The 1970s and 1980s marked a disaster for the U.S. labor movement. Gone was nearly one out of three members in the private sector, once the heart of organized labor. Today unions represent six percent of corporate employees, the same as in 1929.
Facing slow extinction, leaders of large unions and their federations sought to rebuild. It led to prolonged membership campaigns like Justice for Janitors and the creation of an organizing-oriented union federation, Change to Win. There was experimentation with new tactics, one of which was the leveraging of union pension assets to restore labor’s power.
My new book, Labor in the Age of Finance: Pensions, Politics, and Corporations, examines the financial turn. It came on the heels of a shareholder revolt led by public pension plans from blue states and cities, the vanguard being the giant California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). Whereas once most stock was directly owned by households, post-1980 financialization transferred ownership to a relatively small group of institutional investors, including pension funds.
History shows that the standards by which societies judge economic activity change over time. As these moral frameworks evolve—or devolve—many of the changes make their way into law. For example, modern anti-trust law is grounded in the widely accepted belief that monopolies depress competition and growth and encourage unscrupulous behavior.
However, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the state explicitly sought to protect large trade monopolies, which were commonly regarded as good for trade. The slow transformation of the moral status of monopoly over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries figured prominently in a larger cultural transformation, which might be thought of as the shift from a moral economy to a political economy, and ushered in the birth of classical economics. Appreciating how and why this shift occurred reveals interesting links between power, political representation, and economic theory. It may also allow us to recover some important moral ideas about exchange that were lost along the way.
Twenty years ago, a financial trader was still usually a human being, either sharing a trading pit along with dozens or hundreds of other sweaty human bodies, or sitting at a computer terminal, talking into a telephone and buying and selling with keyboard and mouse. A decade later, digital algorithms had made decisive inroads into trading, but those algorithms still mostly ran on conventional computer systems. Nowadays, a trader is very often a specialised silicon chip known as an FPGA, or field-programmable gate array, such as the large, square chip at the centre of this photograph, coated with white paste that had held a cover in place.
The FPGAs that do so much of today’s trading are mainly to be found in about two dozen anonymous, warehouse-like buildings in and around Chicago, New York, London, Frankfurt and other major global financial centres. To walk through one of these computer datacentres is to listen to the hum of tens of thousands of computer servers in row upon endless row of metal cages and to glimpse the incomprehensible spaghetti of cables that interconnect the machines packed into those cages. When I first did so, in October 2014, I was still struggling to find a way of understanding the complex new world of ultrafast trading algorithms that was evolving.
What determines the number on your paycheck? When asked, the vast majority of U.S. workers list their own individual performance as a key factor. Large majorities of pay-setters – senior management, human resource directors, and others directly involved in setting compensation rates – likewise believe workers’ individual performance is very important.
I know, because in a series of surveys conducted over the last few years I asked average workers and pay-setters about their ideas about how our wages and salaries are determined. No matter how I posed the question, no factor garnered as much support as individual performance when it comes to our understandings of pay determination in the modern economy.
Social science historians have long recognized that war was the rule rather than the exception in early modern Europe. The so-called “Second One Hundred Years’ War”, for example, pitted France and Britain against each other in at least six major confrontations between 1688 and 1815.
The motivations behind these armed conflicts were manifold: religious rifts, dynastic interests, territorial expansion, and commercial rivalry.
But these wars had political implications that are felt to this day. Following Charles Tilly’s dictum, state-making was inseparable from war-making during this period. Armies and navies were costly. To pay for their services, taxes had to be raised.
Scholars of work and labor do not often analyze labor coercion these days. It is considered a bit passé, and is simply taken as a given that economic coercion undergirds labor relations in capitalist economies. With this implicit foundation in place, the primary story of work and labor in contemporary scholarship is one of precarity: the instability, insecurity, and low wages of gig work, temp work, freelancing, day labor, adjunct work, just-in-time work, and more.
But precarity does not characterize the work lives of all workers, and economic coercion is not the only power dynamic that shapes labor relations. In my new book Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment, I identify a different form of labor coercion, one in which employers’ power does not stem from their control over workers’ wages (e.g., through their ability to hire, fire, promote, and demote workers). Rather, it stems from their control over workers’ “status” and all of the rights, privileges, and opportunities—economic and otherwise—that such status confers.
The financial crisis of 2008, along with the Great Recession it triggered, has defined the course of the 21st century. Yet, despite the political agitation and economic hardship that ensued, everything appears to be back to the right track. The major stock market indices have reached new highs: In November, the Dow Jones surpassed 28,000 for the first time in history. US household debt just broke the $14 trillion mark. In the era of Dodd-Frank, the financial sector seems more regulated and stable. Compared to the turmoil in the political sphere, the US economy appears to be smooth sailing.
But what does this “right track” mean?
Our new book, Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance, shows that the most damaging consequence of the contemporary financial system is not simply recurrent financial crises but the social divide it has generated between the haves and have-nots over the past 40 years.
It is well known that earnings inequality has been rising in the US and many other countries over the last forty years. What is less well known, is that the great rise in contemporary earnings inequalities is propelled to a large extent by between-workplace wage polarization, whereby some organizations accumulate large resource bases while others fight over the crumbs.
processes have been described as being propelled by “macro” forces: the financialization
of production encouraging externalization, physical and social technologies of
surveillance that enable between firm control of production, skill-biased
technological change, and market fundamentalism
in public policy that permit unfettered firm practices.
trends are always products of a set of meso-level organizational decisions. It
was not disembodied “technology” or “markets” that generated the growth in
inequality, but social movements promoting the interests of shareholders over
other stakeholders, neoliberal policy orientations in the state, and union-busting
consultants that drove these shifts.
In many professional workplaces,
mindfulness has become a seeming panacea. Its proponents argue that it will not
only help workers de-stress and improve their health, but become more
self-aware and self-actualized both in and outside of work. The argument goes
that, by helping develop happy, healthy, and therefore more productive
employees, the large companies, schools, public agencies, and other
organizations will benefit.
Mindfulness meditation includes a wide-ranging
set of contemplative practices aimed at training oneself to pay “attention in a
particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally,” as
defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society. Mindfulness has
been developed and differentiated in the course of being marketed by its
proponents to a variety of organizations, from Ivy League universities to
Fortune 100 businesses.
Have you ever wondered how some men and women muster the courage to pursue careers in rock music, despite the fact that so few of them will actually “make it”? Or have you questioned why some individuals would intentionally choose a path that will undoubtedly be filled with struggle, miniscule economic payoff, and a slim chance of success?
Sure, once musicians get to the level of fame of R.E.M., Nirvana, or The White Stripes, it all seems worth it. But what about the countless other musicians who don’t attain such levels of success? Why would they commit to such seemingly irrational choices? In my new book, I attempt to answer these and a host of related sociological questions. Continue Reading…