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  • What Works?
  • Alyson Cole (bio) and Victoria Hattam (bio)

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Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936 © Roy Export SAS. Scan courtesy of Cineteca di Bologna.

Worlds of work are changing. How polities respond remains a matter of consternation. Brexit, Donald Trump, Yanis Varoufakis, and Marine Le Pen signal a return to economic nationalism, while Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau, and Angela Merkel pursue economic innovation in global terms. What forms will work and production take? Are global value chains still expanding, or have processes of economic reintegration set in? And what about jobs—do we need them? Are robots replacing human labor? Will we all be working for algorithms?

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that 40.4 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in "contingent work" (2015, 4). To be sure, this estimate is high, since it relies on an expansive definition of contingency; nevertheless, there is broad agreement that temporary and other contingent labor is on the rise globally [End Page 15] (Katz and Krueger 2016; Kuruvilla, Lee, and Gallagher 2011). The European Political Strategy Center's (EPSC) "Future of Work," for example, is filled with new classifications for "alternative work arrangements"—temporary, agency, on-call, contract, independent, part-time, and freelance (2016, 3). Is this the "end of work" as we know it (Rifkin 1996), and should we celebrate or mourn that death? Or, as Mary Hawkesworth (2004) has cautioned, should we be wary of premature burials?

What is clear is that we are witnessing the "feminization of labor" globally (Ngai 2016; Staudt 2011). In developing countries women constitute one-third of manufacturing jobs, in Asia they account for approximately half the industrial workforce, and in the Global South they represent the majority in agriculture. Women are also "more heavily concentrated than men in service jobs that provision the supply chains of global production" (Dunaway 2014, 1). Longstanding feminist concerns are thus reanimated: the relationship between home and work, the personal and political, and the public and private alters again, reshaping gendered divisions of labor. New insecurities reproduce and exacerbate older conceptions of devalued labor as always already raced, gendered, and inadequately remunerated. Still a contested neologism, some propose there is a new class formation, the "precariate" (Standing 2011; 2014; Milkman 2014).

While many focus on growing inequality and the future contours of economic growth, Kathi Weeks (2011) and Miya Tokumitsu (2014) have argued, persuasively we think, that bringing everything back to work may be part of the problem rather than the solution. After all, increasing precaritization is bound up with other neoliberal mutations. States transfer responsibilities formerly under their purview to corporations, and corporations further erode benefits, job security, and pensions. Financialization reconfigures notions of subjectivity and citizenship, as well as the idea of "public things," from universities and libraries to even the White House (Ong 2006; Konings 2015; Brown 2015; Honig 2017).

Do we require a profound reorientation to work? Should we question our love of work rather than worrying about who works, for what purposes, and at what price? How does precarity intersect with increased commitments to creativity and design as catalysts of growth? What would it mean to envision individual health beyond the metric of an ability to work and produce (Harvey 2000)? How might decentering work allow us to reimagine different political futures? These are the scenes, questions, and concerns that stimulated our interest in editing a special volume of WSQ [End Page 16] on precarious work. The articles, art, poems, and prose in this issue all explore the political work of precarity, and the precarity of work itself.

"All That Is Solid Melts into Air": Feminae Precariae

At first glance, precaritization or the precariate seem to rename alienated labor, exploited workers, and the destruction inherent to capitalist production. After all, the logic of capitalism, as Marx clarified in The Communist Manifesto (1872), relies on and reproduces volatility. The ambition for profit compels globalization in search of lower costs and new markets, which in turn demands a constant reconfiguring of the means of production, and with it, the social relations built upon them. It thus dismantles traditions, alters modes of exchange, disrupts social conditions...


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