Saturday, February 11, 2012

Quotations on Hidden Labor

Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992, the excellent anthology of essays produced by the Midnight Notes Collective (which includes such figures as Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, and George Caffentzis) was one of my earliest engagements with a Marxian analysis of how capitalism functions. It was before I'd read Capital, before Maria Mies, before Federici herself; the only David Harvey I'd yet read was A Brief History of Neoliberalism.  One of the key points the collection brought home to me was labor and its connection to the energy we use (this might have seemed obvious from the subtitle, but there you go) and how so much of it is hidden from us, and the relationship between that labor and enclosures, and war. Here is the opening paragraph from the introduction:
The largest and swiftest mass layoff in decades. Five million workers uprooted, deported, murdered or otherwise severed from their means of subsistence as a result of the Gulf War. Yemeni gardeners, Palestinian teachers, Sudanese truckers, Pakistani welders, Sri Lankan houseworkers, Egyptian agricultural laborers, and Filipino waiters were all caught in the tidal rushes unleashed by the militarization and subsequent engagement of armed forces in the Gulf. These workers were, and are, indispensable to the Mideast oil industry. Brought to the region from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and working under conditions of indentured servitude and outright slavery, it is their labor that makes possible the extraction, refining and distribution of one of the world's most precious substances.
Reading this, and the essays following, I was confronted for the first time with the huge numbers of workers necessary, working under the most brutal conditions, to produce the oil we take for granted, and which is required to make our system function. Several of the essays in the collection explore the phenomenon of nuclear power and why it's so attractive to capital. For one thing, it shifts the emphasis on labor towards technical know-how, specialization, security. Fewer opportunities for workers to shut things down, as was more possible in coal mining, for example (many of the essays deal with the wildcat strikes of the late-1960s/early 1970s, which were just another signal to capital that the old post-WWII deal with labor was no longer cutting it).

On a similar theme, hidden labor, but looking back to the emergence capitalism, here is a passage from The Many-Headed Hydra, written by Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker:
For the African, European, and American hewers of wood and drawers of water in the early seventeenth century, work was both a curse and a punishment. These workers were necessary to the growth of capitalism, as they did the work that could or would not be done by artisans in workshops, manufactories, or guilds. Hewers and drawers performed the fundamental labors of expropriation that have usually been taken for granted by historians. Expropriation itself, for example, is treated as a given: the field is there before the plowing starts; the city is there before the laborer begins the working day. Likewise for long-distance trade: the port is there before the ship sets sail from it; the plantation is there before the slave cultivates its land. The commodities of commerce seem to transport themselves. Finally, reproduction is assumed to be the transhistorical function of the family. The result is that the hewers of wood and drawers of water have been invisible, anonymous, and forgotten, even though they transformed the face of the Earth by building the structure of "civilization".
Who did the actual work of enclosing? Who built the ports? Notice, too, the reference to reproduction, and we're pointed, again, always, to feminism, in particular when it focuses on unpaid labor, and how unpaid labor is essential to capitalism (which then opens onto the topic of slavery, and its role in capitalism).

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