The Political Economy of Capitalist Labor

Federico De Cicco
Fed­eri­co De Cic­co, 2014

The con­vic­tion that cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion requires labor­ers who are not only dis­pos­sessed of autonomous means of repro­duc­tion, but are also legal­ly free to offer their capac­i­ty to labor on the mar­ket, has been cen­tral to Marx­ist analy­ses of cap­i­tal­ism. Any endeav­or to con­front this the­sis with the actu­al his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism not only runs counter to the dom­i­nant con­tent of tra­di­tion­al Marx­ist analy­sis, but also to the fun­da­men­tal­ly opti­mistic Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry. Notwith­stand­ing exploita­tion, pau­per­iza­tion, injus­tice, and all the oth­er evils of this his­tor­i­cal epoch, Marx, Engels, and Marx­ists have also con­ceived of cap­i­tal­ism as one step fur­ther in the devel­op­ment of human­i­ty.

Much like the pro­po­nents of cap­i­tal­ism, Marx and Marx­ists have explained that while direct vio­lence against pro­duc­ers was con­stant­ly threat­ened and often applied in pre-cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion, vio­lence is no longer required for cap­i­tal­ist forms of exploita­tion. It is, indeed, even con­trary to the suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tion of sur­plus val­ue, and hence prof­it. Cap­i­tal­ism, then, is con­ceived of as a mark­er of human progress in com­par­i­son to pre-cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion, not only because of its sur­pass­ing of direct vio­lence, but also because it brings about the social, tech­no­log­i­cal, and ide­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions which make social­ism pos­si­ble.

Nonethe­less, while Marx, Engels, and Marx­ists con­cur with pro­po­nents of cap­i­tal­ism in their con­cep­tion of this polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic sys­tem as a pro­gres­sive stage in the his­to­ry of mankind, they are nei­ther in agree­ment with the latter’s con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism as the final stage of his­to­ry, nor with their expla­na­tion of its his­tor­i­cal ori­gin. This dif­fer­ence is spelled out at the end of the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal in Marx’s expli­ca­tion of “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion,” con­ceived of as his­tor­i­cal pre­req­ui­site to the accu­mu­la­tion that becomes dom­i­nant in cap­i­tal­ism.

After hav­ing made fun of Adam Smith’s anec­do­tal nar­ra­tive of the ori­gin of cap­i­tal­ism, Marx explains that prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal was “drip­ping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”1 The sev­en para­graphs of the chap­ter on “so-called prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” con­tain exten­sive his­tor­i­cal descrip­tions. How­ev­er, they do not rep­re­sent his­tor­i­cal analy­sis as such. Instead, Marx high­lights strate­gies and process­es which result­ed in the dis­pos­ses­sion of labor­ers from autonomous means of repro­duc­tion, and in the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. While the lat­ter was achieved through “colo­nial­ism, nation­al debt, tax­a­tion, pro­tec­tion­ism, trade wars, etc.,”2 the for­mer was brought about through force­ful appro­pri­a­tion and expro­pri­a­tion. All of these strate­gies were ripe with vio­lence, and all of them made use of state pow­er.

That these prac­tices are con­sid­ered to be con­ducive of the estab­lish­ment of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, but not of its con­tin­u­ous repro­duc­tion, is made clear by the famous state­ment about vio­lence being the mid­wife of any old soci­ety which is preg­nant with a new one.3 We might smile about Marx’s choice of word, since instead of using the word “Hebamme” (mid­wife), he entrusts his­tor­i­cal progress to a male, des­ig­nat­ing him as “Geburtshelfer” (obste­tri­cian). We will leave that aside. I will also leave aside the exten­sive debate on rev­o­lu­tion in the course of which this sen­tence has, again and again, been cit­ed.4 But this state­ment is not only rel­e­vant for debates on rev­o­lu­tion; it also con­cerns the analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism. Hav­ing helped a woman in labor to give birth to new life, the mis­sion of a mid­wife is ful­filled. Assum­ing that Marx chose his terms con­sci­en­tious­ly, this also applies to the role of vio­lence in his­to­ry. And, indeed, it is in the same chap­ter that we are told that extra-eco­nom­ic vio­lence, though excep­tion­al­ly still made use of in cap­i­tal­ism, has been replaced by the “nat­ur­al laws of pro­duc­tion.”5 In oth­er words: the open vio­lence of for­mer times has been replaced by the silent force of mar­ket con­di­tions.

Of course, nei­ther Marx nor Marx­ists have con­ceived of cap­i­tal­ism as being devoid of vio­lence. Instead, they have remarked, the site of vio­lence has changed. It is no longer in the open, exe­cut­ed through the state, or – in places where the monop­oly of legit­i­mate phys­i­cal vio­lence has not yet been appro­pri­at­ed by the state – by open pri­vate vio­lence. Once mate­r­i­al con­di­tions have forced men, women, and even chil­dren to offer their capac­i­ty to labor on the mar­ket, direct vio­lence is no longer nec­es­sary to estab­lish exploita­tion, because this result is achieved by the imper­son­al func­tion­ing of com­pe­ti­tion on the labor mar­ket. And it is this imper­son­al pow­er which ensures the accep­tance of dom­i­nance that is inher­ent in every cap­i­tal­ist labor rela­tion. This cap­i­tal­ist form of vio­lence, no longer in the open and no longer spo­radic, has become the cen­tral ele­ment of the every­day life of cap­i­tal­ism. Its analy­sis forms the cen­ter of the Marx­ist analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ist labor, and right­ly so. Nev­er­the­less, by focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on the vio­lence inher­ent in the every­day com­mand over the appli­ca­tion of one’s capac­i­ty to labor, and hence over the bod­ies and the intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ties of wage-labor­ers them­selves, one only grasps spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments of cap­i­tal­ist labor, albeit impor­tant ones.

I am rather con­vinced that Marx him­self con­ceived of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as a his­tor­i­cal phase which more or less end­ed when and where cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion became dom­i­nant. Why else would he have stat­ed that at the time of his writ­ing, prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion had been more or less accom­plished in West­ern Europe?6 I am not opposed to re-inter­pre­ta­tions which endeav­or to make use of the ana­lyt­i­cal con­cept of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion in order to grasp con­tin­u­al process­es of expro­pri­a­tion as well as the exten­sion of mar­ket struc­tures into spheres of life hereto­fore out­side the realm of com­pe­ti­tion.7 Instead, my cri­tique focus­es on the assump­tion that the con­sti­tu­tion of labor rela­tions through direct vio­lence and con­straint is only preva­lent at the fringes of cap­i­tal­ism, and that this will be over­come when the ratio­nal­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic rela­tions becomes dom­i­nant.

Just like pro­po­nents of cap­i­tal­ism, Marx, Engels, and Marx­ists have main­tained that the force­ful con­straint of labor­ers is a hin­drance to any strat­e­gy which aims at fur­ther­ing the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of labor. If there was, indeed, slav­ery to be found in the epoch of cap­i­tal­ism, then this had to be con­ceived of as an alter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, albeit an alter­na­tive that was his­tor­i­cal­ly out­dat­ed and hence doomed to dis­ap­pear. Mar­cel van der Lin­den and Karl Heinz Roth have recent­ly labeled this a Euro­cen­tric con­cep­tion of the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism.8 I would rather point to the fact that – with very few excep­tions – it is not eco­nom­ic ratio­nal­i­ty that effects the end of forced labor. Instead, his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of the con­crete func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal­ism reveals that the end of the many dif­fer­ent forms of direct vio­lence in labor rela­tions has usu­al­ly been achieved by the appli­ca­tion of state pow­er, hence by polit­i­cal strug­gle. Cap­i­tal­ism has cor­rect­ly been termed a “polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic” sys­tem. In what fol­lows I will try to explain why this should be tak­en much more seri­ous­ly than has hith­er­to been the case.

Let us start out with the results of recent his­tor­i­cal research on the his­to­ry of wage labor in Eng­land. In con­trast to devel­op­ments on the con­ti­nent, Eng­lish labor­ers were legal­ly free to sell their capac­i­ty to labor at a very ear­ly stage. How­ev­er, until the mid-1870s – def­i­nite­ly long after the begin­ning of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism in Eng­land – they were not legal­ly free to end their con­tract at will. If they did so and their employ­er went to court, they had to expect a sen­tence in prison. Upon their arrival they were offi­cial­ly wel­comed with a flog­ging, and dur­ing their stay many expe­ri­enced forced labor in a tread­mill. In his impor­tant work on the his­to­ry of vol­un­tary wage labor Robert J. Ste­in­feld is very firm in his rejec­tion of any func­tion­al expla­na­tion of the per­sis­tent use of state vio­lence to leave the dura­tion of con­tracts to the will of employ­ers.9 He con­cludes that “what we call ‘free labor’ is defined essen­tial­ly by the moral and polit­i­cal judg­ment that penal sanc­tions… should not be per­mit­ted to enforce ‘vol­un­tary’ labor agree­ments.”10 While coer­cion had long been a fore­gone con­clu­sion in the polit­i­cal man­age­ment of labor rela­tions, its jus­ti­fi­ca­tion came into pub­lic doubt when suf­frage was extend­ed to more labor­ers in 1868. More and more mem­bers of par­lia­ment start­ed to think that it might not be polit­i­cal­ly wise to uphold the legal inequal­i­ty between employ­ers and labor­ers, as far as labor con­tracts were con­cerned, by mak­ing use of penal law and penal insti­tu­tions. Sev­en years after the exten­sion of suf­frage, the penal sanc­tions of so-called breach­es of con­tract were repealed.

While cor­re­spond­ing devel­op­ments were tak­ing place in oth­er states of the met­ro­pol­i­tan core of cap­i­tal­ism, devel­op­ments in France were some­what dif­fer­ent. This dif­fer­ence should be tak­en into account when debat­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis of the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of cap­i­tal­ist labor. Before the Rev­o­lu­tion, labor­ers in France, just like almost every­where in Europe, had been under the con­trol of the police. This sub­jec­tion was sym­bol­ized in the fact that labor­ers had to present their livret (worker’s book­let) to the police when enter­ing a new occu­pa­tion, there­by prov­ing that they had left their for­mer occu­pa­tion with the con­sent of their employ­er. Again just like almost every­where in Europe, breach of con­tract was con­sid­ered a penal offense in Ancien Régime France. The livret was hat­ed, and it was abol­ished in the course of the Rev­o­lu­tion. Although it was rein­sti­tut­ed at the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry, it no longer func­tioned as a means to con­strain employ­ment-at-will as far as jour­naliers, mean­ing indus­tri­al wage-labor­ers, were con­cerned. (Instead, it was used for doc­u­ment­ing advances of wages and the repay­ment of these cred­its.11 ) In spite of the fact that post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment was a strug­gle about the removal or the preser­va­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes in soci­ety, and in spite of the numer­ous attempts to con­trol and dis­ci­pline work­ers, labor rela­tions as such remained pri­vate in France, i.e. not under the direct super­vi­sion of the state. The polit­i­cal neces­si­ty to decree that the two par­ties of a con­tract were to be equal before the law was brought about by the polit­i­cal neces­si­ty of con­sti­tut­ing state pow­er after the rev­o­lu­tion­ary demise of nobil­i­ty. It was a direct result of the Rev­o­lu­tion, and had noth­ing to do with any eco­nom­ic ratio­nal­i­ty. Indeed, in France indus­tri­al­ized cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion was devel­oped much lat­er than in the Unit­ed King­dom. Some main­tain that it start­ed in the mid­dle decades of the 19th cen­tu­ry, oth­ers that it was neg­li­gi­ble until the 1880s. In any case: there is no con­vinc­ing func­tion­al eco­nom­ic expla­na­tion for the devel­op­ment of mod­ern free wage labor at the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry in France.12

In spite of the restric­tion of the exam­ples to only two nation­al devel­op­ments, it should now be clear that the actu­al his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism does not sup­port the assump­tion that the full legal and polit­i­cal auton­o­my of labor­ers is a fun­da­men­tal require­ment for cap­i­tal­ist forms of exploita­tion. Once this is estab­lished, we can start to tack­le the prob­lem of slav­ery.

The notion of the incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty of slav­ery with cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion is not only dear to pro­po­nents of cap­i­tal­ism, but also, at least until very recent­ly, to most of its crit­ics. More often than not the adher­ence to this con­vic­tion has been tak­en to be a touch­stone by which to decide if an analy­sis can be accept­ed as Marx­ist or not.13 Rather ear­ly on, how­ev­er, Wil­helm Back­haus con­tend­ed that Marx had to pos­tu­late this incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty because he con­ceived of the divi­sion between free wage-labor­ers and slaves as a hin­drance to the devel­op­ment of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary class in the Unit­ed States.14 Of course, not only Marx and Engels but also lat­er crit­ics have sug­gest­ed oth­er expla­na­tions for their asser­tion. They have been suc­cess­ful­ly refut­ed by his­tor­i­cal research.

Marx would have been cor­rect in pos­tu­lat­ing that the enslaved work­force was exploit­ed to an ear­ly death and there­fore had to be con­tin­u­al­ly replaced, if he had restrict­ed him­self to the West Indi­an sug­ar colonies. But the enslaved work­force in the Unit­ed States was not only bio­log­i­cal­ly repro­duced, but grow­ing. The mobil­i­ty of labor, which indeed is a req­ui­site for a cap­i­tal­ist labor mar­ket, was man­aged through the prac­tice of hir­ing out slaves, as well as through the mar­ket­ing of slaves. Where tech­nol­o­gy was intro­duced, as for exam­ple in Caribbean sug­ar mills, slav­ery was no obsta­cle to its com­pe­tent oper­a­tion. Every one of these argu­ments, and all the oth­ers that have been advanced in the course of the exten­sive debate on slav­ery, has been and will fur­ther be object­ed to. But as soon as we replace con­vic­tion by his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, it is sim­ply not pos­si­ble to refute Robin Blackburn’s con­clu­sion that “slav­ery was not over­thrown for eco­nom­ic rea­sons but where it became polit­i­cal­ly unten­able.”15 And if some still insist on explain­ing the dura­bil­i­ty of slav­ery by point­ing out that, in spite of its eco­nom­ic irra­tional­i­ty, it was sus­tained by the self-image of slave own­ers and their ladies, this expla­na­tion fal­ters in the view of the many strate­gies aim­ing at the repro­duc­tion of a sub­servient labor force which dif­fered from out­right slav­ery only by name and legal def­i­n­i­tion. In the Unit­ed States most for­mer slaves were not only dis­ap­point­ed in their hopes to become landown­ers, some­how receiv­ing “forty acres and a mule,” but in the decades after eman­ci­pa­tion very many of them had to endure some form or anoth­er of “Ersatz” slav­ery.16 The Black Codes, enact­ed by one South­ern state after anoth­er in 1865 in order to effec­tive­ly pre­vent the mobil­i­ty of all black peo­ple,17 and to leg­is­late severe pun­ish­ment for breach of labor con­tract, had to be repealed in the course of time. But white landown­ers con­tin­ued to reject blacks as ten­ants, there­by forc­ing many of them to become labor­ers. More often than not they were denied any form of autonomous pro­duc­tion.18 The fact that the entice­ment of labor­ers by anoth­er employ­er was made a legal offence in every one of the for­mer slave states shows that for­mer slave own­ers still saw their work­force as prop­er­ty. The most impor­tant sub­sti­tute for the legal sta­tus of slav­ery, how­ev­er, was peon­age. In spite of the fact that Con­gress out­lawed any form of forced labor in 1867, laws sanc­tion­ing debt bondage exist­ed in all of the South­ern states. Cheap and bond­ed labor could also be acquired by rent­ing pris­on­ers. The sheer num­ber of con­vic­tions sen­tenced to forced labor in the South proves the eco­nom­ic rel­e­vance of this prac­tice.19 Employ­ers tried to pre­vent flight by using chains, dogs, whips, and weapons.20 Most of these forced labor­ers were black. How­ev­er, by the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry a grow­ing num­ber of whites also came to suf­fer under peon­age and oth­er forms of bond­ed labor.

Not only in the Unit­ed States did abo­li­tion fail to do away with the real­i­ty of forced and bond­ed labor. So-called domes­tic slav­ery remained law­ful in many parts of the world; the slave trade as well as slav­ery were secret­ly being con­tin­ued; Black Codes, vagrancy laws, and espe­cial­ly peon­age forced many a freed slave and many poor men, women, and chil­dren into jobs they were con­strained to uphold, even if they would have pre­ferred to exist in unem­ployed mis­ery. In many colonies, forced appren­tice­ship, as well as laws against vagrancy, were used as sub­sti­tutes for slav­ery.21

When a glob­al labor mar­ket came to increas­ing­ly replace the for­mer slave trade in the mid­dle decades of the 19th cen­tu­ry, its dom­i­nant insti­tu­tion­al form was a trade in labor con­tracts.22 Even if recruiters made use of “coolie-catch­ers” who were known not to shrink from out­right kid­nap­ping,23 and even if the future labor­ers were not able to read or to write their name and had been deceived about the con­di­tions of their servi­tude and the con­ti­nent where they were going to be employed, the fic­tion of a labor con­tract to which both part­ners had freely agreed was upheld.

Coolies were made use of in the Unit­ed States, on the Sug­ar Islands, in Peru, in Hawaii, in Euro­pean Colonies in South­east Asia, and in Aus­tralia. Most of them were recruit­ed in Chi­na, India, and Malaya, but some of them also in Africa. Con­di­tions var­ied in the dif­fer­ent states and colonies, but some recurred in most coolie con­tracts. Offi­cial­ly, coolies were free to return to their home coun­try at the end of their con­tract, but even if they would have been able to find a ship and pay their fare, many were tricked and forced into the renew­al of their con­tract. In the ear­ly phas­es of the trade in coolies, these labor­ers often found them­selves on plan­ta­tions or in sug­ar mills whose own­ers and over­seers were accus­tomed to slav­ery and saw no rea­son to change their man­ner of com­mand­ing labor. The hypo­thet­i­cal abil­i­ty to leave their job at the end of a con­tract did not improve the work­ing and liv­ing con­di­tions of coolies while the con­tract last­ed. From the 1860s onward, gov­ern­ments in the home coun­tries tried to for­bid or at least to con­trol the trade, and some gov­ern­ments in receiv­ing coun­tries, espe­cial­ly in the West Indies, set up com­mis­sions to look into the real­i­ties of con­tract labor. The most impor­tant incen­tive to do so seems to have come from free wage-labor­ers in these coun­tries, among them those for­mer coolies who – for what­ev­er rea­son – had not returned home after the end of their con­tract. They protest­ed against the fact that the very low pay of coolies endan­gered their own demand for bet­ter wages. At the end of the 19th and in the first decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry there were many places in world cap­i­tal­ism where unbi­ased observers were at a loss to detect dif­fer­ences between slav­ery and con­tract labor. Often coolies were forced to live at their place of work, and not only the man­agers of the tea-gar­dens in Assam but also those of tobac­co plan­ta­tions at the East­ern Coast of Suma­tra tried to pre­vent the flight of their labor force by guard­ing them with fences, dogs, and armed watch per­son­nel. Of the 85,000 coolies who had arrived in the mod­ern hell of tobac­co plan­ta­tions in Suma­tra in 1866, 35,000 had already died three years lat­er. In 1873 planters in this colony were grant­ed penal juris­dic­tion over their labor force.24

It was around that time that free wage labor had, indeed, become preva­lent in the met­ro­pol­i­tan core states of cap­i­tal­ism. This notwith­stand­ing, employ­ers could and still did make use of the state in order to pre­vent col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. More often than not armed forces were employed in order to pre­vent or break up a strike, and activists were reg­u­lar­ly sen­tenced to stints in prison. It was only in the first decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry that cap­i­tal­ism in the core met­ro­pol­i­tan cap­i­tal­ist states start­ed to become domes­ti­cat­ed.25 While most authors take the devel­op­ment of social pol­i­cy as hav­ing been vital for the trans­for­ma­tions of cap­i­tal­ism, “domes­ti­ca­tion” focus­es on the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of class con­flict. This is most evi­dent in the neu­tral­i­ty of state penal insti­tu­tions in the face of strikes.

One might be tempt­ed, and many Marx­ists have giv­en in to this temp­ta­tion, to describe these devel­op­ments as the work­ings of ten­den­cies inher­ent in cap­i­tal­ism, the most impor­tant aspect of this ten­den­cy being the fact that direct vio­lence was no longer used as threat against the health and the life of work­ers, in order to make them sub­servient to exploita­tion. That this argu­ment – as well as the phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry from which it has been deduced – can­not be upheld in the face of the con­crete his­tor­i­cal func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal­ism has been bru­tal­ly made obvi­ous by the labor regime of Nation­al Social­ism. Not only were strikes out­lawed and trade unions dis­solved, with their activists among the first to be impris­oned in con­cen­tra­tion camps, but from the late 1930s onwards, mil­lions of men, women and even chil­dren were forced to labor under severe con­di­tions in the “Reich.” Their capac­i­ty to labor was used in pri­vate house­holds, on farms and on ships, in insti­tu­tions of the church and in fac­to­ries.

And it was espe­cial­ly in fac­to­ries that Ger­man employ­ers dis­proved the con­vic­tion that forced labor can­not be used in mod­ern indus­try. In spite of the fact that in some firms in the arma­ment indus­try more than thir­ty and some­times even more than six­ty per­cent of the work force con­sist­ed of forced labor,26 the out­put of these firms grew three­fold between 1942 and 1944.27 This growth was not halt­ed when the Ger­man gov­ern­ment decid­ed to make avail­able for pri­vate exploita­tion not only so-called “civil­ian” labor­ers from occu­pied coun­tries, as well as pris­on­ers of war, but also pris­on­ers of con­cen­tra­tion camps. All of these were deliv­ered upon the request of pri­vate firms. Since forced labor had already been wide­ly used since 1939, the appli­ca­tion for pris­on­ers of con­cen­tra­tion camps seems to have been con­sid­ered as falling into the range of nor­mal man­age­ment strate­gies. Some process­es of pro­duc­tion were adapt­ed to these changes of the work force, for exam­ple by reduc­ing the lev­el of mech­a­niza­tion or by intro­duc­ing pro­duc­tion lines.28

The offer of con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­ers for pri­vate exploita­tion was moti­vat­ed by the inten­tion of the SS to fur­ther its polit­i­cal influ­ence;29 it was not the result of polit­i­cal inten­tions to inte­grate eco­nom­ic ratio­nal­i­ty into the machin­ery of ter­ror­ism and destruc­tion. Racism remained the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of strat­e­gy. It was, there­fore, only in mid-1944 that the phys­i­cal destruc­tion of Jews was “post­poned,” in order to reduce the scarci­ty of labor in the arma­ment indus­try.30 While the per­cent­age of forced labor, includ­ing pris­on­ers of war, was very high in Ger­many dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the per­cent­age of con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­ers in the whole Ger­man work­force nev­er amount­ed to more than 3%. Every one of their num­ber was denied exis­tence as an indi­vid­ual human being by being reduced to a num­ber and a crea­ture whose phys­i­cal exis­tence was per­ma­nent­ly endan­gered.

When the Inter­na­tion­al Court, which was set up in Nurem­burg after the war, worked to inves­ti­gate and pun­ish the crimes against human­i­ty com­mit­ted by per­son­nel of the Nazi regime, the use of pris­on­ers for pro­duc­tion was labeled “slav­ery.” Vic­tims have also often used this term to sum up their expe­ri­ences. Since then some his­to­ri­ans have tried to com­pare Ger­man prac­tices dur­ing World War II to oth­er forms of slav­ery, most often slav­ery in the South of the Unit­ed States.31 While these endeav­ors offer insights into the speci­fici­ties of the sys­tems under con­sid­er­a­tion, they are nonethe­less futile, because the abo­li­tion move­ment changed, once and for all, the con­tent of the word “slav­ery.” It no longer refers to a sta­tus which, in the course of the 17th, 18th, and ear­ly 19th cen­turies, was defined by the laws of a colony or a sov­er­eign state. Instead, it has become a polit­i­cal cat­e­go­ry, used to denote con­di­tions of life and work con­sid­ered to be irrec­on­cil­able with glob­al­ly accept­ed norms of moral­i­ty. The his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of Nazi Ger­many has proved that utter bru­tal­i­ty is not irrec­on­cil­able with the func­tion­ing of advanced indus­tri­al­ized pro­duc­tion.

There are two the­o­ret­i­cal con­clu­sions to be drawn from this degen­er­a­tion of advanced cap­i­tal­ism to an eco­nom­ic sys­tem in which the exten­sive use of direct vio­lence was prac­ticed on a reg­u­lar basis. First­ly: the domes­ti­ca­tion of cap­i­tal­ism hinges on the state safe­guard­ing pri­vate and col­lec­tive rights of labor­ers, and sec­ond­ly: no lev­el of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment safe­guards against the bru­tal use of direct vio­lence against labor­ers.

It was only after the end of Sec­ond World that polit­i­cal strug­gle and polit­i­cal reg­u­la­tion result­ed in what Robert Cas­tel has called the civ­i­liza­tion of labor,32 and what I call the fur­ther domes­ti­ca­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. This, alas, was rather short-lived. Because not only has rigid com­pe­ti­tion on the world mar­ket led gov­ern­ments to sharp­en the con­straint to offer one’s capac­i­ty to labor on a very unfa­vor­able mar­ket, but soci­eties and gov­ern­ments all over the world also, once again, more or less tol­er­ate forced labor. My def­i­n­i­tion of forced labor cen­ters on the restric­tion of move­ment, i.e. the pre­ven­tion of labor­ers from leav­ing the work­place and/or the job. Tak­ing away the pass­ports of for­eign wage-earn­ers implies that they are threat­ened with crim­i­nal pro­ce­dure for lack of an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion card, and pre­vent­ing them from leav­ing the work­place by bar­ring doors and win­dows implies the threat of ill­ness and even death. We all know numer­ous exam­ples.

Polit­i­cal strug­gles against such prac­tices of con­straint have not become eas­i­er since the glob­al­iza­tion of the labor mar­ket. They are, nev­er­the­less, unavoid­able. If it has always been ana­lyt­i­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic to con­ceive of the vio­lence inher­ent in prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as being the char­ac­ter­is­tic of a cer­tain his­tor­i­cal phase of cap­i­tal­ism or of its fringes, glob­al­iza­tion forces us to final­ly rec­og­nize that open vio­lence and force­ful con­straint con­tin­ue to present dan­gers in all phas­es and all places of cap­i­tal­ist labor regimes.

Indeed, I insist on the hypoth­e­sis that open con­straint and repres­sion are con­stant pos­si­bil­i­ties of cap­i­tal­ist labor regimes. Far from mark­ing a cer­tain epoch of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, vio­lence is con­stant­ly hang­ing about in the wings of cap­i­tal­ist labor rela­tions. It comes into the open when gov­ern­ments and soci­eties refrain from deci­sive objec­tion.

  1. Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW) Vol. 23, 788. 

  2. MEW 23, 785. 

  3. MEW 23, 779. 

  4. In his “Reflec­tions on Gewalt,” Eti­enne Bal­ibar has dis­cussed the the­o­ret­i­cal his­to­ry of this con­cept. See, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 17 (2009), 99-125, espe­cial­ly the third para­graph. 

  5. MEW 23, 792. 

  6. MEW 23, 765. 

  7. Mas­si­mo De Ange­lis debates these inter­pre­ta­tions. See, Marx’s The­o­ry of Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion: A Sug­gest­ed Rein­ter­pre­ta­tion; 

  8. Mar­cel van der Lin­den & Karl Heinz Roth, Über Marx Hin­aus (Berlin: Assozi­a­tion, 2009), p. 22-23; Trans­lat­ed as Beyond Marx: The­o­ris­ing the Glob­al Labor Rela­tions of the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry (Lon­don: Brill, 2014). 

  9. Robert J. Ste­in­feld, Coer­cion, Con­tract, and Free Labor in the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001), 85-86 and pas­sim. 

  10. Ste­in­feld, 239-24. 

  11. Alain Cot­tereau, “Indus­tri­al Tri­bunals and the Estab­lish­ment of a Kind of Com­mon Law of Labour in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry France” in Willibald Stein­metz, ed., Pri­vate Law and Social Inequal­i­ty in the Indus­tri­al Age (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2000), 203-226. 

  12. I am, of course, aware, that many Marx­ist his­to­ri­ans have endeav­ored to devel­op such expla­na­tions, amongst them late­ly: Neil David­son, How Rev­o­lu­tion­ary were the Bour­geois Rev­o­lu­tions? (Chica­go: Hay­mar­ket, 2012); Hen­ry Heller The Birth of Cap­i­tal­ism (Lon­don: Plu­to Press, 2011). 

  13. I am aware, of course, that once we allow slav­ery to be con­ceived of as one of the many pos­si­bil­i­ties of cap­i­tal­ist forms of exploita­tion, it becomes much more dif­fi­cult to define the tran­si­tion from pre-cap­i­tal­ist to cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion. I will not go into this in the present paper, but will at least point to two req­ui­sites for using the ana­lyt­i­cal con­cept of cap­i­tal­ism: cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion are defined by the dom­i­nance of the own­ers of cap­i­tal (or their agents) over the process­es of pro­duc­tion, and by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of real­iz­ing prof­it on the mar­ket being con­di­tioned by com­pe­ti­tion, i.e. by the abol­ish­ment of state-guar­an­teed priv­i­leges. 

  14. Wil­helm Back­haus, Marx, Engels und die Sklaverei. Zur ökonomis­chen Prob­lematik der Unfrei­heit (Düs­sel­dorf: Päd­a­gogis­ch­er Ver­lag Schwann, 1974), 67. 

  15. Robin Black­burn, The Over­throw of Colo­nial Slav­ery 1776-1848 (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1988), 520. 

  16. Yves Benot has coined the term «ersatz d’esclavage». Yves Benot, La moder­nité s’esclavage. Essai sur la servi­tude au cœur du cap­i­tal­isme (Paris: Édi­tions la Décou­verte, 2003), 247. 

  17. Includ­ing those who had already been free before the Civ­il War. 

  18. Julie Sav­ille, The Work of Recon­struc­tion: From Slave to Wage Labor­er in South Car­oli­na, 1860-1870 (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1994), 114-115. 

  19. James W. Clarke, The Lin­ea­ments of Wrath: Race, Vio­lent Crime, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (New Brunswick: Trans­ac­tion Pub­lish­ers, 1998), 127. 

  20. William Cohen, “Negro Invol­un­tary Servi­tude in the South, 1865-1940: A Pre­lim­i­nary Analy­sis,” The Jour­nal of South­ern His­to­ry, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Feb­ru­ary 1976), 55. 

  21. For exam­ple, on Guatemala: Chris­t­ian Schnaken­bourg, La Tran­si­tion Post-Esclav­iste 1848-1883 (Paris: Har­mat­tan, 2007), 21-22. 

  22. The prac­tice had already been wide­ly used when Euro­pean immi­grants to the North Amer­i­can colonies inden­tured them­selves to work with­out pay for a cer­tain span of time (most often sev­en years) for the employ­er who refund­ed cap­tains the cost for the trans­port of their future ser­vant. 

  23. David Northrup, Inden­tured Labor in the Age of Impe­ri­al­ism 1834-1922 (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), 1. 

  24. Karl J. Pelz­er, Planter and Peas­ant: Colo­nial Pol­i­cy and the Agrar­i­an Strug­gle in East Suma­tra 1863-1947 (The Hague: Mar­t­i­nus Nijhoff, 1978). 

  25. I use this term because it also reminds us that domes­ti­cat­ed wild beasts can still fall back into for­mer behav­ior. 

  26. Con­stanze Wern­er, Kriegswirtschaft und Zwangswirtschaft bei BMW (München: Old­en­bourg, 2006), 187. 

  27. Andreas Heusler & Mark Spo­er­er & Hel­muth Trischler, Hg. Rüs­tung Kriegswirtschaft und Zwangsar­beit im „Drit­ten Reich“ (München: Old­en­bourg, 2010), 7. 

  28. Daniel Uziel, “Der Volk­sjäger. Ratio­nal­isierung und Ratio­nal­ität von Deutsch­lands let­ztem Jagdflugzeug im Zweit­en Weltkrieg,” in Andreas Heusler & Mark Spo­er­er & Hel­muth Trischler, Hg. Rüs­tung, Kriegswirtschaft und Zwangsar­beit im „Drit­ten Reich“ (München: Old­en­bourg, 2010), 71. 

  29. Marc Buggeln, Arbeit & Gewalt. Das Außen­lager­sys­tem des KZ Neuengamme (Göt­tin­gen: Wall­stein, 2008), 661. 

  30. Buggeln, 658. 

  31. Promi­nent­ly: Marc Buggeln, “Were Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Pris­on­ers Slaves?: The Pos­si­bil­i­ties and Lim­its of Com­par­a­tive His­to­ry and Glob­al His­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives,” Inter­na­tion­al Review of Social His­to­ry (2008), pas­sim; see also: Her­mann Kaien­burg, “KZ-Haft und Wirtschaftsin­ter­esse: Das Wirtschaftsver­wal­tung­shaup­tamt der SS als Leitungszen­trale der Konzen­tra­tionslager und der SS-Wirtschaft,” in Her­mann Kaien­burg, Hg. Konzen­tra­tionslager und deutsche Wirtschaft 1939-1945 (Opladen: Leske & Budrich, 1996), pas­sim. 

  32. Robert Cas­tel, Die Meta­mor­pho­sen der Sozialen Frage. Eine Chronik der Lohnar­beit (Kon­stanz: UVK, 2000), 401; Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1996 as: Les méta­mor­phoses de la ques­tion sociale: une chronique du salari­at (Paris: Fayard). 

Author of the article

was professor for the theory of state and society at the university of Bremen, Germany. She is presently researching markets and violence.