Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 11:30:31 -0500 (EST)
Subject: African Working Class History vs African Labor History
African Working Class History vs African Labor History
A dialog on AfrLabor list, January 1996
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 11:30:31 -0500 (EST)
I've been having a debate w/ a colleague over the difference between labor history and working class history. In sum, the argument is this: I have argued that labor history is the history of workers in production. Questions he raised centered upon including other types of people who "work". This includes slaves, prostitutes, pawns, etc. He argues that only in African history are working class and labor history conflated. This, it is argued, is because of the assumption that slavery was the dominant form of labor mobilization on the continent.
What do others feel about this? I've been having a debate w/ a colleague over the difference between labor history and working class history. In sum, the argument is this: I have argued that labor history is the history of workers in production. Questions he raiserd centered upon including other types of people who "work". This includes slaves, prostitutes, pawns, etc. He argues that only in African history are working class and labor history conflated. THis, it is artued, is because of the assumption that slavery was the dominant form of labor mobilization on the continent. What do others feel about this? Ia am very uncomfortable w/ the "slavery mode of production" as dominant arguments. I have found, in my own area of S>E> Nigeria, that there were a number of other forms of labor mobilization even in towns (village groups) where a number of slaves lived. There was a practice of men, usually young men, migrating from the Udi escarpment (an overpopulated and relatively infertile refuge) to work on land in adjacent but more fertile areas. They "hired out" their services for food and for some of the crops they grew. This allowed them to remain in their natal areas while not totally depending on farming in this area (which would have been impossible) for sustenance.
What do others think?
Date: 24 Jan 96 16:21:08 PST
From: Chris.Lowe@directory.Reed.EDU (Chris Lowe) Hi Carolyn,
Your debate with your colleague is interesting but sounds odd to my ears. I would have said before that "labor history" was more or less institutional history of organized labor movements, where "working class history" would be a broader field concerning the social and cultural history of work, & of class relations involving work and property, including especially the formation and development of proletarian classes under capitalism, but thereby also involving antecedent or coincident class relations of other sorts (including slavery, serfdom, peasant tenure of various sorts, artisan labor, salaried managerial work, contract service and professional work etc.). I.e. the whole idea of a working class only makes sense in connection and differentiation from other classes, and classes as defined analytically rarely exist in pure form in social or cultural practice.
I disagree with your colleague about the putative uniqueness of Africa. David Montgomery used to start his sequence of grad courses on U.S. Social and Working Class History (I believe it was called) with _The Cheese and the Worms_ by Carlo Ginzburg, (about the mental world of 16th century Italian miller and the interactions of oral and literate rural cultures), and spent a bit of time on artisan work, culture and political ideas in 18th c. N. America; the question of how slavery shaped U.S. economy, society and class relations (including working class identities, culture and political ideas) was key to the 19th c. parts of the course, as were its consequences in the racial shaping of class relations later; the connections and separations of immigrant workers to peasant backgrounds, and of "native" white and black urban migrants to rural backgrounds remained central well into the 20th c. I continue to believe that this approach was fundamentally right on his part.
Rural history and class relations are central to understanding working-class history on all continents, I should think. I also doubt very much that any sensible working-class or labor history (however defined) of Latin America or the Caribbean could be accomplished without extensive attention to the consequences of slavery and its abolition, along with other forms of coerced labor (e.g. indentured labor).
I am also persuaded by Elias Mandala's argument in _Work and Control in a Peasant Economy_ that there is something obscuring and tendentious if we somehow imply that peasants weren't and aren't "workers" i.e. that they work very hard indeed to get by. If so, then maybe we wind up back with early British formulations referring to laboring classes (plural), including peasants, slaves, indentured workers, artisans.
If your colleague wants to restrict the term only to people who have been completely dispossessed of the means of production, I would say s/he should use the term proletarian, propertyless-worker or something else; the vast majority of human beings in history who have worked have not been proletarians. But such a purist definition is going to cause problems; e.g. consider mineworker families in the U.S. who kept side gardens providing substantial food, though not enough to live on, well into the 20th c. Peasantariat anyone?
On slavery in Africa, I'm a little confused about who it is who sees slavery as the dominant mode of labor mobilization on the continent, and at what period. My view, which I don't think is particularly unconventional, would be that the dominant forms of labor mobilization over the broad span of African history involved kinship relations and tribute labor within relatively localized political communities. Indigenous African slavery systems tended to exist in relation and distinction to such primary means of mobilization, with slavery being defined primarily as kinlessness, marginality, lack of capacity to make social claims in return for labor or subordination in the locally normal way (see e.g. Miers & Kopytoff collection, Robertson and Klein collection on women & slavery, Orlando Patterson).
The picture one gets from say the work of Paul Lovejoy or Richard Roberts is that militarized states which reproduced themselves partly or largely through slave raiding and regulating/ skimming off of longer-distance commidity trade, and sometimes fed slaves into labor relations involving commercial production, pre-dated the large-scale capitalist slave-trade of the 16th - 19th centuries in some instances, but that capitalist labor-market and commodity demands intensified such patterns where they already existed, and created many, many new instances of them. Lovejoy's argument if I understand correctly would be that a "slave mode of production" was only dominant in some places, and mostly for a relatively brief period when slave exports were cut off and demand for slave-produced goods for "legitimate commerce" was high.
To my mind, such labor relations in Africa were rather like those in the plantation production in Americas and elsewhere. That is, they represent a sort of proto- proletarianization in which physical coercion of alienated labor operated mainly through direct control of the bodies of laborers, and it was their bodies, rather than their labor-power, which were commodified. I think that the reasons for such forms varied situationally to a degree, but tended to involve combinations of a) agricultural production, b) high degree of cultural alienation of laborers from employer/ owners, making negotiation of a hegemonic "moral economy" difficult, c) limited demographic capacity on the part of "owners of means of production" (esp. land) to exercise detailed supervision over wide regions, d) limited technical capacity to organize and enforce institutions of exlcusive property in land and contract in labor (limits often closely related to b and c above).
In this sense, if one means by "working class history" the history of capitalist labor relations on the side of those doing the work, I don't see how we can escape the fact that capitalist slavery was a capitalist labor relation. Whether African slave systems producing commodities for "legitimate" trade in the capitalist world economy quite fit that bill may be questionable, since unlike American plantations, the property relations over means of production other than labor (esp. land) weren't capitalist. But they were certainly different than they would have been without capitalist commodity markets, and would therefore seem to have a place in the history of capitalist labor and class relations.
Finally (and partly to return to Mandala), I would say that the reason why African historians of labor and laborers have difficulty seeing those phenomena purely in terms of dispossessed workers isn't really due to the role of slavery at all. Rather, I would argue, it is due to the fact that even in South Africa (although it's getting pretty close there), there is not yet a fully established regime of capitalist property relations in land over the communities where workers live. The functional equivalents of "enclosure" in Africa are still being fought out. Hence the need to invent categories like worker-peasant or peasant-worker, or to speak of the integration of strategies of wage-work with petty commodity production, and so on.
So, to employ the terms of your debate with your colleague, I'm with you, Carolyn, and I don't think that African working class history (in the sense of the history of fully proletarianized African workers) can be sensibly understood apart from African labor history (in the sense of the history of labor forms in Africa, in which proletarian labor has co-existed and continues to co-exist, interact with and be shaped by other forms).