August Carbonella: Dispossession and Emancipation: Reframing Our Political Imagination

Everywhere we look, it seems, we are faced with the human and environmental devastation caused by contemporary processes of dispossession. How we are to confront this is the urgent political question of the day. Not surprisingly, this question has reinvigorated scholarly interest in dispossession, much of it inspired by the work of David Harvey (2003) on accumulation by dispossession and Peter Linebaugh (2008) on an expanded understanding of what constitutes the commons. These conceptual interventions are clearly both welcome and important, yet their explications of dispossession and commons, in the end, do not adequately address the political question. In brief, Harvey’s assignment of different political logics to the dispossessed in the Global North and South and Linebaugh’s evocative juxtapositions of different various commoning practices do not enable us to bring these struggles into a common relational frame. I suggest that a more sustained focus on uneven proletarianization—the end result of dispossession—will better serve our goal of understanding present protests and political possibilities.

Marx’s vivid description and insightful analysis of the enclosure of the Scottish Highlands and the eventual transformation of its displaced peasants into wage laboring proletarians as the necessary precursor to development of capitalism and the industrial revolution in England remain the most famous account of dispossession to this day. But, in the end, this unilinear scenario hinders our understanding of the unevenness of proletarianization. For present purposes, a more reliable starting point is found in the world-historical anthropologies of Eric Wolf (1997), Sidney Mintz (1985), and Cedric Robinson (2000), who were writing at precisely the moment when the unmaking of national working classes and the globalization of labor processes was intensifying. Although quite different in historical foci and analyses, the common thread linking Europe and the People without HistorySweetness and Power, and Black Marxism, respectively, was the theoretical conclusion that spatially distinct and differently classified laborers were the conjoined products of processes of uneven proletarianization, leading to the expansion of waged, indentured, slave, and peasant labor. As Mintz, following Du Bois (1999), famously showed, surplus value was produced as much by slave and colonial laborers as by the factory proletariat. As such, all three situated nineteenth-century processes of labor formation within transnational and global orbits and tied them to the production of racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies.

The limited engagement with and, indeed, the marginalization of the theoretical implications of their global historical scholarship with the cultural turn in the social sciences and humanities should now be registered as a major missed opportunity to better understand both laborers in general and their politics more specifically. Moreover, their collective conclusions raise a number of fundamental questions that resonate even more forcefully today. What are the implications of their emphasis on the globalized “making” of distinct but interconnected laboring populations for our understanding of local and national working classes? Could we create parallel maps of labor’s political relations, imaginations, and possibilities across geographic space and social categories? I address these questions via a brief engagement with E. P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963)widely celebrated among anthropologists for its emphasis on cultural production from below.

Posing these questions helps immediately to contextualize local laboring populations and their politics within wider spatial fields and relations of commonality and mutual constitution. From this vantage point, the making of the English working class cannot be separated as a distinct phenomenon from, at the very least, the inequalities produced and operating within the interconnected spaces of the British Empire. This was Robinson’s explicit rejoinder to Thompson, but implicit in both Wolf’s and Mintz’s accounts as well. In this view, Thompson’s trilogy of community, class consciousness, and class formation seems rather problematic. It’s easy enough to see how redrawing the external boundaries of community or expanding the geography of class consciousness could radically alter our understanding of English working class politics in early nineteenth-century England.

To what extent, for example, did the slave rebellions within the British Empire or the transatlantic abolitionist movement influence English working-class consciousness? It is well known that the powerful abolitionist voices of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass found a wide audience among working-class radicals during the period covered in The Making. But they were only the most well known of the Black mariners and dock workers who steadily made their way to London, which already served as the most important hub of the Black Atlantic. What kind of impact did these articulate proponents of universalism from below have on English working class consciousness?

From a slightly different perspective, we could ask if Thompson was merely reiterating the prejudice of English artisans and skilled laborers when he made the distinction between their “sophisticated political Radicalism” and the Irish’s “more primitive and excitable revolutionism.” To what extent did the tradition of the “Free-Born Englishman,” which shaped artisans’ emerging nationalism and class consciousness, influence the gender and racial boundaries of the English working class community? Thompson, as the preeminent social historian of our time, did not ignore these questions. Still, it is rather telling that the persistent rebellions, radical consciousness, and organizational initiatives of Irish common labor that he documents, for example, barely figure into his expansive concluding chapter on class consciousness. Moreover, the Irish laborers’ “primitive and excitable revolutionism” could be readily traced to the long-running, ongoing struggles against English rule in Ireland (Robinson 2000).

Omissions such as these seem to confirm Bill Roseberry’s (1989) conclusion that Thompson’s strong emphasis on community precluded an adequate understanding of the multifaceted social, political, and economic effects of uneven proletarianization. And while this remains a valid criticism, I think it would be a mistake to jettison the concept of community from class analyses. As I previously argued (2005), community is profitably seen as a claim advanced to solidify and structure highly disparate processes within a particular field of power; the British Empire is a particularly appropriate example here. Claims to community are almost always tied to wider sources of political, moral, and organizational power.

If national working classes cannot, then, be understood in isolation, we still need to understand the kinds of issues that served to link labor politics across borders and categories. A key political focus was transnational mobilizing around the labor question, which took on different hues for differently categorized laborers. For the nineteenth century’s free but property-less and property-poor working populations in the Global North, the labor question centered on their exclusion from the political community of national citizens. Their political activism to secure political suffrage directly challenged the monopolies on the national political rule held by propertied classes on both sides of the Atlantic.

For slaves, refugee slaves, and other servile laborers who were themselves considered property, however, the labor question centered predominantly on the establishment of their personhood, invoked in demands for emancipation, human rights, and freedoms. The immediate issue was not only the question of who was to be included in the national community of citizens, but also of expanding the idea of freedom to encompass more categories of social being within the umbrella of universal human rights (Davis 2012). This tripartite emphasis on citizen rights, human rights, and freedom provided the platform for abolitionist movements which, as Fred Cooper (2005) and Robin Blackburn (2011) tell us, served to imbue them with a wider significance and progressive influence that impacted other social and labor movements of the day.

This latter, expanded understanding of the labor question helps to explain why Frederick Douglass, for one, was so influential from the 1840s on as a transatlantic labor activist, working simultaneously in the Abolitionist, English Chartist, cooperative socialist, feminist, and union movements on both sides of the Atlantic. His tripartite emphasis on universal rights, citizenship rights, and labor rights spoke to all categories of working people, free and bonded, men and women, artisans and common laborers. Douglass’s multivalent encounters and engagements placed him at the epicenter of transnational and national discussions and debates on the labor question and centered on the rights and freedoms of differently categorized laboring populations over a period of 40 years before those distinctions solidified into seemingly unbridgeable social identities.

Douglass’s simultaneous encounters with difference and commonality provide a useful framework for understanding contemporary anti-austerity, anti-dispossession, pro-democracy, and justice movements: from the Arab Spring to the European-wide and Pan American populist uprisings and encampments, to the debt bondage protests and the Naxalite/Maoist insurrection in India, to the shouts of the squeezed middle classes emanating from public squares and government buildings in Turkey, Brazil, Wisconsin, and well beyond. The widespread evidence of social precariousness and exclusion captured in the demonstrators’ demands for land and justice or rights to livelihood, living wages, affordable education, erasure of debts, secure retirements, civil and human rights, and democratic freedoms highlight the variety of labor transformations currently underway around the world, including a dramatic rise in processes of racialization and the use of bonded labor—a process, to speak with Aime Cesaire (2000: 45), that shows the extent to which the neoliberal global order has “grafted modern abuse onto ancient injustice, hateful racism into old inequality.” Given these global conditions, it is not hard to see why the demands of contemporary protestors, much like those emanating from the movements of the nineteenth century, are coupled to efforts to envision and actualize ways of living and working differently across existing social divides. Analogous to the struggles of their nineteenth-century forebears, it is the translocal creation of what Buck-Morss (2013: 61) calls a “commonist ethics” that allows us to bring these diverse movements, protests, and rebellions into a common relational frame. As she puts it, this relational frame is “not common in the sense of the same as ours (experiences are very unequal in today’s society), but of happening to others who share this time, this space—a space as big as the globe and a time as actual as now.”

All of these movements provide a powerful testament to the labor question’s continuing importance for contemporary politics. As Sharryn Kasmir and I (2014) recently wrote, these political protestors explicitly claimed rights and freedoms on behalf of a common humanity. In doing so they resurrected what Buck-Morss (2009) earlier called universalism from below, a set of demands for emancipation, human rights, and social equality made by common people throughout the longue-durée of capitalist and colonial expansion. The rights and freedoms that are now everywhere under attack were initially won by the combined challenges of laborers—across geographic space and social categories—to the reigning forms of economic exploitation and political oppression they faced. They were not, however, secured for all time, but were subject to continuing efforts to restrict democratic freedoms to the privileged few.

As Wolf, Mintz, and Robinson would surely recognize, past generations of protestors, such as Douglass, did not claim rights and freedoms in the name of an abstract disembodied universalism. Rather, theirs was a universalism existing in a constant state of tension with the particular. It was this simultaneous universal and particularist perspective that fueled manifold mobilizations around the labor question during the nineteenth century, and that, I suggest, now motivates contemporary struggles against property and power (Robinson 2001).

August Carbonella is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is co-editor of Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor (Berghahn Books, 2014).

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Cite as: Carbonella, August. 2014. “Dispossession and emancipation: Reframing our political imagination,” FocaalBlog, July 17,