Toward a Political-Economic Sociology of Unemployment: Renewing the Classical Reserve Army Perspective
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The following study is concerned with the problems posed by contemporary unemployment--especially the U.S. but also globally to some extent. The most immediate problem is the dominance of neoclassical models, which routinely neglect the deeper issues raised by contemporary mass unemployment. To go beyond these inadequacies, the study also assesses the performance of sociological interpretations. One key finding is that sociological analyses also largely fail to provide a compelling theory of unemployment and, moreover, that most perspectives implicitly adopt problematic assumptions from neoclassical economics. This highlights the dual nature of the problems posed by unemployment: on one hand, it is an urgent social issue; and, on the other hand, it exemplifies significant weakness within most sociological paradigms. In order to address the challenges posed by unemployment, the narrative centers on the resolution of three key anomalies of unemployment: 1) persistent unemployment; 2) so-called "jobless recoveries;" and 3) the rise of worker precariousness. The anomalies are taken as evidence of paradigmatic contradictions within neoclassical economics and, to some extent, sociology. The main theoretical contribution of the study is a careful reconstruction of Marx's classical theory of the reserve army of labor (part of "The General Law of Accumulation"), which has inspired all critical sociological perspectives on labor markets to date. The investigation highlights distinctive characteristics of "political-economic sociology," a term that refers to economic sociologists who draw heavily on notions of class and power reminiscent of classical political economy and classical sociology, forming an important bridge with heterodox economic approaches. The theory of the reserve army is in need of "renewal," however, because even political-economic sociologist have failed to carry the analysis forward and build upon the firm foundation provided by Marx. The study's conclusion is that the reserve army framework has enormous potential to strengthen existing work within political-economic sociology.