TM2 – Labour as a Political Category

Module Outline:

The political metamorphoses of the long twentieth century saw the rise and demise of ‘labour’ as a political category the world over. In the mid-twentieth century, ‘labour’ served as a rallying cry across the political spectrum, as a keyword of worldwide ‘modernisation’ and even as a futurist leitmotif in literature and the arts. The legal regulation of the employment relationship was seen as the fulcrum of national as well as colonial social policies. Since the 1980s, trade unions have faced crises, erstwhile labour parties have changed their social constituencies, academics have proclaimed ‘the end of work’, while artists have aestheticised ‘labour’ as a relic of an archaic world. Social policy has been refocused on social citizens’ rights, and ‘labour reform’ now implies the informalisation of employment. While the end of an age of ‘labour’ (as a political category) has sometimes been recognised as a global phenomenon, the study of labour and social policies has been confined typically to analysis at the national level, and compared mostly within the North Atlantic region: the impact of global entanglements and the forces that reproduce difference among the world’s labour regimes have remained largely obscured. Combining historical and social science perspectives as well as regional expertise on non-European and European societies, this module examines the political metamorphoses of ‘labour’. The first temporal vantage point is the mid-twentieth century, permitting the reconstruction of earlier tendencies that crystallised into new labour policies in many parts of the world at that time. The second vantage point is the present: the contemporary perspective is required to identify (1) the historical limitations of the ‘age of labour’; (2) the forces that led to its demise; and (3) the social and political tendencies emerging from its debris. The module’s researchers will compare related processes in various parts of the world without assuming a teleological drift towards homogenisation.
ICAS:MP’s location in India is a crucial advantage for pursuing this research agenda. While India experienced its own ‘age of labour’ between the 1930s and the 1970s, the result was not the emergence of a majoritarian ‘standard work relationship’, but a process of differentiation between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ labour markets, a tendency that appears to have greater relevance today even in the global ‘North’. Indian trajectories since the 1970s are also reminiscent of broader trends: while informalization processes enjoy political backing, new social policies define social citizen rights rather than employment relationships. These trajectories also coincide and are bound up with the trajectories of postcolonial Indian democracy, historical examination of which coincides with the concerns of TM 3: Critiques and Renewals of Democracy. At the micro level, the decline of ‘labour’ as a political category impacts on worker biographies in contradictory ways. Hence, India provides an ideal base for global research as tendencies in the transformation of labour regimes are sufficiently similar to permit comparison while the marked specificity of the Indian case alerts to diverging trends at the same time. For TM2, the objective is to merge the relevant holdings of the institutes and associations represented in the module committee and to expand this archive with newly digitised smaller collections with a particular focus on processes of formalisation and informalisation. This task will be coordinated with ICAS:MP’s larger project of creating ‘Archives of the Political’.

Module Coordinators:

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