Moving_Free_and_Unfree_Labour_Forward_-

Moving_Free_and_Unfree_Labour_Forward_- - Moving Free and...

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Unformatted text preview: Moving Free and Unfree Labour Forward – Notes on Turin 2015 At the first conference of the European Labour History Network (Turin, 14-­‐16 December 2016), the working group ‘Free and Unfree Labour’ organized two round tables, four thematic sessions and two group meetings. The round tables aimed to break open debate on the ‘big’ questions on the use and meaning of the terms ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ in labour relations, and on possible long-­‐term trends in shifts in labour relations. The thematic sessions explored more specific themes, such as the role of spatiality, war, captivity, and precariousness. The sessions of the working group were well attended and – during the group meetings – it was concluded that the discussions were lively and the content relevant and coherent. The discussions in the round tables and group meetings indicated that there is both an urgency and opportunity to move forward. The recognition that labour relations are positioned on a gliding scale from (more or less) free to (more or less) unfree labour has opened up a range of questions in relation to categorization, differences, commonalities, connections and functioning of different labour relations in historical contexts. Similar questions arise from the acknowledgment that shifts in labour relations rarely entail linear transitions from one to another labour relation (e.g. from slavery to wage labour), and rather involve shifts from one combination to another combination of (“free” and “unfree”) labour relations. The debates in the working group – and elsewhere – show the importance to further explore these questions. They also indicate, however, that the research and discussions have moved into a phase in which concepts and understandings concerning the history of work and labour relations are both ambiguous and shifting. Such ambiguity can be productive and should be used to push our understanding and agenda further. But the round tables, intended to open up the discussion on the ‘big’ issues, also confronted us with some of the problems of such a phase, especially the lack of conceptual and terminological clarity. Strikingly, the name of the working group, specifically the terms ‘free’ and ‘unfree’, recurred as examples of this. Although these terms have been important in creating the insights leading to the current debates, they seem too general to help us further. In the round table on the meaning of ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ in labour relations, it was pointed out that there are different ideas of freedom (freedom as a divisible and distributable bundle of rights; or freedom as unique and undividable in the sense of a natural condition of self-­‐ determination). Such specific ideas have resulted in ‘methodological liberalism’ (privileging absolute freedom as a natural condition) and have clouded the understanding of the gradual positions of more or less free and unfree labour relations, and the processes involved. The argument was made, therefore, that a clearer conceptual framework and more refined terminology was needed. The second round table focused on the question Is There a Historical Tendency From Free to Unfree Labour Relations?, and proved equally thought-­‐provoking. Here the three panelists agreed that multiple forms of coerced labour remained key to capitalist development in the long-­‐nineteenth century, that is, during and after the processes of the “Industrial revolution” and the abolition of the slave trade and chattel slavery. However, the contributors also converged on the tendential shift to wage labour after WWI. How then – we might ask ourselves – are we to explain the disturbing presence of coerced labour after WWI? Shall we ascribe this uniquely to “states of exceptions”, such as those produced by military conflicts, colonial governmentality, and totalitarian regimes? And how “exceptional” have these circumstances actually been, and are? Moreover, how can we interpret the emergence of “new slaveries” (however we define them) in key sectors of global production and distribution? A third crucial tension characterizing our working group as well as the field of labour history at large was explicit discussed in the round tables and group meetings. This concerned the dialectics between two different perspectives prevailing in (new or global) labour history. On the one hand, there is the perspective of ‘labour relations’, which has led to many of the new questions and renewed categorizations on which our discussion builds, but sometimes seems still too disconnected from the specificities of the historical contexts in which labour relations function. On the other hand, there is the perspective of ‘labour’ or the ‘worker’, which is powerful for its historical embeddedness and openness, but also very much fragmented. The need exists – it seems to us – to reconnect the perspective of ‘labour’/’workers’ and the perspective of ‘labour relations’. In broader sense, this means reconnecting the field(s) of ‘classic’ labour history to the field of new or ‘global’ labour history in order to build and expand on both. We discussed the future activities of the working group in terms of the need to move the discussion forward by aiming to: 1) refine our conceptualization and terminology; 2) define more specified themes of study enabling us to closer scrutinizes the historical processes at hand in relation to ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ labour; 3) find more concrete angles of study that enable the bridging of the ‘classical’ and ‘global’ perspectives. With these goals in mind, it was proposed to address more specified themes enabling us to dissect and scrutinize the functioning of different labour relations. Three such themes recurred during the meetings of the working group: -­‐ Autonomy/heteronomy This is proposed as a potential alternative, and arguably more precise couple of concepts vis-­‐à-­‐ vis those of “free”/”unfree”. This entails a move away from the problematic concept of “freedom”, and a focus on the worker’s individual and collective capacity to influence and control various aspects of his/her work and life; -­‐ Degrees (or moments) of coercion When looking at coercion (or heteronomy), it has been suggested that we address separately (at least) the following three phases: recruitment; the actual working process; exit. In other words, we may want to address the scale and modes of coercion of a worker in each of this phases (for example, a workers might voluntarily enter a certain labour relation, but then find him/herself into circumstances of coercion during the work process, and be denied leaving it). -­‐ Precarity and control Labour precarity is not conflated here with specific forms of contract or service (e.g. flex work, or chattel slavery), but viewed as the expression of the workers’ individual and collective (lack of) control over their labour. In this perspective, precarity relates to the workers’ perception of their condition in relation to other workers, the labour market, and the social reproduction of their workforce. As such, the concept may open up opportunities for the exploration of workers’ agency across distinct (“free” and “unfree”) labour relations. Three research strategies were suggested to address the above mentioned themes: -­‐ -­‐ -­‐ Contextual, i.e. understanding labour relations by dealing with specific places or regions (e.g. the city of Hyderabad or the Mediterranean), or specific institutions (e.g. the army, the plantation, or the workhouses); Taxonomical, i.e. understanding and differentiating categories of labour relations; Interrelational, i.e. studying entanglements and practices of solidarity (or conflicts) among workers across distinct labour relations, in order to reconnect the analysis of labour relations and the perspective of agency. During the final group meeting it was proposed and agreed to address these theoretical, thematic, and methodological issues in a workshop of the working group, to be held in October 2016 at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam – we are thinking about Friday 7 and Saturday 8 October 2016. Further information about that event will follow. In the meantime, we would like to invite all group members to continue this conversation at the ESSHC conference in Valencia, Spain (30 March-­‐2 April 2016): as working group, we convene there a session on Why and how do shifts in labour relations take place?, and a social meeting. ...
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