Colonialism & the Labor Market

by Caleb Roberts

Now, what the white man may still occasionally practice in remote regions today, namely, the smashing up of social structures in order to extract the element of labor from them, was done in the eighteenth century to white populations by white men for similar purposes.  Hobbes’s grotesque vision of the state — a human Leviathan whose vast body was made up of an infinite number of human bodies — was dwarfed by the Ricardian construct of the labor market: a flow of human lives the supply of which was regulated by the amount of food put at their disposal.  Although it was acknowledged that there existed a customary standard below which no laborer’s wages could sink, this was reduced to the choice of being left without food or of offering his labor in the market for the price it would fetch.  This explains, incidentally, an otherwise inexplicable omission of the classical economists, namely, why only the penalty of starvation, not also the allurement of high wages, was deemed capable of creating a functioning labor market.  Here also colonial experience confirmed their own.  For the higher the wages the smaller the inducement to exertion on the part of the native, who unlike the white man was not compelled by his cultural standards to make as much money as he possibly could.  The analogy was all the more striking as the early laborer, too, abhorred the factory, where he felt degraded and tortured, like the native who often resigned himself to work in our fashion only when threatened with corporal punishment, if not physical mutilation.  The Lyons manufacturers of the eighteenth century urged low wages for social reasons.  Only an overworked and downtrodden laborer would forgo to associate with his like in order to escape from that state of personal servitude under which he could be made to do whatever his master required from him.  Legal compulsion and parish serfdom as in England, the rigors of an absolutist labor police as on the Continent, indentured labor as in the early Americas were the prerequisite of the “willing worker.”  But the final stage was reached with the application of “nature’s penalty,” hunger.  In order to release it, it was necessary to liquidate organic society, which refused to let the individual starve. (172-173)

Karl Polanyi | The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times