Research Projects:
Economic sociology and political economy

Research Group: Historicising Neoliberalism: Elite and Mass Politics, 1970 to the Present

Jenny Andersson

My work at MaxPo is constructed around two main research themes:

First, I continue a large research undertaking examining the role played by forecasts and scenarios in producing problematic and fundamentally unstable expectations and images of the future in a range of fields, ranging from financial markets to the governance of natural resources and austerity politics (Andersson and Westholm 2017, compare Beckert 2016). Prediction can be thought of as a particular form of social power over the future (Offe 2012), which contributes to extending key forms of economic interest over time, and, in so doing, also contributes to displace or postpone forms of social conflict from the present to the future. I am particularly interested in how forms of prediction project climate change and the continued exploitation of natural resources as an unavoidable future, as well as in the way that austerity politics project a one future of perennial crisis management.

It can be argued that austerity politics, relying heavily on forms of prediction, contribute to shifting the boundaries of political action, by reiterating the need for expert governance, and by depoliticising fundamental issues of conflict over the long-term direction of society. I am also working on so-called "anticipatory governance", in which scenarios and forecasts are used as expert based tools for managing expectations in global processes of market making and world ordering, oftentimes conducted by thinktanks and global consultancies (see Garsten et al, ongoing). In what way does prediction redefine the space for possible socioeconomic alternatives? Do predictive technologies help mobilise social capacities for managing economic and social futures, or do they rather incapacitate these?

Second, within MaxPo I am building an interdisciplinary research group between history (economic, social, political, cultural) history, political economy and sociology or anthropology, which will aim at understanding changing conceptions of politics between elites and the mass in the long period from the 1970s on. Historians such as William Sewell (2005) or Rodgers (2014) have described this period as complex processes of disintegration and fragmentation, in which a plurality of forms of market liberalisation under a set of different flags were inscribed in culture and politics in the period in the 1970s and after. What we call with shorthand neoliberalism was a complex set of rationalities, that changed, moreover, over the late post war period as neoliberalism developed from a marginal and mainly academic project to exert a profound influence on mass politics (Brenner, Pek and Theodore 2010, Mudge 2011).

The research group departs from the idea that neoliberalism can be thought of as a new constellation of elite and mass politics developing from the 1970s onwards, in which the idea of the market as both the central mechanism of social coordination, and as the main vehicle of social progress, is crucial. In many places in Europe, for instance Eastern Europe or the Nordic countries, neoliberalism was an actual learning process which came with changing economic, cultural and political preferences, and which was both elite driven, and highly popular, in a struggle for social change that remains to a large part to be understood. Marketisation was a process entangled with new notions of political democracy, and with new concepts of individual and collective empowerment.

The Group will continue on a careful process of historicisation of the economic, political, cultural and social expressions of neoliberalism that intellectual and political historians and historically oriented sociologist have begun in the last years (see Fourcade 2008, Plehwe and Mirowski, 2007, Bockman and Eyal 2002), in order to understand neoliberalism as a set of historically contingent promises on the future. These future visions, for instance those offered by financialisation, were a fundamental condition of the social legitimacy of neoliberalism, but they were also part of emerging mechanisms of social control. What role did such future promises play in terms of contributing to transform welfare state rationalities into neoliberal ones? Can we understand neoliberalism as both elite politics, and forms of mass mobilisation?

The research group seeks to study, for instance, the technologies of government of neoliberalism, including the use of market devices and financialisation as tools of social control but also promises of social progress; new constellations between political and economic elites, on the one hand, and social movements or community groups on the other; cultural conceptions of markets and market life; changing notions of democracy, politics, and progress including utopian as well as dystopian visions of social change and social order. We also seek to understand the consequences of neoliberalism in terms of creating the conditions for the present rise in authoritarianism, populism and technocracy.

This research group is currently recruiting PhD students.

Research Group: Financialization, Transformation of
Labor Markets, and Growing Inequality

Olivier Godechot

Financialization fuels instability not only through its regular crises but also by dramatically increasing top wages. As a consequence of the increased activity in financial markets, income inequality boomed and social cohesion plummeted in market societies in the two last decades.

In the following years this research group will investigate some of the core mechanisms in the labor market which feed this trend both within finance and beyond. It will focus more specifically on the local interactions, the social networks and the social norms favoring and legitimizing the hoarding of high wages by a minority.

  • Increasing inequalities might also come along with increased social separatism. Assortative matching in recruitment, reorganization of work, out-sourcing and concentration of specialized economic activities in devoted areas lead to decrease the probabilities of interactions between different social groups. Top earners are less likely to work in the same team, department, building, and firm as mid- or bottom-earners. They might therefore live in different districts or even region. Growing social separatism could also transform the norms in pay and fuel in return the inequality spiral. Hence, top earners are less prone to take into account low earners' claims on the wage bill, when they are interacting less with them.
  • The CEO labor market could also help to understand the working rich phenomenon. Like investment bankers, CEOs are judged by the level of their pay. But they differ by the fact that they set their own pay under multiple pressures: shareholder, peer, and public pressure. The CEO labor market reveals contradictory ways of coping with instability. At one end, frequent public outrage over CEOs' stratospheric pay is a way for societies to cope with the instability produced by booming inequality. At the other end, CEOs' pay-maximizing strategies through board composition and reciprocal ties are a way of handling the instability generated for them by those contradictory pressures.
  • The last strand of research focuses on "team moves" phenomenon (i.e. when people from one firm move as a group to another firm). It is common not only in finance where it enables a "hold-up" type of rent extraction but more generally in other sectors of the immaterial economy (such as law firms), where the borders of the firms are not well guarded and immaterial assets are easier to move. Team moves are also labor market examples of the fission-fusion mechanisms studied by political anthropologists and ethology. It might share grounds with political party scissions, religious schisms, and splits in academic and artistic movements. A comparative study will therefore document the mechanisms at the core of team moves and fissions and will focus on the nature of the leaders' leadership and the ties linking them to their followers, as well as the ties linking followers with one another.
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