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Abstract

This dissertation is about migrant workers who leave labor. During an economic boom, it traces the return side of the migratory circle: people who turn down rising pay, quit jobs, and go back to villages in the sertão of Bahia. The dissertation thus provides an unexpected view Brazil’s “golden decade,” the period from 2001 to 2011. In those years, GDP expanded regularly, and it was the poorest Brazilians who raised their earnings the most. The dissertation focuses on workers who used that moment to exit the growth cycle. It takes their exit as a window onto the global question of wagelessness – the unsteady position of self-employees, temps, and small entrepreneurs. In this context, it suggests a framework for understanding labor beyond the wage. The dissertation employs both semiotic and biographical methods in order to ask questions about labor, value, and class, three categories that come up for redefinition in a non-wage environment. Accounts of village labor relations are traced over the 20th century. These accounts point to the possibility of understanding labor as the application of homogeneous time to create homogeneous objects. Such an approach gives a new place to the analyses of Lukacs and Whorf, and it reformulates Thompson’s position by framing homogeneity as a stable and continuous social fact. The dissertation carries out close reads of exchange interactions in the villages. It identifies three modes for calibrating objects inside interaction, dubbed “presential,” “projective,” and “nomic.” In the nomic mode, people assert the existence of a standard and justify its existence by invoking social distance. The dissertation takes the nomic mode as the basis for a vision of value. Value, on this view, comes in from the outside: it stands at the intersection of standardness and foreignness. Workers can leave labor, in part, because they have established ownership over certain crucial assets, including houses and animals. As it considers the circulation of these assets, the dissertation proposes an understanding of social class as a specific relationship to time and objects. The dissertation follows Weiner in examining efforts to prevent circulation. It takes these efforts as clues about social immobility – the persistence of hierarchical economic positions even in the face of diminished income inequality. Class, the dissertation concludes, gets generated precisely in the moment when something is withheld from circulation. Class, as a relation to labor, comes into existence when people create a space outside of labor. It is built in the act, whether realized or imagined, of leaving labor.

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