Re-thinking ‘work’ from the global South

“We need to be careful with how we use the term work, since its definition affects how we imagine future worlds.” Shaw & Waterstone 2019, 108

When we hear of ‘work’, it is usually of the type particular to industrial capitalism. Orthodox economists do not concern themselves with the work of gardening or child-rearing, unless these activities are bought and sold on the market. Likewise, radical post-work thinkers do not seek to abolish the work of care or poetry, unless these activities are commodified in the form of wage labour. Instead, work is generally referred to in the narrowly economistic and legalistic sense; as “non-domestic, paid, legally codified, institutionalised and socially safeguarded employment”. Many of the concepts we have to describe work — ‘informal’, ‘precarious’, ‘decent’ — are constructed against this ideal type.

Yet this model of work is a historical and geographical exception. The category of ‘wage employment’ was created by European states in an attempt to establish markets for labour during the industrial revolution. While this model became a powerful expression of work in the 20th century, it has been undermined by waves of casualisation and ‘gigification’ in the early 21st century. Consequently, as Franco Barchiesi argues, there is a growing “mismatch between the official imagination of work” and “its ordinary material experiences”. This mismatch is evident, for example, when governments cite low unemployment rates as evidence of economic prosperity. However, it is also evident when researchers and activists call for ‘full employment’ or seek to ‘formalise’ alternative livelihood activities and relations in different regions of the world. Such “wage work-related melancholia”, as Barchiesi terms it, limits opportunities for critical self-reflection and forecloses alternative political projects in which work, identity and security might be woven together differently.

The ‘surplus’ in the South

If wage-related melancholia limits political possibilities in the global North, its impact is much more pernicious in the South, where the project of wage employment has long been associated with dispossession, alienation and the denial of meaningful activity. As Achille Mbembe argues, the origins of wage employment in the postcolonial world date back to the attempts of European colonial powers to discipline and ‘civilise’ indigenous populations based on a moral discourse that associated employment with ‘decency’. The continued refusal of wage work in such contexts may thus be read as a form of opposition to degrading working conditions and gendered and racialised hierarchies.

Nevertheless, official discourses continue to celebrate wage employment. For example, the ILO’s ‘decent work agenda’ promotes an idea of work as “employment in conditions of freedom, equity, human security and dignity”, based on a set of universal criteria derived from the historical experiences of wage workers in the global North – an idea that is challenged by the experiences and aspirations of workers in other regions of the world. Meanwhile, the continued hegemony of wage labour in academic circles is evidenced by the fact that other forms of work require numerous qualifiers (‘informal’, ‘domestic’, ‘unpaid’, ‘gig’ etc.) in order to accommodate the diverse range of productive activities that actually exist in the world.

Two implications emerge here. Firstly, populations subsisting outside of wage labour continue to be characterised through notions of deviance and surplus; as informal workers, ‘dangerous classes’ and ‘wasted lives’ – as peoples without history or future. Secondly and relatedly, societies in the global South continue to be excluded from debates on the future of work; for example, the burgeoning literature on ‘post-work’ makes scant reference to the regions of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, except as dystopic examples to be avoided.

The discourse of wage employment thus stops us from asking important questions about the forms of value produced by people subsisting outside of wage employment, impoverishing debates on the future of work. As Shaw and Waterstone argue:  

“The repertoires and improvisations that make everyday life possible for those outside of wages work might provide key insight for new forms of production, reproduction and social relations to replace the present (but rapidly disappearing) arrangements — even if these alternate forms are now often produced in brutal and exigent circumstances.”

There is therefore an urgent need to rethink ‘work’ from the perspective of the global majority for whom wage employment has never been the norm. I will now sketch out three preliminary strategies for realising such a project.  

Provincialising the wage

Firstly, Feminist and postcolonial scholars have long demonstrated the ways in which dominant discourses — such as those of ‘commodification’ and the ‘Third World’ – produce regimes of truth that position certain populations at the forefront of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ and confine others to the waiting room of history. I maintain that the discourse of wage labour imposes a similarly restrictive order on debates on (the future of) work, foreclosing alternative questions and possibilities. There is therefore a need for a “profound analytical decentering of waged and salaried employment as a presumed norm or telos” in order to generate ideas that reflect the radical global heterogeneity of work as it is experienced in the world.

Here, scholars of racial capitalism are instructive for their production of a counter-history of work that begins two hundred years prior to industrialisation, foregrounding the ways in which regimes of slavery, forced labour and care interacted to produce landscapes of work that are still visible in the present day; for example, in the brick kilns of Cambodia, the domestic spaces of Nigeria, and the quilombos of Brazil.

Reckoning with living alternatives

Secondly, any project of expanding the imaginary of work must reckon with lived practices and living alternatives to wage labour. This necessitates an examination of what Jodi Melamed terms “the integrative potential of new relations for nurturing social being through the material activities of living”. We can neither ignore, not blindly judge such relations, but must rather see them as part of a broader landscape of work from which new imaginations can emerge.

Here, we may look to the ethnographic accounts of social anthropologists and human geographers which explores the various forms of subsistence, sociality and ‘hustle’ that are characteristic of urban economies in the global South. By eschewing the discourse of wage employment, this scholarship demonstrates the significance of a broader range of socioeconomic relations to people’s working lives, including interdependency, redistribution and reciprocity – relations that expand our understandings of work beyond the realm of the material. 

Locating alternative sites of organisation

Finally, re-thinking work requires us to take seriously the political demands of workers subsisting outside of wage employment. Franz Fanon famously reclaimed the revolutionary potential of unwaged workers in his critique of Marx’s lumpenproletariat. In a similar vein, contemporary scholars of work must stay attuned to the diverse political projects that emerge at the margins of the wage economy; projects that include but are not limited to a concern for material wellbeing.

Here, we may take inspiration from interdisciplinary research on popular economies, which uses collaborative methodologies to engage diverse forms of worker organisation outside of wage employment. This scholarship has shifted geographical imaginations of labour politics from the factory floor to the streets and neighbourhoods. In doing so, it has drawn attention to the political potential of a broad range of social movements, from informal collectives to neighbourhood assemblies, which have combined benefits won from the state with the valorisation of community work and preservation of territorial autonomy. Such examples help to restore the radical global heterogeneity of work – and with it the radical potential of work futures.   

Will Monteith is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London.

Image credit: Jordan Rowland on Unsplash