The American Precariat: U.S. Capitalism in Comparative Perspective
by Kathleen Thelen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The address situates the rise of “gig” work in the context of a much longer-term trend toward more precarious forms of employment. It explores the forces that are driving these developments and discusses the problems they pose at both the individual level and the national level. By situating the United States in a comparative perspective, it identifies the structural factors that exacerbate the problem of precarity and intensify its effects in the American political economy.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Democracy and Its Discontents,” and the way I would like to contribute to that conversation is by shining a light on features of my own democracy that I believe do not receive the attention they deserve from political scientists. From my perspective, as a student of the comparative political economy of the rich democracies, one of the more regrettable casualties of the way we have drawn lines around the subfields in political science is that this seems to have sidelined the study of the American political economy, by which I mean the analysis of American capitalism.
This is a topic that, at least over the course of my career, has mostly fallen between the cracks of comparative political economy on the one hand and American politics on the other hand. Scholars like me who study the political economies of the rich democracies tend to focus heavily on Europe. For normative reasons, many of us have been drawn to the study of capitalism in places like Sweden and Norway, which have their problems but where we can still point to the possibility of finding ways to reconcile successful economic performance with relatively high levels of economic equality.1
Americanists, for their part, have given us important insights, especially into the behavioral foundations of American politics, focusing on public opinion and voting. However, it is rare in the extreme for Americanists to compare the United States to other countries.2 More importantly, many of the issues and actors that are central to the study of the comparative political economy of the other rich democracies—labor unions, finance, organized business, wages, working time, skills, education and training—do not figure at all in mainstream research on American politics.