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labour market

  The market through which labour power is exchanged as a commodity and so (re/dis)incorporated into a circuit of social reproduction such as the circuit of capital.

Labour power (the ability to undertake work) is embodied in human beings with multiple corporeal, political, cultural and social determinations and with close emotive and reproductive ties to particular people. Short of out-and-out slavery, labour power cannot, therefore, be reduced to a mere commodity. Thus although capital is able directly to manage and produce other inputs to production in broad conformity with its own dynamics and norms, it is able to do so only within limits in the case of labour power. This is, of course, one reason why the conflict between labour and capital is such a profound and influential contradiction within capitalist systems of social reproduction.

Labour is an active and essential part of the circuit of capital; without labour the circuit is lifeless. But the logic of capital is not the same as the logic of labour. Labour is not reducible to labour power — to its role in the circuit of capital — and the historical geography of capitalism is structured by the contradictory tensions between labour and capital as well as by the expansionary tendencies of capital. Indeed, some argue that the activities of labour in resisting the worst excesses of capital have not only shaped capitalism but sustained it (Urry, 1981).

The conflict between labour and capital is, in part, a conflict over their constitutive geographies. Despite its reliance on place-bound institutions as a critical condition of its existence and expanded reproduction, capital has few if any emotive attachments to place. By contrast, labour requires \'the stability and support of community life\' (Peck, 1996, p. 15). It is, in short, exogenous to the circuit of social reproduction under capitalism. Thus for Jamie Peck (1996, pp. 32, 39), \'The distinction between labor and labor-power goes to the heart of the social nature of the labor market\'.

The inescapable conclusion is that the spheres of production and social reproduction are both separate and connected. They are separate in the sense that they each have their own structures of dominance, along with their own distinctive rhythms and tendencies, but they are also related in the sense that each conditions and interacts with the other.

And yet, as Antonella Picchio (1992, p. 95) has observed, the imperatives of accumulation tend to regard labour just like any other inanimate commodity:

The separation between the processes of production and reproduction hides the ways in which the proportion between the value of production and the costs of reproduction has historically been held within limits compatible with capitalist accumulation. But what is compatible is actually dictated by the rate of profit — by definition historical — and not by natural scarcities or technological dynamics.Such a separation shuts out the costs of the reproduction of labour from formative influence in the labour market and enables the analysis of labour as if it were an endogenously produced commodity (i.e. produced unproblematically by capitalist systems of production) responding simply to the dictates of demand from production. In such a view, the market for labour is treated like the market for cabbages (Peck, 1996).

So, given the asymmetric relationship of power between labour and capital, one \'solution\' to the exogenous nature of labour and its resultant status as a pseudocommodity (Storper and Walker, 1983) is to attempt to force true commodity status onto labour through the unfettered process of labour market discipline. Such strategies have the advantage for capital of driving down the costs of labour by further imbalancing the relations of power between capital and labour. However, they also serve to undermine the material and social capacity for work — and thereby demean the reproduction of labour. Not only does this reduce its capacity in production, it alienates and actively dehumanizes labour outside production and reduces its effective demand for commodities, so threatening the realization of the surplus. Thus reliance on the \'naked discipline of the market\' (Peck, 1996, p. 29) is profoundly damaging within the circuit of capital and in civil society more generally. And, in any case, they are limited in the extent to which they may be applied by capital.

But attempts to discipline labour begin well before labour power enters the labour market. This imposition is not, as Weber (1976) insisted, reducible simply to the conflict between labour and capital but is associated with the rationalization of social and economic organization and of production. It involves forms of power — residing in bureaucracies — well beyond that of economic power and its contestation in the conflict between labour and capital. One such bureaucracy of rationalization is education. Bowles and Gintis (1976), for example, argue that education should be understood as a response to modern capitalism — providing skills, discipline, respect for authority, rewards for success and penalties for failure. It facilitates cultural reproduction (Bourdieu, 1986, 1988) in perpetuating social and economic inequalities across generations. But, as in the labour market and workplace, this function is not simply imposed on a malleable population. Paul Willis (1977) shows that resistance to and contestation of educational norms is characteristic of many working-class children. They do not simply accept their apparent academic inadequacies and so move into low-grade work as a consequence. Rather they understand the authority system of a school and skilfully resist it for their own ends and the pleasure in conflict. This set of skills is then carried forward into the often mundane blue-collar jobs to which they have access and from which they also expect little direct satisfaction. Nevertheless, material realities begin to intrude as workers in such occupations find themselves trapped in low-paid drudgery from which education might have been an escape.

The lack of control over the nature and volume of its supply relative to the nature and volume of demand for it seems to place labour in a dependent position with respect to capital. But this dependence cuts both ways. On the one hand, labour is dependent upon waged work in order to make a living; it needs to be able to be incorporated into the circuit of social reproduction and cannot, as Jamie Peck (1996, p. 27) remarks, \'wait … until conditions are more favourable. In effect, it is thrown onto the labor market and must adjust its expectations to the prevailing (local) conditions.\'

This gives capital the decisive advantage. The history of the partial closure of the Rover Group\'s car plant at Cowley (Hayter and Harvey, 1993) offers a rich account of the forces involved here. But, on the other hand, precisely because neither labour nor capital can regulate the supply of labour, there are places where and times when labour has the upper hand as capital is also dependent upon access to labour to create the surplus. However, a critical difference between capital and labour lies in the former\'s mobility, which can be expressed geographically, sectorially and in terms of the alternative circuits and fractions of capital through which it may accumulate a surplus. The ability of capital to move increases its power over more place-bound labour.

But this mobility should not be over-exaggerated or over-generalized (see, for example, Cox, 1997). Investment in fixed capital — especially involving the built environment — must, by definition, be fixed in place and represents a substantial commitment, much of which in the form of sunk costs could not be retrieved should the investment fail. Furthermore, the need of capital for certain qualities of labour cannot be satisfied as if the labour market was wholly undifferentiated, in terms of skills for example, and as if it was contained and functioned on the head of a pin. Localized skills and work traditions, to say nothing of the commitment of communities to certain capitals, decrease the mobility of capital and open up a space of power for labour to exploit. Furthermore, the disruptive potential of labour excluded from the controls exerted by participation in regular work and from the ability to participate effectively within civil society as a result of exclusion offers a perpetual threat to the sustained accumulation of capital within the circuit.

The politics of negotiating performance and control between labour and capital in establishing the employment relation (Burawoy, 1985; and see discussion of Willis\'s, 1977, work above) is reflected in the segmentation of labour markets. Storper and Walker (1989, p. 171) suggest that segmentation is an unintended consequence of the indeterminate politics of \'the conflict between labour and capital within socially- and technically-defined strategic conditions\'. Until the mid-1970s, the labour markets of the USA and western Europe were characterized by: an independent primary segment in which rewards, security and autonomy were high; a subordinate primary sector with reasonably high rewards and stable employment but lower levels of autonomy and higher risks of lay-offs; and a secondary labour market characterized by high levels of social control, no autonomy, physical discomfort and low rewards. This segmentation was reproduced and regulated by institutions (including trades unions) within the labour market. Since the mid-1970s, however, transitions within contemporary economies have served to restructure the subordinate, secondary and, to a much lesser extent, the independent primary segments. Fordist production, which was enabled by the development of the former segment, is in decline (in relative if not absolute terms) and productivity increases are essential for maintaining competitiveness. By contrast, subcontracting and outwork are on the increase with conditions (temporary and part-time work, often, thereby, excluded from a range of legal rights of labour) typical of the secondary labour market segment.

Even in the most market-driven circuits of social reproduction, the labour market faces endemic limits. It is hardly surprising, then, that regulation must aim to secure a number of crucial conditions to facilitate the incorporation of labour within the circuit of capital and to control its relationships with the circuit when excluded from it:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } encourage participation — rather than merely force participation through material desperation — in the labour market, not least by the pressure of status of participation and the stigma of non-participation; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } define the limits of non-participation in the labour market by identifying those (e.g. young children, the elderly) who might legitimately be excused participation and by the maintenance of conditions for the majority whereby non-participation is materially unsustainable. But beyond participants and non-participants, it is also important to define a third component of the labour market: Labor markets could not function if the entire [working] population sought actively to participate in waged work or to withdraw [its] labor from the market. (Peck, 1996, p. 33)There is therefore a need to exert control over exempted labour both to facilitate their inclusion within the circuit of capital if necessary and to avoid their subversive organization against or demands on the circuit. A number of institutions such as the family, the armed forces, prisons, social security programmes, schools and hospitals act as a means of regulating that part of the labour force outside the labour market;

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } sustain an acceptable balance between the waged and unwaged segments of the population by macro-economic measures designed to deal with cyclical (temporary) imbalances in the demand for labour and putting longer-term conditions in place to cope with structural changes (e.g. those emanating from systematic technical change or from changes in the pattern of demand). These circumstances are especially tricky because their effect is selective and leads to the increasingly systematic exclusion from the labour market of certain groups.But the regulation of the labour market in sustaining the circuit of social reproduction under capitalism is highly complex and difficult. As Jamie Peck (1996, p. 75) points out

labor market structures and dynamics do not derive from a fully coherent inner logic … There is not one set of (competitive) labor market rules, embedded within an overarching (market) rationality. Rather, the labor market is a complex, composite structure bearing the imprints of a diverse range of influences.So, despite the claims of neoclassical theories, labour markets cannot be

governed by the single, all-pervasive logic of the rationality of the market; in fact, they are places where logics collide. … The conflicting motivations, goals, and strategic practices of different groups in the labor market — which divide not only capital and labor but also social fractions within these aggregates — call for a conception of the labor market as a socially constructed and politically mediated structure of conflict between contending forces. (Peck, 1996, p. 2)The exogeneity of labour which shapes this \'structure of conflict\' also points to the crucial significance of geography for an understanding of labour markets. Labour is place-bound not only in terms of limited mobility in relation to capital — which can, therefore, use locational adjustment in the politics of negotiation with labour — but in terms of its own identity and reproduction.

The significance of geographical variation has been conceded primarily in a recognition of nationally differentiated labour markets and in an acceptance that distinctive social relations within national social formations shape the resolution of the tensions between production and reproduction arising from the exogeneity of labour through nationally based systems of regulation. But all labour markets are territorially constituted (again, not least as a result of exogeneity) and, although significant explanatory roles are assigned to national social formations, the formative geographies of labour markets operate at all spatial scales. Furthermore, under conditions of space-time convergence and distanciation, the geographical scales over which labour markets operate become increasingly intertwined and mutually influential (e.g. Cox, 1997). They overlap and interpenetrate in a multi-scalar process of territorial constitution and reconstitution.

Space-time compression is, for example, causing national regulatory systems to examine ways of adjusting to apparently low-cost labour markets and systems of regulation in ways which are conformable with both global competition and the distinctiveness of national social formations. At the same time, international labour markets are being promoted both within economic blocs such as the EU and within corporate circuits of capital. The unevenness of increasingly compressed global geographies of production, realization and hegemony is creating uneven demands for specialized labour in different parts of the world economic geography — within global financial centres, for example — and so are generating mechanisms of, on the one hand, selective local recruitment and, on the other, international labour migration to cope with imbalances in the availability of skilled, specialized and committed labour.

But the direction of causality is not merely from global to local. Local conditions — including, for example, historical geographies, norms, politics, labour relations — shape local labour markets and the possibilities for local change (see, for example, Wills, 1998). Attempts to derive simple cartographies of labour markets miss this point as they posit an influential container which can at best be an almost meaningless geographical average based on arbitrary notions of where the labour markets begin and end in space. As Jamie Peck (1996, ch. 4) expresses it, such concerns are with the edge of labour markets. But the (re/ dis)incorporation of labour involves processes operating at the centre and not least the complex social geographies of unionization (e.g. Martin, Sunley and Wills, 1996).

What defines local labour markets are the relationships between workplace, home and residential setting — relationships which open up the most profound influences upon labour markets — and the complex influences of the connections and contradictions between production and reproduction. The construction of gendered labour markets illustrates the complex, two-way relationships between local geographies of labour — including the geographically varied availability of information and supportive networks — and geographies of production as articulated through the geographically conditioned operation of local labour markets (Hanson and Pratt 1995). The geographically uneven gendered supply of labour is a product in part of the local construction of gendered supply as well as of the (current and past) requirements of production (see gender and geography). The demand from capital is not, therefore, determinant and this relationship offers a further point of leverage to labour in shaping the conditions of its incorporation into the productive process. (RL)

References Bourdieu, P. 1986: Distinction: a social critique of judgements of taste. London and New York: Routledge. Bourdieu, P. 1988: Language and symbolic power. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press. Bowles, S. and Gintis, P. 1976: Schooling in capitalist America. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Burawoy, M. 1985: The politics of production. London: Verso. Cox, K. 1997: Globalization and geographies of workers\' struggle in the late twentieth century. In R. Lee and J. Wills, eds, Geographies of economies, ch. 14. London and NewYork: Arnold, 177-85. Hanson, S. and Pratt, G. 1995: Gender, work and space. London and New York: Routledge. Hayter, T. and Harvey, D., eds, 1993: The factory and the city. The story of the Cowley automobile workers in Oxford. London and New York: Mansell. Martin, R., Sunley, P. and Wills, J. 1996: Union retreat and the regions: the shrinking landscape of organized labour. London: Jessica Kingsley. Peck, J. 1996: Work-place. The social regulation of labour markets. New York and London: Guilford Press. Picchio, A. 1992: Social reproduction: the political economy of the labour market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Storper, M. and Walker, R. 1983: The theory of labour and the theory of location. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 7: 1-41. Storper, M. and Walker, R. 1989: The capitalist imperative, ch. 6. New York and Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Urry, J. 1981: The anatomy of capitalist societies. London: Macmillan; Weber, M. 1976/1904-5: The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. London: Allen and Unwin. Willis, P. 1977: Learning to labour: how working class kids get working class jobs. Aldershot: Saxon House. Wills, J. 1998: A stake in place? The geography of employee ownership and its implications for a stakeholding society. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 23 (1): 79-94.

Suggested Reading Cox (1997). Hanson and Pratt (1995). Hayter and Harvey (1993). Peck (1996). Willis (1977).



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