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The First Precariat?

  • Leon Fink (a1)


The transformation of global capitalism, labor, and class relations in our own day is having a marked effect on how we study those subjects historically. Yet, as happens repeatedly in our historical discipline, insights gained from the juxtaposition and recognition of deep structural affinities between the present and the past also carry the risk of a distorted mirror effect. What questions we carry to the past and what lessons we, in turn, extract from it must be handled with care. As couriers between worlds of time as well as space, our work as historians inevitably reflects the ignorance as well as intelligence attending the message (as well as the messenger) of the given moment. With these caveats in mind, I want to explore the link between today's global crisis in worker welfare—perhaps most commonly summoned up by the twinned terms “neoliberalism” and the “precariat”—and a new historical preoccupation with coerced laborers of the past. With due deference to the aims of this collection, I will concentrate on the connection between the coolie question, as it developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the plight (and possible strategies) of low-wage global workers today.



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1. Standing, Guy, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London and New York, 2011), 2627 .

2. van der Linden, Marcel, “San Precario: A New Inspiration for Labor Historians”, Labor 11 (2014), 15, 1819 .

3. Sklansky, Jeffrey, “Labor, Money, and the Financial Turn in the History of Capitalism”, Labor 11 (2014), 2346, 40.

4. See, for example, Johnson, Walter, River of Dark Dreams; Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, 2013); Baptiste, Edward, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014). For a useful critique of recent histories of slavery, see also Nelson, Scott Reynolds, “Who Put Their Capitalism in My Slavery?Journal of the Civil War Era 5 (2015): 289310 .

5. Rockman, Seth, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2009), 8 .

6. Bryan D. Palmer, “Reconsiderations of Class: Precariousness as Proletarianization,” Unpublished paper in author's possession; Heroux, Gaetan and Palmer, Bryan D., “‘Cracking the Stone’: The Long History of Capitalist Crisis and Toronto's Dispossessed, 1830–1930”, Labour/Le Travail 69 (2012), 962 ; see also Denning, Michael, “Wageless Life”, New Left Review 66 (2010): 7981 .

7. Ahuja, Ravi, “Mobility and Containment: The Voyages of South Asian Seamen, c. 1900–1960” in Coolies, Capital, and Colonialism: Studies in Indian Labour History (International Review of Social History Supplements) (New York, 2007) Supplement 14, ed. Rana P. Behal and Marcel van der Linden, 115; Mohapatra, Prabhu P., “From Contract to Status? Or How Law Shaped Labour Relations in Colonial India, 1780–1880”, in India's Unfree Workforce: Of Bondage Old and New, ed. Breman, Jan et al. (Oxford and New York, 2009), 121–22.

8. Mohapatra, 116; To be sure, just how “voluntary” was the original assent to labor in an indentured contract is open to historical dispute. See, for example, Jan Breman's review article, New Thoughts on Colonial Labour in Indonesia”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33 (2002), 334 .

9. Mohapatra, 121.

10. Maya John, “Development of Indian Labour Law (1923–1948): Repercussions on the Trade Union Movement and Workers' Responses” (Ph.D. diss., University of Delhi, 2014), 80, 82.

11. Steinfeld, Robert J., The Invention of Free Labor; The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350–1870 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1991), 129 .

12. Ibid., 150–51; Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 2001), 1 .

13. Curthoys, Mark, Governments, Labour, and the Law in Mid-Victorian Britain: The Trade Union Legislation of the 1870s (Oxford, 2004), 1617 , 142–47.

14. Rana Behal, “Labour in Colonial Assam Tea Plantations,” in Behal and Van der Linden, 167.

15. John, 34.

16. Behal, “Labour in Colonial Assam Tea Plantations,” 156–57, 159, 162.

17. Balachandran, G., Globalizing Labour? Indian Seafarers and World Shipping, c. 1870–1945 New Delhi, 2012), 2829 ; Tabili, Laura, “We Ask for British Justice”, Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca, NY, 1994), 42 .

18. Ahuja, 133.

19. Balachandran, 70–71.

20. Juergen Schmidt, “Work and Non-Work in Samoa, c. 1860–1920,” paper delivered at Re:Work Research Center, Humboldt University, Berlin, May 19, 2015.

21. Tabili, 80.

22. Sturman, Rachel, “Indian Indentured Labor and the History of International Rights Regimes”, American Historical Review 119 (2014), 1442 , 1456–57, 1462–64.

23. Prakash, Aseem, “How (Un)free are the Workers in the Labour Market/ A Case Study of Brick Kilns”, in India's Unfree Workforce: Of Bondage Old and New, ed. Breman, Jan et al. (Oxford and New York, 2009), 208209 , 216, 224–25.

24. Sarah Maslin Nir, “The Price of Nice Nails,” The New York Times, May 7, 2015.

25. See, for example, Ross, Andrew, “The Rise of the Second Antisweatshop Movement”, in Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective, Bender, Daniel E. and Greenwald, Richard A. (New York and London, 2003), 225–46. See also Greenhouse, Steven, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times For The American Worker (New York, 2008).

26. Dave Jamieson, “Feds Accuse McDonald's of Violating Workers' Rights,” Huffington Post, December 19, 2014; Noam Scheiber and Stephanie Strom, “Labor Board Ruling Eases Way for Fast-Food Unions' Efforts,” The New York Times, August 28, 2015.

27. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, “Indentured Studenthood: The Higher Education Act and the Burden of Student Debt,” New Labor Forum Oct 15, 2015

28. See Fink, Leon, “The Hour When the Ship Comes In”, in Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, ed. Katz, Daniel and Greenwald, Richard A. (New York, 2012), 154–63.

In addition to the organizers of the “Thinking Labour Rights through the Coolie Question,” symposium in Sydney, I thank Jeffrey Sklansky, Cindy Hahamovitch, Heather Wilpone-Welborn, and Susan Levine for their critical readings of this essay.

The First Precariat?

  • Leon Fink (a1)


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