↳ Coercion

May 6th, 2019

↳ Coercion

Hidden Structures


Labor and discipline in the economy

As inequality has grown in salience as a political issue and object of research over the past decade, increasing numbers of social scientists are mapping the distribution of power and access throughout society. This new attention joins longstanding work that maintains, among other things, that free economic relations are accompanied by unequal property relations, involuntary employment, and an institutional framework to assure against incomplete contracts.

In a 2004 paper, Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev argue that these dynamics are actively reproduced by guard labor: a section of the labor force whose primary function is to discipline other workers. Bowles and Jayadev find that all governments allocate a significant portion of their labor force towards these ends. Moreover, they find a strong correlation between the proportion of the labor force devoted to guard labor and domestic levels of economic inequality:

"The differences in the extent of guard labor among countries are substantial, ranging from a tenth of the labor force in Switzerland to over a fifth in the U.K and the U.S. Broadly, three groups are evident. Social Democratic countries which display low levels of guard labor, English-Speaking countries which display high levels of guard labor (with substantial supervision), and Southern European economies which exhibit unusually high unemployment rates and thus, large amounts of guard labor.

The composition of guard labor differs substantially among the nations, especially in the proportions of the two largest components: supervision and unemployment. The top four in guard labor—Spain, the U.K., the U.S. and Greece—for example, devote about a fifth of their labor force to supervision and unemployment combined. But the U.S. is distinctive, with less than half the amount of unemployment as either Spain or Greece and 50 percent more supervisory labor. A comparison between the English speaking countries suggests a similar story. The U.S displays between 90 and 50 percent more supervisory labor than Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but about 50 percent less unemployment than these countries."

Link to the paper, link to a 2014 Times op-ed by Bowles and Jayadev.

  • Drawing a comparison between unregulated American labor markets in the Gilded Age and those of the present, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman find that "the unregulated labour market generated militant and coercive labour movements and employer organizations, and led to increased allocation of resources toward the domestic policing and military capacities of the US government." Link.

  • "Between 2007 and 2017, the U.S. added more than twice as many guards as teachers," mapped by Richard Florida. Link.

  • From the article’s footnotes, a debate over the relationship between military capacity and economic development: In his 2000 book, Kenneth Pommeranz argued that England’s military capabilities explain why the industrial revolution took place there rather than in other rapidly growing economies like those of the Yangzi Delta; by contrast, Robert Brenner and Christopher Isett’s 2002 paper holds that greater reliance on markets compelled English elites to "allocate their resources so as to maximize their rate of return." Link to the first, link to the second.

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