Precarious reflections

Issue: 123

Charlie Kimber

Kevin Doogan, New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work (Polity, 2009), £16.99

There is a myth that changes in capitalism have made workers virtually powerless. Many commentators and academics suggest that permanent jobs are a thing of the past and that everyone now faces a world of constant turbulence, transient work and rootless employment. If the great majority of us are permanently insecure at work, the balance of power has swung massively towards the employers.

Kevin Doogan robustly challenges such lazy conclusions and the whole idea of “societal shifts based on a more tenuous connection between employers and workers” (p3). Doogan attacks such analysis because “it privileges discontinuity and it ‘overdetermines’ the role of technological change. In stressing the significance of global flows of finance, and the integration of capital beyond the national economy, it greatly exaggerates the mobility propensity of non-finance capital and neglects the continuing significance of the role of the state in the workings of the market economy” (p6).

This is not an academic debate. One of the prime tactics in the bosses’ locker is to serve up a series of attacks and then say that if there is any resistance the firm will move abroad or bring in agency workers. The belief that companies can flit around at will and that it is always easy to find an alternative workforce means, says Doogan, “The spectre of capital mobility and the economic insecurity it engenders has served to constrain wages and union activity in a period of tight labour markets” (p76).

And it is not just open apologists for capitalism who have spread such ideas. The book is particularly harsh on Michael Hardt and Tony Negri for providing “the presence of left wing harmonies in the neoliberal chorus” (p11). Doogan insists that such dreamers should submit to a statistical cold shower. For example, “The labour force survey data from North America and Europe discussed here shows that job stability has not declined and that long-term employment has increased in many sectors of the advanced economies” (p4).

The figures are powerful. “Over both shorter and longer time frames, the growth of the long-term workforce has been significant in Europe and North America. This is all the more remarkable as it has occurred during a period of substantial employment expansion” (p177). You would expect expanding employment, and lots of new starters, to drive down the length of time people stay in jobs. But this has not happened.

It is true that in some sectors, particularly manufacturing, there are examples of downsizing, outsourcing and corporate relocation. But manufacturing has not generally been a template for retail or health and education—which are the areas of the greatest growth in employment. Furthermore it is simplistic to think that corporations have abandoned all domestic attachments and move around the world at will. Even among the largest of the global multinationals, for many “the domestic economy provides the key market and base of operations” (p72).

Analysing the annual surveys of multinationals conducted by United Nations agencies, Doogan shows that the top 100 non-financial corporations have a transnationality index of approximately 50 percent. This means that their sales, employment and value added in the home economy are as important as their combined operations in overseas markets.

Data gathered by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on US multinationals shows that investment and employment in the domestic economy have kept pace with expansion overseas. Three decades of corporate globalisation have left little impression on the balance between the domestic and foreign activities of US multinational corporations. Doogan adds that “analysis of global foreign direct investment patterns also reveals two interesting and counter_intuitive trends. In the first instance FDI [foreign direct investment] expands during boom periods and contracts during recessions. To blame job losses on capital migration is highly questionable.

“Secondly the lion’s share of overseas investment goes to the rich rather than poor countries. Between 1980 and 2006 the developed economies’ share of global FDI inward stock has grown from 56 percent to 70 percent, consolidating their position as the prime target for overseas investment. In other words, capital moves abroad to access rich markets rather than exploit cheap labour. This shows that fears of exporting jobs are not related to the actuality of capital relocation but to the threat of jobs going overseas. Research in America, where fears of overseas job loss have a much higher profile than in Europe, shows that companies use the threat of corporate relocation in order to maintain the compliance of trade unions during contract negotiations”.1

Doogan is not the first or the only person to have pointed out the deficiencies of much conventional analysis. For example, seven years ago one study concluded, “Many of the commonly held assumptions about today’s world of work need to be seriously questioned. A wide gulf exists between the over-familiar rhetoric and hyperbole we hear daily about our flexible and dynamic labour market and the realities of workplace life. The evidence simply does not sustain the view that we are witnessing the emergence of a ‘new’ kind of employment relations, seen in the ‘end of the career’ and the ‘death of the permanent job for life’”.2 And in this journal Chris Harman’s “The Workers of the World” explodes many of the myths around the issue.3

Nevertheless Doogan’s book is very welcome and there is much useful material for socialists. Above all else he underscores the continuing potential power of workers to resist their bosses and governments.

And he is right that “a left wing mindset that sees only temporariness and contingency in new employment patterns is blind to the basic proposition that capital needs labour. Despite all the rhetoric of foreign competition and threats to relocate and outsource, employers generally prioritise the recruitment and retention of labour. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain the international evidence of job stability and rising long-term employment” (p206).

But there are some areas where the analysis needs to be more rounded. Doogan does not really look in enough detail at examples where the number of workers on non-permanent contracts of employment is genuinely high. This reality was already clear in a European-wide study from 1998 which showed that in countries such as Spain (40 percent non-permanent), France (22 percent non-permanent) and Greece (18 percent non-permanent) the scale of non-permanent employment was at a level which would penetrate deeply into workers’ consciousness. It is true that the term “non-permanent” can cover a wide range of situations: the consultant on 1,000 euros a day is not worried if his contract means only six months work. But that is not the dominant reality and these examples need more careful attention.4

A study last year of the Italian labour market found that “while full-time permanent employees account for almost 51 percent of the Italian labour force and ‘standard’ workers for 72 percent, the extent of atypical workers varies according to the definition adopted…they represent between 8.1 percent and 20.5 percent of the Italian labour force according to the particular definition. Non-standard employment contracts are more likely among young people aged 15 to 29 years and those living in southern regions of Italy. Women are more likely than men to work on such contracts”.5

In such an economy there will be swathes of workers who are truly in a “precarious” situation. Many will be students, and Doogan points out the need for increased analysis of the role students play in the labour market. But they are not all students. Many are young workers who do not have the chance of a permanent job.

And it is also true that the economic crisis intensifies certain trends such as the rise in the number of workers who are part time simply because they cannot get a full-time job. A recent TUC analysis of official statistics found that one in nine (11.2 percent) of people in part-time work are in this position. The number of involuntary part-time workers has increased sharply over the last two years to 829,000.

The lack of full-time work is demonstrated in Jobcentres across the UK, with government statistics showing that over one in four (27 percent) of vacancies are for less than 16 hours a week. The majority of involuntary part-time workers are female (451,000 women compared to 378,000 men), reflecting the fact that around 80 percent of the UK’s part-time workforce are women. However, one in five (21.2 percent) men working part time are doing so because they cannot secure full-time unemployment.

Recognition of such factors is important in working out why workers believe they are insecure, even when they are not. Doogan sometimes suggests that this is largely an ideological construct driven by neoliberalism and its lackeys, both right and left wing. And he’s partly right. A manufactured sense of powerlessness is an important help to the bosses. But, as Doogan admits, it’s not simply about useful lies. He recognises that the exposure of new groups to the threat of job losses in the recession of 1989-91 had a powerful effect.

But, particularly today, it may be that when people express a fear of losing their jobs they are pointing to material facts in wider society, even if not in their particular job. In Britain up to 100 universities at present want to get rid of staff. Coming after years of pressure for “flexibility” and the increased use of temporary contracts, the threat of mass redundancies quite rightly engenders thoughts of insecurity. Of course, as Doogan would point out, this should not lead to the belief that lecturers and other staff have no power. But the pervasive feelings that “they are after my job” are not irrational.

To take another example, the British postal service, Royal Mail, is currently trying to force through a root and branch “reform” of its workforce. It is seeking to use the introduction of new technology to transform the mainly full-time workforce into one dominated by part-timers. It seeks to move towards the “Dutch model” pioneered by TNT. This saw 14,000 of 25,000 full-time mail jobs replaced by 20,000 part_time “mail deliverers”, who were 50 percent cheaper to employ. Bosses boasted they had found plenty of workers, particularly women, prepared to work for 10 percent above the minimum wage. Now it may be true that union resistance rebuffs this assault at Royal Mail. But it is hardly surprising that workers will feel insecure, or feel that part-time work is a real threat.

Another example comes from developments in the US labour market as the crisis deepens. In April US unemployment hit 13.7 million, pushing the rate to 8.9 percent. But the total number of Americans who are not working full time but ought to be is actually about 22 million, or 15.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. The recession has swollen the ranks of people working part time because they cannot find full-time work. While this segment constituted only 3.3 percent of the workforce a year ago, it reached 5.7 percent in April. According to the Labour Department, if “discouraged,” “marginally attached” and involuntary part-time workers are included, the jobless rate comes to a shocking 15.8 percent.

Again it is hardly staggering if workers fear that the era of secure jobs is finished, and we might doubt just how many part-time workers are satisfied with working the hours they are contracted for. However, whatever criticism I may have, this is a really valuable book which will remind everyone that our side still has power—if we use it.


1:Kevin Doogan, “Not All that is Solid”, New Humanist, volume 124, number 3,

2: Robert Taylor, “Britain’s World of Work-Myths and Realities”, ESRC Future of Work Programme Seminar Series,

3:International Socialism 96,

4:See graph 5 in

5:“Use and Abuse of Non-standard Employment Contracts”,