Call for Papers

On the Freedom of Labour in Capitalism. First Congress of the German Labour History Association

22nd Feb 2019

On the Freedom of Labour in Capitalism. First Congress of the German
Labour History Association
Bochum, House for the History of the Ruhr, Clemensstraße 17-19, 44789
Bochum, Germany
6-8 February 2020

Labour History in the last two decades has been characterised by two
currents: On the one hand, it was interested in the construction of work
and working subjects in the context of (large-scale) business, the
nation and the welfare-state in the 20th Century global north. The
research focused on processes of scientisation and national framing, on
institutional and discursive inclusion and exclusion, on modes of
leadership, on the establishment of social security systems and labour
markets or on the relationship between work and consumption. On the
other hand, Global Labour History has inspired scholars to analyse the
variety of work arrangements in capitalism. They have put emphasis on
the significance and persistence of the division of labour and – in the
largest sense – “unfree” labour on a global scale: Covering from slavery
over indentured labour to present-day household labour of irregular
migrants. At the same time, they have examined practices of resistance
and social movements in the context of these various types of “free” and
“unfree” labour, taking into consideration their entanglements as well
as contradictions.

Both trends share an understanding of labour in capitalism as a highly
complex form of producing goods and providing services that is marked by
multiple dependencies. Whereas the latter has shown that capitalism has
always been based on the exploitation of “unfree” labour, the former has
emphasised the preconditions and historical specificities of “free wage
labour” systems in industrialised world regions in past and present. In
both cases, freedom constitutes a vanishing point: In the first case, it
serves as a counter-model, delimitating the object of research; in the
second case it figures as a (never reached) goal of the observed
institutions and practices. Labour History however has rarely discussed
this function explicitly.

Against this background, the first congress of the German Labour History
Association intends to analyse “free wage labour” and its relation to
capitalism from the following three perspectives:

First, it asks for the role the concept of freedom plays in labour
historiography: What notions of “free” work did historiography use with
respect to different regions, historical periods and arrangements of
production? What concepts of “unfree” forms of work did Labour History
oppose to “free wage labour”? How did historiography analyse the
interdependence of freedom and unfreedom in global capitalism?

Second, the conference aims at discussing the history of the freedom of
labour empirically: What role did it play as a norm for the workers’
movement and other social movements? How have semantics of freedom
changed during the last two centuries? How did the history of knowledge
of labour and the categorisation of labour relations refer to the
concept of “free wage labour”? To what extent has recent labour
historiography altered and extended our knowledge of “free” forms of
work on a global scale? Among others, contributions covering the
following areas are welcome: the history of labour contracts and
contract breaking, the emergence and negotiation of labour markets, the
history of reproductive work, of “free professions”, of “free wage
labour” as a frame in labour conflicts or of the relation between the
freedom of work and inequality. They may follow perspectives of global,
micro, social and/or cultural history

Third, with respect to the future of Labour History we welcome
contributions focussing the advantages and disadvantages of more firmly
theorising the freedom of work. To what extent does it allow to unveil
blind spots of previous research? Does it enable us to bring together
the different subfields of Labour History more closely? We also
encourage reflections on other concepts that may advance labour
historiography. To what extent does it make sense to take an unspecific
notion of “work” as a starting point and to study “free wage labour” as
one of its varieties? What advantages or disadvantages do alternative
concepts such as “livelihood” offer?

Please send your abstract (max. 500 words) and a short biography (max.
200 words) until the 30 April 2019 to Anna Strommenger
( and Jan Kellershohn
( Conference languages are German and English.
If possible, travel and accommodation expenses will be covered.