Worlds of work and labour markets in Southern Europe
Individual, family and collective capacities and vulnerabilities (15th–21st centuries; Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland)

General presentation

The theoretical representations of a "market"—the definition of which would normally seem self-evident—vary from Walras’s classical, static image of a state of "self-regulation" achieved through the balance of supply and demand, to Polini’s bolder image of an "imaginary institution" characterising a notion of "Modernity" in which a tendency towards equilibrium is simply driven by a process of conquest of information. These opposing images underlie the ideological circumscription of economic and political analysis, betraying methodological weaknesses that theoreticians and analysts strive hard to consign to oblivion. Moreover, they are also less than successful in explaining the institutional and social outputs which markets presuppose at least as much as they influence them. Put in another way, they frequently view categories of economic life as natural, masking the historical dynamics underlying their emergence and the conditions in which they were created. This is true of labour, associated with the struggle of human beings to conquer a stubborn, unyielding nature and to compensate scarcity by productive activity. One of the central problems of neoclassical microeconomics is still the allocation of scarce resources for the production of new wealth. It is thus paradoxical that such a liberating activity should also be one that sanctions the privation of freedom through forced labour. But when addressing this "anthropological" and highly "geocentric" view of labour as conceived by a kind of economic thought that takes little stock of the human nature on whose behaviour it claims to base its models, the details are essential. As Pierre Bourdieu has shown from the example of Algeria, labour is one of those economic categories, like investment and particularly profit, which are not quite as universal as one might think.

Before the emergence of a "market society" labour could thus have been merely a particular element singled out from human activity, having the form of a productive force but without having the appearance of such—that is, an object of commercial exchange structuring the output of society in general and the lives of its members. It could even be dispersed among a multitude of "occupations", sometimes studiously kept apart from the realm of exchanges. But even so, is it also the case that it was not until the 19th century that a decisive portion of total production came under exchange? Would such a generalisation of exchange necessarily bring with it a disruption of the social activities and the identity of a specific sphere, in this case labour? The matter seems quite clear when one considers the effects of the Protestant ethic on the capitalist spirit in Northern Europe. However, the point here is to question that old Weberian doxa having regard to the southern parts of Europe, a realm more Catholic than Protestant, where development did not clearly follow the same tendency for mechanised factory manufacture as in the countries considered to have pioneered capitalist development and the "industrial revolution". Research into the Mediterranean regions starting in the High Middle Ages would provide a fresh look at this critique. A long perspective would allow us to appreciate the impreciseness of labour-related interactions. With a long perspective we could then identify processes of emerging institutionalisation of grey areas, the blurred contours of management and negotiation in situations where commercial activity and the underlying production are carried on in the same domestic environment of rural cottage industry.

To explore the paths of development peculiar to these Southern European regions undoubtedly also signals a readiness to enquire into the historical nature of work, which only very gradually came to be separated from other social activities and has maintained its roots in the community up to the present day. In these complex environments, there is a need to examine the institutional aspect of labour law and property law, of modes of transmission of work skills and of protection of individual vulnerabilities, in order to analyse the make-up of a specific productive activity that acquired a variety of different forms depending on the proximity or remoteness of the State, and on how its regulations affected points of interaction. And finally, this leads us to question anew the existence of a deep North-South divide and accept that the South is more heterogeneous than has been thought and contains a multiplicity of dynamics. The identification of paths of development thus requires a study of widely varying institutional and political organisations, ranging from the Ancien Régime in general to the France of Colbert and of the Republic, to the breakdown of Italy into a myriad tiny states both before and after a recent, incomplete unification, and also considering events in the Iberian Peninsula, or in Switzerland, which were marked by a process of decentralisation that became increasingly stable over the medium and long term. The analyses proposed by Eugen Weber regarding the modernisation of rural France at the end of the 19th century may be relevant in this respect, and likewise the instances of social resistance cited by E. P. Thompson in his work on the transformation of the world of work during the early stages of the "Industrial Revolution".

There will be four research seminars revolving around four related central lines:

1.    Families of work and forms of State
       23 May 2014, University of Barcelona
2.    Contractual uncertainty - Freedom and constraints at work
       22 & 23 May 2015, ENS Cachan
3.    Forms of transmission and construction of capacities/vulnerabilities
       Autumn 2015, University of Santiago de Compostela
4.    Work-related assets and transfer of ownership
       Spring 2016, Casa de Velázquez, Barcelona or Madrid

The publication of results is foreseen in Casa de Velázquez' editorial framework