Unfree labourers and modern capitalism
Can a wage labourer be described as ‘free’? The very concept of ‘labour’ implies at least some degree of compulsion. As Womack (1979: 739) pointed out, for about 2500 years Western cultures distinguished between ‘labour’ and ‘work’. The Greeks separated ponein from ergazesthai, the Romans distinguished laborare from facere while the Germans contrasted arbeiten with werken. In every European language, he writes: ‘labour meant pain, effort, pangs, penalty, strain, drudgery, struggle, battle, suffering, grief, distress, poverty, loneliness, abandonment, ordeal, adversity, trouble. Work meant making, building, providing, causing, accomplishment, completion, satisfaction.’ The secular distinction was paralleled by a religious viewpoint. For the Benedictines, ‘labour’ was not seen as noble or rewarding, but as a penance designed to avoid the spiritual dangers of idleness.
To understand the concept of a ‘free’ labourer under capitalism, we need to start with Marx’s central idea that the working class is formed as the agricultural producer, the peasant, becomes detached from the soil. In these moments, ‘great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians’ (Marx 1976: 876). In earlier translations the expression vogelfrei was rendered as ‘unattached’ rather than ‘rightless’, which perhaps better captures Marx’s meaning. For him, the freedom of wage labourers comprises two elements. First, labourers are no longer part of the means of production themselves, as would be the case with a slave or a serf; they are, therefore, free of any direct proprietorial rights exercised over them. Second, they no longer own their own means of production and subsistence and therefore are unencumbered by their own tools or land. They are free, but of necessity required, to sell their remaining possession, their labour, in the market.
In his formulation, Marx indubitably captures the central aspect of the transition from European feudalism to capitalism, the first major reorganization of the division of labour for hundreds of years. However, what is far more uncertain is whether it is part of the intrinsic and necessary definition of a capitalist mode of production that it relies exclusively on free wage labourers (in the senses Marx indicated). In general, Marx does hold this view and it is one that I shall contest – advancing indeed a contrary thesis that capitalism has always survived, and even thrived, by deploying substantial numbers of unfree or semi-free labourers.
This mixture of workers of different statuses is sometimes concealed by a national definition of the boundaries of the political economy (ignoring, therefore, imperial and colonial relations), or is sometimes all too evident, as when quasi-free workers from the countryside or peripheral zones of the political economy are driven or sucked into the vortex of capitalist production. Though there are hints of my counter proposition in Marx’s references to New World slavery and in his limiting reference to the classical case of England, Marx (1976: 452) flatly and unequivocally states that ‘the capitalist form presupposes from the outset the free wage-labourer who sells his labour power to capital’. By contrast, I seek to demonstrate that capitalism has historically coexisted with a combination of labour regimes. I propose to do so by citing examples from a wide range of countries and periods – an exercise that is more than random but less than comprehensive: ‘less than’ because I seek to illustrate my argument rather than write a complete history of capitalist labour regimes.
Slavery in the New World
The history of unfree labour of course predates capitalism and many early societies operated a combination of compelled and free labour. For example, Finley’s powerful writings (1980; 1981) on Ancient Greece provide ample documentation of the mix of slave and free labourers and the intermediate forms of dependent labour between the two polarities. Bearing in mind the helots and slaves, if women are also excluded (they did not count as citizens), Hegel’s observation that the Greeks only knew that some men were free, is even more powerfully understood nowadays than he intended. A number of other precapitalist societies deployed vast
armies of compelled labourers to erect the pyramids, religious monuments, irrigation systems and public works – from China, Burma, Mexico, Peru, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia to Rome, workers were coerced by military force and closely supervised by taskmasters.
Despite these intriguing early cases from which no doubt some continuity can be established, my primary examples must begin as European capitalism expanded into what Wallerstein (1974) calls ‘the modern world system’ during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The first and most obvious discontinuity is that slavery in the modern period was set in a wholly different context from classical slavery. Vast numbers were commercially transhipped from the labour reserve of western Africa as European supplies decreased and as the indigenous populations of the New World declined under the impact of European diseases, from food shortages triggered by depredations of imported animals, or as a result of being worked to death. The figures of population decline are every bit as staggering as the number of slaves shipped. In New Spain (Mexico) the population fell from 11 million in 1519 to about 1.5 million in about 1650. Similar steep falls are recorded for Brazil and Peru (Wallerstein 1974: 88, 89).
The different context of New World slavery integrated the phenomenon into a capitalist world economy in a number of concrete ways. The slave was a commodity – a unit of labour power par excellence
: the only concern for a slave’s welfare was whether handling or shipping conditions affected the price received. From being a family retainer, a domestic servant, or a small farm labourer often working alongside their masters, most New World slaves became field hands working on large plantations, normally under the supervision of an overseer. Next, the product (usually sugar, coffee, cotton or tobacco) was directly integrated into the capitalist world market and followed the rhythms of market demand, such as that established by the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. In polemicizing against the popularizer of dependency theory, A. G. Frank, Laclau (1971) legitimately argued that integration into a world market is quite a different thing from capitalist ‘relations of production’. So it is, but it is implausible to imagine that the first does not affect the second. The supervision of work tasks, the division of labour, the deskilling of the labour force, the production rhythms, together with the overtly capitalist relations of
production in the processing plants (like the sugar mills, rum distilleries and cotton ginneries) all show the influence of the world market on the forms and relations of plantation production.
If these relations are not capitalist, they are a passably fair imitation thereof. But where, Laclau would object, is the wage? Even here, the formal appearance of slavery concealed a ‘hidden wage’. Payments ‘in kind’ were often in commodities that could be traded, or were, like tobacco, used directly as currency. Paternalist favouritism and sources of income and subsistence from provision plots were both ways for the plantation owner to subsidize his reproduction costs and a means of accumulating some modest savings by plantation workers. The hiring of slave workers for cash has also been reported (Fraginals 1976: 131–53). Had such possibilities for acquiring income not existed it is impossible otherwise to explain why so many slaves were able to purchase their freedom when that became legally possible or why ‘freedmen’ constituted from 30 per cent of the total population in pre-emancipation slave societies like Curaçao, Minas Gerais (Brazil) or Puerto Rico (Cohen and Greene 1972: 4).
Those who hold that slavery in the New World constituted a separate mode of production, also take no account of the real (as opposed to formal) boundaries of the contemporary political economy. Instead, anachronistic notions of geographical and political sovereignty are projected back to a period when such national distinctions did not exist. As John Stuart Mill (cited in Fraser 1981: 320) says of the West Indies in the nineteenth century:
[Our West Indian colonies] are hardly to be looked upon as countries carrying on an exchange of commodities with other countries, but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing establishments belonging to a larger community. … If Manchester, instead of being where it is, were on a rock in the North Sea (its present industry nonetheless continuing); it would still be but a town of England, not a country trading with England; it would be merely, as now, a place where England finds it convenient to carry on her cotton manufacture. The West Indies, in like manner, are the places where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few tropical commodities.
This idea of a ‘class of trading and exporting communities’ (as Mill called them) firmly integrated into a core economy can give rise to the situation where different forms of labour regime can coexist within this larger unit. As Wallerstein (1974: 127) has it, ‘Free labour is the form of labour control used for skilled work in core countries, whereas coerced labour is used for less skilled work in peripheral areas. The combination thereof is the essence of capitalism.’ This is a compelling generalization, though the geographical demarcations Wallerstein suggested are too rigid to encompass the variety of labour forms in the central and outer zones. Wallerstein’s argument also takes little account of the more detailed controversy Nieboer (1910) started at the turn of the century as to whether the introduction of slavery as an industrial system (as Nieboer terms it) is a variant pattern related to land scarcity, or whether, as Kloosterboer (1960) argues, such a labour regime can be explained by more general factors.
Whatever the specific causes for utilizing slave labourers in particular areas, the general point is clear. If capitalism is compatible with slavery, it is likely to be compatible with other forms of coerced or involuntary labour. These can range as widely as repartimiento or cuatequil labour (Mexico), mita (Peru), serfdom, debt bondage, apprentice labour, child labour, indentured or contract labour, penal labour, various forms of domestic service, chibaro mine labour (Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), ‘political labour’ (British colonies), concentration-camp labour, and ‘corrective labour’. To provide a detailed account of all these different forms of labour control would be superfluous, but I would like to comment on a number of these variants, both to show some sense of how different labour regimes evolved and to indicate the senses in which postwar international migrants, and especially women migrants, can be seen as exhibiting some characteristics associated with earlier generations of unfree labourers.
The post-emancipation economies of the New World and other colonial areas provide rich sources of mixed labour organization. With the abolition of slavery (1834 in most British colonies, 1863 in the Dutch colonies, 1865 in the USA), most plantation societies operated a system of ‘apprentice’ labour. Normally, only children under six years were
completely free. The rest of the former slaves were compelled to work without payment (except for those forms of ‘hidden wage’ indicated earlier) for four to six years. Their new status was distinguished from their former status by the fact that, while apprentices could not themselves be bought or sold, they could buy their own freedom and were compelled to work for a maximum of only 45 hours a week. In Antigua, the plantation owners instituted highly restrictive contracts rather than an apprenticeship system. Absence for half a day or less was met with one day’s wages docked. If the labourer was absent for two days in a row, or two days in any fourteen days, one week’s imprisonment, with hard labour followed. For negligence of various kinds, imprisonment for up to three months was the legal consequence.
Such was the rough class justice of the times that a breach of contract by the employer only rendered him liable to a maximum fine of £5. Other forms of compulsion directed against apprentices and former slaves included a requirement that previously free shacks now had to be rented and the rent paid by work. The movable shacks (chattels), still visible in Barbados today, date from the period when former slaves tried to escape this obligation. Even more compelling were the comprehensive extensions of the vagrancy laws. In Jamaica (in 1840) a vagrant became any man who migrated and left his wife and children without provision. In Mauritius (in 1855) the Franco-Mauritian plantocracy exacted an even harsher definition. Any able-bodied woman or man under 60 unable to prove that they followed a trade or possessed sufficient means of subsistence was required to find employment within a period fixed by the police. If the person defaulted, employment on public works was required. After a further three months, a defaulter could be sentenced to work on a plantation or in a factory for up to three years (Kloosterboer 1960: 3–16). Such were the desperate measures deployed to keep former slaves dependent on the plantation owners. The received conventional historical account is that many of these measures were unsuccessful and that in all plantation economies slaves fled to the towns in large numbers to evade the brutality of plantation work. Some West Indian historians have, however, questioned the extent to which a ‘flight from the land’ did indeed take place (Adamson 1972; Fraser 1981: 328–34; Green 1976; Mintz 1974).
That this experience is more general than in the West Indies, is a
proposition that Cooper (1980: 1) advances in the introduction to his authoritative study of plantation labour in Zanzibar and coastal Kenya. He writes:
In case after case, a particular class under the hallowed ideals of private property – kept land from the eager hands of ex-slaves and vigorously applied the instruments of the state and the law to block ex-slaves’ access to resources and markets, to restrict their ability to move about, bargain, or refuse wage labour and to undermine their attempts to become independent producers.
Whatever the difficulties former slaves had in freeing themselves from their prior status in the post-emancipation period, the planters cried ‘labour scarcity’ long and loud. All over the European tropical possessions, an appeal went out for more and more hands, another cohort of helots. The demand was strongest where ‘sugar was king’, but it was also strongly heard where, as in the South African diamond discoveries of 1870, new sources of mineral wealth were opened out for commercial exploitation. John X. Merriman, the commissioner for Crown lands in the Cape Colony, wrote in 1876, with some asperity, of the pressure mounted by farmers and mine owners to persuade the government to import foreign labour: ‘In the Cape, the government is called upon to survey mankind from China to Peru in the hope of creating and maintaining a class of cheap labourers who will thankfully accept the position of helots and not be troubled with the inconvenient ambition of bettering this condition’ (cited in Magubane 1979: 77–8).
In the event it was to Asia that the colonials, hungry for labour, turned. South Africa’s experiment in using Chinese mine labourers ended in political recrimination in Britain and South Africa and in a local strike (Richardson 1976), but sugar plantations in Natal, British Guiana, Fiji, Trinidad, Ceylon, Malaya, Burma, Mauritius and elsewhere successfully found agricultural labourers in India. Hugh Tinker’s carefully documented account of the indentures required of Indian labourers is a stunning indictment of what, quoting Lord John Russell, he considers was a ‘new system of slavery’. In the British case, the period of
indentured labour lasted from 1839 to 1920. (The Dutch continued the system for much longer.)
The indentured workers characteristically signed on for five years and were given in return a free passage, medical attention, housing and a modest wage. In many cases a free or subsidized passage back to India was guaranteed after ten years. While a protector was often appointed to safeguard Indian interests, what made this system close to slavery were the mortality rates on the ships (which, for example, averaged over 17 per cent on ships to the West Indies in 1856), the poor housing and health conditions, the miserable wages and, above all, the extensive use of penal sanctions (Tinker 1974: 116–235). In one year (1892), over 40 per cent of the adult indentured population was convicted under the penal labour laws of Fiji. The ineffectiveness of the protector was indicated by the fact that in the same year only one conviction of an employer was obtained on a charge brought by his employees (Tinker 1974: 194). Tinker (1974: 383) concludes his definitive account with this statement: ‘The Blacks on the West Indian plantations were known as chattel slaves; the dictionary defines a chattel as a “moveable possession”, and such an ascription is also appropriate to the condition of the Indian coolies, the successors to the chattel slaves. With the legal termination of slavery, there came no end to bondage upon the tropical plantations.’
Colonial labour regimes
Where colonial powers found indigenous sources of labour unimpaired by ‘pacification’ or European diseases, rather than importing labourers they tapped the local reservoir to feed the insatiable appetites of the farmers, the mine owners and industrialists. As I have dealt mainly with British colonies, I provide four illustrations from other colonial areas – the French in Madagascar, the Belgians in the Congo, the Portuguese African colonies and the Spanish in Latin America. When the French took over Madagascar in 1896, they freed 500,000 slaves, but in December of that year proclaimed a legal obligation to work. A special folder or card was issued to indicate in which of the various forms of compulsory labour a male aged 16 to 60 was to be engaged. Failure to produce such a card resulted in imprisonment for three to six months, after which a further period of work on public works was prescribed,
equal to three times the length of the prison service. An outcry in France about the death rate on compulsory labour and military projects led to the repeal of the compulsory labour policy (in 1900) and the setting aside of penal sanctions on contract labourers.
Yet, despite these attempts at liberal reform, Kloosterboer (1960: 107–12) convincingly demonstrates that the continuities between slavery, other forms of unfree labour and the development of a modern labour market are still remarkably persistent. For example, it was only in 1946 that in their other colonies the French finally abolished conscript military labour and prestation, a labour ‘tax’ that permitted the administration to compel all adult males to work on public projects for a number of days each year (Echenberg 1975: 171–92). But enduring though these systems of compelled labour were, French overseas laws acted as some constraint on exploitation by public authorities, a constraint that did not apply where private concessionaires were given free licence to recruit and deploy labour.
The most notorious example of private exploitation was in the Belgian Congo where King Leopold ran the area as a personal fiefdom. Millions of Congolese were compelled to collect rubber for the king who argued that the system could only be changed ‘when the Negro has generally shaken off his idleness and becomes ready to work for the love of wages alone’ (Davies 1966: 33–5). Brutal violence normally met any resistance proffered to the labour recruiters. The Congolese who died trying to resist habituation to the capitalist work ethic numbered in their millions. One contemporary French journalist said of the Congo at the time: ‘We are tree fellers in a forest of human beings’ (cited Nzula et al. 1979: 84). The modus operandi of the Congo Free State is best described in the words of E. D. Morel, one of the leading members of a contemporary liberal pressure group in Britain, the Congo Reform Movement:
The aboriginal citizens of this strange creation [the Congo State] were by law called upon to provide recruits for the army, workmen for the construction of important public works, transport of stores, building up of houses and prisons, cutting and maintenance of roads and bridges, upkeep of plantations and creation and repairs of rest houses. … They were compelled to labour, with no legal limitation either in regard to time or to quality
, in the
collection, coagulation and transport of India rubber for the profit of their governors.
(cited in Louis and Stengers 1968: 44)
Many of the areas marked out for agricultural production in the Portuguese colonies in Angola, Mozambique and in the Portuguese possessions off the west coast of Africa were also under the immediate control of leaseholders whose needs for labour were serviced by the Portuguese administrators. Failure to comply with the legal demand to fulfil a work contract in Angola, and from 1902 Mozambique, was met by expulsion to ...