Research

My research is intended to contribute to public debates about the future of capitalism in an era of rising inequality. I hope that my work will help move these debates beyond discussions of automation and job loss to look at the complex historical forces that have shaped the international economy and have given rise to the present jobs crisis.

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.

A key, concluding element of the story I tell concerns the way that discussions of unemployment have served as venues for thinking through the ultimate ends and aims of economic development: unemployment appears at the intersection between ongoing technological progress, which reduces our collective need to work, and proletarianization, which forces most people to work in order to survive. Full employment was one way to try to resolve this tension. I discuss other ideas as well, including negative income taxes, guaranteed basic incomes, reductions in work hours—John Maynard Keynes’s preferred solution—and social revolution. 

Research for my book was done in the archives of the International Labor Organization, a UN specialized agency headquartered in Geneva. In addition, this project draws on statistics taken from numerous historical databases, such as the Groningen Growth and Development Center’s new 10-Sector Database. While working on this project, I have also produced a number of journal articles. The first, co-authored article examines political shifts corresponding to the increasingly post-industrial character of employment in middle income countries and was published in South Atlantic Quarterly. I am working on two other articles, as well. One, examining the role of demographic trends in expanding the world’s labor supply, has been submitted to Comparative Studies of Society and History. The other, looking at the birth of the concept of informal employment, will be submitted to the Journal of Global History.

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 book, 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, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (whether China will sustain its rapid growth rates remains an open question). All of these countries experienced radical land-reform movements, which dramatically altered power relations in the countryside. In the middle decades of the 20th century, similar movements kicked off across much of the rest of the world, as well, but were defeated.

This insight will frame a narrative account of projects of postwar economic development, known as big-push industrialization, which adapted wartime economic planning to the postwar peace, in an effort to produce sustained, catch-up rates of 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 social and economic conditions. When developmentalists became aware of this problem in the 1960s and 70s, 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.