Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Giving the Present a Name

Excerpt from 'Historicizing the Global, Politicizing Capital: Giving the Present a Name' by Geoff Eley, History Workshop Journal, Volume 63, Issue 1, 1 March 2007, Pages 154–188.

...if we take seriously on board this centrality of non-industrial work and the fundamental importance of service, domestic labour, and everything that's accomplished in households, while adding it to the driving importance of enslaved mass production, then our conventional understanding of the histories of political economy and working-class formation will surely have to change.

A further implication arises once we shoot our vision forward over the longest term of capitalism's history since the eighteenth century to return to our question about the distinctiveness of its forms in the present. Once we revise our understanding of the early histories of capital accumulation by acknowledging the generative contributions of slavery and servitude, in fact, we have already begun questioning the presumed centrality of waged work in manufacturing, extractive and other forms of modern industry for the overall narrative of the rise of capitalism. By shifting the perspective in that way, we effectively relativize wage labour's place in the social histories of working-class formation and open our accounts of the latter to other regimes of labour. By that logic, the claim of waged work to analytical precedence in the developmental histories of capitalism no longer seems secure. As it happens, in fact, the de-skilling, de-unionizing, de-benefiting, and de-nationalizing of labour via the processes of metropolitan deindustrialization and transnationalized capitalist restructuring in our own time have also been undermining that claim from the opposite end of the chronology, namely from a vantage-point in the present. Today the social relations of work are being drastically transformed in the direction of the new low-wage, semi-legal, and deregulated labour markets of a mainly service-based economy increasingly organized in complex transnational ways. In light of that radical reproletarianizing of labour under today's advanced capitalism, I want to argue, the preceding prevalence of socially valued forms of organized labour established after 1945, which postwar social democrats hoped so confidently could become normative, re-emerges as an extremely transitory phenomenon. The life of that recently defeated redistributive social-democratic vision of the humanizing of capitalism becomes revealed as an extremely finite and exceptional project, indeed as one that was mainly confined to the period between the postwar settlement after 1945 and its long and painful dismantling after the mid 1970s.

In light of that contemporary reproletarianizing of labour, perhaps we should even see the period in which labour became both collectively organized and socially valued via trade unions, public policy, wider common sense, and the acceptable ethics of a society's shared collective life as merely a brief blip in the history of capitalist social formations whose ordering principles have otherwise been quite differently institutionalized and understood, whether at the beginning (in the eighteenth century) or at the end (now). As I’ve just suggested, the blip in question may be located historically inside Eric Hobsbawm's ‘golden age’ of the unprecedented post-1945 capitalist boom whose forms of socio-political democratization (through planning, full employment, social services, redistributive taxation, recognition for trade unions, public schooling, collectivist ideals of social improvement, a general ethic of public goods) were brought steadily under brutally effective political attack after the mid 1970s.41 At most, one might argue, the labour movement's rise and political validation may be dated to the first three quarters of the twentieth century, varying markedly from country to country.

There are two features of this argument that deserve extra clarification. First, the suggestion that both slaves and servants be considered categories of workers may seem to depart so radically from the normal practice of defining the ‘working class’ by the wage relationship as to be needlessly confusing. Yet, as I’ve tried to argue, once related to the history of capitalism overall, the classic wage-earning proletariat actually re-emerges as a relatively transitory and sectorally specific formation produced in quite delimited historical periods and circumstances. Moreover, under any particular capitalism wage labour has in any case always continued to coexist with various types of unfree and coercive labour. The salience of such simultaneities – of the temporal coexistence inside a particular capitalist social formation of forced, indentured, enslaved, and unfree forms of work with the free wage relationship strictly understood – needs to be carefully acknowledged. Such simultaneities become all the more salient once we begin conceptualizing capital accumulation on a properly global scale by integrating the forms of surplus extraction occurring in the colonial, neocolonial, or underdeveloped worlds. The West's privileged prosperity, including precisely the possibility of the social-democratic improvements associated with the three decades after 1945, has been founded, constitutively, on horrendous repertoires of extraction and exploitation on such a world scale. Other forms of labour coercion have likewise been characteristic of even the most advanced capitalist economies in their time, as for instance during the two World Wars, or under the racialized New Order of the Third Reich. In these terms, I’d argue, the search for a ‘pure’ working-class formation, from which forms of enslavement, servitude, indenturing, impressment, conscription, imprisonment, and coercion have been purged, remains a chimera. Once we define working-class formation not by the creation of the wage relationship in the strict sense alone, therefore, but by labour's contributions to the wider variety of accumulation regimes we can encounter in the histories of capitalism between the eighteenth century and now, we can see the multiplicity of possible labour regimes more easily too.


To summarize what I’ve just been saying: on the one hand, there are strong grounds for seeing servitude and slavery as the social forms of labour 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 labour contract. These new forms of the exploitation of labour have been accumulating around the growing prevalence of minimum-wage, dequalified and deskilled, disorganized and deregulated, semi-legal and migrant labour markets, in which workers are systemically stripped of most forms of security and organized protections. This is what is characteristic for the circulation of labour power in the globalized and post-Fordist economies of the late capitalist world, and this is where 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 centred 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.

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