And is it an anomaly or a necessity? These are Robert Miles’ questions in his Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or Necessity? Not surprisingly, Miles states early on that the “interrelationship between capitalism and unfree labour is the predominant theme of this book,” adding immediately after that a second key them “is the interrelation of capitalism and migration,” understood in a specific light. Miles insists that the term should not be “synonymous with twentieth-century movements of (unskilled) people (of rural origin) from the periphery of the capitalist world economy to its centre where they are proletarianized.” While that does occur, it’s not the totality of migration, and migration is not a recent phenomenon (or, migrations are not recent phenomena). (5.)

Connected to these two themes, Miles is interested in racialization processes, which are “explained by the fact of capitalist development” alone; those who think otherwise “revert to functionalism.” (7.)

“[T]he use of unfree relations of production has characterized the expansion of commodity production” and “is not only confined to the colonial period and to the ‘original’ transition from feudalism to capitalism but is also a contemporary feature of capitalist development.” For Miles, this is related to his view that “the theoretical issues and concepts thrown up in the course of the debate about the transition to capitalism have a relevance to the analysis of contemporary capitalism.”

Miles writes that “the history of the expansion of the capitalist mode of production is inseparable from the history of the spatial mobility of human agents who ‘circulate’ to fill different class positions” (13), and furthermore “any account of the historical development of capitalism is necessarily incomplete if it is divorced from an understanding of either migration of processes of racialization.” (14.)

Skipping ahead (cheating?), Miles writes that “the historical emergence (i.e. transition to) and extension of the capitalist mode of production has been associated with the following processes. First it has depended on large-scale migrations of people from one social formation to another, often great distances apart, and from one set of class relations to another. (…) Second, it has been associated with the differential incorporation of indigenous populations, as well as migrant populations, into relations of production established by a class of migrant colonizers who have established a partial or complete monopoly of the means of production. (…) Third, this process of incorporation has taken place under varying economic, political, and ideological relations. Certain groups have been incorporated as free wage labourers while many others have been incorporated in unfree relations of production. Differential incorporation has been a measure of the historical conditions necessary to the formation or absence of a labour market within which labour power is commodified and distributed. The state has been integral to both forms of incorporation and has been central to the latter as an agent of direct domination.” As has racism, he adds. (224.)

Miles concludes that “an adequate explanation for unfree relations of production (which includes racism) is best sought in the context of a general theory of capitalist development (which must include an explanation for the absence, or uneven character, of capitalist development).” Such a general theory doesn’t exist yet. Miles recommends beginning with though not being limited to “production relations and the reproduction of production relations” including “the political and ideological (e.g. racist) relations of production in order to identify the means by which peoples have been differentially incorporated into production which contributes to the emergent world economic system.” (225.)

Well and good, much that I like. But no definition of ‘unfree labor,’ except one drawn from Weber, who Miles criticizes in the start of the book. He quotes Weber defining free labor as that in which “the services of labour are the subject of a contractual relationship which is formally free on both sides.” (1.) That’s a highly important distinction, but much of the force of marxist criticisms of waged labor center on the substantive unfreedom hidden under (and in some cases enacted by) that formal freedom. Perhaps Miles gives another definition elsewhere, I’ve only really read 15 pages or so.

Advertisements