The political economy of capitalist labour

7th Nov, 2017

Impersonal Power book Cover

Heide Gerstenberger


Heide Gerstenberger was Professor for the 'theory of state and society' at the University of Bremen in Germany and is now retired. Her research covers a wide range of topics and has been centred on the development of capitalist states. Her work with Ulrich Welke engaged in an empirical analysis of maritime labour. Since 2005, she has been focusing on the history of capitalist societies, and has published in English Impersonal Power: History and Theory of the Bourgeois State (2009, Brill/Haymarket). Her more recent work has been published as Markt und Gewalt (to be translated by Brill soon as Market and Violence). In anticipation of her talk at the 2017 conference, where she will present her new work, we publish here her presentation from her last HM London conference paper in 2013. 


After having made fun of Adam Smith’s anecdotal narrative of the birth of capitalism, Marx explains, that primitive accumulation of capital was “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. [i] The seven paragraphs of the chapter on “so-called primitive accumulation” contain extensive historical descriptions. This notwithstanding, they do not represent historical analysis as such. Instead, Marx highlighted strategies and processes which resulted in the dispossession of labourers from autonomous means of reproduction and in the accumulation of capital. While the latter was achieved through “colonialism, national debt, taxation, protectionism, trade wars, etc.” [ii], the former was brought about through forceful appropriation and expropriation. All of these strategies were ripe with violence, and all of them made use of state power.

You may have noted that I omitted the double-freedom of labourers as one of the prerequisites for capitalist production. That capitalist production requires labourers who are not only dispossessed of autonomous means of reproduction but are also legally free to sell their capacity to labour, has been - and still is - central to Marxist analysis of capitalism. Any endeavour to confront it with the actual history of capitalism not only runs counter to dominant contents of traditional Marxist analysis but also to the fundamentally optimistic Marxist philosophy of history. Notwithstanding exploitation, pauperization, injustice and all the other evils of this historical epoch, Marx, Engels and Marxists have also conceived of capitalism as being one step further in the development of humanity. There are two aspects to this conception:

Contrary to pre-capitalist forms of production, when direct violence against producers was constantly threatening and often applied, Marx, just as well as proponents of capitalism, has explained that it is no longer required in capitalism. Indeed, Marx, Engels and Marxists have maintained, that direct violence against labourers is contrary to the successful production of surplus value, and hence profit. While this is conceived of as marking human progress in comparison to pre-capitalist forms of production, capitalism is also conceived of as human progress because it produces the historical possibility of revolution.

The optimism inherent in the Marxist philosophy of history has been and sometimes still is a historical force in itself, but it has also limited the analysis of capitalism. For a very long time it has prevented the realisation that the actual history of capitalism challenges the assumption that the double freedom of labour is a requisite for capitalist labour relations.

Before considering slavery, coolie contracts, peonage, and all the other forms of labour having been summed up by Yves Benot under the heading of  'ersatz d‘esclavage[iii], I propose to, once more, look at Marx’s chapter on so-called primitive accumulation. There is this famous statement about violence being the mid-wife of any old society which is pregnant with a new one. [iv] We might smile about Marx’s choice of words. Because, instead of using the word 'Hebamme', which would be mid-wife in English, he entrusts historical progress to a male, designating him as 'Geburtshelfer'. We will leave that aside. I will also leave aside the extensive debate on revolution in the course of which this sentence has, once and again, been cited. [v] But this statement is not only relevant for debates on revolution but also for the analysis of capitalism. Having helped a woman in labour to give birth to a new life, the mission of a mid-wife is fulfilled. Assuming that Marx has chosen his terms conscientiously, this also applies to the role of violence in history. And, indeed, it is in the same chapter that we are told that extra-economic violence, though exceptionally still made use of in capitalism, has been replaced by the “natural laws of production”. [vi] In other words: the open violence of former times has been replaced by the silent force of market conditions.

Of course, Marxists have not conceived of capitalism as being devoid of violence. Instead, they have remarked, that the place of violence has changed. It is no longer in the open, executed through the state or – in places where the monopoly of legitimate physical violence has not yet been appropriated by the state – by open private violence. Instead, violence is now inherent in the capitalist labour relation. This capitalist form of violence, no longer in the open and no longer sporadic, has become the central element of the everyday life of capitalism. Its analysis forms the centre of the Marxist analysis of capitalist labour, and rightly so. Nevertheless, by focusing exclusively on the violence inherent in the everyday command over the application of one’s capacity to labour, and hence over the bodies and the intellectual capacities of wage-labourers themselves, one only grasps specific historical developments of capitalist labour, albeit important ones.

I am rather convinced that Marx himself conceived of primitive accumulation as a historical phase which more or less ended when and where capitalist forms of production became dominant. Why else would he have stated that at the time of his writing, primitive accumulation had been more or less accomplished in Western Europe? [vii] But I am not against those re-interpretations which endeavour to make use of the analytical concept of primitive accumulation in order to grasp continual processes of expropriation as well as the extension of market structures into spheres of life heretofore outside the realm of competition.[viii] Instead, my critique focuses on the assumption, that the constitution of labour relations through direct violence and constraint is only prevalent at the fringes of capitalism and that this will be overcome when the rationality of capitalist economic relations becomes dominant. In other words: forceful constraint is conceived of as constituting a hindrance to advanced capitalist development. Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth have recently labeled this a euro-centric conception of the history of capitalism.[ix] I would rather point to the fact that – very few exceptions apart – it is not economic rationality that effects the end of forced labour.

Let me start to explain this by pointing to the results of recent historical research on the history of wage labour in England. Contrary to developments on the continent, English labourers have early on been legally free to sell their capacity to labour. However, until the middle of the 1870s, and that definitely was long after the beginning of industrial capitalism in England, they were not legally free to end their contract at will. If they did so and their employer went to court, they had to expect a sentence in prison. Arriving there, they were officially welcomed by being flogged, during their stay many experienced forced labour in a tread mill. In his important work on the history of wage labour at will Robert J. Steinfeld is very firm in his rejection of any functional explanation of the long continuance of using state violence to constrain the duration of contracts to the will of employers. [x] He resumes that what we call “free” wage labour “is defined essentially by the moral and political judgment that penal sanctions ….should not be permitted to enforce ‘voluntary’ labour agreements.” [xi] The political success of the de-legitimation of coercion was furthered when suffrage was extended to more labourers in 1868. Seven years later the penal sanctions on so-called breaches of contract were repealed.

While corresponding developments have been taking place in other states of the metropolitan core of capitalism, developments in France were somewhat different. Though the hated livret which had put labourers under police control before the revolution, was re-instituted at the beginning of the 19th century, it no longer functioned as a means to constrain employment at will as far as journaliers, meaning industrial wage-labourers, were concerned. In spite of the fact that post-revolutionary development was a struggle about the removal or the preservation of revolutionary changes in society, and in spite of the numerous endeavors to control and discipline labourers, labour relations as such remained private, i.e. not under the direct supervision of the state. The argument is all the more telling because in France industrialized production was developed much later than in the United Kingdom. Once again, there is no convincing functional economic explanation for the development of modern free wage labour.

Of course, this does not bode well for the incompatibility of slavery and capitalism, not only dear to proponents of capitalism, but also, at least until very recently, to its critics. Wilhelm Backhaus is convinced that Marx had to postulate the incompatibility of slavery and capitalism because the division between free wage-labourers and slaves would have prevented the development of a revolutionary class in the United States.[xii]  Of course, not only Marx and Engels but also later critics have suggested other explanations for their assertion. They have been successfully refuted by historical research. Local conditions for making profitable use of slave labour varied and these conditions also varied over time, but as soon as we replace conviction by analysis it is simply not possible to object to Robin Blackburn’s résumé that “slavery was not overthrown for economic reasons but where it became politically untenable.”[xiii]

The movement for the abolition of slavery has lent moral justification to wage labour. But abolition has not done away with the reality of forced labour. (In medical terms this would be called a negative side effect.) Not only has so-called domestic slavery remained lawful in many parts of the world and have slave trade as well as slavery been secretly continued, but black codes, vagrancy laws, and especially peonage have forced freed slaves into labour that was not of their choosing. And then there was contract labour. If some of the millions of coolies engaged in Asia hoped to better their situation by agreeing to be shipped abroad, many others were victims of deception if not of outright abduction. Officially, they were entitled to return to their home-countries at the end of their contract, but even if there would have been a ship and they would have been able to pay their fare, many were tricked and forced into the renewal of their contract.

In the early phases of the trade in coolies these laborers most often found themselves on plantations or in sugar mills whose owners and overseers had been used to slavery. Their hypothetical ability to leave at the end of a contract did not improve their working and living conditions while the contract lasted. From the 1860s onward governments in the home countries tried to forbid or at least to control the trade and governments in the receiving countries, especially in West-India, sometimes set up commissions to look into the realities of contract labour. The most important incentive to do so seems to have come from free wage-labourers in these countries, among them those former coolies who would not or could not return after the end of their contract. They protested against the fact that the very low pay of coolies endangered their own demand for better wages.

At the end of the 19th and in the first decades of the 20th century there were many places in world capitalism where unbiased observers were at a loss to detect differences between slavery and contract labour. Often coolies were forced to live at their place of work, and not only the managers of the tea-gardens in Assam but also those of mines in Rhodesia or of tobacco plantations at the Eastern Coast of Sumatra tried to prevent the flight of their labour force by guarding them with fences, with dogs and armed watch personnel. Of the 85 000 coolies who had arrived in the modern hell of tobacco plantations in Sumatra in 1866, 35 000 had already died three years later. In 1873 planters were granted penal jurisdiction over their labour force. [xiv]

You may point to the fact that, in the metropolitan core states of capitalism free wage labour has, indeed, become prevalent, and that, in the course of time, not only individual wage earners have acquired the freedom to end a contract without having to fear repression, but that labour organisations have also attained the right to collective bargaining. I nevertheless insist on the hypothesis that open constraint and repression are constant possibilities of capitalist labour regimes. Far from marking a certain epoch of capitalist development, violence is constantly hanging about in the wings of capitalist labour relations. They come into the open when governments and societies refrain from decisive objection.

German concentration camps were not founded in order to supply factories with unpaid labour, but there were many employers who applied for its delivery and only very few who refused its offer. It was only after the end of the Second World War that political struggle and political regulation resulted in what Robert Castel has called the civilisation of labour[xv] and what I call the domestication of capitalism. Alas, it was rather short-lived. Because not only has rigid competition on the world market led governments to sharpen the constraint to offer one’s capacity to labour on a very unfavourable market, but societies and governments all over the world also, once again, more or less tolerate forced labour. My definition of forced labour centres on the restriction of movement, i.e. the prevention to leave the work-place and/or the job. Taking away the passports of foreign wage-earners implies that they are threatened with criminal procedure for lack of an identification card, preventing their leave from the work-place by barring doors and windows, implies the threat of illness and even death. We all know numerous examples.

Political struggles against such practices of constraint have not become easier since the globalisation of the labour market. They are, nevertheless, unavoidable. If it has always been analytically problematic to conceive of the violence inherent in primitive accumulation as being the characteristic of a certain historical phase of capitalism or of its fringes, globalization forces us to finally recognize that open violence and forceful constraint continue to present dangers in all phases and all places of capitalist labour regimes.


[i] MEW 23: 788

[ii] MEW 23:785

[iii] Yves Benot, Yves (2003) La modernité s’esclavage. Essai sur la servitude au cœr du capitalism (Éditions la Découverte) Paris: 247

[iv] MEW 23: 779

[v] In his „Reflections on Gewalt” Etienne Balibar has discussed the theoretical history of this concept. See: Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 99-125; especially: Paragraph 3

[vi] MEW 23: 765

[vii] MEW 23, 25:792

[viii] Massimo De Angelis debates these interpretations. See: Marx’s Theory of Primitive Accumulation: A Suggested Reinterpretation;

[ix] Marcel van der Linden & Karl Heinz Roth, 2009 Einleitung; in: Über Marx Hinaus (Assoziation A) Berlin, p. 22-23

[x] Robert J. Steinfeld  (2001) Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press), Cambridge usw.,P.85-86 and passim

[xi] Op. cit. 239-249

[xii] Wilhelm Backhaus, (1974) Marx, Engels und die Sklaverei. Zur ökonomischen Problematik der Unfreiheit (Pädagogischer Verlag Schwann) Düsseldorf, p. 67f.

[xiii] Robin Blackburn(1988) The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848 (Verso) London, p. 520

[xiv]  Karl J. Pelzer (1978) Planter and Peasant. Colonial policy and the agrarian struggle in East Sumatra. 1863-1947 (‘S-Gravenhage - Martinus Nijhoff ) The  Hague

[xv] Robert Castel (1995/2000) Die Metamorphosen der sozialen Frage (Universitätsverlag) Konstanz, S. 401