Essay Forum: Labor in Financialization

Labor in the Financial Era: Assets, Debt and the Speculative Worker

Authored by: Lisa Adkins

The Routledge International Handbook of Financialization

Print publication date:  February  2020
Online publication date:  February  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138308213
eBook ISBN: 9781315142876
Adobe ISBN:


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In this short essay I outline how the wage labor relation is restructuring in the context of financial expansion. Within the extant literature on financialization attention to such restructuring has been limited, if recognized at all. In large part, this is because of the operation of a general assumption (found especially in a particular strand of post-Marxist thinking) that the expansion of finance from the 1970s onwards has amounted to a process of the real subsumption of labor to finance capital (see e.g. Bryan, Rafferty and Jefferis 2015). This subsumption is expressed in how the whole of the lives of workers as well as the lives of potential workers – from places of dwelling through healthcare to education – are incorporated into and dependent upon the operations of finance capital, not least via the necessity of securitized mortgages, credit, and loans to support life. Alongside asset inflation, and especially asset inflation in regard to housing, one particularly powerful mechanism of this entanglement of labor with finance capital is wage stagnation. At play across advanced liberal societies from the mid-1970s onwards, wage repression is one critical feature of the financial era (Stockhammer 2013; Wisman 2013). Operating in concert with ongoing welfare reform, including the emergence of asset-based welfare, the outcome of long-term and now thoroughly embedded wage repression is that wages are now both stagnant and highly contingent with many workers – even when engaged in full-time waged work – not earning enough to meet the costs of life. 1 As a consequence, and supported by changes to the operations of consumer credit markets (Aalbers 2016), workers are compelled to fund their lives and life-times via consumer credit, loans and mortgages, that is, to substitute wages for debt (Barba and Pivetti 2009). Wage stagnation operates, then, as a powerful mechanism of the enrolment of labor into the architectures of finance, with the outcome that workers must become experts at juggling repressed and often volatile incomes and managing their contracted financial commitments (Adkins 2018).

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