Academic journal article Capital & Class

Rethinking Labour Markets: A Critical-Realist-Socioeconomic Perspective

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Rethinking Labour Markets: A Critical-Realist-Socioeconomic Perspective

Article excerpt

Introduction

Labour markets are central to the neoliberal agenda. Hardly a week passes without a government minister or a leading industrialist urging us towards ever greater labour-market flexibility. Tony Blair, for example, noted that 'Moving towards more flexible systems of pay and working will not be unopposed. Yet the argument can be won' (2002: 21). Neoliberal ideas on labour markets and labour-market flexibility get what intellectual justification they do from the orthodox, neoclassical or mainstream labour market (MLM) model or account. Despite this account being, arguably, intellectually bankrupt, it has gained hegemonic status. It is not only taught in schools, colleges and universities as if it were the 'only game in town', but it also informs local, national, supranational and global economic policy. This state of affairs has come about, at least in part, because its critics have been unable to offer an alternative. Elliot, a mainstream economist who is aware of some of the limitations of the mainstream, provides a good example of this. While he admits that the mainstream account is problematic, he adds: 'Until an alternative and superior analytical framework is proposed, I am reluctant to abandon the one we have' (1991: xvi). The absence of an alternative, then, not only encourages mainstream economists like Elliot to stick with a flawed account, but it also lends credibility to neoliberal policies based upon increasing labour-market flexibility.

In opposition to the mainstream is a disparate group of heterodox economists such as feminists, institutionalists, (2) Marxists, post-Keynesians, regulationists, social economists and segmented-labour-market theorists, as well as non-economists from areas such as organisational theory, the sociology of work and employment, labour law, state theory, human-resource management, industrial or employment relations and urban geography. I refer to this body of literature as the socioeconomics of labour markets. Despite its diversity, this literature unites around a common theme: namely, that labour markets are embedded in institutions or social structures (i.e. mechanisms, rules, resources, conventions, habits, powers, and so on), which I will refer to simply as 'social structures'. (3) The multidisciplinarity and diversity of the socioeconomic literature furnishes us with a set of theoretical and empirical insights out of which an alternative account can be forged. But, at present, the unsystematic (i.e. disjointed, fragmented and partial) nature of these insights means that they do not, currently, add up to the kind of systematic (i.e. connected, holistic, inclusive, totalising) alternative that is necessary in order to challenge the hegemony of the MLM account. This lack of systematicity is, in large measure, caused by the absence of a viable meta-theoretical apparatus with which to weld together these theoretical and empirical insights. Orienting current socioeconomic theoretical and empirical insights on labour markets around critical-realist meta-theory may provide firm foundations from which to begin constructing a systematic alternative to the MLM account: that is, a critical-realist (oriented) socioeconomic account of labour markets.

Since the MLM account is well known, Part 1 of this paper does no more than sketch it out, stripping it down to its basic principles. Part 2 introduces the diverse perspectives and key ideas that constitute the socioeconomic account, considers the embedding of labour markets in social structures, and investigates the ambiguous nature of the relationship between labour markets and social structures. In order to move beyond this state of affairs, Parts 3 and 4 turn to critical-realist meta-theory, which allows us to break completely with the idea that the relations between wages and supply and demand for labour can be expressed as functional relations.

The moment we break completely from scientism, deductivism, closed systems and functional relations, we are 'forced'--almost by default, as it were--to take social structures far more seriously than we have hitherto done, motivating a radical rethink of the nature of labour markets. …

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