Out of Work

One of the central arguments of this book is that the expansion and reconfiguration of finance from the 1970s onward has involved not only an intensification of the productivity in finance in terms of the generation of surplus from the movements and flows of money, but also the emergence of distinctive social forms. These forms are concerned not with equilibrium states or stasis but with disequilibrium and asymmetry. I have pointed, for example, to a postprobabilistic reworking of the relationship between credit-debt and wages such that credit-debt outruns working and lived lives and if indexed against income can never be repaid; a nonchronological temporal universe that binds everyday practices to the indeterminate movements of money; and modes of practice that are attuned not to the reproduction of labor but to the optimization of the possibles of payment. While for many social theorists such disequilibrium states are cause for alarm and a sign of a dysfunctional and degenerating social order, I have stressed that they constitute the very social fabric of the time of money, not least because they afford modes of practice and activate capacities that attune populations to the logic of speculation.

In this chapter, I turn to a further instance of the activation of such capacities, and especially to how a logic of speculation guides and organizes the composition and organization of labor. My interest in labor is certainly not to recuperate its status as the foundational or fundamental value underlying exchange. Instead it is in how, in the time of money, labor has been restructured in terms of the unpredictable event. The restructuring of the probables of Fordist wage labor into a range of contingencies has been made explicit by a number of writers, as have the sociolegal devices, infrastructures, and practices that have enabled this reworking (see, e.g., Cooper 2012; Peck and Theodore 2012; Rafferty and Yu 2010). The latter include zero hours and other forms of employment contracting that have uncertainty and the shouldering of risk at their very core. They also include outsourcing and subcontracting chains, contingent work strategies, tendering and procurement practices, and employment policy regimes that seek to optimize the working capacities and employability of whole populations, as well as to maximize such capacities across whole lifetimes. Also at issue are a range of sociotechnical devices and institutional mechanisms that have transformed the certainties of the Fordist wage into the necessarily unknowns of what money might put in motion. Such devices, practices, and infrastructures must be recognized as central to the transformation of the Fordist into the post-Fordist labor market and the establishment, as Melinda Cooper (2012) has framed it, of contingency not as a marginal or peripheral principle in the organization and realities of wage labor but as a necessity and a standard.

In this chapter I situate—perhaps at first sight paradoxically—the labor of the unemployed in these terms. I am concerned with that labor which is the subject and object of regimes of activation, that is, of a range of techniques ostensibly designed to enhance the employability of the unemployed and underemployed through the activation and enhancement of laboring capacities. Sometimes referred to as workfare or welfare-to-work policy, activation regimes became embedded across OECD countries beginning in the 1990s through a complex and still ongoing set of policy exchanges and transfers. Activation has been located as a key postwelfarist policy that has supported the functioning of post-Fordist labor markets through the provisioning of a supply of cheap and flexible labor (see especially Peck 2001). It has also been understood as comprising a set of techniques for the formatting of risk-bearing postwelfarist subjects (see, e.g., Triantafillou 2011, 2012), as well as for disciplining and punishing the poor and/or an abandoned underclass (Streeck 2014; Wacquant 2009, 2010). In this chapter I suggest that what remains absent from these debates is the recognition of how regimes of activation serve to restructure labor, opening out the capacities of workers in regard to events that have not yet and might never take place. I set out how this restructuring is eroding the long-lived historical distinction between employment and unemployment by positioning unemployed workers—like their contingently employed counterparts—as always needing to adapt and adjust to the possible. But more than this, I suggest that in their command that the wageless and jobless adapt to the possible, activation regimes open the productive capacities of the unemployed out to the logic of speculation through binding unemployed populations to the indeterminacy of speculative time. I thus situate activation regimes not as a policy analogue to post-Fordist flexible labor markets but as an analogue to the creation of surplus via the indeterminate movements and flows of money.

Many contemporary social scientists might be tempted to take the processes this chapter charts, especially the making productive of unemployment, as being exemplary of economization, that is, the broad-scale process of the folding of the economy into society. This process has been located as central to transformations to the economy-society relation in the context of neoliberalism or the rise of market society (see, e.g., Brown 2015; Çalişkan and Callon 2009, 2010; Foucault 2008),1 and has been understood to include the movement of laboring activities away from the enclosures of the formally productive sphere and their dispersal across the social body (see, e.g., Chicchi 2010; Lazzarato 1996). I suggest, however, that economization is less an issue of a benign dispersal of laboring activities across the social body and/or the harvesting of value from activities within the social body, and more one of the activation of the capacities of the wageless—especially of would-be waged workers—in regard to the demands of the logic of speculation. Indeed, I suggest that what is missing from the debates on economization is a recognition that a logic of speculation centered on the creation of surplus from the flows and movements of money has replaced a logic of extraction centered on the mining of surplus from the human laboring body.

There is, however, a further dimension to my interest in unemployment, underemployment, and wagelessness in this chapter: how, in the post–financial crisis era, rising unemployment levels across the US and Europe were understood (and for the EU area continue to be understood) to evidence the disruptive qualities of the generation of surplus via finance for the social order. This is the case—so the story goes—not only because of the inevitable crises that the excessive generation of surplus from finance inescapably contains but also because those very crises threaten to return us to previous states of existence, especially to undesirable states, both real and imagined. My interest in such accounts lies in how they explicitly situate financial expansion and the generation of surplus via money and finance as degenerate in regard to the social order and as especially reprobate in regard to the ordering of time. In this chapter I show how the assumption of this degeneracy is entirely mistaken, not only because the time of money has unfolded a specific time universe and specific social and economic forms but also because, unlike their historical counterparts, the labor of the contemporary unemployed and jobless is the subject and object of the logic of speculation. I shall address first the claims that financial expansion threatens a return to previous states of existence.

Turning Back Time

Following the financial crisis, a range of voices claimed that the global financial crisis and subsequent recession evidenced not only an excessive trade on the future at the cost of the present but also the return of previous deleterious states. Rises in rates of unemployment, for example, prompted the drawing of a wave of parallels between the post–financial crisis era and the Great Depression, not least because of their shared backgrounds in financial turbulence (Haywood 2010; Livingston 2011; Reinhart and Rogoff 2009). In a New York Times opinion piece in 2009, for example, the American Keynesian economist Paul Krugman warned that prevailing economic and social conditions in the US looked “an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression” (Krugman 2009a). According to Krugman’s diagnosis at the time, these conditions included plummeting manufacturing activity, rising unemployment, a freeze in consumer and business spending, and a massive slowdown in bank lending. In The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, Krugman (2009b) fleshed out the apparent parallels and continuities with the Great Depression. He suggested that what he termed depression economics—that is, “the kinds of problems that characterized much of the world economy in the 1930s but have not been seen since”—had “staged a stunning comeback” (ibid., 181). He went on: “[F]ifteen years ago hardly anybody thought that modern nations would be forced to endure bone-crushing recessions for fear of currency speculators, and that major advanced nations would find themselves persistently unable to generate enough spending to keep their workers and factories employed” (ibid.).

Krugman was certainly not alone in his understanding that the conditions and socioeconomic problems of the 1930s had returned in the post–financial crisis era. In a 2010 interview the then chief economist of the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, remarked that “unemployment [following the financial crisis] remains high, particularly in countries such as the United States and Spain. Long-term unemployment is alarmingly high: in the U.S., for instance, half of the unemployed have been out of work for over six months, something we have not seen since the Great Depression” (International Monetary Fund Survey 2010). Indeed, in the years immediately following the financial crisis, rates and durations of unemployment were consistently compared to those of the Great Depression, with the latter serving as an affective benchmark or index of the devastation the financial crisis had unfolded, together with the dangers of the generation of surplus via money and finance.2 In testimony to the US Congress in 2010 on long-term unemployment, Harvard labor economist Lawrence F. Katz noted that “labor market conditions have deteriorated dramatically since . . . late 2007 making this the severest labor market downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s” (Katz 2010, 2); while in 2013, economist William K. Black assessed joblessness in the Eurozone to be running at “rates higher than the best estimates of European unemployment during the Great Depression” (Black 2013).3 The ongoing unemployment crisis in the Eurozone continues to be indexed and referenced to the Great Depression. Describing this crisis, and especially increases in long-term joblessness (i.e., increases in enduring unemployment), a journalist for The Telegraph recently pronounced that “[t]he problem is not new. Similar forces gripped the US during the Great Depression” (Khan 2015).

Notwithstanding any similarities in unemployment rates and out-of-work durations, it is clear that the prevailing social and economic conditions of both the immediate period after the 2007–8 financial crisis and the ongoing post–financial crisis era did not and do not parallel those of the late 1930s. The kinds of institutional transformations—including to banking and monetary policy—that enabled the expansion of finance from the 1970s onward and have become further entrenched in the post–financial crisis era, for example, were simply not present before and after the Wall Street crash; neither was a mode of financial expansion that pervaded everyday life. Present-day securitization, for example, could hardly have been imagined, let alone lived, in early to mid-twentieth-century industrial capitalism—nor, for that matter, could social forms organized and ordered by a logic of speculation. Understood in this way, claims that the conditions and problems of the 1930s have returned in the post–financial crisis era clearly fall short of the mark in regard to matters of historical specificity, especially in regard to the expansion and transformation of money and finance. Such claims should, in other words, be understood as bypassing what in 1979 Stuart Hall termed a conjunctural analysis of the present, an analysis that demands that the present be understood not as a series of repeats of history but in terms of the specifics of a concrete moment.4 While Hall was concerned with developing such an analysis for the then-emergent economic, social, cultural, and political features of Thatcherism as well as for combatting what he saw as economistic interpretations of the “swing to the Right” (Hall 1979, 14), it is clear that a conjunctural mode of analysis has not lost its relevance, not least for combatting claims that the problems of the 1930s have returned in the post–financial crisis era.5

While it is imperative to stress the significance of a conjunctural analysis in and for the time of money, it is also important to register that the idea that the post–financial crisis era is returning us to past states of existence is by no means limited to claims concerning the return of the conditions and problems of the 1930s. In addition to these claims, the post–financial crisis era has also witnessed repeated declarations that the crisis—especially the recession that ensued—risked the return of an exclusionary sexual contract, especially the sexual contract of Fordism, because the post-crisis recession placed women’s jobs at risk. In early 2009, for example, the business editor of the UK’s Observer newspaper, Ruth Sunderland, predicted that, while in previous recessions men had borne the brunt of job losses, the current recession would be the UK’s “first fully feminised recession” (Sunderland 2009). Women, she went on, “will suffer the most, jeopardizing their hard-earned financial independence and equality at work” (ibid.). And this is so, she argued, because in the UK women tend to dominate in those sectors that would be hardest hit by the recession, namely, in retail and services. She asked: “[C]ould this downturn reverse the huge economic gains women have made over the past few decades?” (ibid.).

Katherine Rake of the UK’s Fawcett Society shared similar concerns, warning that the recession meant that “the advances made by women in the workplace . . . are currently at risk” (Rake 2009a, 2). Women, she argued, “are more directly exposed to the impact of this recession as employees than they were in the recessions of the 1990s or 1980s” (ibid.) because women and men were entering the recession on unequal footing. She claimed that although there have been major increases in women’s employment, “the nature of women’s employment still remains markedly different from men’s. . . . [T]heir experiences of employment are shaped by motherhood and other caring duties, concentration in particular sectors of the economy and the traditional undervaluation of women’s jobs” (ibid., 4). Women’s working patterns, she went on, “make them, on the majority of counts, more economically vulnerable than men from the outset” (ibid.). In a further commentary in The Guardian, she declared:

This recession must not be used as an excuse to send women back to the kitchen. The enormous strides that women have made in workplace equality must be protected during tough times and we cannot afford to lose women’s vital skills as we seek a route to recovery. Women are now looking to the Government to send out a strong signal to business that it will not compromise on women’s rights. (Rake 2009b)

Sunderland and Rake were not alone in expressing such fears at what was then the start of the postcrisis recession. At this time a range of agencies and organizations commissioned research that attempted to map, measure, and predict the gendered contours of the unfolding recession.6 This body of research typically assembled and put to use a range of indicators and measures to chart these contours, including employment and unemployment rates, redundancy rates by economic sector, economic inactivity rates, take-up rates of unemployment benefits, and distributions of workforce jobs. In addition, the techniques of econometric forecasting were employed in attempts to predict the future shape of the recessionary trends in regard to men’s and women’s relative economic outlooks.

Yet while researchers went about the business of assembling their various indicators and measures to produce their analyses and forecasts, what was striking was that very little attention was paid to questions of what exactly was being measured, of how things were being measured, and of what the various indicators tracking the contours of the recession were assumed to be indicating. Instead, these things tended to be taken for granted. While many of the research reports relating to these efforts certainly stressed that the current recession departed from previous recessions in all manner of ways, not least because a large and expanded number of women faced potential job loss, nonetheless it was also striking that many of the instruments used in attempts to measure the effects of the recession for men and women remained the same as those used in previous recessions. Just as in previous recessions, the number of economically active men and women were counted and then compared to numbers in earlier recessionary moments; and just as in previous recessions, unemployment and redundancy rates for men and women were counted, charted, and compared across different time frames.

As the recession became more entrenched and governments devised and unfurled stimulus plans and austerity programs, activities attempting to map and evaluate the impact of the economic downturn for women in particular, but also for men, intensified—not least because, for the case of austerity programs in particular, such measures typically involved cuts to public spending. As set out in Chapter 2, such cuts were and still are widely assumed to have deleterious effects for women because of the latter’s concentration in public sector employment, a concentration constituted by the massive expansion of women’s employment prior to the global financial crisis. In the UK, for example, a 2011 Trades Union Congress (TUC) research report recorded that “the proportion of women employed in the public sector has risen at three times the rate of men over the last decade” (TUC 2011). Together with this, however, the report recorded the women’s unemployment rate in the UK to be at a twenty-three-year high. This situation would, the TUC warned, “only deteriorate as job cuts in . . . health, education, local government and the civil service continue to mount” (ibid.). Indeed, and within this report, the then TUC general secretary Brendan Barber cautioned:

The rising number of women in work has been a great success story of the last decade, but as childcare and child benefits are cut, vital services including education and health are pared back and women’s job losses mount, we risk moving backwards and reducing, rather than improving, women’s opportunities in the workplace. (Barber, in TUC 2011)

He went on: “The TUC is calling on the Government to do far more to boost investment in the private sector, and to think again about its spending cuts. Our economy simply can’t afford to lose a decade of social progress” (ibid.). Thus, much as at the onset of the recession, a differential positioning of women and men in the economy was assumed to mean that women were particularly vulnerable in terms of job losses. As the recession rolled out, this vulnerability was understood to intensify, not only in terms of potential job losses but also in the form of cuts to a range of state and quasi-state services. Such cuts were assumed to mean that there would be increasing demands on women to perform unpaid caring work, demands that militate against employment and employability. Moreover, just as initially the recession had been understood as threatening to return us to a previous state of existence, this return was assumed to be ever closer to actualization as the economic downturn marched on.

Again, many echoed such fears. A report commissioned by Northern Ireland’s Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) highlighted how cutting public sector employment “predominantly means cutting women’s jobs as it is they who make up the majority of the public service workforce” (WRDA 2011, 8). Just as the TUC feared that the actions of governments threaten to turn back time, so too did the WRDA:

Under cover of the recession, welfare support is being slashed along with incentives that encourage women into work and towards economic autonomy. The model of society being held up for women is: go back to the home, pick up the unpaid caring role that we, the governments, cannot cover and we will focus on incentivising your husband to support you. (WRDA 2011, 8)

Reflecting on the findings of this report, Lynn Carvill of the WRDA claimed that Northern Ireland is “returning to the 1950s when a woman’s place was in the home” (Carvill, in BBC News 2011). Women, she continued, “are less well positioned than men to weather the crisis. . . . [G]government responses to the crisis mean we are in danger of turning the clock back in terms of women’s equal economic participation. The [government’s] proposed . . . reforms will remove women’s economic autonomy” (ibid.). In a political campaign launched in late 2011 protesting the UK government’s austerity measures, the Fawcett Society voiced similar fears. Organized around the theme of “Don’t Turn Back Time,” the campaign included a call for a day of action in which protestors were encouraged to adopt 1950s-style clothing. The Fawcett Society advised: “[D]ress up to send the message that women don’t want to be catapulted back to the levels of inequality of yesteryear.”

Figure 5.1. Fawcett Society, 2011. Used with permission.

Rethinking Unemployment

What is clear in these reports, analyses, forecasts, conjectures, and campaigns is that the financial crisis and ensuing recession were ascribed enormous social and political powers. These included but were by no means limited to the power of disassembling the present and returning us to an undesirable past (i.e., the power of creating an anachronistic present); the power of undoing social progress; the power of blunting the force of political movements; and the power of delaying the fulfillment of sociopolitical dreams. But while not explicitly stated, such reports and campaigns also claimed much more than these powers for the ongoing recession. For example, in the claim that the recession was returning women to the kitchen, the home, economic dependency, and unpaid domestic and caring roles, these reports and their authors were implicitly declaring that the global financial crisis and subsequent recession had somehow pushed a mode of capitalist accumulation based on the generation of surplus via money and finance—along with its associated institutional and infrastructural arrangements and arrangements of life—entirely to one side and begun a return to a socioeconomic formation that seeks and requires equilibrium states, especially equilibrium in regard to the work of production and social reproduction. More precisely, these reports and campaigns were by default claiming that the post–financial crisis era is reinstating or has the power to reinstate an economic and social formation in which the work of production (and the extraction of surplus value from that labor) is underpinned, mediated by, and requires unpaid socially reproductive activities performed in the private sphere. The authors and their reports were, in other words, declaring a return of arrangements of labor and life associated with Fordism, arrangements organized by and founded on a sexual contract that limited many women’s social, economic, and political rights, including their right to lay claim to property in the person.

Inasmuch as any moment cannot be perfectly mimicked and reproduced in time (Butler 1993), such a return to a historically specific mode of socioeconomic organization—whether desired or not—is clearly impossible. But while the philosophy of time teaches that a return to any past is unattainable, nonetheless, in the immediate post–financial crisis period, a narrative of such a return framed debate, research agendas, political interventions, and political imaginations. As such, it is worth thinking through exactly how and why such a narrative is not only philosophically but also sociologically problematic. It is worth, in particular, thinking through the immediate and ongoing post–financial crisis moment not as one that repeated or is repeating history but in conjunctural terms. The issues here are multiple, but two stand out from the reports and campaigns as demanding immediate attention, both of which concern unemployment and joblessness.

First, the reports and campaigns assume that if women are not in paid work, they will necessarily be carers, wives, and mothers. Leaving aside the assumption that all women are partnered, heterosexual, and parenting, as well as the further assumption that when women are in paid employment they do not also perform caring and/or domestic labor, what is striking about these accounts is that women occupy only two, mutually exclusive positions: they are either in paid employment or in the home as subjects without political right to property in the person. Yet surely, given the rewriting of the relations among capital, labor, and the state in finance-led post-Fordism, especially the unfolding of a post-Fordist sexual contract, this understanding must be questioned. In regard to social reproduction, for example, not only—as outlined in Chapter 2—has the provisioning of this labor undergone radical transformation in the context of finance-led post-Fordism (and is increasingly politicized as it is provided by commercial services), but the home is increasingly geared to (and organized by) a logic of speculation, such that it has been rewritten not as a site for the reproduction of labor power but for the production of the possible in regard to flows of money.

The second (and related) issue that stands out from these reports is that in assuming that women are either in employment or in the home as subjects without the political right to property in the person, they do not consider women as occupying the state of being unemployed. In this assumption, these reports again suggest a return to a Fordist-Keynesian social formation in which women’s labor was positioned as a reserve for capital, one in which (through the operations of social security laws) many women, especially those defined as dependents, were denied unemployment status, including the rights associated with unemployment such as the right to access unemployment benefits (see, e.g., Fox Piven 2011; Morris 1990; O’Connor et al. 1999). This is an extraordinary omission given the now undisputed reliance of capitalism on women’s labor: the massive incorporation of women’s labor into the labor market and the system-wide changes that have driven this incorporation. It is, in other words, an extraordinary omission, given how women’s labor no longer operates as a reserve for capital (if it ever did so cleanly or decisively [see, e.g., Ferguson 2003; Walby 1984]) but is central to capital’s own valorization, and in particular, for the valorization of finance capital through putting wages in motion. It is also extraordinary given the significance of the putting in motion of women’s (repressed and contingent) wages to the survival and sustainability of households both pre- and postrecession. Given this latter, it is clear that if any meaningful sociological assessment of the post–financial crisis recession is to take place, it is vital not only to consider the changing conditions of women’s employment—of the incorporation of women’s labor into the labor market on a mass scale—but also to open out the conditions of women’s unemployment for critical investigation. Such a procedure should necessarily involve putting aside long-lived assumptions regarding the place and role of joblessness for women in capitalist accumulation—for instance, the assumption that women who are not in employment constitute a reserve of labor who stand ready for exploitation but who nonetheless perform the unpaid work of social reproduction in the household—and instead involve asking a series of open questions regarding the changing relationship between unemployment and finance-driven accumulation processes. For if in finance-led post-Fordism the labor of women is no longer positioned as a reserve and/or as that which serves to reproduce and sustain labor power in the household but stands as a site of potential and possibility in regard to flows of money, then surely this implies a transformation in the conditions of joblessness, including a transformation in how joblessness might be sensed and lived.

In the context of the massive incorporation of women’s labor into the labor market and especially into the wage labor imperative, such questions have, however, received little attention. Indeed, prior to the post–financial crisis recession, and as suggested by the discussion in Chapter 2, attention was focused on the ways in which employment had changed for women and how, in turn, such transformations were integral to shifts in accumulation processes, including changes to employment policy regimes. In retrospect, what stands out from this body of work is that very little attention was paid to the issues of unemployment, joblessness, and wagelessness. In fact, what stands out especially is an assumption that transformations to women’s labor, including the frontier status ascribed to that labor by both capital and the state, were evident in wage labor—in employment and waged work—however contingent and unpredictable that employment might have been. In many ways, this assumption was not surprising, given the rapid expansion of women’s paid employment, or more precisely, that employment growth in the time of money has been largely an issue of the incorporation of women into the wage labor imperative. Nor was it surprising given how rights and access to employment and wages had served as a key feminist goal of the Fordist-Keynesian era. Yet while much attention was paid to women’s wage labor, what often went unnoticed was the ways in which unemployment and joblessness were also changing, a transformation that is significant in regard to questions concerning the character and place not only of women’s labor but of labor more generally in finance-led post-Fordism, both before and after the financial crisis and the subsequent recession. Thus, transformations to unemployment and joblessness are of considerable significance for understanding the character and place of labor in and for the time of money.


1. Thus, the process of economization has been located as central in the establishment of the market as the mode of rationality for society (as well as for the state).

2. It is worth noting here not only that the post–financial crisis era has been taken to share the same substantive conditions and problems as the Great Depression, but also that explanations of the Wall Street crash and the subsequent recession have been reloaded to make sense of the 2007–8 financial crisis and ensuing economic turbulence. As Duménil and Lévy have said, while no consensus has been reached concerning the roots of the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, “the same set of . . . explanations are often retaken in the discussion of the ongoing crisis” (Duménil and Lévy 2014, 26). This tendency is especially apparent in the fields of political economy and heterodox economics.

3. In the EU-28, between 2011 and 2013, unemployment steadily increased, reaching a record level of 26.6 million, or a record rate of 11 percent. In May 2015, the unemployment rate for the EU-28 sat at 9.6 percent, and at 11.1 percent for the Euro Area (EA-19). In January 2017, in the EU-28, 19.95 million were recorded as unemployed; the EU-28 unemployment rate was 8.1 percent, with 9.6 percent for the Euro Area (Eurostat 2017).

4. On the history of the notion of the conjuncture in Marxist and neo-Marxist thought, see Koivisto and Lahtinen 2012.

5. See also Sotiropoulos, Milios, and Lapatsioras (2013), who argue that such a conjunctural form of analysis is required for both the 2007–8 financial crisis and the post–financial crisis era.

6. See, for example, the UK’s Trades Union Congress (2009) report Women and Recession or the research report commissioned by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, The Equality Impacts of the Current Recession (Hogarth et al. 2009).