STREAM: Concepts, Classes and Workers. Revisiting ‘the making of a working class’, African case studies

STREAM: Concepts, Classes and Workers. Revisiting ‘the making of a working class’, African case studies

This stream is a thinly disguised plea for Africanists to return to the field of labour history long enough to reconsider the usefulness of that infamous concept ‘the working class’ as well as the dynamic social process that historically goes into its ‘making’. This request is motivated in particular by the conjunction of Global Labour History’s renewed interest in capitalism and unfree labour, and Slavery Studies’ creation of the concept ‘post-slave society’.

Contemporary reality has confounded earlier historians’ expectations of a ‘slave-to-worker’ trajectory both in individual experiential terms and writ-large on society. Global labour historians, struggling to encompass the non-Western experience, have tried re-conceptualizing capitalism itself to accommodate the continuing and/or recurring presence of ‘non free, non-salaried’ labour. Historians of slavery draw on the post-slave paradigm to accomplish the same. It is the goal of this stream to draw on the rich and expansive work of the latter in order to initiate conversation with the former. It has recently been suggested, for example, that the difference between slave and wage labour is merely a matter of ‘degree’ (of exploitation), not of quality. What have studies of ‘modern slavery’ and ‘traditional slavery’ in modern times to contribute to this theory? Or as recently commented upon by Benedetta Rossi, studies of workers (in her case, migrant workers), have focused on the classic characteristic of ethnicity (and one could add others such as urban-rural culture and degree of dependency on wages,for example) that the significance of their status as ‘slaves’ or freed slaves and the role of resisting or running from this status in shaping them as workers, is overlooked. Which raises the question: if entering the salaried labour force is a means by which former slaves, slave descendants and other marginalized groups like castes, acquire ‘freedom’, what does this mean for our current understanding of the exploitative nature of capitalism? Is there anything valuable to be had by re-examining the concepts of how, when and why workers become a ‘class’ in the objective sense, and how, when and why they become conscious of that identity in the context of today’s labour precarity?

This exploration can benefit from case studies everywhere on the continent and engaging with almost any era, though for purposes of coherence here (and keeping this stream from becoming a raging river overflowing its banks) it is suggested that panels engage with colonial, post-colonial and/or contemporary situations wherein ‘links’ can be made between them. They can be either theoretical or empirical in nature and drawing on any disciplines, but the real aim is to provide enough concrete African labour history ‘evidence’ involving those of marginal nature (the greatest number of whom would fall into some category of ‘un-free’ or ‘less-than-equal’) to genuinely interrogate some of Global Labour History’s theoretical proposal.

If you have any queries or suggestions please contact Ann McDougall ( ) For panel and paper submissions please follow the instructions on the website 

Share this:

Leave a Reply