No Need to Choose: History from Above, History from Below

The fol­low­ing is an extend­ed ver­sion of Geoff Eley’s pre­sen­ta­tion at the annu­al Kaplan Memo­ri­al Lec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia on March 26, 2014. The the­me of the pan­el was “What’s Up with the New His­to­ry of Cap­i­tal­ism?”

Where does the new inter­est in the “his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism” come from? I’d sug­gest the fol­low­ing rudi­ments of an answer. The finan­cial cri­sis of 2008-09 has clear­ly placed cer­tain issues of his­tori­ciza­tion on the agen­da. If the accel­er­at­ed and seem­ing­ly unstop­pable dri­ve for the “flat­ten­ing” of the world through a process of neolib­er­al glob­al­iza­tion since the ear­ly 1990s has not actu­al­ly brought us to a per­ma­nent­ly unfold­ing and self-repro­duc­ing neolib­er­al present, but has rather encoun­tered sev­ere struc­tural prob­lems, then how do we his­tori­cize this cur­rent time? That is, how do we under­stand the con­tem­po­rary cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, in all its polit­i­cal and social ram­i­fi­ca­tions, in rela­tion to longer-run process­es of cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing and their log­ics of devel­op­ment and dif­fi­cul­ty; and how do we locate the his­to­ry of the present inside a larg­er-scale frame­work of peri­ods and con­junc­tures?

One impor­tant his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal shift that’s rel­e­vant here is the play­ing out and run­ning down of the cul­ture wars of the lat­er 1980s and 1990s. My own inter­ven­tions in that regard have argued for recu­per­at­ing some impor­tant grounds of social his­to­ry with­out dis­avow­ing the vital gains accom­plished in the course of the cul­tur­al turn. My own mantra has been “No Need to Choose!”1 This rather belies the nar­ra­tive pre­sent­ed in the New York Times arti­cle that announced the new pop­u­lar­i­ty of the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism. In fact, set­ting “his­to­ry from below” again­st his­to­ries of “the boss­es, bankers and bro­kers who run the econ­o­my” is to invoke a false antin­o­my.

It’s open to ques­tion, in any case, whether we’ve actu­al­ly had “decades” in which schol­ar­ship has been dom­i­nat­ed by stud­ies “focus­ing on wom­en, minori­ties, and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple seiz­ing their des­tiny,” leav­ing entire­ly aside for the moment whether it’s fruit­ful to study the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism by focus­ing in the first instance on dis­crete cat­e­gories of actors in the man­ner the NYT implies, whether busi­ness­men or employ­ees. This will also vary huge­ly con­text by con­text. In the Ger­man field, for exam­ple, nei­ther the social his­to­ry wave nor the turn­ing to cul­tur­al his­to­ry entailed remote­ly any neglect of indus­tri­al­ists, financiers, landown­ers, bureau­crats, judges, the pro­fes­sions, or any oth­er cat­e­go­ry among the dom­i­nant class­es.

Once we start look­ing close­ly at the impli­ca­tions of the NYT claim, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to the actu­al con­tent and dis­tri­b­u­tion of his­tor­i­cal research and pub­li­ca­tion dur­ing the past sev­er­al decades, in oth­er words, we’ll see just how prim­i­tive its under­stand­ing turns out to be. Just to use its own terms for the moment, “his­to­ry from below” has rarely meant some dis­crete and exclu­sive empir­i­cal focus “on wom­en, minori­ties and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple seiz­ing their des­tiny.” Rather, those inter­ests and com­mit­ments have long been abstract­ed into a set of con­cep­tu­al rules and pro­to­cols, method­olo­gies and the­o­ret­i­cal approach­es, top­ics and fields, cau­tions and incite­ments, that allow the largest of ana­lyt­i­cal ques­tions to be brought down to the ground, includ­ing all those con­cerned with the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism. In my own field of Ger­man his­to­ry, I’d begin a demon­stra­tion of this claim with All­t­ags­geschichte (his­to­ry of the every­day) and the cumu­la­tive accom­plish­ments of micro­his­to­ry and its every­day ana­lyt­ic. More gen­er­al­ly, Wal­ter Johnson’s work seems to be an excel­lent illus­tra­tion, whether in his two mono­graphs or in the var­i­ous inter­pre­tive writ­ings.2

I also want to men­tion that the Occu­py Move­ment and the widen­ing extremes of social inequal­i­ty inside most cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties are cer­tain­ly hav­ing sig­nif­i­cant effects on how his­to­ri­ans are think­ing, which we can expect to find mate­ri­al­iz­ing in projects and debates in about five or six years time. There are already some fas­ci­nat­ing out­comes being reg­is­tered, such as Peter Linebaugh’s new book, for exam­ple, Stop, Thief! The Com­mons, Enclo­sures, and Resis­tance (Oak­land: PM Press, 2014). But for the pur­pos­es of this talk I’m con­fin­ing myself to the fol­low­ing twin phe­nom­e­na – the new bases of work­ing-class for­ma­tion under the neolib­er­al trans­for­ma­tions of the past three to four decades, togeth­er with the fresh forms of polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion the­se are begin­ning to pro­duce – as symp­toms of the pro­found­ly far-reach­ing cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing that got prop­er­ly under way dur­ing the 1980s.

To bring the speci­fici­ties of the present into focus, I’ll argue that the pre­ced­ing era, essen­tial­ly the first two-thirds of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, often treat­ed as a ground from which a suc­cess­ful pol­i­tics of the Left might be rebuilt, was actu­al­ly a very par­tic­u­lar and non-repeat­able time. In doing this, I’ll draw on two bod­ies of argu­ment. One uses the increas­ing­ly rich his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of slav­ery, post-eman­ci­pa­tion soci­eties, and the Black Atlantic, with its chal­lenge to our basic nota­tions of the ori­gins of the mod­ern world. The oth­er con­cerns the dis­tinc­tive con­di­tions of accu­mu­la­tion and exploita­tion now defin­ing the new glob­al­ized divi­sion of labor of the present, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the dereg­u­lat­ed migrant and transna­tion­al­ized labor mar­kets still being gen­er­at­ed at ever-accel­er­at­ing pace. In this sec­ond argu­ment I’ll draw some con­trasts with the pre­vi­ous accu­mu­la­tion regime estab­lished after 1945 and last­ing until the mid-1970s.

So far, inter­est­ing­ly, much of the “Black Atlantic” argu­ment has tend­ed to con­cen­trate around ques­tions of cit­i­zen­ship and per­son­hood aris­ing from the French Rev­o­lu­tion, most clas­si­cal­ly via the Haitian Rev­o­lu­tion and the wider insur­rec­tionary rad­i­calisms in the Caribbean, rather than around the moder­ni­ty of cap­i­tal­ism per se.3 More­over, treat­ments of the soci­etal trans­for­ma­tions accom­pa­ny­ing the end of New World slav­ery tend to stress the coun­ter­vail­ing log­ic of secur­ing the new norm of the free labor con­tract, which worked inex­orably again­st the longed-for ide­als of civic lib­er­ty and eman­ci­pat­ed per­son­hood. The con­cep­tu­al focus tends to pri­or­i­tize the new rela­tions required by the cap­i­tal­ist labor con­tract, even as elab­o­rate machiner­ies for deploy­ment of inden­tured and “semi-free” labor pow­er con­tin­ued to per­sist, so that the promised mean­ings of free­dom and cit­i­zen­ship, which were in any case vital­ly con­di­tioned by race and labor dur­ing the tran­si­tion out of slav­ery, nec­es­sar­i­ly became com­pro­mised. But the already formed con­tri­bu­tion of slav­ery per se to a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of pro­duc­tion tends not to be brought quite as eas­i­ly into thought. Slavery’s clas­sic nota­tion as an essen­tial­ly pre-cap­i­tal­ist for­ma­tion, or at best an anom­aly once “the wage labor-dri­ven cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem [began] matur­ing on a glob­al scale,” remains tac­it­ly intact.4

Group of Negros, as imported to be sold for Slaves
“Group of Negros, as import­ed to be sold for slaves” (William Blake, 1796)

But in the slave economies of the Caribbean, slav­ery was not some archaic or pre-cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tion in anom­alous rela­tion­ship to the rise of cap­i­tal­ism, but on the con­trary pro­duced the first mod­ern pro­le­tari­at of large-scale, high­ly orga­nized, and inte­grat­ed cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion.5 Sit­u­at­ing the New World plan­ta­tion economies inside cap­i­tal­ist regimes of pro­duc­tion, exploita­tion, and accu­mu­la­tion vital­ly desta­bi­lizes our more famil­iar tele­olo­gies of cap­i­tal­ist indus­tri­al­iza­tion. It rethinks work­ing-class for­ma­tion through a set of social rela­tions that both pre­ced­ed and stark­ly dif­fered from those nor­mal­ly attrib­ut­ed to cap­i­tal­ist indus­try. Orga­nized on the most glob­al of scales, the labor regime in ques­tion con­tin­ued to over­lap and coex­ist with that of cap­i­tal­ist indus­try well into the epoch of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion clas­si­cal­ly under­stood. To the moder­ni­ty of the enslaved mass work­er, more­over, we can add the anal­o­gous impor­tance of domes­tic servi­tude for the over­all labor mar­kets and regimes of accu­mu­la­tion pre­vail­ing inside the eigh­teen­th-cen­tu­ry Anglo-Scot­tish nation­al econ­o­my at home.6 If we then put the­se two social regimes of labor togeth­er, that of the enslaved mass work­er of the New World and that of the servile labor­ers of the house­holds, work­shops, and farms of the Old, then we have the mak­ings of a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent account of the dynam­ics of the rise of cap­i­tal­ism and the mod­es of social sub­or­di­na­tion that enabled it to occur. In the most basic of social-his­tor­i­cal terms, for exam­ple, ser­vants in their many guis­es formed one of the largest and most essen­tial work­ing cat­e­gories of the lat­er eigh­teen­th and ear­ly nine­teen­th cen­turies (pre­cise­ly at the core of indus­tri­al­iza­tion), yet sel­dom plays any role in accounts of either the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my or work­ing-class for­ma­tion. So if we take seri­ous­ly on board this cen­tral­i­ty of non-indus­tri­al work along with ser­vice, domes­tic labor, and every­thing that’s accom­plished in house­holds, while adding it to the engine of enslaved mass pro­duc­tion, then our per­spec­tive on polit­i­cal econ­o­my and work­ing-class for­ma­tion will sure­ly have to change.7

The same can be said once we con­sid­er the dis­tinc­tive­ness of cap­i­tal­ism in the present. By rethink­ing the ear­ly his­to­ries of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion via the gen­er­a­tive cen­tral­i­ty of slav­ery and servi­tude, we’re already query­ing the pre­sumed cen­tral­i­ty of waged work in man­u­fac­tur­ing, extrac­tive, and asso­ci­at­ed indus­try for the over­all nar­ra­tive of the rise of cap­i­tal­ism. That shift­ing of the per­spec­tive rel­a­tivizes wage labor’s place in the social his­to­ries of work­ing-class for­ma­tion and opens them to oth­er regimes of labor. By that log­ic, waged work’s claim to ana­lyt­i­cal prece­dence in capitalism’s devel­op­men­tal his­to­ry no longer seems secure. Indeed, the de-skilling, de-union­iz­ing, de-ben­e­fit­ing, and de-nation­al­iz­ing of labor via the process­es of met­ro­pol­i­tan dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and transna­tion­al­ized cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing in our own time have also been under­min­ing that claim from the van­tage-point of the present. Today the social rela­tions of work have been dras­ti­cal­ly trans­formed in the direc­tion of the new low-wage, semi-legal, and dereg­u­lat­ed labor mar­kets of a main­ly ser­vice-based econ­o­my increas­ing­ly orga­nized in com­plex transna­tion­al ways. In light of that rad­i­cal re-pro­le­tar­i­an­iz­ing of labor under today’s advanced cap­i­tal­ism, I want to argue, the pre­ced­ing preva­lence of social­ly val­ued forms of orga­nized labor estab­lished after 1945, which post­war social democ­rats hoped so con­fi­dent­ly could become nor­ma­tive, re-emerges as an extreme­ly unusu­al and 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 re-pro­le­tar­i­an­iz­ing of labor, per­haps we should even see the peri­od in which labor 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.8 At most, one might argue, the labor movement’s rise and polit­i­cal val­i­da­tion may be dat­ed to the first three quar­ters of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, vary­ing marked­ly coun­try by coun­try.

Thus, the clas­sic wage-earn­ing pro­le­tari­at actu­al­ly re-emerges in this per­spec­tive as a rel­a­tive­ly tran­si­to­ry and sec­toral­ly speci­fic for­ma­tion pro­duced in quite delim­it­ed his­tor­i­cal peri­ods and cir­cum­stances. More­over, under any par­tic­u­lar cap­i­tal­ism wage labor has in any case always con­tin­ued to coex­ist with var­i­ous types of unfree and coer­cive labor. Those 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 – need to be care­ful­ly acknowl­edged. They become all the more salient once we treat 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 labor 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 labor’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 labor regimes more eas­i­ly too.

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.10

Final­ly, in light of all of this, we bad­ly need work – con­cep­tu­al­ly, his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal­ly – that can help define the speci­fici­ties of work­ing-class for­ma­tion in our new ear­ly twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry present, not just in terms of its mate­ri­al­ist soci­olo­gies and log­ics of struc­tural coa­les­cence, but also in terms of its forms of col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and col­lec­tive agen­cy. In some ways the glob­al scale of the new brute mate­ri­al­i­ties of work, labor, and work­ing-class for­ma­tion have been rel­a­tive­ly easy to grasp – in terms of the glob­al redis­tri­b­u­tion of heavy indus­try, all kinds of man­u­fac­tur­ing, and fac­to­ry assem­bly to wherever labor costs, tax regimes, envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, labor law, health and safe­ty over­sight, polic­ing, ter­ri­to­ri­al sov­er­eign­ties, and pub­lic gov­er­nance are most con­ducive; in terms of the transna­tion­al­iz­ing of labor mar­kets across region­al, con­ti­nen­tal, and tru­ly vast geo­gra­phies of dis­tance; in terms of a dereg­u­lat­ed finan­cial sec­tor, whose dom­i­nance is sev­ered from any appar­ent mech­a­nisms of account­abil­i­ty or rela­tion­ship to pro­duc­tive invest­ment; in terms of a con­tem­po­rary regime of accu­mu­la­tion ordered around the untram­meled mobil­i­ty of cap­i­tal, the spec­ta­cle of con­sump­tion, and the gut­ting of pub­lic goods. In all of the­se terms we are able to grasp the con­tem­po­rary soci­olo­gies of class for­ma­tion, assist­ed by the writ­ings of peo­ple like David Har­vey, Tim Mitchell, Göran Ther­born, Pietro Bas­so, Guy Stand­ing, Marcel van der Lin­den, Bev­er­ly Sil­ver, and Leo Pan­itch.11 But what is still very hard to see is the kind of pol­i­tics that might pro­duce coher­ence and orga­nized agen­cy under the­se new con­di­tions of glob­al accu­mu­la­tion, a pol­i­tics that might enable demo­c­ra­t­ic capac­i­ties with effi­ca­cies com­pa­ra­ble to those attained by the social­ist tra­di­tion ear­lier in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In the­se most fun­da­men­tal of tran­si­tive terms, how should we think about the pol­i­tics of work­ing-class for­ma­tion today? I’m sure that in the com­ing few years we’ll begin to see impor­tant efforts to answer that ques­tion.


  1. “Dilem­mas and Chal­lenges of Social His­to­ry since the 1960s: What Comes after the Cul­tur­al Turn?”, South African His­tor­i­cal Jour­nal, 60/3 (2008), 310-33; “No Need to Choose: Cul­tur­al His­to­ry and the His­to­ry of Soci­ety,” in Belin­da Davis, Thomas Lin­den­berg­er, and Michael Wildt (eds.), All­t­ag, Erfahrung, Eigensinn. His­torisch-anthro­pol­o­gis­che Erkun­dun­gen (Frank­furt am Main: Cam­pus, 2008), 61-73. 

  2. See Wal­ter John­son, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Ante­bel­lum Slave Mar­ket (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999); “On Agen­cy,” Jour­nal of Social His­to­ry, 37:1 (2003), 113-24; “Incon­sis­ten­cy, Con­tra­dic­tion, and Com­plete Con­fu­sion: The Every­day Life of the Law of Slav­ery,” Law and Social Inquiry, 22:2 (1997), 405-33; also Jean-Christophe Agnew, “Cap­i­tal­ism, Cul­ture, and Cat­a­stro­phe,” in James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glick­man, and Michael O’Malley (eds.), The Cul­tur­al Turn in U.S. His­to­ry: Past, Present, and Future (Chicago: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago Press, 2008), 401-05. 

  3. The ref­er­ence here is to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Moder­ni­ty and Dou­ble Con­scious­ness (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993). As a bridge to the bur­geon­ing lit­er­a­tures on this sub­ject, see Stu­art Hall, “Break­ing Bread with His­to­ry: C. L. R. James and The Black Jacobins,” His­to­ry Work­shop Jour­nal, 46 (Autumn 1998), 17-31; Michel-Rolph Trouil­lot, Silenc­ing the Past: Pow­er and the Pro­duc­tion of His­to­ry (Boston: Bea­con Press, 1997); Lau­rent Dubois, “The Cit­i­zens Trance. The Haitian Rev­o­lu­tion and the Motor of His­to­ry,” in Bir­git Mey­er and Peter Pels (eds.), Mag­ic and Moder­ni­ty. Inter­faces of Rev­e­la­tion and Con­ceal­ment (Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003), 103-28, and Avengers of the New World: The Sto­ry of the Haitian Rev­o­lu­tion (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004). 

  4. Fred­er­ick Coop­er, Thomas C. Holt, and Rebec­ca J. Scott, Beyond Slav­ery: Explo­rations of Race, Labor, and Cit­i­zen­ship in Poste­man­ci­pa­tion Soci­eties (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2000), 23. The­se three authors’ mono­graphs superbly address the com­plex­i­ties of the tran­si­tions between slav­ery and wage labor. See respec­tive­ly Fred­er­ick Coop­er, From Slaves to Squat­ters: Plan­ta­tion Labor and Agri­cul­ture in Zanz­ibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925 (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1980);  Rebec­ca J. Scott, Slave Eman­ci­pa­tion in Cuba: The Tran­si­tion to Free Labor, 1860-1899 (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1985); Thomas C. Holt, The Prob­lem of Free­dom: Race, Labor, and Pol­i­tics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Bal­ti­more: Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992); and Rebec­ca J. Scott, Degrees of Free­dom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slav­ery (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005). For the use of inden­tured labor: Hugh Tin­ker, A New Sys­tem of Slav­ery: The Export of Indi­an Labour Over­seas, 1830-1920 (Lon­don: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press for the Insti­tute of Race Rela­tions, 1974); David Northrup, Inden­tured Labor in the Age of Impe­ri­al­ism, 1834-1922 (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995). For the his­tor­i­cal­ly deter­mi­nate process­es work­ing to pro­duce the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry ver­sion of “free labor,” see Robert J. Ste­in­feld, The Inven­tion of Free Labor: The Employ­ment Rela­tion in Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Law and Cul­ture, 1350-1870 (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 1991), and Coer­cion, Con­tract, and Free Labor in the Nine­teen­th Cen­tu­ry (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001). I’m grate­ful to Den­nis Sweeney for point­ing me towards this ref­er­ence. 

  5. See Robin Black­burn, The Mak­ing of New World Slav­ery. From the Baro­que to the Mod­ern (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1997), and The Over­throw of Colo­nial Slav­ery 1776-1848 (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1988); Sid­ney W. Mintz, Sweet­ness and Pow­er: The Place of Sug­ar in Mod­ern His­to­ry (New York: Viking, 1985); David Scott, “Moder­ni­ty that Pre­dat­ed the Mod­ern,” His­to­ry Work­shop Jour­nal, 58 (Autumn 2004), 191-210. 

  6. My think­ing on this point is huge­ly indebt­ed to the ideas of Car­olyn Steed­man and in par­tic­u­lar to a read­ing of her unpub­lished paper, “A Boil­ing Cop­per and Some Arsenic: Ser­vants, Child­care and Class Con­scious­ness in late eigh­teen­th-cen­tu­ry Eng­land,” and our asso­ci­at­ed cor­re­spon­dence. See also Steedman’s already pub­lished arti­cles, “Lord Mansfield’s Wom­en,” Past and Present, 176 (2002), 105-43, and “The Servant’s Labour: The Busi­ness of Life, Eng­land, 1760-1820,” Social His­to­ry, 29 (2004), 1-29. 

  7. To the labor regimes of slav­ery and servi­tude Linebaugh and Redik­er have added a third, name­ly that of the sail­ing ship, which they claim as the site of pro­duc­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Atlantic are­na of glob­al­iza­tion in the sev­en­teen­th and eigh­teen­th cen­turies. See Peter Linebaugh and Mar­cus Redik­er, The Many-Head­ed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Com­mon­ers, and the Hid­den His­to­ry of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Atlantic (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2002). Linebaugh first devel­oped this argu­ment in an essay of 1982, which remains foun­da­tion­al for what became the field of Atlantic stud­ies: “By the end of the sev­en­teen­th cen­tu­ry we may dis­tin­guish four ways by which cap­i­tal sought to orga­nize the exploita­tion of human labor in its com­bi­na­tion with the mate­ri­als and tools of pro­duc­tion. The­se were first, the plan­ta­tion, in many ways the most impor­tant mer­can­tilist achieve­ment; sec­ond, pet­ty pro­duc­tion such as the yeo­man farmer or for­tu­nate arti­san enjoyed; third, the putting-out sys­tem which had begun to evolve into man­u­fac­ture; and the mode of pro­duc­tion which at the lev­el of cir­cu­la­tion unit­ed the oth­ers, name­ly the ship.” In Linebaugh’s argu­ment, ships “car­ried not only the con­gealed labor of the plan­ta­tions, the man­u­fac­to­ries, and the work­shops” in their holds, but also the “liv­ing labor… of trans­port­ed felons, of inden­tured ser­vants, above all, of African slaves.” See Peter Linebaugh, “All the Atlantic Moun­tains Shook,” in Geoff Eley and William Hunt (eds.), Reviv­ing the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion: Reflec­tions and Elab­o­ra­tions on the Work of Christo­pher Hill (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1988), 207, 208.The essay was first pub­lished in Labour/Le Tra­vail, 10 (Autumn 1982), 87-121. 

  8. I’m refer­ring here to the argu­ment in Eric Hob­s­bawm, The Age of Extremes: A His­to­ry of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Pan­theon, 1994), esp. 225-400. I’ve devel­oped this argu­ment in full in Geoff Eley, Forg­ing Democ­ra­cy: The His­to­ry of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002), espe­cial­ly Chap­ter 23: “Class and the Pol­i­tics of Labor,” 384-404 

  9. The hey­day of those cri­tiques was the first half of the 1980s. See Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin, “His­tor­i­cal Alter­na­tives to Mass Pro­duc­tion: Pol­i­tics, Mar­kets, and Tech­nol­o­gy in Nine­teen­th-Cen­tu­ry Indus­tri­al­iza­tion,” Past and Present, 108 (1985), 133-76; Charles Tilly, “Flows of Cap­i­tal and Forms of Indus­try in Europe, 1500-1900,” The­o­ry and Soci­ety, 12 (1983), 123-42, and “The Demo­graph­ic Ori­gins of the Euro­pean Pro­le­tari­at,” in David Levine (ed.), Pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion and Fam­i­ly His­to­ry (Orlan­do: Aca­d­e­mic Press, 1984), 1-85; Geoff Eley, “The Social His­to­ry of Indus­tri­al­iza­tion: ‘Pro­to-Indus­try’ and the Ori­gins of Cap­i­tal­ism,” Econ­o­my and Soci­ety, 13 (1984), 519-39. 

  10. It remains axiomat­ic for my under­stand­ing of the argu­ment in the­se para­graphs that between the lat­er 1940s and mid 1970s West­ern Europe’s peri­od of rel­a­tive­ly human­ized cap­i­tal­ism under the aegis of the Keynesian/welfare state syn­the­sis was no less behold­en to sys­tems of glob­al­ized exploita­tion of nat­u­ral resources, human mate­ri­als, and grotesque­ly unequal terms of trade than the peri­ods that came before or since. The priv­i­leged met­ro­pol­i­tan pros­per­i­ty of the long boom in which social demo­c­ra­t­ic gains were embed­ded rest­ed (sys­tem­i­cal­ly, con­sti­tu­tive­ly) on his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic reper­toires of extrac­tion and exploita­tion oper­at­ing on a world scale. Amid all the con­tem­po­rary talk of colo­nial­ism and post­colo­nial­i­ty, of glob­al­iza­tion and “empire,” in this regard, a work­able the­o­ry of impe­ri­al­ism remains in urgent need of recu­per­a­tion. For one start­ing-point, see Alain Lip­i­etz, “Towards Glob­al Fordism?,” and “Marx or Ros­tow?,” New Left Review, 132 (March-April 1982), 33-47, 48-58. 

  11. David Har­vey, Spaces of Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism: A The­o­ry of Uneven Geo­graph­i­cal Devel­op­ment (Lon­don: Vero, 2006), A Brief His­to­ry of Neolib­er­al­ism (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007), and Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Rev­o­lu­tion (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2012); Tim­o­thy Mitchell, Car­bon Democ­ra­cy: Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the Age of Oil (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2011); Göran Ther­born, “Class in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry,” New Left Review, 2/17 (Novem­ber-Decem­ber 2012), 5-29, and The World: A Beginner’s Guide (Cam­bridge: Poli­ty, 2011); Pietro Bas­so, Mod­ern Times, Ancient Hours: Work­ing Lives in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2003); Guy Stand­ing, The Pre­cari­at: The New Dan­ger­ous Class (Lon­don: Blooms­bury Aca­d­e­mic, 2011); Marcel van der Lin­den, Work­ers of the World: Essays Toward a Glob­al Labor His­to­ry (Lei­den: Brill, 2010); Bev­er­ly J. Sil­ver, Forces of Labor: Work­ers’ Move­ments and Glob­al­iza­tion since 1870 (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003); Sam Gind­in and Leo Pan­itch, The Mak­ing of Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism: The Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of Amer­i­can Empire (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2012). 

Author of the article

is Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. Some of his works include Nazism as Fascism: Violence, Ideology, and the Ground of Consent in Germany 1930-1945 (2014), A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (2005), and Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (2002).