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. 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, titled A Global History of Unemployment: Adventures of an Economic Concept, is a study of the conceptual and statistical history of unemployment since the end of WWII. It follows a group of officials at the United Nations and other international institutions who set out to eradicate unemployment on the world-scale. I look at how these officals operationalized their political visions in new statistical measures of employment and unemployment, paying particular attention to the difficulties they encountered in trying to export their vision to the post-colonial world. I then focus on how such labor-force constructs went into crisis in later years. Most scholars date the crisis of full-employment policies to the last quarter of the twentieth century. My research shows that the crisis of this framework began earlier, in the 1960s in the global South, before spreading to global North regions in the decades that followed. As levels of unemployment rose, increasingly many workers were forced to take forms of work that were difficult to categorize. 

The result was that government officials and international actors faced a crisis that was at once economic and epistemological: they had trouble conceptualizing the forms of labor insufficiency that workers now encountered. I tell the story of the origins of alternative measures of labor underutilization, such as ‘informality’ and ‘atypical’ work, and examine how these were deployed in shifting policy discussions. Governments worldwide began to encourage workers to take the sorts of precarious jobs that the full employment framework had tried to eradicate. That in turn made it ever more difficult to deploy unemployment and GDP-growth statistics as indicators of the overall state of the economy, even as these measures continued to shape policy debates. My work intervenes into contemporary literatures on international development and economic statistics, as well as discourses around the history and future of work, to reveal how the political vision of full employment—with its implied relationship between job growth, productivity growth, and GDP growth—shaped the postwar world and remains with us today. I also discuss alternatives to the full employment project, which were considered in the postwar era.

A World without Work

While my first book is a study of institutional, intellectual, and policy history, my second book, titled A World without Work: Surplus Populations in the World Economy, is a work of social and economic history, which is under advance contract with Verso Books. This second project answers a key question, posed by the first: why are there so many people all around the world today who need to work but cannot find steady jobs? I examine the causes of, on the one hand, a worsening global oversupply of labor, and, on the other hand, a persistent global underdemand for labor. This book project provides original analyses of demographic growth, agricultural modernization, global industrialization and deindustrialization, the rise of service-sector employment, East Asia’s economic success, and the precaritization and informalization of global labor. I also examine a range of solutions, including Keynesian demand stimulus, jobs guarantees, work sharing and work reduction, and guaranteed basic incomes, as well as solutions that involve more major transformations in the nature and organization of labor markets.

The Global Persistence of the Old Regime

In the course of my research on unemployment, I began work on an additional project 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 style of postwar economic development, known as big-push industrialization, which adapted wartime economic planning to the postwar peace in order to produce 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 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 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 prospered, to the detriment of efforts to close the income gap between countries.

Other Research

In the future, I plan to conduct studies of the history of unemployment since 1800, starting with the early 19th century socialist theories of the ‘industrial reserve army’; of the history of utopian thinking around redistributing work and leisure since More’s Utopia; and of the history of the European labor movement since 1890, in relation to processes of industrialization and deindustrialization.