On the ‘Labour Question’: reviewing Development & Change’s symposium

12 November, 2014

I’ve just finished reading an excellent symposium on the ‘Labour Question’ in the journal, Development and Change, (Vol 45, Iss 5, September 2014) which is based at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands. The issue also has a range of articles on other interesting questions—including an interview with Partha Chatterjee and an appreciation of Elinor Ostrom (the only woman, so far, to win the Nobel Prize in economics). But I want to focus on the labour symposium for selfish reasons, as this is closest to my own research interests. It contains eight articles, including Amrita Chhachhi’s introduction. There are contributions by leading figures like Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden, a debate between Saumyajit Bhattacharya, Guy Standing and Barbara Harriss-White as well as outstanding contributions on China by Eli Friedman, Brazil by Ben Selwyn and Argentina by Ana Cecelia Dinerstein.

I won’t comment on every article; instead, this post will look at my personal highlights as well as some weaknesses in the debate between Profs Bhattacharya, Standing and Harriss-White. In her introduction, Dr Chhachhi situates the debate in the emergence of new labour formations and movements in the Global South, as well as the theoretical heritage of radical political economy, especially the intersection of Marxist and Polanyian traditions. This has become an important theoretical concern in labour studies in recent years and this volume makes a serious addition to the literature, which includes other journal special issues, e.g. Third World Quarterly 30(3), 2009, Economic and Political Weekly 44(22), 2009 and various issues of Global Labour Journal.

In this symposium, Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden (‘Informalising the Economy: The Return of the Social Question at a Global Level’) question the relevance of the ‘Standard Employment Relationship’ (SER) that grew to dominate labour relations in the West and Japan, especially as it relates to the Global South. This SER is based upon full-time, stable employment, an identifiable employer-employee relationship, a living wage (based on gendered notions of the family) and a range of legal rights and norms built around collective bargaining and social insurance (p. 923). Since the 1970s, this model has been eroded on a global level, they argue. As well as challenging the tripartite (state-employer-union) model of the SER, they recommend a broad program for the labour movements in the twenty-first century. This comprises demands for minimum wage levels fixed to the cost of living, the right to regular work and the universal right to social security and protection (pp. 934-5). Their argument is posed at a very general level, incorporating various assertions about the conditions of global workers, e.g. ‘Whatever their size and wherever located, the working classes are trapped in a trajectory of exploitation and forced together into a race to the bottom’ (p. 938).

Importantly, they argue that the SER is a historical anomaly, having only existed for a few decades. Capitalism has historically been dominated by precarious and informal labour relations which the world is now returning to, they suggest, calling into question the SER on which ‘classic’ labour movements are based. For me, this broad-sweep analysis echoes scholars influenced by versions of dependency or world systems theory. For example, Broad (2000) and Tabak (2000) draw up Arrighi’s (1994) periodization of world history into long phases of expansion and stagnation to claim that informalisation is a recurring phenomenon. States and capitalists enforce labour flexibility to overcome declining profitability as long historical phases enter periods of stagnation, they argue; hence the trend for increased downsizing, subcontracting, irregular work and casualisation in both rich and poor countries since the 1970s (Broad, 2000: 38). Informalisation represents a ‘recasualisation of work and a revival of informal economic activities worldwide’ (Broad, 2000: 35; his emphasis).

These concerns feed into Guy Standing’s views about the re-composition of labour. In his article (‘Understanding the Precariat through Labour and Work’), Prof Standing reiterates his argument on the formation of a new ‘precariat’ (see below). In part, this is a response to a polemic by Delhi University’s Saumyajit Bhattacharya (‘Is labour still a relevant category for praxis?’). Prof Bhattacharya rallies against the theorization of ‘labour’ used, in very different ways, by Standing and Barbara Harriss-White. He is very critical of Harriss-White’s insistence that there has been a tendency to ‘Petty Commodity Production’ (PCP) in India and that PCP, and social movements based upon it, ought to be defended as more ‘resilient’ than wage labour in the face of economic crisis. He is scathing of this approach: ‘Not only does this create an apology for capital, it drives a political wedge between organized and informal labour and adds to the discourse delegitimizing labour and labour rights’ (p. 953). While I am quite sympathetic to the points he raises, this type of argumentation is not terribly convincing. One of the main reasons for this is that Bhattacharya focuses on the level of ‘discourse analysis’. In other words, his arguments are not really based on empirical or evidence-based research. The lack of such research was one the reasons why I wrote my forthcoming book, Informal Labour in Urban India, which looks in detail at theory and evidence on this question. In fairness, however, Prof Bhattacharya does make some important points about the lack of autonomy of particular workers over their ‘labour’, such as many (though not all) home-based workers and many recycling workers, rag-pickers, etc.

There are other critical questions we can ask about Harriss-White’s defence of PCP’s economic resilience: for example, if we support movements of self-employed workers defending their livelihoods against economic globalization, what do we say about the divisions within these movements, including divisions based upon forms of social regulation like caste or regional background (which have been such a major focus of her research)? In her response to Bhattacharya (‘Labour and petty production’), Prof Harriss-White returns to a distinction between PCP, wage labour and ‘Disguised Wage Labour’ (DWL). DWL involves the ‘formal subsumption of labour by capital’, a concept devised by Marx and resurrected by Jairus Banaji (2010) decades ago. This refers to the exploitation of workers by mercantile capitalists who use their control over inputs and outputs to intensify production through longer hours or physical effort—what Marx called ‘absolute surplus value’. In this sense, some workers, including some home-based workers, can be misidentified as self-employed when they really represent a particular form of wage labour ‘disguised’ by commercial/mercantile relations.

While Harriss-White notes ‘few would deny that PCP may be disguised wage labour’, she suggests DWL cannot exist if the producer ‘takes decisions about production and trade, and is accountable for the result’ (p. 988). For me, her insistence on this point undermines the article’s recognition that categories like PCP and wage labour capture dynamic processes in which individuals appear to occupy more than one class position, e.g. exhibit some of the features of both wage labour and self-employment. Furthermore, her claim that self-employment in India has been ‘swelling over time’ (p. 988) is simply incorrect. As I point out in my book (see above), the evidence from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data and the Economic Census (EC) point in the opposite direction: for example, self-employment continues to account for the majority of workers in recent NSSO data, but its share has been falling (apart from a brief rise in 2004/05) since the early 1970s. In urban areas, the trend is even more categorically in the direction of wage labour—‘hired workers’ as the EC calls them. Liberalisation has ‘unleashed a torrent of tiny firms’ (p. 990) but, in my view, most of the workers employed in these informal enterprises are wage workers.

Nevertheless, Prof Harriss-White raises some important points in this debate and, in empirical terms, out-maneuvers Prof Bhattacharya’s polemic. For example, she points to studies that show some recycling workers ‘are wage workers, some disguised wage labour, some PCP, some petty capitalist and some not so petty capitalist’ (p. 986). Unfortunately, there are two things that, for me, slightly reduce the scholarly value of this debate. One is, as mentioned above, Bhattacharya’s lack of empirical engagement. The second is that the ‘classes of labour’ approach associated with scholars like Bernstein (2010) and Lerche (2012) doesn’t feature in this debate. Harriss-White mentions it in passing (p. 991) but that’s it. This is a real problem given the contribution of this framework to debates on the trajectory of class formation in India, not least because much of it challenges Prof Harriss-White’s approach.

Prof Bhattacharya also reserves considerable fire for Guy Standing. As he explains in his widely-read book, Standing’s new class hierarchy is crowned by an economic ‘elite’, below which stands a ‘salariat’ of regular full-time workers in large corporations and public institutions, most of whom enjoy ‘the trappings of their kind, with their pensions, paid holidays and enterprise benefits, often subsidised by the state’ (Standing, 2011: 7), and ‘proficians’ who have the marketable skills to prosper as independent contractors or consultants. Below this stratum lies a ‘shrinking “core” of manual employees, the essence of the old “working class”. The welfare states were built with them in mind, as were the systems of labour regulation’ (Standing, 2011: 8). Then comes the object of Standing’s argument: the ‘precariat’, defined as workers who lack ‘forms of labour-related security’ (Standing, 2011: 10). Although his argument focuses on OECD countries, it is also applied to developing countries.

As it happens, Jan Breman (2013) is one of several scholars who have subjected Standing’s framework to fierce critique. Similarly, I think Standing has a peculiar theorization of social class which is defined in relation to state regulation rather than the production process, as Marxists traditionally have. This frames classic ‘proletarianisation’ as a historical process in which ‘forms of labour-related security’ arise in the interests of workers. Whatever one makes of this, it is important to recognize that this is just one way of understanding social class. While I am happy to stand corrected on this, I’m not aware of Prof Standing acknowledging this in his various iterations of the ‘precariat’.

I also want comment on two final articles in this symposium. First, Ben Selwyn has recapped his story of export horticulture in Brazil, where he again emphasises the primary of Marxist class analysis (‘Capital-labour and state dynamics in export horticulture in north-east Brazil). Following Selwyn and Miyamura (2014), he draws a very sharp distinction between this analysis and the Polanyian approach that underpins the ILO’s ‘Decent Work’ agenda. In this agenda, he provocatively suggests that ‘workers’ struggles are theoretically and politically marginalized, and political priority is handed to elite actors (including the ILO itself) as potential guarantors of workers’ conditions’ (p. 1021). While I am a bit more sympathetic to synthesising the best of the Polanyian tradition with Marxism a la Gareth Dale (2010), Selwyn’s excellent article offers more food for thought on this important theoretical question.

The Marxist-Polanyian dialogue has also played an important role in recent scholarship on Chinese labour. So, finally, I will comment on Eli Friedman’s fascinating article on the Chinese labour movement—or, as he explains, its absence (‘Alienated politics: labour insurgency and the paternalistic state in China’): ‘[There] is no labour movement in China, but rather a dispersed and ephemeral insurgency’ (p. 1014). Massive state repression, he argues, has prevented various struggles from generalizing into class-wide political demands. In its place, one finds a form of ‘alienated politics’ in which state institutions intervene periodically to throw concessions at workers and while local party/state organisations contain their struggles through various ‘despotic’ means or via the influence of the ‘deeply conservative’ All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

The result is what Friedman presents as a sort of uneasy equilibrium between labour, capital and the state:

‘The consequence of the Chinese state’s dedication to political exclusion of the working class, as well as its capacity to enforce this, is that China has had a very different experience with labour politics than was the case in earlier industrializers. In essence, the Chinese working class has won major legislative victories without demanding anything… The irony is that depoliticization has precluded the emergence of a labour movement while simultaneously undermining the capacity of the state to reduce worker insurgency’ (p. 1012)

There are various other points made by Friedman, and I lack the space (as well as the knowledge and expertise) to do justice to them here. Suffice to say, this is a fascinating article that also speculates about the future of Chinese labour struggles.

Overall, this symposium is a good read for any student or scholar interested in labour movements in the Global South. I was a bit disappointed with aspects of the exchange between Bhattacharya, Harriss-White and Standing—for example, Bhattacharya’s focus on discourse rather than evidence or the lack of voice from the ‘classes of labour’ approach. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading this special issue, which makes another important contribution to the flowering of critical labour studies on the Global South.


Arrighi, G. (1994) The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times, London: Verso.

Banaji, J. (2010) Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production & Exploitation, Leiden: Brill.

Bernstein, H. (2010) Class Dynamic of Agrarian Change, Halifax (Ca.): Fernwood Publishing.

Breman, J (2013) ‘A bogus concept?’ New Left Review, 84,

Broad, D. (2000) ‘The periodic casualisation of work: The informal economy, casual labour and the Longue Duree’, in F. Tabak and M.A. Crichlow (eds) Informalisation: Process and Structure, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Dale, G. (2010) Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Cambridge: Polity Press

Lerche, J. (2012) ‘Labour Regulations and Labour Standards in India: Decent Work?’ Global Labour Journal, 3(1): 16-39

Selwyn, B. and Miyamura, S. (2014) Class Struggle or Embedded Markets? Marx, Polanyi and the Meanings and Possibilities of Social Transformation, New Political Economy, 19(5): 639-661.

Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury.

Tabak, F. (2000) ‘Informalisation and the long term’, in F. Tabak and M.A. Crichlow (eds) Informalisation: Process and Structure, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

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