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.

4 comments so far

  1. joanna on

    I didn’t understand Hamlet until I worked as a security guard for the Bank of America World Trade Center in SF. Graveyard shift. If you’ll remember, the play opens with a couple of graveyard-shift guards talking to each other.

    It was while patrolling the empty halls of stock brokers’ offices at four in the morning that it occurred to me that I was working to guard the money of thieves. Hamlet too realized that the logic of revenge was of a piece with the corrupt, hierarchical world of his father’s kingdom. A paradox then; a paradox now.


  2. mperelman on

    What a brilliant comment. I wish that you would get your writing out more quickly.

  3. […] Guard Labor « unsettling economics. Leave a […]

  4. Uncle Don B. Fireland Fanning on

    I *really* loved that article— it gave me connections and context that I’d not thought of before. While I see other references on the web (probably from different perspectives than yours), the concept was new to me. Thank you for helping me make a bit more sense of one more hidden reality.

    Flagstaff, AZ.

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