“enslave­ment, servi­tude, inden­tur­ing, impress­ment, con­scrip­tion, impris­on­ment, and coer­cion”

By focus­ing on eighteenth-century ser­vants and slaves, those two largest cat­e­gories of labor­ers dur­ing ear­li­est cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, we’re able to see the extremely var­ied labor regimes that sus­tained those processes, includ­ing those based on coer­cion. In some ways this argu­ment has affini­ties with ear­lier cri­tiques of the clas­si­cal nar­ra­tives of the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, which empha­sized instead proto-industrialization, small-scale rural indus­try, new forms of non-industrial man­u­fac­tur­ing, and the wide range of “alter­na­tives to mass pro­duc­tion.”9 Clearly we need to hold onto the nec­es­sary dis­tinc­tions between forms of “free” and “coer­cive” labor, because oth­er­wise cer­tain speci­fici­ties of the labor con­tract under indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism would become much harder to see, par­tic­u­larly those that require new domains of power and exploita­tion beyond the imme­di­ate labor process and the work­place per se.

To sum­ma­rize: on the one hand, there are strong grounds for see­ing servi­tude and slav­ery as the social forms of labor that were foun­da­tional to the cap­i­tal­ist moder­nity forged dur­ing the eigh­teenth cen­tury; and on the other hand, there is equally com­pelling evi­dence since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury of the shap­ing of a new and rad­i­cally stripped-down ver­sion of the labor con­tract. These new forms of the exploita­tion of labor have been accu­mu­lat­ing around the grow­ing preva­lence of minimum-wage, dequal­i­fied and deskilled, dis­or­ga­nized and dereg­u­lated, semi-legal and migrant labor mar­kets, in which work­ers are sys­tem­i­cally stripped of most forms of secu­rity and orga­nized pro­tec­tions. This is what is char­ac­ter­is­tic for the cir­cu­la­tion of labor power in the glob­al­ized and post-Fordist economies of the late cap­i­tal­ist world, and this is where I think we should begin the task of spec­i­fy­ing the dis­tinc­tive­ness of the present. Whether from the stand­point of the “future” of cap­i­tal­ism or from the stand­point of its “ori­gins,” the more clas­si­cal under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism and its social for­ma­tions as being cen­tered around indus­trial pro­duc­tion in man­u­fac­tur­ing begins to seem like an incred­i­bly par­tial and poten­tially dis­tortive one, a phase to be found over­whelm­ingly in the West, in ways that pre­sup­posed pre­cisely its absence from the rest of the world and lasted for a remark­ably brief slice of his­tor­i­cal time.

Read More | “No Need to Choose: History from Above, History from Below” | Geoff Eley | Viewpoint Magazine