Self-Employment in Catalonia and the UK: the Promise and Pitfalls of Freedom in the Post-Wage Economy

Authors: Vinzenz Baumer Escobar*, Utrecht University
Topics: Europe
Keywords: Unwaged work, Comparative research, Self-Employment, Citizenship, Precarious work
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Maryland A, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

With the decline of wage-labor as a primary mode of employment, the question of what work outside the wage looks like grows more pertinent. Scholars have documented how the changing relation between labor and capital results in ever-growing ‘surplus populations’ engaging in forms of unwaged work, which precariously straddle the bounds of (in)formality. Less attention has been paid, however, to self-employment. Capturing at once the promise of working in freedom and the precarity of working without state protections, this paper examines the ambivalence of self-employment through a comparative assessment of two cases: Romanian migrants to the UK, who have been led into self-employment by migration controls, and a Catalonian cooperative, where members took up self-employment in a deliberate attempt to fashion a politics of autonomy.

Thinking through these cases, the contribution this paper makes is twofold. Firstly, we propose to reaffirm the role of the state in fashioning precarious work. The rise of the post-wage economy, we argue, is not merely an offshoot of changes to production, but also an outcome of governance. Our second point calls attention to the agentful possibilities which open up within this worker-citizenship-nexus. Not every non-waged life is ‘surplus’. To Romanians whose right to reside was conditioned upon taking up formal work, self-employment was also a means of wedging their way into European citizenship. To members of the Catalonian cooperative, being autónomo was a means of removing themselves from the reach of a state they regarded as corrupt, and building another community of care altogether.

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