Political imaginaries and the moral grammars of work: Demands on the state in an age of surplus populations
Elizaveta Fouksman (University of Oxford)
Paper short abstract:
This paper draws on qualitative research with the long-term unemployed in southern Africa to explore the moral grammars that link economic and political demands on the state with social imaginaries around wage labour, challenging recent claims around the rise of a new 'politics of distribution.'
Paper long abstract:
This paper interrogates recent claims regarding the rise of a new 'politics of distribution' among populations now 'surplus' to the needs of capitalism in the Global South (Ferguson 2015; Ferguson & Li 2018). To do so, I use qualitative research with the long-term unemployed in South Africa and Namibia to explore the moral grammars that link my interlocutors' economic and political demands on the state with their social imaginaries around wage labour. These demands focus on the provision of jobs, housing and land, rather than cash-based redistribution. I argue that such demands are defined by a moral grammar which continues to link labour and a capitalist work ethic with income, mobility and prosperity — both in its promises to the poor and its justification of wealth accumulation. This moral grammar nostalgically invokes the assurances of Fordist capitalism that moral rewards of hard work will lead to stability and middle-classness (Muehlebach & Shoshan 2012) — even in a n age of precarity and unemployment. A truly new 'politics of distribution' remains curtailed by this moral grammar of work, even among the unemployed. This paper thus ends with a series of utopian-oriented claims around the reframing of distribution in a moral language of rights rather than poverty-reduction or welfare, which holds the promise of decentering work from our political and economic imaginaries.
Disrupting the wage: post-work futures within and beyond Africa