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date: 05 May 2021

The Anthropology of Laborfree

  • Sharryn KasmirSharryn KasmirHofstra University


In the final decades of the 20th century, market reforms in China and India, post-socialist transitions in Eastern Europe, deindustrialization of historic centers of factory production, and the international project of neoliberalization ushered billions of people worldwide into a range of labor relations—waged and unwaged, relatively stable and wholly insecure, formal and informal, bonded and free. The heterogeneity and fragmentation of these labors require new insights about capitalism, class, politics, and culture.

One position holds that inequality on a global scale creates people and communities who are permanently outside of capitalism. Many terms catalog capitalism’s failure to incorporate vast numbers of people, and they denote the irrelevance of surplus populations for capitalist value production. “The precariat,” “bare life,” and “disposable people” are among those classifications. More optimistic thinkers see capitalism’s outside comprised of “non-capitalist” spaces, where “alternative modernities” and “ontological difference” flourish.

Marxist anthropologists counter that capitalism incorporates, marginalizes, and expels people on shifting terms over time and on a global scale. Capital and labor accumulation are always uneven, creating differences within and between working populations, especially along axes of race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, skill, and work regime. The proletariat or any similar uniform designation does not adequately capture this broader, heterogeneous social formation. Class analysis is nonetheless critical for understanding these actually existing social relations.

In turn, this approach is criticized for too closely following surplus-value-producing labor, whereas cross-culturally, and especially in the global south, non-capitalist regimes of value persist. Disagreements between two overarching perspectives—one emphasizing political economic factors and the other culture—influence many debates within the anthropology of labor.

Scholars extend the study of labor to engage theories of social reproduction, value, and uneven and combined development. New organizations address the problem of precarious work in academia, and a network connects labor anthropology researchers.

Primitive Accumulation and Dispossession

The “multiplication of the proletariat,” “primitive accumulation,” and “dispossession” are foundational concepts for grasping the heterogeneity of labor. The first is Karl Marx’s phrase for the continual expansion of people pressed into general market dependence; this is the mirror process of capital accumulation. Dispossession is a related term that points to the separation of masses of people from the means of production. Marx’s chapter, “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation,” in Capital remains the paradigmatic formulation of these ideas. There, Marx listed the acts of enclosure that launched the preconditions for capitalism in England and reduced human beings to commoditized laborers. “These new freedmen,” Marx explained, “became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements.” Contrary to political economists who naturalized the appearance of capitalist property, Marx emphasized violence: “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part. . . . [. . .]The history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” Force and plunder would give way with the steady advancement of capitalist relations. Thereafter the continued multiplication of labor would be accomplished through the “silent compulsion of economic relations” and the inculcation of tradition and habit (Marx [1867] 1977, 874, 875).

European imperialism and the rise of fascism returned theorists to primitive accumulation and to the necessary conclusion that force and terror were not consigned to the past but were equally foundational for the expansion of capital in every epoch (Luxemburg [1913] 2003; Polanyi 1944). Geographer David Harvey (2003) introduced the concept of “accumulation by dispossession” to further the critical insight that primitive accumulation is a persistent feature of capitalism. Economic reforms imposed by the Washington Consensus (IMF, World Bank, and US Treasury), neoliberal state policies, and finance capitalism unleashed accumulation by dispossession on a massive scale in the late-20th to the early 21st centuries. Geographic mobility facilitated by technology and communications (prominently, containerization and the internet), financialization, privatization, and the creative destruction of assets typified the epoch. This regime marked a departure from the expanded reproduction of Keynesian economics that prevailed in much of the post-World War II global north, where mass consumption, a growing welfare state, and government expenditures for infrastructure went a long way toward absorbing surplus value. In much of the global south, neoliberal states enacted structural adjustment programs at the behest of the IMF and World Bank, privatizing national industries and inviting speculation in land and resources (Harvey 2003). Others describe this phase of mass immiseration and social upheaval as the “new enclosures” (Midnight Notes Collective 1990).

Dispossession explains widespread social changes associated with neoliberalism, both in the global south and north—endangering indigenous and tribal common rights and land tenure, commodification of land, privatization of water, ritual and cultural losses under post-socialism, and the suppression and disorganization of labor. It became a well-used conceptual tool for interpreting ethnographic data.

Protests in 2011 in Wisconsin against the twin attacks on labor rights and public services can be understood as a budding social movement against accumulation by dispossession. Unionized workers, middle-class professionals, social service users, and students—social groups often set against each other—joined in a sustained takeover of the state capitol building. They welcomed expressions of solidarity from Arab Spring protestors who simultaneously occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square (Collins 2012). The construction of a dam in the Narmada Valley, India removed whole communities, stripped them of common resources, and made them dependent on wage work (Whitehead 2010). In the downtrodden cities of Manchester, New Hampshire, Halle/Salle, Germany, and Mardin, Turkey, immigrant and native-born residents may find connection in common experiences. Migrants were first displaced by war or loss of agricultural lands in their home countries. They subsequently lost leases on their shops or homes when the downtown areas they inhabited became desirable for capitalist speculation and state and municipal revitalization plans. Native-born business owners and renters, previously dislocated from livelihoods and ways of life associated with the city’s industrial past, suffered the same fate. These shared dispossessions encourage friendships and social ties across the native–immigrant divide (Caglar and Glick Schiller 2018).

Accumulation by dispossession places the differently valued and spatially distinct laborers of global capitalism within a web of connection. This comes close to Eric Wolf’s (1982) reconfiguration of anthropological subjects within relations of mutual constitution. Wolf aimed to bridge the cultural and political divides between those made visible by the capital-wage labor relation and the invisible labors outside that relationship—the manifold labors of slaves, petty commodity producers, coerced laborers, plantation workers, and domestic labor, as he described the early colonial period (see also Carbonella and Kasmir 2014; Mintz 1985; Roseberry 1989; Wolf 2001).

August Carbonella and Sharryn Kasmir outlined a research program for “a global anthropology of labor” to highlight these connections. In their formulation, labor is different from class as an already achieved consciousness. Instead, it points to myriad ways of working within temporal and spatial processes of capital accumulation, and it refers to the social protests and quietude, organizations, and cultures that reflect engagements with capital and state, as well as relationships with other workers locally, regionally, and globally. In this regard, labor is a political formation. Rather than reiterating familiar oppositions of north and south, working class and poor, waged and unwaged, formal and informal, this project is concerned with the power-laden processes of categorizing, differentiating, or unifying those labors (Carbonella and Kasmir 2008, 2014, 2015; Kasmir and Carbonella 2008, 2014).

Critics respond that a focus on dispossession impedes a full understanding of the impact of neoliberalism in many parts of the world. In their estimation, “dislocation” better expresses the range of emotions and experiences, including “other senses of disruption or disorientation, such as the sentiment of feeling out of place, or of losing your bearings or sense of self as things move and change around you.” This phenomenological approach emphasizes “the structures of feeling and the affective forces that color contemporary experiences of labor” (Harvey and Krohn-Hansen 2018, 12).

The Disorganization of Working Classes

Anthropologists intimately document the structures of feeling associated with the passing of a way of life rooted in industrial work and rhythms. In the United States, middle-income families in the 1990s fought to stave off poverty in the face of corporate downsizing. Heads of households got second jobs, teenagers and non-wage-earning parents searched for waged employment, and families cut spending and extended their credit through subprime mortgages that quickly put their homes in jeopardy. They feared a “fall from grace” as they saw middle-class status elude them (Newman 1999). Christine Walley chronicled the lives of her own parents as they tried to make sense of the sudden, unannounced closure of the Chicago-area steel mill where her father worked for decades. The event resounded within Walley’s working-class family, since their livelihood was tied to the factory and their social networks were enmeshed in their white-ethnic neighborhood. Walley’s father never again found steady employment, and her mother became the main breadwinner. Meanwhile, their neighbors moved away, leaving houses uninhabited and boarded up, contributing to the sense of decline (Walley 2013).

Historical ethnographies aim to situate these feelings of dislocation in the rubric of “the disorganization of working classes.” These studies chart the unmaking of working classes. They cite E. P. Thompson’s (1963) pioneering formulation of the making of the English working class that traced the experiences and organizations of working people as they shaped their shared identity. The inverse process of unmaking witnessed the disempowerment of working classes who had been organized in unions and political parties, and who had been allied with other social sectors locally, nationally, and internationally. Only decades earlier, these same workers confronted their employers, made demands on the state, commanded space, and built social institutions. Their unmaking was not an immediate achievement, but it was delivered systematically through social, martial, political, and cultural processes. In the aftermath, workers’ livelihoods were insecure, their social lives fragmented, and they were left without collective power (Kasmir and Carbonella 2014).

Shipbuilders in Galicia, Spain lived such an unmaking. Workers had organized the underground communist union CCOO (Comisiones Obreras) and participated in a broad-based, popular movement that helped bring down the Franco regime and force a democratic transition in the 1970s. However, Spain’s entry into the European Union (EU) in 1986 and state-imposed neoliberal reforms initiated a sustained attack on their way of life. Large-scale employers subcontracted to smaller concerns, and casual labor and underemployment edged out permanent jobs and family wages. In what were once shipbuilding households, family members strategized and networked to find waged work and pursue social mobility. Their individual endeavors contrasted with the collective action in unions and left-wing political parties that had been their main avenue for security and advancement. Residents felt bereft of the social meaning they had previously derived from their union membership and political beliefs (Narotzky 2014).

The rise of ultranationalism among disaffected industrial workers in post-socialist Poland is likewise intimately connected to political defeat. Poland’s entry into the EU and the wider capitalist market was achieved after 1989 via “shock therapy” (Klein 2007). Purportedly, these liberal market reforms underwrote a successful democratic transition in Poland; in actuality, they authorized the “hidden history” of working-class dispossession. Workers had won control of their factories during the Solidarity movement in 1981, but their political aspirations for self-management were betrayed by a new class of technocrats who engineered the sale of the factories to transnational capital. Widespread unemployment resulted, and workers felt deceived and disillusioned. These resentments attracted them to right-wing populism and anti-liberalism (Kalb 2014).

A social movement against precarity in South Korea gained force after 2011 when a worker occupied a crane in the Hanjin shipyard for nearly a year. She refused to leave even in the face of threats to her well-being and life. The transnational shipping corporation planned to transfer the crane to Subic Bay, Philippines, where the state established a freeport zone that eliminated taxes and duties and restricted collective action and labor rights. The crane occupation was a remarkable challenge to the physical dismantling of the shipyard and to the loss of stable jobs, and it resonated with the suicides of unionized workers that were then increasingly common in South Korea. Korean and Filipino activists mobilized workers and their supporters around the affective themes of despair and hope that the crane protest evoked (Schober 2018).

These historical ethnographies lend counterweight to stories of rust-belt communities that depict the collective injuries wrought by plant closure but marginalize class politics. Youngstown, Ohio, in the Midwest, is regularly called upon to represent the ravages of deindustrialization. Yet the forceful community organizations that fought plant closings—including by making the very radical claim that the community had a right to seize the abandoned industrial property—are erased from the dominant narratives of “loss and victimization.” Popular and academic accounts memorialize the Youngstown working class, even as they eclipse resistance and struggle (High 2002). Furthermore, narratives that mourn Fordism tend to overlook the heterogeneity of working classes, and they mistake the demise of Fordist working classes for a decline of class itself (Carbonella and Kasmir 2014; Carrier and Kalb 2015).

Race and Gender Enclosures

Fordism never provided cover for all workers, neither in the United States, where it reached its fullest expression, nor internationally.1 In the United States, domestic and farm work were exempted from the 1930s National Labor Relations Act that established the right to organize unions. African Americans and women were overrepresented in these sectors. As a result, the wage bargain and union protections were achieved unequally along lines of race and gender. It is a mistake, therefore, to take Fordist arrangements as the common starting point for enumerating working-class dissolution: Fordism was more the exception than the rule (Baca 2004, 2017; Mullings 1986).

Radical geographers convincingly argue that unevenness is not merely the consequence of capital accumulation, but its staging ground. Crises of profitability are resolved by spatial, temporal, technological, and organizational “fixes,” wherein geographic nodes of fixed capital are abandoned and assets are redirected to new regions, sectors, and production regimes (Harvey 2006; Massey 1984; N. Smith 1984, 2006). These observations greatly sharpen the understanding of the logic of capital and its spatiality, but they are less attuned to the politics of labor (Herod 1997, 2006). To be sure, union organizing influences the spatiality of investment, and capital mobility is a shadow map of the geography of labor unrest (Silver 2003).

In emphasizing the role of labor, it is imperative to underscore that “labor is not ‘an undifferentiated mass’; it is rather a divided and struggled-over social formation” (Mitchell 2005, 92). Racial and gender divisions accompanied the rise of capitalism; the accumulation of labor was the accumulation of difference. These divides gave life to understandings of who counted as a proletariat, and by what measure—whether waged, unwaged, or enslaved people were to be included or excluded from the designation “worker” (Federici 2004). They consequently shaped how laboring people construct alliances, command space, and conceptualize struggle.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ reflections on the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis deepen this insight. A labor shortage during World War I drew African Americans to the city from the south. There they met unskilled eastern and southern European immigrants in the mills. Refused membership in the white-dominated (Anglo and German) craft unions, black and immigrant workers together joined the fledgling laborers’ union. When employers cut wages across the city, their union called a strike but their budding alliance was soon extinguished by the employers’ unyielding response. Capital counted upon the wartime US government’s nationwide reign of terror aimed at forestalling emergent forms of working-class solidarity such as this. In East St. Louis, the not quite white eastern and southern European immigrants faced lower wages and the “shadow of hunger,” and turned their allegiance to the white craft workers. They tried to secure their own position by banishing black laborers from the city’s wage labor force. The immediate aftermath of their racial violence was brutal. Du Bois writes that eastern and southern European immigrants grasped at the “wages of whiteness,” including its psychological advantage. In his account, however, this racial privilege does not stem from a psychological drive (contra Roediger 1991). Instead, whiteness came to fruition within fields of power in which capital, the state, and workers acted in a world structured by a global color line (Du Bois [1920] 1969; see Carbonella and Kasmir 2008).

Boundary making and racial enclosure likewise defined 20th-century Detroit. The onset of Detroit’s deindustrialization is typically dated to the 1970s, contemporaneous with neoliberalism and the wholesale restructuring of capitalist space. But systematic disinvestment began in the late 1940s to 1960s, when race and class segregation hardened. Capital, state, and civil society, including white workers and labor unions, played a role in bringing about these starkly uneven conditions. Auto executives installed discriminatory hiring policies from the outset. African Americans were assigned the hardest, most dangerous, and lowest paying jobs in outdated plants, where they were vulnerable to layoffs. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) labor union did little to improve these conditions, although some local chapters pressed the national union to act. Job loss in Detroit was accelerated by state-financed expressways and highways. Suburbanization and decentralization were not the result of market forces but instead arose from policies that weakened organized labor, siphoned jobs out of the city center, where most African Americans lived, and underwrote homogeneous white suburbs. Real estate agents and white homeowners used racial steering and threats of terror to maintain residential segregation, and the urban core was drained of industry, employment, a tax base, and housing investment. In this way, Detroit was transformed from a “magnet of opportunity to a reservation for the poor” (Sugrue 1996; see Gill and Kasmir 2016).

Portuguese state policies designed to attract foreign capital similarly generated patterns of extreme labor exploitation. During the dictatorship (1933–1974), the corporatist state built a dual society. In core sectors, there were fixed working hours, labor contracts, and minimum wages. In disadvantaged sectors, wage earners received less than the cost of social reproduction for themselves and their families. Household members were therefore pushed into low-paid agricultural and artisanal work, and rural and industrial oligarchs were guaranteed a super-exploited labor force that was largely young and female. The state proffered the myth that Portugal was a “naturally rural country” to legitimate this state of affairs, and it further naturalized these conditions through ideologies of gender and family (Matos 2018). As well, Southeast Asian states carved zones of exception from their national territories to accommodate the demands of corporations and global regulatory agencies. States ceded control of these zones and the people in them to corporate rule. Ethnic minorities suffered the most repressive exercise of labor control and are now, as of the early decades of the 21st century, deprived of many rights of citizenship (Ong 2006).

Inside or Outside of Capitalism and Class?

Precarious versus stable employment is one key axis of difference among workers. Many people the world over have been thrown out of the wage contract, while others have never worked for a wage and pursue multiple livelihood strategies. Mumbai slum dwellers pick garbage and sell their takings to entrepreneurs of recyclable waste (Boo 2012). In Rio de Janeiro, people leave garbage dumps for formal jobs but return when their life circumstances make it impossible to accommodate the demands of regular work schedules (Millar 2014). Women make food for sale in public squares or on roadsides, and children are bonded to small producers who contract for multinational corporations selling shoes or toys. Self-employed freelancers, professionals on temporary contracts, and interns and part-time faculty do the work of corporations and universities as internet-based platforms host putatively self-employed drivers and service providers (Morton 2018). Testifying to the pervasiveness of casual employment in academia, the American Anthropological Association passed a resolution in 2103 in support of workplace rights for contingent and part-time labor. In 2016, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in Europe founded the interest group PrecAnthro during the annual meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, and they later formed the Anthropology of Labour Network.

Do these people inhabit the permanent outside of capitalism? Are their labors outside of class relations? Or do they engage in many, varied laborers, better understood in class relationship to each other, capital, and states (see Kasmir 2018)?


One line of thought extends Michel Foucault’s “biopolitics” to name a permanent outside of capitalism. Foucault argues that “biopower” is exercised through surveillance, counting, and categorizing bodies and lives. Demography, penal codes, medicine, and other modern forms of governmentality “qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize.” They assign value and utility to life (Foucault 1990, 144, originally published in 1978). Power designates worthy human beings and denies the political or legal sovereignty of others, reducing them to “bare life” or to mere biological existence (Agamben 1998). Achille Mbembé applies these insights to colonial regimes and racial rule. He asks, “Under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised? Who is the subject of this right?” His concept of “necropolitics” refers to this control over life and death (Mbembé 2003, 11).

Ethnographers draw on this literature to explore emotions and subjectivities across cultures. Those without stable jobs in recessionary Japan experience loneliness, isolation, and the loss of a feeling of home (Allison 2013). Victims of violence and torture in post-US-invasion Iraq suffer trauma and persistent insecurity (Al-Mohammad 2012). Marginality, anxiety, and paranoia resound for short-term contract employees in corporate settings in neoliberal Italy (Molé 2010).

If reducing people to their biology had been the exception, scholars maintain it is more and more the rule. Unmarked mass graves of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and on the US–Mexico border, as well as some quarter million farmer suicides in India would seem to prove the point. People discarded and excluded from secure work and life—refugees from war and climate crises, stateless people, torture victims, migrants, the poor—are relegated by international organizations, states, and capital to bare life. Judith Butler (2004, 2010) writes that the general human condition of precariousness is experienced unequally, borne by the marginalized, poor, and disenfranchised. Social value is attributed to some lives but it is denied to others; some are protected while others are exposed. Anthropologists find these terms helpful for studying “surplus populations” (e.g., Li 2009; Ferguson 2013).

Marxist scholars counter that surplus populations are not outside but inside capitalist relations. They are a “reserve army of labor” of those not (yet) incorporated into global capitalist relations or those pushed out for the short or long term, whose numbers function to cheapen labor and discipline workers worldwide. However, Tania Li maintains that surplus populations “have very limited relevance to capital at any scale” (2009, 67). One billion people in the global south who live on US$1 a day attest that “letting die” is a brutal reality. Li argues that surplus people are not formed in relation to working classes, contra Marxist theory; nor is their condition a strategy of global capital. She concludes therefore that class analysis does not suffice to explain their existence. Consequently, a different politics is needed beyond that of workers and consumers making claims on capital and the state. Li asks about the kinds of struggles and alliances required to create “make live” projects as opposed to the let-die option (Li 2009).

Biopolitics provides a forceful language for human suffering, but scholars fear that it risks rehearsing the ideological terms of capital and the state. Historian Michael Denning cautions that “to speak repeatedly of bare life and superfluous life can lead us to imagine that there really are disposable people, not simply that they are disposable in the eyes of state and market” (Denning 2010, 80). From the lens of biopolitics, purportedly disposable people “are seemingly never ‘thrown back into the breach,’ nor chart an alternative.” The unfortunate end result may be to “remove laboring people from history” (Carbonella and Kasmir 2014, 24).

Denning offers the concept of “wagelessness” as a better start for inquiry. Dispossession produces diverse outcomes: “truck and barter,” informal and formal work, bonded work, and unwaged labor. Waged employment is only one possible life condition among many. Following this, the imperative to earn a living rather than the wage relation as a singular form is the foundational moment of capitalist class relations. This proposition invites careful historical and political analysis of the interrelated making of surplus and incorporated populations; capitalism’s shifting outside and inside; and let die, make live and worker and consumer struggles and projects.

The Precariat?

A second kind of outside argument is presented by Guy Standing. Neoliberal reforms created a global “precariat,” he maintains, comprised of several strata of part-time workers, the self-employed, and subcontractors. The precariat’s self-interest is not shaped through work-based identities, collective forms of solidarity, or union membership. According to Standing, the precariat sees unionized workers in protected jobs as their adversaries, and they reject labor unions and leftist political parties. New forms of association and state policies are therefore in order. Standing believes that the basic income grant is particularly necessary to subsidize livelihood activities for the majority who will never be stably employed (Standing 2011). Partha Chaterjee (2004) similarly argues that since India’s subaltern population is fated to remain on the permanent outside of the wage relationship, a novel politics is required. He foresees social movements based on citizenship rather than work-based struggles or class demands.

These formulations echo earlier reports of those permanently expelled from the wage relation. In the 1970s, Keith Hart (1973) authored the concept of the “informal sector” to describe the prevalence of informal work in the urban economy in Ghana. José Nun (1969) and Anibal Quijano (1974) debated whether vast numbers of laid off workers in Latin America would ever be reabsorbed into capitalist enterprises or would instead comprise a perpetual “marginal mass.” Kalyan Sanyal (2007) distinguished between the capitalist and non-capitalist “need economy,” comprised of charity, nonprofits, and government transfers. He argues that this distinction is apt because for postcolonial India where capitalism is neither universal nor fully established.

Whereas these interventions offer a much needed “corrective to teleological readings of capitalism,” they do so by proffering a “reified view of capitalist social relations as being reducible to the production relation between free wage-labor and capital. . . .” They also artificially wall off the capital–labor relation and separate informal from formal activities (Jan 2013, 334). A critique traces connections of the informal economy to surplus value. For example, domestic work in middle-class homes, petty commodity production of food, forms of credit, and a “rent gap” in the face of encroaching real estate speculation connect Indian slum dwellers to circuits of capital, even when they do not work directly in capitalist enterprises (Whitehead 2014).

Moreover, Standing’s argument is geographically and historically circumscribed. Standing focuses on changes in labor markets of the neoliberal United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, while capital in the global south always produced insecure, unprotected, and super-exploited workforces (Breman 2013). Andre Gunder Frank’s and Walter Rodney’s writings on underdevelopment are germane to this rejoinder. By their count, dependency and underdevelopment were not a failure of economic modernization, nor would they be remedied by more capitalist expansion. To the contrary, dependency elites did the bidding of transnational capital, and neocolonial regimes in the Third World carried on the extractive political and economic relations of colonialism whereby resources and wealth flowed from poor, ex-colonial nations to benefit dominant countries or metropoles. Surplus and informal labor are closely tied to processes of capital accumulation and neocolonialism (Gunder Frank 1966, 1967; Rodney 1972).

Precarity is the historical norm in much of the world. For Jan Breman, the precariat question necessarily turns on Marx’s theory of the reserve army of labor. The theory charts the relationships to capital and to working classes of those not yet brought into or episodically pushed out of the wage relationship. Their presence depresses wages and helps contain restive working classes. The global labor force has grown exponentially over the past four decades, from the late 1970s on, creating a large, varied, and stratified reserve army that cheapens the price of labor and strains the capacity for collective action worldwide (Berman 2013; Marx [1867] 1997, 781-794; Roseberry 1997).

Academic declarations of a permanent outside of capitalism uncomfortably parallel the “myth of disposable women” in the Third World. This myth is told by factory managers, corporate executives, and consumers around the world to narrate women workers’ putatively inevitable progression from youth to being used up in a very few years. This progression is supposedly propelled by women’s biological and culturally scripted lives rather than by super-exploitation and the purposeful abuse of their bodies. During the worker’s rapid descent, the woman produces many valuable things. Her labor power is exhausted before it becomes expensive—either because she, with others, demands better pay and treatment or because her physical breakdown diminishes her productivity. The story legitimizes severe forms of discipline, constant surveillance, and overbearing paternalism that constitute the hyper-exploitation of this worker until she is replaced by a younger woman. A critical analysis of the story as it played out in factories in Mexico and China reveals the dialectical relationship between her disposability and her super-exploitation (Wright 2006). This dialectic is also on view in China’s rustbelt and sunbelt, where geographically distant processes of abandonment and investment simultaneously threaten the pensions of retired workers and render young factory operatives afraid to fight for labor rights (Lee 2007).

From this Marxian perspective, precarious workers are inside of class relations, and solidarity between social sectors is one possible development. In Buenos Aires, public sector unions are figuring out how to effectively represent temporary workers and to nurture alliances between contract and permanent workers (Lazar 2017). Migrant laborers established long-term residence in Baja, California to accommodate year-round fruit and vegetable production for US and Canadian markets. In these more permanent communities, migrant women turn to petty commodity production and aspire to open their own small shops. At the same time, new unions mounted a successful strike that nurtured cross-ethnic solidarity among the Mixtec, Zapotec, and Triqui migrants and counted on cross-border organizing in the United States and Mexico (Zlolinski 2018). During union-led strikes in Zambian copper mines operated by Chinese state-controlled subsidiaries, laid-off casual workers joined and escalated the conflict. Informal workers reasoned they had “nothing to lose and everything to gain from a strong show of force against the mines” (Lee 2014, 50). Close accounts of struggle may influence how academics understand precariousness, whether as bare life or as grounds for alliance and political-economic claims on capital and the state.

Ferguson and Li (2018) consider precarity a useful point of departure for a global research agenda that decenters the “proper job” as “the universal solution, the obvious telos of a worldwide developmental process.” Their premise is the multilinear nature of development rather than a unilinear version of capitalist progress that leads (sooner or later, here and there) to a “proper job,” from which difference is marked as deviation or absence. They develop an expansive set of research questions to investigate livelihoods across ethnographic settings. In their reading, precariousness is not posed as a problem within the historical development of capitalism and class relations, though they ask some questions about those processes, but it should be placed center stage, framed as the global norm. They prefer to postpone a project that would seek general theory to explain these circumstances and instead advocate documenting and describing diverse livelihoods on the ground.

Capitalism and Heterogeneity

There is growing consensus that capitalism is comprised of many social relationships beyond wage labor, yet this heterogeneity is explained in competing ways. One strand of scholarship ascribes this state of affairs to cultural particularities rooted in ontological differences that purportedly flourish outside of capitalism. Feminist economist J. K. Gibson-Graham asserts that caring and reciprocity in the domestic and community spheres and shared prosperity in cooperative workplaces are among the practices that escape capitalist value and logic. Instances of non-capitalism are numerous and are the proving ground for egalitarian ethos and new economic relations (J. K. Gibson-Graham 1996, 2006).

Anna Tsing draws upon Gibson-Graham’s approach to analyze the hunting, sorting, and sale of matsutake mushrooms in Japan. At some points in the supply chain, labor is alienated and the mushrooms are commodified; at others, both labor and mushrooms have a gift-like quality. Supply chains expose the “rough edges” of capitalism. Against “striving to show how capitalism fits together as a whole” or seeing capitalism as singular, Tsing believes that the study of mushrooms reveals how non-capitalist social relations and other historical contingencies are “awkwardly woven into capitalism” (Tsing 2013, 39). Heterogeneity nurtures utopian possibilities for a better world that can emerge from the “interstices between capitalist and non-capitalist spaces” (Tsing 2009, 172).

Arturo Escobar likewise holds that capitalism is not all-encompassing. Place-based knowledge and alternative world-making projects purportedly thrive on the Pacific coast of Colombia. In a region threatened by rapacious development and environmental destruction, there are spaces and forms of economy removed from capitalist imperatives. Afro-Colombian activists nurture alternative modernities that manifest an essential form of knowledge at odds with capitalist ontology. Reservoirs of local knowledge, relations of reciprocity, and minority subjectivities arise from the “counterwork” of local people. Capitalism, in this formulation, is only one economic logic among many others (Escobar 2008; see also de Sousa Santos 2007).

There is reason to be skeptical of this line of thought, first for championing thick description over theory and second for neglecting the role of struggle in social change. In these accounts, transformation seemingly flows from the simple fact of heterogeneity. (See critiques by Kalb 2015a,b, 2018; Kalb and Mollona 2018; Narotzky 2016; and Kasmir and Gill 2018). Gavin Smith argues that the shift from the global dominance of industrial to finance capital since the 1980s changed how power is exercised. The Keynesianism hegemonic project was aimed at incorporation (even though incomplete). The prevailing mode of hegemony is now “selective,” leaving whole sectors of national populations to press claims and organize politics in new ways (G. Smith 2014, 2016). Ida Susser (2018) applies this useful epochal framing toward examining the changing class alliances that animated social movements in New York City from the 1960s. In these tellings, difference is structural and historical, not ontological, and instances of capitalism’s outside or non-capitalism are better explained by the power-laden projects of incorporation and exclusion that are fundamental to capitalist accumulation.

The classic monograph All Our Kin makes the ethnographic case. Carol Stack did fieldwork in the United States in a low-income, black urban community in the 1970s. At the time, the “culture of poverty” reigned in social science and policy circles. That thesis attributed enduring poverty across generations to cultural values and psychocultural traits. Chronically poor families reportedly suffered from a lack of future orientation, distrust of formal institutions, and feelings of powerlessness. Conversely, Stack showed that poor people ameliorated their circumstances by sustaining networks of care based upon reciprocity and non-monetary exchanges among kin and across households. Importantly, Stack situated those practices within the larger fields of power that created and reproduced zones of poverty. Although she did not register the precise terms of the inside–outside debate, these can nonetheless be read from her analysis. She did not consider that sharing or extended and fictive kin were external to capitalist processes, nor culturally essential within black communities, but gave readers to understand that non-market relations were produced fully within capitalism’s inside, at the intersection of structural racism, labor market segmentation, and state welfare policy (Stack 1974).

Southern Catalan peasants sustain a worldview that is at odds with capitalist value. Transnational energy corporations pursue access to agricultural terrain for wind turbines and deem the plots under peasant cultivation to be a “waste.” They proffer more efficient and profitable uses of the land. Catalan peasants express their resentment of the energy corporations through the cultural code of “dignity.” Their language evokes local knowledge, ethos, and subjectivities. Yet the same community members were active in antinuclear mobilizations in the 1980s when they endorsed a renewable energy alternative. They may well have supported wind power, Franquesa reasons, had the neoliberal Spanish state not handed over the energy sector to transnational capital. Dignity, self-provisioning of foodstuffs, and alternative moralities are not culturally essential or enduring rural Catalan values but historically produced and intertwined with global processes (Franquesa 2018; also see Palomera and Vetta 2016).

Dene, Metis, and Inuit women in the Northwest Territories of Canada work for wages and they undertake subsistence production—hunting, trapping, fishing, foraging, and elaboration of skins. The same beadwork or sewing, for example, is performed both for the household or wages. This situation calls to mind anthropological modes of production theory of the 1970s–1980s, which held that kin or tribal modes of production in Asia and Africa were sustained and encouraged rather than destroyed by colonial capitalist penetration, although capitalist logic was finally dominant over these other economic systems (e.g., Wolpe 1980).

Rebecca Hall argues that kin-ordered labor in colonial settings is a site of struggle that is located both inside and outside of capitalism. Indigenous women respond to the demands of capital when they shoulder the costs of social reproduction with their non-paid work, yet they also resist and elude capital. Hall ’s postcolonial perspective engages feminist social reproduction theory. She sides with feminist critiques that orthodox Marxist definitions of production eclipse women’s social reproductive work. Nevertheless, she rejects the feminist equation of reproduction with domestic activity, since indigenous women also carry out subsistence production outside of the home (Hall 2016). Gavin Smith argues along similar lines and suggests substituting “expanded reproduction” for the concept of social reproduction so as not to artificially separate social and economic processes. Subsistence practices, petty commodity production, peasant household production, rent, credit, and debt all combine in a quasi-totality of capitalist social relations (G. Smith 2018).

Hall recognizes that non-wage labor contributes to circuits of capitalist value, but she maintains that subsistence production falls outside of capitalist relations as well. Subsistence draws upon and preserves local place-based knowledge. “Non-capitalist subsistence production is more than its relation to capital [. . .] ultimately enacting resistance to capital as the only alternative, and carving out spaces of well-being, meaning and hope” (Hall 2016,106). However, Hall does not explore the relationship of indigenous women to other laborers in Northern Canada and farther afield. Neither does she tease out when and under what conditions spaces of well-being, meaning, and hope nourish ontological difference, nor when and in alliance with whom they are bases for struggle against capital. The anthropology of labor attends to these latter concerns.

Conclusion: New Theoretical Projects and Research Programs

Labor is at the center of several new research agendas, including a revived interest in value. One point of departure is a critique of the productivist (and gender and race) bias in Marx’s labor theory of value (see, e.g., Collins 2017; Narotzky 2018a).

Value Regimes

Marilyn Strathern’s writing on Melanesia motivates anthropologists who propose to make labor a more cross-cultural and comprehensive concept that incorporates affect and non-capitalist values. Strathern saw two discrete spheres of value and work during her fieldwork: In the domestic realm, women raised pigs for food. In the realm of exchange, men accrued renown. Men dominated but did not exploit women’s labor when they exchanged the pigs because the animals were never wholly separated or alienated from the relations that produced them. The Melanesian case is summoned to affirm that culturally particular value regimes persist in contradistinction to abstract surplus value (Harvey and Krohn-Hansen 2018; see also Bear et al. 2015).

Keir Martin (2018) troubles this typology for the Melanesian context. After their village was devastated by a volcanic eruption, residents of Matupit were allocated three hectares of rain forest land by the provincial government of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. To safeguard the blocks as individual or nuclear-family property for cash crops, villagers resisted reciprocity and moral obligations that would embed the plots in clan relations. They strategized how to reliably access the considerable labor needed to clear the forest, plant crops, and establish a household without admitting claims on the land. One villager paid relatives individually rather than accept their “help.” He separated the activity of labor from the person doing it. This act of alienation, Martin affirms, is the same as that named by Marx for the wage labor–capital relation. Martin challenges the ontological divide between commodities and gifts at the heart of Strathern’s “distinction between Western society and Melanesian sociality” (Martin 2018, 92).

Susana Narotzky (2018b) further warns that the anthropological propensity to reify commodity and gift value, and therefore to enumerate culturally particular ontologies, foregoes general theory for description and fails to envision a connected world. Marx distinguished between two manifestations of labor: concrete and abstract. Concrete labor refers to historical particularity and the specific conditions of embeddedness. Abstract labor denotes a quantity of “human energy and time necessary to reproduce the social totality as a meaningful whole, and this encompasses any collective effort in whatever form it is coordinated” (Narotzky 2018b, 30). Abstract labor is present in all societies, whether kin or market ordered. For Narotzky, labor is a useful general concept for explaining otherwise inequivalent and unrelated processes in different parts of the world (Narotzky 2018b; see also Narotzky and Besnier 2014).


People the world over undertake manifold labors, and they are differently situated in connection to circuits of value. It is thus imperative to fully account for the relationship between the organization of exploitation and the organization of oppression (Carbonella and Kasmir 2014, 25).

This problem leads Jason Moore (2015) to another critique of the labor theory of value. Moore’s notion of “cheap nature” refers to unpaid and cheap, non-commodified, non-waged human labor. It also includes extra-human nature—food, energy, and raw materials. Cheap nature is foundational for the origins of capitalism and for its continued reproduction. Moore makes the case that the labor theory of value misses the part played by cheap nature in accumulation, since it recognizes only surplus value captured through direct exploitation in capitalist employment. Accordingly, a new law of value is required that counts exploitation and forms of appropriation “that identify, secure and channel unpaid work outside the commodity system into the circuit of capital” (Moore 2015, 17). The amount of surplus value derived from appropriation grows disproportionately with increasing labor productivity, and ever more people engage in manifold labors that collectively produce cheap nature.

Uneven and Combined Development

Uneven and combined development (UCD) is an emerging research program also focused on capitalist heterogeneity. The first proposition is that the unevenness of capital accumulation across space, sector, and time creates social difference and inequality. Furthermore, unevenness is politically momentous (e.g., Anievas and Matin; Dunn and Radice; Davison 2016; Gill and Kasmir 2016; Kasmir and Gill 2018; Makki 2015; Lem 2018; Kalb 2018; Rosenberg 2006; N. Smith 2006; G. Smith 2016, forthcoming; Werner 2016).

Leon Trotsky’s original formulation of UCD dates to the Russian Revolution and the seeming historical anomaly of proletarian power in a country where formal bourgeois democracy had not emerged. European stock markets were decisive for the path of industrialization in Tsarist Russia. The dominance of foreign investment and debt made for a weak capitalist class, as the industrial working class grew quickly and was concentrated in a few sectors in massive industrial installations in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. These urban centers were “surrounded by a sea of peasant villages barely touched by modern industry and weighed down by onerous tributary exactions.” This state of affairs had important implications for political alliance and the direction of the state. “Fear of the subaltern classes moreover drove the weak bourgeoisie into the embrace of the Tsarist state, turning it into a subordinate appendage of absolutism with little independent capacity to articulate a transformative project in its own image.” (Makki 2015, 483, passim; Trotsky [1932] 1960).

Two competing arguments were at Trotsky’s heels as he assessed Russia’s peculiarity. The first was that all nations must necessarily undergo successive stages of development; hence, a bourgeois revolution was requisite for progress. The second predicted that Russia would follow a unique course and detour around capitalism, directly from feudalism to communism. Trotsky advanced the notion of combination in response to both positions. “Backward” Russia drew on material and intellectual developments from “advanced” England and France and then manifested new configurations (Trotsky [1932] 1960, appendix 1).

In Trotsky’s writing, the notion of combination points to the presence of so-called advanced (capitalist industrial–urban proletarian) and archaic (semi-feudal–rural peasantry) forms and the revolutionary possibilities that arose from them in early 20th-century Russia. Contemporary UCD theorists aim to shed the teleology, including the advance–archaic terminology, and the presumption of revolution. This leads them to ask about the actual and potential political relationships (regressive or reformist) among uneven populations. There is also an international dimension in the combined concept. Embedded historical processes in Russia and the international formation of capital gave rise to the specific class relations that interested Trotsky. The urban working class owed its revolutionary character to earlier political developments in Europe; the French Revolution left a legacy, as did the growth of a strong labor movement and World War I. The historically specific combination of people and power was thus not particular or local, as anthropologists typically understand those terms, nor was it global. Rather it was made through causally interacting places and political moments (Kasmir and Gill 2018; see also Kalb 2018; G. Smith forthcoming).

This research agenda challenges methodological nationalism and ethnography conceived in the ethnographic present or a bounded field site. It endorses instead causal interaction between states and regions and the “back and forth movement from epochal analysis towards greater historicity and the grounding of variant patterns of social change” (Makki 2015, 496, passim; see also Kalb and Tak 2005; Kalb and Mollona 2018; Buroway 1989). UCD invites anthropologists to think relationally, at multiple scales, and historically about their field sites. From this perspective, spaces of non-capitalism or alternative modernities do not emanate from the unfolding of essential cultural logics, but heterogeneity comes from the geographic and temporal unevenness of states, capital, and labor, and from the many novel combinations that arise from social and political struggles.


This article owes an enormous debt to August Carbonella and Lesley Gill, the author’s partners in thinking through much of the material covered here, and to rich conversations with Avi Chomsky, Winnie Lem, Gavin Smith, Don Kalb, and Susana Nartozky. Sincere thanks to all of them. Portions of this article draw from the author’s publications with August Carbonella on the global anthropology of labor (Carbonella and Kasmir 2008, 2014, 2015; Kasmir and Carbonella 2008, 2014) and articles authored with Lesley Gill on uneven and combined development (Gill and Kasmir 2016; Kasmir and Gill 2018), as well as the author’s writing on precarity (Kasmir 2018). This work was supported by the Bergen Research Foundation, the Government of Norway, and Bergen University through the author’s affiliation with “Frontlines: Class, Value and Social Transformation in 21st Century Capitalism.”


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  • 1. In his foundational essay “Americanism and Fordism,” Antonio Gramsci conceptualized Fordism as a whole way of life that encompassed work on factory assembly lines, the family wage, patriarchal family relations, and mass consumption centered around private homes. Gramsci probed how Fordism secured workers’ consent to exploitative class relations. His exploration of Fordism provided groundwork for the concept of hegemony (Gramsci 1971). Scholars later developed the notion of the Fordist consensus that was secured through national labor accords bargained by bureaucratic unions and by redistributive welfare-state policies.