A New Era for SPERI

In the first blog in a new series, SPERI Directors Colin Hay and Genevieve LeBaron describe SPERI’s evolution since 2012 and set out a new research agenda

The world has changed profoundly since 2012, the year of SPERI’s founding. Occupy Wall St has given way to mobilisation of the populist right on the streets of many of our cities. Tech giants, new financial investors, and ‘superstar’ companies are now much more dominant and powerful than the old consumer brands. The government bailout funds would seem to be over, at least for now. Mostly, they’ve been spent repairing the balance sheets of the big banks and propping up the institutions of a largely unreformed global finance sector, while for millions of households the compound damage wreaked by predatory lending, unprecedented levels of personal debt, the ‘casualisation’ of work and shrinking wages has yet to be reversed.

Many commentators and scholars predicted that the 2008 global financial crisis would be a tipping point, pushing governments to regulate us into a more equitable and stable economic order. Yet, ten years down the line, the world is more economically unequal, politically unstable and teetering again on the brink of multiple crises

Today’s capitalist system is characterised by dramatic inequalities of income and, above all, wealth. If distributional trends since the 2008 financial crash continue, the House of Commons library estimates that by 2030, the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth. Corporate profits are at near record highs for big American corporations. At the same time, the share of value allocated to the workforce seems to be in perpetual decline. Across large swathes of the global economy, real wages have been stagnating or declining for decades, living standards are falling, and working poverty is an acute concern. Millions at the base of global supply chains are stuck in insecure, informal, and often exploitative jobs, while forced labour has become a predictable and endemic feature of contemporary business models.  And all this time the planet is growing warmer, with climate breakdown already causing havoc to the lives and livelihoods of the world’s poorest inhabitants, as environmental destruction rages in our oceans, forests, and ecosystems.

During SPERI’s first six years, some things have stayed the same — such as the simultaneous ascendancy and fragility of the financial sector and the concentration of immense wealth and power in the hands of large corporations. But much has also changed, both in macro systemic terms, and in the texture of people’s daily economic and social lives. We are currently in the midst of a shift of potentially seismic proportions that — like many such great historic jolts in the longue durée of global capitalism — is only likely to be fully describable in retrospect. We are somewhere in between the era of the ‘great recession’ and the new paradigm of global capitalism that could yet replace it – an interregnum of sorts. And as the world changes, SPERI is changing with it.

SPERI old and new

SPERI was established in the immediate wake of the financial crisis, with the broad mission of addressing the big political and economic challenges of our times. Much of our early work focused on exploring the causes and consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent era of ‘Great Uncertainty.’

Today, the great uncertainty has hardly been resolved – indeed, the massive political and economic challenges of our times stretch far beyond the aftermath of the crisis, as in a sense they always did. Understanding contemporary capitalism, and the major economic and political challenges that arise from it, continues to be our most urgent task as political economists. In the face of extreme imbalances of wealth and power, financial instability, and environmental degradation, there is an urgent need for fresh thinking about how contemporary economies work and the public policies which could achieve more equal and sustainable societies. 

This is the context in which we have chosen to refocus our research efforts around four key research priorities – each addressing issues and concerns at the core of contemporary capitalism and the tendencies and counter-tendencies it unleashes. Each is set out in more detail in the blog series accompanying this introduction.

Capitalism, Democracy & the State

Our first theme is the broadest and the most ambitious and provides a frame for the others.  In it we seek to chart and to understand the character of contemporary capitalism, and the dynamic reconfiguration of its social order, political relations and states, which together give form, structure and shape to the world in which we live.

The three others build on this, drilling down a level to reveal separate dimensions in the structuring of global capitalism.

Finance, Debt & Society

Financial markets have become larger, deeper and more complex, exerting increasing influence over our everyday lives. This research theme explores the political, institutional, economic, technological and cultural dynamics of change in the financial and monetary sphere and its effects on society. This includes a focus on the processes of financialisation and the changing sociology of financial networks; the sustainability of a debt-based economy for firms and households; financial risk and evolving patterns of macroeconomic policy and governance; financial innovation and crisis; the shifting balance and character of monetary and fiscal policy; and the co-evolution of large global financial centres and tax competition.

Corporate Power & The Global Economy

Corporations have unprecedented wealth, scale, and power within the global economy. As corporate control over global production, consumption and distribution systems increases, so too does business actors’ economic and political influence. This research theme investigates the changing nature of corporations, their interactions with states and civil society and the causes and consequences of growing corporate power, legitimacy and authority in international politics. It explores the multiple impact of corporations on people, politics and the environment, describing and mapping the global supply chains that interconnect the economies of the global North and South.

Labour & Decent Work

The nature of labour and work in the global economy is changing fast. The rapid reconfiguration of business models, new technologies associated with ‘digitalisation’ and automation, and shifting patterns of production, are changing power dynamics between workers and employers. Labour exploitation and forced labour are rife across many countries and sectors. Workers and unions face serious obstacles in exerting rights and achieving living wages, job security and safe workplaces. This research theme investigates how decent work can be promoted, both through public governance initiatives such as labour and migration law and its enforcement, and state regulation of business and supply chains and social protection, and through private systems of corporate and worker-driven social responsibility. 

Each of these research fields has been chosen to illuminate key features of contemporary capitalist social, political and economic relations. Together, we suggest, they allow us to detail and describe the zones in which major transformation and policy innovation will be required if the economy is to be made more inclusive, more sustainable and more equal – more just.

Our approach to political economy

While our research focus is shifting, our approach to political economy remains unchanged.  SPERI builds on a long tradition of global and comparative political economy that has been alive at the University of Sheffield for over twenty-five years, since the founding of the Political Economy Research Centre in 1994 and the journal New Political Economy two years later.

As we describe in our mission statement, our approach to political economy research is anchored in a commitment to theoretical and methodological pluralism. We believe that to capture the multiple ways in which capitalist processes shape economic and social life, from the household to the international corporation, from the local state to the global order, the use of different intellectual traditions and methodological approaches can provide deeper insight than singular perspectives. We believe that theory needs to be tested against rigorous empirical work. At the same time, specific studies can only be properly understood within their wider structural context. We are committed to continuing to provide the holistic, big picture analysis that is so badly needed to understand the world we live in. 

We will also continue to put a high premium on real-world relevance of academic work and of translating our research into feasible policy proposals and accessible public discourse.

This series

In this blog series, we seek to map out our new intellectual agenda, whilst we hope making clear that its inspiration lies in a continuation of the long critical political economy tradition that SPERI was created to strengthen and deepen. Political economy, understood as the study of the necessary interconnectedness and interdependence of the political and the economic, has arguably never been more difficult, but it has also never been more important. Our capacity to hold to account the economic processes which so frequently structure life chances and their staggeringly uneven distribution depend upon it.

Read the rest of our new blog series here