Political Economy of Labour – Working Group

Why the political economy of labour?

The question of labour continues to be a central one in political economy. In the context of the economies of the global South, the lack of absorption of surplus labour in the capitalist segments raises critical questions on the classically expected patterns of capitalist development. On the other hand, even the labour absorbed in the capitalist segments in both the economies of the global North and the global South, is increasingly employed under precarious contracts and low wages.

How distinct labour processes and labour relations evolve under different phases and varieties of capitalism have been debated from different perspectives of political economy, such as Marxists, institutionalists, etc. They have long stressed the importance of studying these, both as a symptom of dynamics of capitalism as well as in identifying possibilities of change.  While these views were largely ignored in mainstream economics for long, who assumed full and frictionless employment provisioning, in the past three decades the mainstream economists have opened up the ‘black box’ of the production process and started to explore labour market dynamics in the face of market imperfections, through, for example, new Keynesian economics (e.g. efficiency wage theory), new institutionalist economics, and monopsony (or applied micro labour economics, more generally).

These developments within mainstream economics present opportunities as well as challenges to other approaches. On the one hand, new space has been opened up for dialogue between previously separate research areas and for the development of an interdisciplinary perspective on work. On the other hand, there is the threat that mainstream economics will ride rough shod over the terrain of the other social sciences and come to impose its own concepts and methodology on the study of labour, erasing these alternative ways of theorizing. ‘Economics imperialism’, indeed, can be observed in a number of other areas (see Fine and Milonakis, 2009) and represents a possible danger for current and future research on labour.

In this broad context of the changing trains of labour and our discipline’s approach to making sense of these changes, this working groups aims to:

  • foster collective development of a political economy of labour across traditional disciplinary divides (such as economics, sociology, psychology, employment relations, human geography, philosophy)
The working groups aims to platform discussions on the broad question of labour under capitalism from a political economy perspective. The questions motivating this discussion include, but are not limited to the following:
  • What is the scope of process of a successful primitive accumulation and absorbing of labour as wage workers in the economies of the global South?
  • How do we understand the trend towards informalization of wage labour in the global North and South, and the role it plays in global capitalism?
  • What does the persistence of unwaged market-based work in the informal segments, particularly, in the global South reflect about the global dynamics of capitalism?
  • What role does employer power have in explaining limited labour demand and inequalities?
  • How do the labour market dynamics interact with the social processes of identity?
  •  With capital being globally mobile and restrict labour mobility, what are the possibilities of a global labour movement? 
  • What are the possibilities of the organising informal wage labour?
  • How are the processes of surplus extraction from labour being reshaped, and what implications does it have for the evolving structure of capitalism?
  • How can we extend the labour process debate in face of the changing organisation of work?
  • What are the possibilities for different social organisations of work, especially in a post-capitalist society?

Past events

Inaugural Day Conference of the ‘Political Economy of Work’ Working Group (University of Leeds, 5th May 2009)
Conference Programme


  • Ben Fine and Dimitris Milonakis “From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries Between Economics and Other Social Sciences”, in press, available in early 2009, London: Routledge.


To apply to join IIPPE Political Economy of Work group, email Surbhi Kesar (sk156@soas.ac.uk) or Jon Lasheras (jon.lasheras@ehu.eus)