Labor in the Twenty-first Century

Chris Warhurst takes the 2007-08 financial crisis as a point of departure to ask some important questions. What is the future of the sociology of work? Is there still a place—indeed a need—for those “ethnographic monographs on work and employment” that have long been the backbone of the field?   It was so disheartening to read that new introductory textbooks subsume work within chapters on tourism and sport; while there is “little teaching of the sociology of work and employment in Australia’s top universities.” Yet I don’t think that the problem lies where Warhurst suggests it does, with a dearth of trading floor ethnographies. What we’re confronting is a deeper crisis, what I’ll call a decoupling of work from profits. It is the real culprit behind the marginalization of the sociology of work, and it derives from the financialization of the economy.

Warhurst argues that “the issue is not theory but methodology.” The implication is that if only we sociologists had been there at ground zero, documenting firsthand the depraved behavior of these new “wolves of Wall Street,” we may have seen this whole thing coming. But everything we know suggests that the real action was taking place behind people’s backs, with institutions creating novel mechanisms for quantifying and commodifying debt, in particular subprime mortgages. As Fligstein and Goldstein have shown, even those who first dreamt up and began dealing in collateralized debt obligations did not quite understand how they worked. Lehman Brothers was the first to go.

Nor is it the case that fieldworkers avoided the world of finance because of its technical complexity. This has rarely stopped us before. Sociologists have managed to learn enough about the work of surgeons, astrophysicists and deconstructionist philosophers to write compelling accounts of their worlds. In fact, we have by now a sizable corpus of trading floor ethnographies, from Mitchel Abolafia’s Making Markets to Donald MacKenzie and Yuval Millos’ American Journal of Sociology paper “Constructing a Market, Performing a Theory” to Caitlin Zaloom’s Out of the Pits. Collectively they catalogue the norms, rituals, and technologies of the world of finance. It’s not clear that there’s a smoking gun we’ve missed.

Ultimately I think that the economic crisis of 2007-08 and the current crisis in the sociology of work are two effects of a single cause: the financialization of profits. As sociologists of work, we have tended to focus on one big story of the past thirty years: the precipitous decline in manufacturing’s share of employment and the concomitant rise of the service sector. We’ve produced a wondrous array of concepts to analyze the emotional, interactive, aesthetic, and embodied nature of service labor. But it’s generally slipped our notice that the growth of service sector employment has not been accompanied by an increased relevance of the service sector for generating profit.

Consider that in 1950, manufacturing utterly dominated both the real and the paper economy. In America, the sector employed about 30% of workers and accounted for 50% of corporate profits. Factory work really did matter. But no more—today the comparable figures are 15% and 10%. And while the service sector now employs 50% all workers, services themselves account for less than 5% of profits. The new beast to have arisen is finance, which, on the eve of the 2007-08 crisis, accounted for nearly half of all corporate profits but employed only about 5% of US workers. We can think of this as a decoupling of work from the process by which capital grows. And what it means is that we’re looking at a world in which machines make most of what we need, firms grow rich off interest, and the vast majority of us subsist by teaching, caring for the sick, and serving coffee.

But how to theorize such a world—let alone research it? In Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Pikkety argues that returns on capital tend to outpace returns on labor in the long run, and documents the consequences for wealth polarization. But what are the consequences for work? What we need to start debating is how to theorize labor within capitalism, when capitalism no longer relies on labor.

Jeff Sallaz is associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona


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