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Forced Labour and Capital in the 21st Century

by Sébastien Rioux on December 1, 2014
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Headline news stories about cases of modern slavery, human trafficking or forced labour have become part of the ‘new normal’ in this era of global labour relations. Captive migrant labourers in the tomato fields of Florida, child labour in the cacao plantations in West Africa, forced labour in the UK food sector and construction industry, and trafficking in persons for economic gains are examples of the growing, complex and multifaceted reality of forced labour under neoliberal capitalism. Commodities as diverse as shoes, clothes, cacao, fruit and vegetables, fish, cotton, iron and timber are produced under such dire working conditions, then traded on world markets and integrated within the supply chains of mainstream companies.

20-30 million slavesWith annual profits in the private economy estimated at US$150 billion, forced labour is anything but a marginal issue perpetrated by a few ‘bad apples’. The International Labour Organisation estimates that close to 21 million people are victims of forced labour, arguably a conservative estimate given the hidden nature of the phenomenon. Yet these vertiginous numbers do not capture the full extent of the problem. Indeed, many advanced capitalist societies have put in place programmes that effectively legalise unfree labour for migrant workers. For instance, in Canada, virtually all migrant farm workers are tied to one specific employer and therefore barred from working for anyone else. Given strict legal restrictions on their mobility in the labour market, one might wonder whether it makes sense to refer to these workers as ‘free’ labourers.

It is with this reality in mind that I recently published an article in the pages of Historical Materialism. The article has two main objectives. First, and building on a rich literature on forced labour and capitalism in Marxist historiography, the article sheds light on the growing reality of forced labour under neoliberal capitalism. Jairus Banaji, Tom Brass, Jens Lerche, Peter Linebaugh, Robert Miles, J. Mohan Rao, Marcus Rediker, Dale Tomich and Marcel van der Linden are Marxist scholars who recognise the extent to which capitalism’s history and development are rooted in forms of exploitation that are not reducible to ‘free’ wage labour. While disagreements remain about the specific nature, role and status of ‘unfree’ labour in capital, what unites these different streams is the recognition that capital accumulation and forced labour are not analytically incommensurable and therefore antithetical to one another. As I argue in the Historical Materialism article, the growth of forced labour under neoliberalism makes it clear that capital is actively engaged in the production and reproduction of its conditions of existence.

Despite this important tradition of scholarship in Marxist historiography, however, there is still a strong tendency to dissociate capitalism from violent and coercive forms of labour. This position often takes the form of a soft functionalism whereby capital’s ability to use supposedly non-capitalist forms of exploitation is acknowledged historically without having any theoretical impact. In this respect, the second objective of my article was to warn against the dangers associated with this type of reasoning, highlight the problematic revisionist attitude that it tends to feed and underscore the political and theoretical difficulties that it poses for our ability to account for present-day forced labour.

21 million forced labourers

Forced labourers worldwide: 21 million

Representative of this stagist tendency whereby capitalism represents a higher form of exploitation is the theory of social property relations, or ‘Political Marxism’, with which my article engages at length. Political Marxism is a theoretically and historically sophisticated stream of Marxism whose work on the transition to capitalism has proven enduring. Yet the approach’s rigid conception of capitalism has come at a heavy price, forcing proponents of this approach to conceptualise a priori instances of extra-economic coercion as non-capitalist by definition. The problem is therefore less the otherwise excellent historical depth and rigour of their analysis than the fact that they approach history through analytically rigid categories, with the result that the dialectical relationship uniting theory and history is severed. As Adolph Reed Jr. pointed out some years ago, it is precisely the ideal-typical nature of this formulation which tends to reproduce a formalistic construction of capitalism impermeable to the complex fluidity of history and lived experiences.

Far from being mere remnants of a distant past which have yet to be eliminated by the ongoing march of a brave new capitalist world of ‘free’ labour, what present-day forced labour demonstrates is that such relations of power and exploitation are the direct outcome of neoliberal restructuring and the creation of a global, integrated labour force. The dramatic shift in power relations between capital and labour over the last 35 years has produced a whole new political geography of dispossession conducive to growing instances of forced labour.

Neoliberal policies based on import liberalisation, cuts in government spending, financial liberalisation, fiscal reforms, deregulation of capital and labour markets, privatisation of state enterprises, land grab and dispossession, and the commodification of everyday life have created the conditions for forced labour to flourish. Indeed, growing rates of poverty and hunger, chronic unemployment and underemployment, as well as the crushing of organised resistance and the militarisation of everyday life, have been accompanied by widespread human insecurity and fear both in developing and advanced capitalist countries.

In this respect, the theoretical and historical recognition that capital’s political geography has always relied on forced labour–except when labour is strong and organised–constitutes one of the most politically important lessons for ongoing progress in political economy. There is perhaps no better proof of the fetishism of the commodity than our theoretical inability to recognise the extent to which control over someone’s body and capacity to work is an essential component of capitalist social relations. While contemporary understandings of ‘free’ labour are inseparable from the long history of labour struggles against violent, coercive and repressive forms of exploitation in the capitalist labour market, the tens of millions of forced labourers worldwide smash on a daily basis the view that capital accumulation and extra-economic coercion are distinct social and historical phenomenon. Their embodied experiences and capital’s violent history rule out any such theorisation. In this respect, a dialectical understanding of theory as itself a historical process in the making is the necessary first step to overcome the sanitised narrative of the history and development of capitalism typical of bourgeois economics.

Sébastien Rioux

Sébastien Rioux is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia, Canada and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester

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