Subject: Discussion on Fred Coopers "Work, Class and Empire: An African historian's retrospective on E.P. Thompson. in Social History
Discussion on Fred Cooper's "Work, Class and Empire: An African historian's retrospective on E.P. Thompson. in Social History
A dialog on the Afrlabor list, March 1996
Date: Thu, 14 Mar 1996 21:19:27 -0500 (EST)
Dear Afrlabor Subscribers,
I have just read Fred Cooper's piece in Social History , 20, no.2 (May 1995) and found it extremely useful. His argument is that while African labor historians have used Thompson's "The Making..." as a model to wrest the African workers from the "traditionalism" that negated their existence as a subject of study and to attain a legitimacy within the historical discipline the facile adoption of a teleological "proletarianization" model has presented problems. These problems are that it focuses more on what the workplace brought to Africans rather than what Africans brought to the workplace. African labor historians, he argues, should be looking at the meanings African workers attached to work, the kinds of work groups in which they participated and the notions of collectivity that affected their actions. (direct quotes) Citing Keletso Atkins book and her article on the Zulu washerman as examples, he argues for more of an application of Thompsons work since the 1970's encourages an emphasis on "contestation from below" which, in the case of African workers, would explore (1) colonizers definition and enforcement of categories like "private property" and alternative notions of time discipline on fht one hand and (2) Africans attempts to give such categories their own meaning and alter wage labor in response to their own needs. The various ways that the African worker challenged colonial capitalism need further exploration especially as the challenges are rooted in the cultural reality of their specific historical position.
Atkins work explores the mythologies created by colonialist employers frustrated by their inability to control African labor power - which according to Cooper is quite "real" rather than "abstract". The "realness" is what confronts the employere day to day when he/she cannot get this "African worker" to "act right!!" (This is me, not Cooper.) The mythology of the "lazy African", Atkins argues, is a stereotype that bets inculcated in the colonial belief system to the detriment of those who would actually like to control African workers.
I understand that there is a critique lurking out there of Cooper. I haven't really given a thorough synopsis but I think it's quite a stimulating piece. Any responses?
Carolyn A. Brown
(908) 932-8030/7905 (work phone)
I'm flying away but a quick comment, as I've read the Cooper piece. There is, of course, a rich literature on the pros and cons of Thompsonian approaches, esp. in Europeanist journals. I for one have never been entirely happy with the slight of hand with which some people have conjured away the more "materialist" or "structuralist" [shudder!] aspects of economic history merely by invoking Thompson.
The rich legacy of social history building since the days of the Annales school has long since been applied to African history. The Keletso Atkins work is indeed a remarkable insight into lives of working people. Did the people she investigate constitute a "working class"? [here we go again on definitions/proletarianization...]
One of the more interesting recent studies I've read is Bill Freund's *Insiders and Outsiders* which appears to combine BOTH social and structural approaches. Of course there is also the joust by Murray and Keegan [I think] a few years back in JSAS on this alleged incompatibility. I'm also just now looking at a new study on proletarianization in Swaziland published in Dakar in 1995.
My view is that there is an organic interaction between "social" and "materialist" approaches. Once detailed micro-studies are done, then there is a need to re-assess the overall SIGNIFICANCE in history of the topic[s]. This need to assess the significance at different levels is typical of historical studies in general. Hypotheses generated then lead to further empirical studies and so on and so forth. The social history approach does provide vital insights into a myriad of questions, but it doesnt obviate the need to keep re-examining the wider political and economic relationships, foundations and causes in African labour history.
This my take on the article in question. First, a summary of the article.
Cooper starts off by pointing out that even though the 'Making' has legitimated scholars studying Africa, where working class history is still relatively a new endeavour, the content of Thompson's text still remains largely uninfluential.But by invoking Thompson, Africanists historians were concerned with emphasizing a la Thompson, that workers were present at their own making.If this enterprise has allowed Africanists to 'join others in facing questions of general theoretical significance' it has also left unresolved, Cooper argues, the important question of "what African workers brought to the workplace." Yet Cooper's insistence in privileging what 'African workers brought to the workplace', implying a peculiar African response, as against what the 'workplace brought to African workers', fails to capture the multiplicity of worker experiences in the continent and lends itself to an essentialist reading of working class experiences in Africa.
To demonstrate his point about "what African workers brought to the workplace". Cooper cites the work of Keletso Atkins on nineteentn century Natal. By situating Natalians in their cultural context, Atkins is able to uncover and demystify the hoax surrounding the 'lazy Kaffir' through a rigorous examination of the process and nature of 'the intersection of of two very distinct cultures' which resulted in the emergence of two fundamentally different notions about work, time, and status values'. Natalians were not lazy nor did they refuse to sell their labour power, Atkins convincingly argues. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the African response to European demand for laobr was ashaped by certain cultural practices deeply embedded in pre-colonial African culture. These practices created, over time, a set of patterned responses that were 'unmistakeably .... an African work ethic'. The withdrawal of their laobr power, the formation of associations to protect their interests, and the development of a sophisticated information network about labor conditions, wages, and masters were all products of an African cultural millieu that had nothing to do with the presence of Europreans.
Atkins' privileging of precolonial culture-- the 'most radical finding' in the work-- in explaining nineteenth century working class formation poses a challenge to those who seek to understand what workers in the nineteenth century and why they did whtat they did in particular ways. This is important because it is central to Coopers formualtion:'what African workers brought to the workplace'.
Arguably, the fundamental question remians the role of precapitalist culture in shaping working class culture and resistance to colonial labor policies.Unlike Natalians, the artisans in nineteenth century Freetwon were descendants of slaves repartriated to Sierra Leone during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They could not, like Natalians, employ pre-colonial African cultural symbols to defend themselves as workers. Their society was one in which western cultural symbols and notions of equality, liberty, the rights of man and a Christian sense of justice predominated. Even so, these inherent ideas, a la George Rude', which constituted their heritage, were the very idioms within which the artisans articulated their grievances in defence of their right as working men. Like Keltso's Natalians, they employed what they knew best-- their cultural heirtage-- in protecting their collective interests. And like artisans elsewhere, they interpreted these notions from the point of view of their class intersets. The experiences which African workers brought to the workplace were shaped by the society in which they lived and worked: different historical circumstances produced different working class experiences.
My reading of Cooper suggests that his insistence on 'what African workers brought to the workplace' cannot be anything but a specific African response to colonial labor policies. If this is not the case why make reference to 'what the work place brought to Africans' as universal. This, in my view, imply a sui generis African response in the work place. Hence my point about essentializing working class experience; perhaps, nineteenth century working class experience.
Freetown artisans are not 'quite a different "kettle of fish" having been incorporated into a Western ethos with some capitalist values'. They represent a different path to the sterile conventional interpretation you find in the literature,i.e. slavery, migrant labor /transition to wage labor model.The historiograpy of labor and working class has neglected this group of workers not because they did not exist but because of the teleological framework within which this history has being produced. Cooper's own work captures this teleology: slaves-- squatters--dockers; without no intervening category.
To emphasize artisan experience is not to universalize European working class experience or make one 'authentic' and the other'deviant' but to capture the multiplicities of working class experience in the continent that would open up areas of fruitful comparative study.