Theorizing Precarious Labour: Between Bosnia, Herzegovina, the US and Afghanistan

Two years ago, Almedina Tokić, a masters student at the University of Tuzla conducted a survey of precarious laborers hired by private US military contractors to service US soldiers in Afghanistan. Working with Ms Tokić’s data, I resituate the labour relationship between these contractors, the US military, and Bosnian and Herzegovinian precarious labourers within the transformation of the global economy over the past century. This wide lens is necessary because it is America’s supercession of Great Britain as the legal and regulatory anchor of the world economy between 1890 and 1940, and the former Yugoslavia’s peculiar relationships within the Eastern Block and to western-aligned nations following 1945, that helps account for the increasing labour unrest throughout Yugoslavia in the 1980s, the outbreak of ethnic conflict in 1992, and the plentiful supply of highly skilled, multi-lingual, educated and low wage Bosnians and Herzegovinians after the end of this conflict in 1995.

Service Employee 002While important, accounts that focus their attention on private contractor violations of environmental or labour laws, health and human safety statutes, or on rampant sexual crimes on US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are insufficient because they fail to grasp the complex social and historical, as well as economic mechanisms, structuring the relationship between precarious labourers and private US military contractors. However, they also fall short in the kinds of solutions they suggest through which the relationship might be fundamentally transformed. At this point I am less interested in the solutions we offer than in accurately identifying and describing the shape of this relationship. For if the wide range of violations — legal, regulatory, psychological, social, economic and political — are systemic, then partial, site-specific and institution-specific solutions will not only fail to bring them to an end, but will also fail to touch the broader systematic conditions that gave rise to them over time.

Broadly speaking, the relationship between private US military contractors and Bosnian and Herzegovinian precarious labourers can be considered within a regulation theoretical framework that takes both the demand for precarious labour and its ready supply as elements within a post-Fordist regime of cultural, social, political, and economic regulation and capital accumulation. More narrowly, this relationship follows (1) firstly from the decline in global rates of profit beginning in the late 1960s and from an excess of cheap capital DynCorp Internationalfloated on global markets following the end of the Gold-Dollar standard in 1972; (2) secondly from the transition from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of regulation and accumulation since the early 1970s that culturally and socially predisposed social actors to embrace “the freedom to work” without the same protections or security enjoyed by labourers under Fordism and that politically empowered private corporations to simultaneously vastly reduce public oversight and regulation of private institutions, privatize formerly public institutions, dramatically reduce public supports for health, education, and welfare, and shift the tax burden from wealthy individuals and corporations to middle and lower class individuals and small businesses; and (3) thirdly from the imposition after September 11, 2001, of what University of Chicago theorist George Steinmetz has called an authoritarian post-Fordist regime of regulation and capital accumulation.

Service Employee 001These three conditions (1) helped generate labour unrest in the 1980s in multi-ethnic political entities whose leaders took advantage of the low-interest loans made available on global markets during the 1970s; (2) freed the US military to outsource both combat and servicing to private contractors who were free to contract with labourers at the lowest possible global market cost; and (3) created a combat and working environment free of civilian political oversight and cost multipliers arising from regulatory compliance.

Outcomes: while we might expect traumatized labourers from the poorest region of Europe to respond to survey questions with answers that shed special light on the violence they had experienced during a decade of labour unrest, war, and genocide, the answers offered by these subjects fall well within the limits we might expect from any labourer working under a post-Fordist regime of regulation and capital accumulation. Our study, while calling attention to differences where they appear is just as interested or even more interested in calling attention to the similarities we find between the kinds of answers Bosnian and Herzegovinian precarious labourers working for private US military contractors offer, and the kinds of answers we might expect any precarious labourer working anywhere might offer.

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