June 19th, 2021



Earlier this week, global leaders at the G7 summit signed a "green belt and road initiative," which offers funds to low income countries for sustainable investment. The agreement comes in the face of a $15 trillion global infrastructure investment gap, which threatens to compound resource and climate-based inequalities.

In a 2018 introductory article, GAVIN BRIDGE, BEGUM ÖZKAYNAK, and ETHEMCAN TURHAN consider the global politics of green investment.

From the piece:

"Energy infrastructures draw together and advance the material interests of specific actors and groups across multiple scales. It is in this multi-actor and multi-scalar context, then, that a resurrection of debates on energy has to be understood: in some contexts energy policy reflects the reassertion of the national state as an economic actor (i.e. resource nationalism in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador). In others, it signals the rise of a populist and authoritarian form of economic nationalism (i.e. Turkey, Poland, India), where energy projects are harnessed to claims for national security in ways that occlude the particular interests of private capital and suppress dissent. In countries that embraced economic liberalization in the energy sector (such as the UK), claims for the national importance of new energy infrastructure reflect concerns about growing import dependency and the way energy systems are no longer ‘nationally’ contained. Elsewhere, it is an artefact of international agreements signed and ratified by nation-states.

It is important that social science research on energy better understand these complex intersections between energy infrastructure and the political economies of national development. Claims about the national significance of infrastructure ‘do political work’ by, for example, licensing state intervention in energy systems, establishing political authority, and marginalizing criticism. In many countries, energy policy-making remains centralized and divorced from public participation. Questions about who bears the costs of power stations, pipelines and other energy infrastructures deemed ‘critical’ to national security or development now animate calls for more inclusive and sustainable energy systems. Energy infrastructure also enables and sustains particular forms of political economy. This includes, for example, the importance of electricity transmission systems, gas pipelines and storage facilities to constituting wholesale energy markets and enabling the adoption of economic liberalization policies in national energy sectors. Chile’s introduction of wholesale markets for electricity in 1978, and comprehensive electricity and gas sector privatization in the UK beginning in the 1980s illustrate how infrastructures for circulating gas and electricity have been a key experimental site for economic deregulation and the introduction of market principles, commercial logics and private capital into national economies. Infrastructures for energy have been a key frontier in the evolution of economic organizational forms—around markets, finance, labor organization and techno-scientific expertise—that transcend the energy sector, such that they can be considered integral to the reproduction of economic power."

Link to the text.

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August 10th, 2020

Ships in Port


It's been over a week since Congress allowed the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation scheme to lapse, and negotiations over an extension have reached a gridlock. But even prior to its end, access to the enhanced benefit was far from equal across the country—a host of administrative and practical hurdles in states like Florida and Alabama prevented scores of applicants from receiving aid.

The absence of a functional and unified federal unemployment scheme is a characteristic feature of America's patchy safety net. In a 1987 paper, Edwin Amenta, Elisabeth S. Clemens, Jefren Olsen, Sunita Parikh, and Theda Skocpol trace the history of this decentralized structure through a comparative analysis of 1930s UI legislation in Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois.

"The states, not the federal government, were the units that debated health and unemployment insurance bills and passed workers' compensation and mothers' pension laws during the Progressive Era and after. The debates surrounding unemployment insurance provide considerable insight into the political dynamics of industrial society. More than any other component of welfare policy, the states' response to unemployment politicized antagonisms between capital and labor. Moreover, the emergence of unemployment as a legitimate target for state action entailed both the development of a politically viable interpretation of the cause of unemployment, and decisions concerning the appropriate extent of the government's intervention in the economy.

Neither organized labor nor political parties have been identified as important shapers of Social Security. But, as we have seen, a programmatic political alliance between organized labor and the Democratic party did shape generous unemployment insurance in New York, and the influence of labor, mediated by Democratic parties, also mattered in Massachusetts, Ohio, and even Illinois. Moreover, in Wisconsin, the 1932 unemployment benefits law grew out of patterns of administrative-led political bar- gaining established in the Progressive Era. This bargaining included organized labor and its political allies, the Milwaukee Socialists; it also occurred in a partisan context marked by the strong influence of Progressive Republicans. In short, if we examine politics at the state level, we discover that organized labor and political parties (as actors and as organizational structures) played a much more important role in the shaping of American unemployment insurance than nationally focused research reveals."

Link to the piece.

  • A report from the New York State Department of Labor provides a legislative history of UI following the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, with an appended chronology of significant legislative changes on the federal and state level. Link. And two Congressional Research Service reports summarize the structure of the current federal system, including that of the Unemployment Trust Fund which supports states in the case of insolvency. Link and link.
  • In a 1990 paper, Steve Valocchi examines the internal dynamics of the unemployed workers movement in the 1930s US: "The movement's inability to change its organizational form in the face of early New Deal reforms led to the precipitous decline in protest activity in 1934." Link.
  • "Governments shape the meaning of unemployment through policies and public declarations. Some kinds of joblessness come to 'count' as unemployment while others do not." In a 2004 book, Philip Baxandall situates categories of unemployment in Hungary within the country's changing political context. Link.
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August 19th, 2019

Tennis Court


Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." Link.
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