Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century

Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation


The object is to assess the validity, in the light of current economic development, of the epistemology structuring different historical interpretations linking capitalism, unfreedom and primitive accumulation. Conventional wisdom is that – regarding the incompatibility between capitalism and unfreedom –an unbroken continuity links Marxism to Adam Smith, Malthus, Mill and Max Weber. Challenging this, it is argued Marxism accepts that, where class struggle is global, capitalist producers employ workers who are unfree. The reasons are traced to the conceptualization by Smith of labour as value, by Hegel of labour as property, and by Marx of labour-power as commodity that can be bought/sold. From this stems the free/unfree distinction informing the process of becoming, being, remaining, and acting as a proletariat.

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Tom Brass, D.Phil (1982) formerly lectured in the SPS Faculty at Cambridge University and directed studies for Queens' College. He edited The Journal of Peasant Studies for almost two decades, and has published extensively on agrarian issues and rural labour relations.
"[T]he volume is a timely and important contribution to the literature (especially its Marxist variant) on unfree labour, with a wealth of theoretical and empirical detail, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the issue of unfreedom in contemporary labour markets. […] [T]he concept of ‘class struggle from above’ [by capital against labour] is hugely important in our current conjuncture, when any attempts to rein in the excesses of capital are framed as ‘class warfare’ or a ‘politics of envy'." – Kendra Strauss, in: Capital & Class 36/3 (2012), pp. 554

"The nature of labour freedom and unfreedom in capitalism is a highly controversial topic. One of the best-known specialists in radical development studies and political economy, Tom Brass in his new book Labour regime change [...] has consistently called attention to the fact that a fully functioning capitalism is compatible with unfree labour. [...] Brass’s detailed theoretical exposition of the connection between capitalism and labour (un)freedom – including his attempted history of the concept and a critical examination of various Marxists have conceptualized unfree labour -- has enriched my own understanding as it undoubtedly would that of many others. Anyone who wants to comprehend the nature of labour regime must read his work." – Raju Das, in: The Journal of Contemporary Asia

"Tom Brass, one of the United Kingdom's leading Marxist scholars has written a brilliant, theoretically informed, comprehensive critique of past and present, Marxist and non-Marxist writers of capitalist labor regimes and puts forth an alternative theoretical-conceptual framework ... Brass's book is a landmark study that is especially relevant to the emergence of a new genre of development studies which will return the class struggle and the transition to socialism into the center of theory and practice." – James Petras, in Science and Society 77/3 (2013)
1. The Smithian Inheritance
2. The Marxist Inheritance
3. Semi-Feudalism and Modern Marxism
4. ‘Disguised’ Wage Labour and Modern Marxism
5. Unfreedom as Primitive Accumulation?
6. Germany and the United States: ‘Primitive’ or ‘Fully Functioning’ Accumulation?
7. ‘Medieval Working Practices’? British Agriculture and the Return of the Gangmaster
8. Citizenship and Human Rights – or Socialism?
The book is aimed at an audience of undergraduate, postgraduate and academic researchers with an interest in agrarian issues, labour conditions, development studies, political economy, and questions of human rights.
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