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Jacobin - April 26, 2021

"Turning from wage labor to also look at autonomous, domestic, reproductive, and care labor, we can see capitalism is compatible with many different forms of insecure, unprotected, and compulsory work. Even the distinction between free and unfree labor becomes more blurred and has to be approached as part of a single continuum of capitalist relations of labor exploitation."

In his classic work The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James offers a perhaps surprising judgement on the slaves of San Domingo. For the Trinidadian historian, the slaves’ situation on the Caribbean island over two hundred years ago was not just an artifact of the past, but closely linked to modernity: “Working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugarfactories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time.” Citing this quote at the beginning of his major essay “Unfree Labour: The Training-Ground for Modern Labour Management,” pioneering global labor historian Marcel van der Linden invites us to rethink our understanding of class.

Van der Linden’s work as a labor historian is remarkable for both its long-term historical perspective and its rejection of Eurocentric approaches. Unraveling the categories and the deterministic impulses inherited from traditional labor history and ossified variants of Marxism, he insists that these readings themselves have to be historicized: that is, seen as a product of their time. After all, since the 1970s, the transformations of capitalism have had an ever-deeper effect on the varied world of work — and thrown into question established understandings of class. Hence while van der Linden’s work deals with an apparently remote past, it is important precisely because it starts out from questions on the meaning of class raised by our own present.

This is particularly important today. Rethinking the historical genealogies (and internal transformations) of labor relations, in terms of both their continuities and moments of rupture, can allow us to understand capitalism’s compatibility with multiple forms of labor and exploitation. ...
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