transformed power relations in the countryside. Movements for radical land reform appeared across much of the rest of the world, as well, but were defeated. This insight will frame an account of a particular style of postwar economic development, known as big-push industrialization, which adapted wartime economic planning to the postwar peace in order to produce sustained, catch-up growth. What proponents of the big push failed to see was that their programs relied on a high degree of class collaboration, which proved impossible to sustain outside of the context of war. In the absence of an existential threat forcing them to submit to technocratic governance, landed elites intervened to block key aspects of development, in order to preserve their social power under changing economic conditions. When transnational networks of developmentalists became aware of this problem in the 1960s, it was already too late. This project is inspired by Arno Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime, which showed that landed elites in Western Europe were able to adapt to and thrive in capitalist economies. Mayer argued that those elites only saw their power decline in the course of the cataclysms of the World Wars. In much of the rest of the world, landed elites survived those cataclysms, and even prospered, to the detriment of efforts to close the income gap between rich and poor countries.