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

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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).