Saturday, January 23, 2010

Guard Labor

My article on Guard Labor is in the new issue of Dollars and Sense. It is extracted from my forthcoming book, The Invisible Handcuffs.

The article begins:

Guards are everywhere in a capitalist economy. A few are dressed up in uniforms, so they are easy to spot. But most do not look like guards at all. Some sit in comfortable offices; others work on assembly lines in factories. James O’Connor, a prolific sociologist from UC Santa Cruz, describes one familiar set of guards whom we do not usually think of as guards:

Consider the labor of the ticket seller at a movie house. The seller’s task is merely to transfer the right to sit in the theater to the movie-goer in exchange for the price of a ticket. But it may not be immediately obvious that it is not the lack of a ticket that keeps you out of the theater ... The ticket is actually torn up and discarded by a husky young man who stands between the box office and the seat that I want.

These guards are a central feature of capitalism. Capitalists depend upon guard labor to protect their commodities, including the goods and premises they own, but especially the labor-power in their employ. Capitalism’s reliance on guard labor deforms the entire productive process, not only wasting labor, but also snuffing out badly needed creativity.


r l love said...

These "guard" jobs, like so many of the jobs in our system, are necessary to meet the demand for jobs. In many cases machines could replace employees and this could lower costs. But the incentives for the necessary investment to drive the innovation are dictated by labor supply factors.

michael perelman said...

Actually, employers do invest in high tech monitoring equipment to monitor workers.

r l love said...


About half of mankind is unemployed. So how does freeing up the labor of a "husky young man", or millions of them, have any affect on "the entire productive process", or the "wasting of labor", or how is it "snuffing out badly needed creativity." Your premise seems to rely on the assumption not only that labor is in short supply, but also that all workers are capable of "creativity".

I,m something of a dreamer myself, and I suppose you have a theory that explains how to alter reality to transform all of those labor wasters into entrepreneurs, although based on what is covered in your post here, or perhaps it is better to base this on what is not covered, your premise seems ridiculous. Maybe, it is after-all Saturday night, we are having some sort of a misunderstanding?

michael perelman said...

Or, people could be employed doing something useful or even have more leisure. It would take a small share of the wealth of the richest to wipe out poverty overnight.

r l love said...


So the movie-goers drop their money into a slot?

The richest give over wealth to provide more leisure to husky young men who then use the leisure time to find something useful to do? Much like welfare programs freeing up husky fellows who trade in drugs and other criminal enterprise, for example, but on a much larger scale.

Your post, because of your disparaging use of the term "Capitalism", suggests the premise that some other system would better utilize human capital. A reader might assume that you advocate Socialism although that system elevates the role of workers and you simply eliminate roles without giving any answer to the obvious implications thereof.

Is this a blog version of Candid Camera? Was the shift from second to first person some sort of clue?

A.J. Sutter said...

(1) One might also speak of the artificial scarcity created by intellectual property laws and the "guards" who enforce them, such as the mechanisms that prevent me from reading your full article without a subscription to Dollars and Sense.

(2) As for your main example, I'm inclined to think r love has a good point. I live in Japan, which certainly has a higher proportion of guards and greeters than in the US. Consider this typical narrative from an LSE-educated NY Times reporter who covers this country: "Evidence of low productivity in the service sector is everywhere: office workers still pour [sic] over paper files; a veritable receiving line of security guards and receptionists greets visitors at building entrances; and Japanese retailers employ twice the average number of workers per outlet as their peers in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development countries." (Hiroko Tabuchi, "Japan Strives to Balance Growth and Job Stability," NYT 2009/09/14). The fact is that those guards, receptionists, et al. are almost every one courteous, helpful and friendly. It's much more pleasant to live here as a result: the quality of life in Japan benefits from these low-productivity social interactions. By sticking -- as I must presume you do, since I can't read your article -- to an economic analysis, you may not be fully understanding what you're describing.

Charley said...

I think you are addressing a level of analysis which disaggregates capital as a social form from its technical form. What makes sense from the perspective of the this particular social form of labor is clearly wasted labor when viewed from the perspective of social labor as a form of labor.

Which is to say, the productive potential of labor inherent in social labor can never be completely realized when the motive for its employment is realization of profit. Some definite increment of this potential must be misdirected to enforce the requirements of accumulation.

From the perspective of the capitalist, the labor employed collecting tickets is, at the same time, both necessary and wasteful. This is the most perplexing problem underlying the mode of production, because by eliminating waste - the labor of the ticket collector - the capitalist can enlarge his/her profits. Yet, by increasing his/her profits, the capitalist threatens the basis for his/her monopoly.

michael perelman said...

Charlie's answer hit the nail on the head.

Charley said...


If I understand the implications of your study, the dissolution of capital should result in the most amazing, really mind staggering, explosion of productive power.

Is this true?

michael perelman said...

Yes, but it would take a bit of time to figure out how to take advantage of the opportunity.

A.J. Sutter said...

Hang on a sec, Charley. You're assuming that not only (i) a movie theater owner counts as a capitalist, but (ii) the owner is a monopolist. Suppose there are lots of movie chains -- then the theater owner doesn't have a monopoly to be threatened. Suppose also the theater owner is a franchisee who owns a single theater, or runs an independent theater. I also don't think it's valid to generalize and say that the motivation to employ ticket takers is always -- or solely -- the realization of profit. At one chain theater I used to go to regularly, the "guards" were often severely handicapped; surely there was some benefit to them in giving them an opportunity for employment and to be out in public.

Charley said...

Think of it this way AJ:

The checkout clerk at your grocery store is a ticket taker; as is your health insurance company; or the even the sailor aboard an aircraft carrier sailing around the Persian Gulf -- all are ticket takers: Labor employed to enforce monopoly rights.

This is really good work, and bolsters much of what Tom Walker has been arguing.

gordon said...

I don’t know whether Prof. Perelman is aware of the work done on “guard labour” by S.Bowles and A.Jayadev. They co-authored an article in the March 2007 issue of Economists’ Voice (“Garrison America”), see here:
and have both published separately on the issue (references at the end of the Economists’ Voice article).

They say (in “Garrison America”): “The extent of guard labor depends on exactly
what you count, of course. But by our preferred estimates (which we explain shortly), roughly one in four in the United States economy is now engaged in guard labor—providing security for people and property and imposing work discipline. Since 1890 the guard labor fraction of the United States labor force has increased four-fold. And in Sweden today the guard labor fraction is less than half that of the United States”.

It seems to me that Prof. Perelman is talking about substantially the same "guard" people as are Bowles and Jayadev.

Shag from Brookline said...

I started going to movie theatres in the late 1930s in Boston, where there were lots and lots of movie houses of varying sizes. There were the ticket sellers, the ticket takers, a manager, a refreshment stand that included a clerk or two making popcorn and selling various goodies, and ushers in uniforms. Many of these movie houses were plush and ornate.

Over the years movies houses have changed. Are there any ushers anymore? Concession stands are outsourced. There are fewer and fewer workers in movie houses it seems. Comfort levels have changed. That's why many watch movies at home. With further technological advances, perhaps the number of movie houses will further reduce. Every once in while when I walk along downtown Boston's Washington Street, I recall all the movie houses that were there back in the '30s, 40s, 50s, most of them "Gone With the Wind."

michael perelman said...

I very much appreciate the high level of some of the comments here. I wish I had the opportunity for this discussion before I committed everything to print.
Yes, I do use Bowles and Jayadev.
In 1963, I was a ticket taker in a small art theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I took the tickets and then for the last show, I had to sit by the door and make sure that nobody came in during the middle of the movie. I am also a relative of the Warner Bros., who asked my grandfather, as well is just about everybody in town to become a partner for $50. My grandfather asked why anybody would pay a nickel to watch a shadow on the wall. I'm in my office now looking out the window at Warner Street, so named because the movie, Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, was made here.
I also remember when movies had ushers. Some even had organs to play for the audience. The labor content of movie theaters has fallen precipitously, especially when one projectionist can take care of a multiplex.

Anonymous said...

Of the 10% or so who are currently unemployed, and considering that substantially more folks are underemployed, and that most of these people did play "useful" roles in our economy, especially with so many millions being builders and producers of integral items, I think unsupported claims of a solution are a sign that we have too many professors, with too much time on their hands. But, evidently, not enough time to support their claims, or to proof-read their posts.

r l love said...

The previous comment was mine. ray l love

Charley said...

R I Love,

If I understand you correctly, let me apologize.

I don't think the discussion was meant to be an insult to millions of people who have lost their jobs in this crisis - good people, who have sacrificed much of their lives for an end which was never their end.

Rather, it is an attempt to get at why, despite such sacrifices, economic activity never reaches its logical conclusion in the satisfaction of human need. It is important to understand that working people aren't losers, the dynamics of the economic relations within which they operate act to impose loss on them in proportion as their actual efforts increase.

Anonymous said...

the labor employed collecting tickets is, at the same time, both necessary and wasteful.

can also be considered as contradiction between productive and unproductive labor with the latter expanding relative to former and the consequences for rate of profit. See, e.g. F. Moseley's work.