The Global Governance of Precarity
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The Global Governance of Precarity

Primitive Accumulation and the Politics of Irregular Work

Nick Bernards

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eBook - ePub

The Global Governance of Precarity

Primitive Accumulation and the Politics of Irregular Work

Nick Bernards

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'Standard' employment relationships, with permanent contracts, regular hours, and decent pay, are under assault. Precarious work and unemployment are increasingly common, and concern is also growing about the expansion of informal work and the rise of 'modern slavery'. However, precarity and violence are in fact longstanding features of work for most of the world's population. Lamenting the 'loss' of secure, stable jobs often reflects a strikingly Eurocentric and historically myopic perspective.

This book argues that standard employment relations have always co-existed with a plethora of different labour regimes. Highlighting the importance of the governance of irregular forms of labour the author draws together empirical, historical analyses of International Labour Organisation (ILO) policy towards forced labour, unemployment, and social protection for informal workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Archival research, extensive documentary research and interviews with key ILO staff are utilised to explore the critical role the organization's activities have often played in the development of mechanisms for governing irregular labour.

Addressing the increasingly widespread and pressing practical debates about the politics of precarious labour in the world economy this book speaks to key debates in several disciplines, especially IPE, global governance, and labour studies. It will also be of interest to scholars working in development studies and critical political economy.

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Irregular labour in global capitalism

As I noted in the introduction, irregular forms of labour are neither new nor exceptional. If we think in global terms, it is likely that for most of the last few hundred years the majority of the world’s workers have been engaged in forms of work other than the kinds of stable, permanent jobs for defined wages that we often consider ‘normal’ forms of work. Understandings of irregular labour – whether framed in terms of precarity, ‘modern slavery’, ‘informal’ labour, or otherwise – have tended to ignore this point. Irregular forms of labour are often understood as aberrant or exceptional, resulting from exclusions from ‘normal’ labour markets and regulatory protections. Previous critics have, rightly in my view, highlighted the shortcomings of such residualist perspectives. However, previous critical writing has not involved much sustained reflection on the political significance of these residualist ideas themselves, or of the processes by which they have been rolled out in policy frameworks globally and in particular places. In short, the governance of irregular labour – the process of defining and regulating various non-standard forms of work – has often been critiqued, but rarely theorized in its own right.
This chapter, accordingly, outlines a different framework for thinking through the politics of irregular labour. I draw on two main theoretical resources in developing this approach. In the first section below, Marx’s discussions of ‘primitive accumulation’ serve to highlight the ways in which the historical production of ‘free’ wage labour is an ambiguous and fraught process which depends on the one hand on the production of differentiated forms of coercion and exploitation and on the other on the political ‘naturalization’ of some of these forms. The governance of irregular labour, in short, is fundamentally entwined with struggles over the differentiation and naturalization of particular forms of exploitation in particular historical circumstances. Marx’s notes very usefully suggest (1) a tendency towards the production of irregular forms of work through the dynamics of capitalist accumulation, and (2) the political significance of drawing boundaries between ‘normal’ and ‘irregular’ forms of work. However, he does not give us much in the way of theoretical or methodological guidance as to how to analyze the latter. Accordingly, I draw in the second part of the chapter on Gramsci’s methodological discussions on the study of subaltern classes, the ‘relations of political force’, and the international. Central to Gramsci’s approach here is an emphasis on the ongoing construction of class through political action. Gramsci takes ‘class’ in this sense as a fundamentally fluid and political category, one whose historical emergence is highly context-dependent and (by extension) inextricably bound up with race, gender, and nationality. Class is made and unmade through the dialectic between shifting patterns of political mobilization, which turn on clashing images of solidarity and constructions of group identity mobilized through the institutions of civil society, and the construction of political authority on the other. Gramsci’s notes on internationalism, importantly, suggest that such struggles play out simultaneously across multiple scales, and are bound up in variable ways with broader patterns of political authority within and beyond the state.

Irregular labour and the undercurrents of primitive accumulation

I argue in this section that Marx offers us a number of useful clues through which we can situate the persistence and transformation of irregular labour in the context of the reproduction of capitalist accumulation. The reading of Marx presented here highlights the political, contingent, and contested nature of the differentiation of ‘normalized’ and ‘irregular’ forms of labour exploitation. In brief, the historical progression of capitalist accumulation tends to produce a variety of different forms of exploitation, of which free wage labour is perhaps theoretically central, sometimes the predominant mode of exploitation in practice, but hardly ever the only. The ways in which particular forms of exploitation are naturalized and differented from the broader matrix of forms of exploitation is thus a crucial axis of political contention.
Of course, on many readings Marx equates the advance of capitalism with the formation of proletarian labour relations. The Communist Manifesto certainly seems to suggest as much: ‘In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class developed’ (Marx and Engels 2004: 227–228). It is not uncommon for later Marxists to lean on a similar sort of interpretation of the relationship between proletarian working relations and capitalism. Cammack (2004), for instance, locates in the World Bank’s ‘Post-Washington Consensus’ programmes the highest form of a project for the formation of a proletarian working class on a global scale. In the works of ‘political Marxists’ (e.g. Wood 2002), the bifurcation of politics and economics is the key moment in the origins of capitalism, such that ‘extra-economic’ forms of coercion are (by definition) ‘pre-capitalist’. Yet these formulations of the problem of proletarianization, seem (perhaps ironically) to imply a similar kind of residualism to that implicit in the mainstream perspectives outlined in the introduction: those forms of non-wage or unfree labour that still exist are results of the still incomplete expansion of capitalism. A different reading of Marx, I argue, is more productive for present purposes insofar as it casts capitalist accumulation as a contingent process that tends to reproduce various forms of irregular labour alongside proletarian free labour. A useful starting point here is Marx’s writing on ‘so-called primitive accumulation’.
Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation does equate of the origins of capitalism with the process of proletarianization – the formation of ‘free’ labour in the double sense of workers free to contract with employers and ‘free’ of any non-market means of securing their reproduction. Marx begins his observations on the historic origins of capitalism by suggesting that there is a certain paradox in the fact that capitalist accumulation seems to presuppose itself: ‘The accumulation of capital presupposes surplus-value; surplus value presupposes capitalist production; capitalist production presupposes the availability of considerable masses of capital and labour power in the hands of commodity producers’ (1990: 873). The ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital, then, is the process by which the particular historical conditions that make it possible to set this cycle in motion are created. Capital, for Marx, can exist ‘only under particular circumstances, which meet together at this point: the confrontation of, and contact between, two very different kinds of commodity owners; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence… on the other hand, free workers, the sellers of their own labour power’ (1990: 874). Fundamentally, then, the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ is the process by which ‘free’ labourers are created. Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation could thus be taken to imply a unidirectional movement towards proletarian ‘free’ labour. There is certainly a tendency in some of Marx’s writing on primitive accumulation to consign it to the originary moments of capitalism. This impression is reinforced by the decision to concentrate most of his empirical discussion on England, where Marx thought we could find find the process of primitive accumulation in its most fully developed ‘classic form’ (1990: 876).
However, if we dig a bit deeper, there are significant complexities to the way that Marx tells this story. In the first instance, as Glassman notes, Marx’s heavy emphasis on the proletarianizing dimensions of primitive accumulation was driven to a considerable extent by political rather than analytical concerns:
In spite of mentioning its multidimensional character… Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation focuses largely on proletarianization, since he is pre-eminently concerned with the formation of what he takes to be the most revolutionary subjects and the issues over which they struggle.
(2006: 611)
In practice, ‘proletarianization seems much more a contingent outcome of specific class struggles than a predetermined trajectory for capitalist development’ (2006: 616). More importantly, we can usefully develop an alternative reading emphasizing the fundamentally historical, and hence contingent and inevitably incomplete nature of the process. In introducing the discussion of primitive accumulation, Marx avers that the process of primitive accumulation ‘assumes different aspects in different countries, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different historical epochs’ (1990: 876). Indeed, he hints that proletarianization is reversible: in a footnote, he contrasts the ‘classical’ form of primitive accumulation in England to the process in Italy, where after the collapse of the commercial supremacy of the northern-Italian city-states in the late fifteenth century ‘the urban workers were driven en masse into the countryside, and gave a previously unheard-of impulse to small-scale cultivation, carried on in the form of market gardening’ (1990: 876, n.1). More substantially, Marx implicitly or explicitly highlights a number of tensions and undercurrents throughout his discussion that are both vitally bound up in the historical processes of primitive accumulation and continually undercut the progress of proletarianization. The point is that the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ is a continual and partial achievement (see also De Angelis 2004; Read 2002). This understanding of proletarianization as a fraught, contradictory, and inevitably partial process offers us a useful starting place from which to think about the place of irregular labour in capitalist circuits of accumulation. Two dynamics are particularly important: (1) the ambivalent and incomplete nature of the ‘freeing’ of labour, and (2) the tendency of capitalist accumulation to create ‘relative surplus populations’.

The ambivalence of ‘free’ labour

The first notable point here is that Marx highlights a number of critical ambivalences in the category of ‘free’ labour as a form of exploitative labour relations and its relationship to capitalist accumulation. Most notably, these include a number of ways in which violently coerced labour contributes to the process of capitalist accumulation, and more fundamentally a number of crucial ambiguities in the distinction between ‘free’ and other forms of labour.1 I briefly discuss the latter first, followed by the former.
Marx notes in introducing his discussion of primitive accumulation that ‘The starting point of the development that gave rise to both the wage-labourer and the capitalist was the enslavement of the worker. The advance made consisted in a change in the form of this servitude’ (1990: 875, emphasis added). The equation of wage labour to slavery is in fact a rhetorical theme he comes back to often. Elsewhere, he argues that while ‘The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-labourer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the individual employer, and by the legal fiction of a contract’ (1990: 719, emphasis added). Indeed, even the nominal freedom on offer in the labour market is contrasted with the coercive discipline necessary in the process of production itself: ‘In the factory code, the capitalist formulates his autocratic power over his workers like a private legislator, and purely as an emanation of his own will… The overseer’s book replaces the slave-driver’s lash’ (1990: 549–550).
Of course, these references to slavery are partly polemical flourishes. There are unquestionably significant differences between the types of coercion implicit in ‘free’ wage labour and those involved in, say, chattel slavery. However, the critical implication here is that the difference consists in the form of coercion through which exploitative relations of production are organized, rather than the existence of coercion in and of itself. The point here is that, for Marx, the process of proletarianization is not a clear-cut historical progression from ‘unfreedom’ to ‘freedom’, nor indeed of ‘economic’ for ‘extra-economic’ forms of coercion, but rather a (partial) substitution of more explicit forms of violent compulsion to work for the ‘silent compulsion’ of the market (see Banaji 2003; Bernards 2017b; Rioux 2013). Further, as Marx’s heavy emphasis on the acts of enclosure in England in his historical discussion makes very clear, the very creation of the latter form of indirect or ‘economic’ coercion was only actually possible on the basis of an ongoing and violent process of expropriation backed by state force. The actual historical ‘freeing’ of labour is underpinned by violent transformations in the legal and political framework of property relations: ‘The expropriation of the agricultural producer… from the soil is the basis of the whole process’ (1990: 876). Viewed from this perspective, ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ labour are better viewed as points on a continuum, rather than discrete categories (LeBaron and Ayers 2013; LeBaron 2014a). Coercion in capitalism is also best understood as multidimensional, involving many different forms of violence (McGrath 2013a). In brief, all forms of capitalist labour relations involve some element of coercion. There are few, if any, specific forms of such coercion that could unproblematically be labelled ‘forced labour’ a priori; rather, the definition of both ‘free’ and ‘forced’ labour is both fundamentally political and contested.
Moreover, when viewed from the perspective of global circuits of accumulation, even the substitution of the silent compulsion of the market for other forms of coercion itself is hardly ever complete. The process of primitive accumulation in England itself, Marx suggests, was heavily dependent on the use of violently coerced labour elsewhere in the world. Marx notes that the formation of capitalism in Europe coincides with ‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins’ (1990: 915). In short, the historical genesis of capitalist accumulation depended on the incorporation of a variety of different unfree forms of labour (especially chattel slavery). In Marx’s words, ‘the veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the new world as its pedestal’ (1990: 925). We can point to a number of historical examples of these kinds of relationships between industrial capitalism and various forms of violent coercion. Indeed, as noted in the introduction, the integration of plantation slavery into the circuits of British-led industrial capitalism had concrete impacts on the organization of work in American slave economies (McMichael 1991). These arguments are echoed in significant ways by Luxemburg’s arguments about the incorporation of ‘non-capitalist’ forms of exploitation into global processes of capitalist accumulation. Luxemburg notes that ‘The process of accumulation… requires inevitably free access to ever new areas of raw materials in case of need’ (2003: 338). She offers the example of
The enormous increase in the world consumption of rubber which at present (1912) necessitates a supply of latex to the value of £50,000,000 per annum. The economic basis for the production of raw materials is a primitive system of exploitation practised by European capital in the African colonies and in America, where the institutions of slavery and bondage are combined in various forms.
(2003: 339)
In more contemporary terms, a number of authors have noted the incorporation of various forms of coercive exploitation (in recruiting, during the labour process, or both) into global production networks for products as varied as cocoa (Manzo 2005), ethanol fuels (McGrath 2013b), and electronics (Pun and Smith 2007). Phillips (2013) usefully argues in this context that contemporary instances of ‘unfree’ labour should be understood as so many forms of ‘adverse incorporation’ into the global economy. Indeed, critically, from the perspective of individual workers, the boundaries between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ forms of exploitation are not so clear cut. Unfree forms of labour draw from the same pools of labour ers as ‘free’ labour – Breman and Guérin note that bonded labourers in India have tended to be drawn from the same social formations as agrarian workers more generally – a ‘huge reserve army of labour to be hired and fired according to the need of the moment, in agriculture but increasingly also in other economic sectors’ (Breman and Guérin 2009: 3). Various forms of unfreedom, indeed, have also been deployed as disciplinary tactics on workers more broadly under capitalist relations of production. Brass (1999; 2010; 2014) – drawing on studies of bonded labour in India – argues that unfreedom has often served as a mechanism for ‘deproletarianization’; in short, as a means of disciplining and cheapening ‘free’ labour by re-instating violent coercion in place of the ‘silent compulsion’ of the market.2
The point here is that a diversity of different forms of coercion have been deployed in the process of capitalist production and accumulation across a variety of different historical contexts. There is no single form of unfreedom that is integral to capitalist production, nor any single pathway by which unfree labour is bound up in capitalist accumulation, but the substitution of the ‘silent compulsion’ of the market for more explicit forms of coercion is scarcely ever total (cf. de Angelis 2004). Forms of labour exploitation rooted in violent coercion are not incompatible with capitalism and not a result of the ‘exclusion’ of certain spaces from the world economy. In any event, the boundary between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ or ‘forced’ labour is blurry at best. All of this has a critically important implication: the binary between ‘free’ and ‘forced’ labour, or between ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ coercion, is fundamentally a historical and political one. It is rooted not in any a priori or abstract distinction between different phenomenal forms of work organization, but rather in political struggles over which forms of coercion are acceptable and how we understand the linkages between those (normalized) forms of exploitation that are and those (irregularized) forms that are not. The notion of a distinction between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ forms of labour, in short, is in no small part produced through the governance of irregular labour.

Relative surplus populations

The ambivalence of ‘freedom’ in this sense is significant in terms of how we understand the politics of many forms of irregular labour. But even the operation of the ‘silent compulsion’ of the market has important tendencies towards the production of irregular work. These are very strongly hinted at in Marx’s writing on ‘relative surplus populations’. Marx introduces the latter concept in the chapter prior to his discussions on primitive accum...

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