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Franco Barchiesi reviews "From Slavery to Wage Labour"

hydrarchist writes "The following review was translated by Arianna Bove for the Generation Online reading list. The article was originally published in the Italian communist daily newspaper, Il Manifesto.

Bodies imprisoned by law

F. Barchiesi.

Il Manifesto 12/01/03

The general significance of such a complex work, "From slavery to wage
labour" (manifestolibri, pp. 717, 49 Euro) by Yann Moulier Boutang, finally
translated in Italian, can be grasped from the subtitle to the original
edition: economic history of the bridled proletariat [the original is: De
esclavage au salariat. Economie historique du salariat bridé, PUF (Actuel
Marx/Confrontations), novembre 1998., tr.]. The expression economic history
is the appropriate one for the author?s epistemological project. From this
perspective the aim of the book is precisely to trace the outline of a
total rethinking of Marxian political economy (or, in the author"s words,
to "bring politics" back to Marxian economics), starting from the normative
and institutional forms through which the "wage labour" relation was
constituted, in a process lasting centuries that largely predates the
origin of capitalism itself. Moulier Boutang accomplishes the task via an
impressive series of excursus that combines a research of yet unequalled
breadth of temporal periods and diversity of case studies with an
exceptional command of the terms of the theoretical debate. The genesis of
the capitalist labour relation is analysed by means of an enquiry that runs
from the XIVth century to the first half of the XXth century with rigour
and coherence of exposition. It takes into consideration extremely
diversified contexts such as the formation of the wage labour market in
Western Europe, slavery in the Americas, the mining and plantation
economies in Brazil, the contracted migrations of the coolies, up until the
birth of South African apartheid. In the course of this trajectory, Moulier
Boutang establishes several conceptual points of reference that mark
innovative and often surprising results. In this sense, the work rightly
deserves to be described as "monumental".

The urgency of this labour of conceptual renovation is dictated to the
author by the awareness that he is confronting what he himself calls a ?new
continent? that had been excluded from the official maps of the varyingly
codified Marxist orthodoxy for a long time. The historical field of
capitalist accumulation is developed in the book according to coordinates
that challenge consolidated structuralist (or, to use Moulier Boutang?s
words, ?externalist?) positions. The latter had confined the codification
of the labour relation under capitalism to the terrain of the
?superstructure?. In this perspective, the function of formal guarantees of
individual worker?s rights and freedoms, with corresponding duties was to
enable whilst simultaneously masking the exploitation inherent to the
selling of labour power that, in relation to those rights and freedoms, is
prior and constitutive in its essentially economic dynamic of expropriation
and domination. Thus wage labour was presented in this light as a more
refined, cumulatively perfectioned and necessary universal form of
capital?s employment of the proletariat.

Moulier Boutang completely overturns the terms of the issue and
demonstrates how the wage labour relation was historically constituted only
as one of the forms of subordinate labour which capital has employed since
long before the birth of capitalism in the attempt to attend to its central
imperative and challenge: namely, to immobilize the body of the
proletarian, to tie it to the labour relation and to prevent its flight,
the breach of contract and the refusal to work. Thus, within global
capitalism other forms of exploitation have coexisted in an often unstable
and changing manner with ?free? wage labour, and unfree labour often
occupied a complementary position with the latter in the vast field of
strategies aimed at disciplining subaltern classes.

Forms of servile, enslaved or indentured labour are far from representing
mere archaisms, transitory adjustments or residues of backwardness in
?traditional? societies destined to be wiped out by ?modernisation? in the
name of which a large part of last century?s reformisms supported various
colonial and neo-colonial regimes-. On the contrary, they played a
constituent role in the historical trajectory of capitalism, and the author
suggests that they keep playing one in so far as the industrialised West
combines the freedom and right to citizenship enjoyed by autochthon
workers, as conditions to ?entrust? them into a productive process of
increasing ?human capital?, with the persistence of policies of
bureaucratic control of migration trends and limitation of juridical status
and mobility, through which the new migrant multitudes are, vice versa,
tied to their labour in occupations that are more vulnerable, subject to
blackmail and oppressive.

As the important work ?Citizen and Subject? by Mahmood Mamdani (Princeton
University Press, 1996) shows, the coexistence of ?citizenship? and
coercive and undemocratic forms of ?subjection? constitutes a distinctive
trait of capitalism in its global making even in what continues to be
referred to as the ?South? of the globe.

The questioning of the concept of ?wage labour? leads Moulier Boutang to a
conclusion that has an enormous theoretical relevance and political
significance: the proletariat as abstractly unitary subject of capitalist
oppression intended in Marxian vulgate as the premise of liberation and
teleological horizon of resistance tends to disappear from view. In its
place, we find multiple subjectivities that exercise a right to resist to
the discipline of labour on the basis of a common strategy that can be seen
throughout the centuries: that of flight.

The relevance of the flight, of desertion, of the breach of the labour
contract, of migration as the collective movement of a labour force that is
opposed to becoming proletariat and does not see such a condition as the
basis for future social progress, leads to author to a reading of
capitalism that no longer makes the moment of domination central whilst
confining ?resistance? to a purely reactive role of preparation to the
occurrence of some ?historical necessity?. At the same time, it allows
Moulier Boutang to avoid falling into the opposite trap, that of supporting
an Enlightenment view of individual freedom or of idealising a dimension of
?micro-historical? evidence of community as a residue of social forms that
are extraneous to capitalism. On the contrary, it is the historical
trajectory of the latter that comes out of the book as uneven, tortuous and
largely incomplete in so far as the antagonistic insurgency of the
subjectivity that is to be put to work determines the emergence of new
normative and contractual forms, a hierarchisation of rights and new
combinations of free and unfree labour, that are in turn suddenly invested
by the emergence of new forms of flight, of refusal of the multitude to be
codified into what is wished to be an ordered division, now global, of labour.

By underlining the role of norms and institutions in the definition of
contractual forms of codification of the law, Moulier Boutang marks a
second, decisive point of separation from the tradition of ?structuralist
In other words, capitalism is not primarily regarded as the unstoppable
extension of the market and of the universal commodification of the
conditions of subsistence transformed into productive factors, in the face
of which the law and institutions essentially fulfil a role of
codification, perpetuation and mystification. Curiously, the Leninist
version of the extinction of the State, the Keynesian reading of the State
as a corrective for the unreliability of the market and the liberalist
approach of the ?minimal state? and the centrality of self-regulating
markets all share this particular view. According to Moulier Boutang, here
in open polemic with Karl Polanyi (similarly to Mark Granovetter?s analysis
of capitalist market as profoundly ?rooted?, or embedded, in social forms),
institutions and regulative norms do not intervene merely ex post, to
remedy to the undesirable social consequences produced by an ?unregulated?
market. On the contrary, juridical and political forms of control on labour
are given in this book a central position in the vast weaponry of
strategies through which capital continuously tries to solve, with only
partial success, the dilemma posed by the worker?s ?faculty to flight?.

Moulier Boutang premises his reasoning on this issue on an absolutely
original reading of the methodological tradition of ?neo-institutionalism?,
of the economy of conventions and of transaction costs as systematised by,
amongst others, Oliver Williamson. From this critical reelaboration of
mainstream theoretical trends there emerges a reading of capitalism far
from the impersonal and ordering one of its apologists- as a mode of
production that rather than adopting ?optimal?, from the standpoint of
rationality and efficiency, methods and strategies of employment of labour,
must constantly resort to barriers and limitations juridically imposed in
order to control ?externalities? that are independent from its design. As
Ashwin Desai shows in ?We are the Poors. Community Struggles.
Post-apartheid South Africa? (Monthly Review Press) by means of a rich
repertoire of daily strategies of social subversion, the most resistant of
these ?externalities?, which any reading of capitalism that does not wish
to push the subjectivity of the multitude to the margins must refer to, is
given by a constant desire to flight animated by a world of sociality,
affects and sensuality that are simply refractory to the paradigm of labour.

translated by Arianna Bove"