The Role of Bonded Labour in Capitalist Development


(NB: The following is a short essay I wrote for the completion of one of my modules in my Masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London this past year, more of which I’ll be posting for comment as I get back into blogging. This one addresses the nature of bonded labour in capitalist development from a Marxist theoretical and historical perspective in light of the ILO’s campaign for decent work. I’m grateful for discussions with my tutor Frido Wenten and my comrade John Buttell which helped bring the following scattered thoughts to fruition.)

The Role of Bonded Labour in Capitalist Development


Within the past decade, civil society institutions in the west have devoted an increasing amount of attention to the problem of unfree labour in its various incarnations: child labour, debt bondage, slavery and indentured servitude. Their continued existence long after the legal extinction of slavery and other forms of bonded labour in most of the world, it is thought, makes combatting them today an especially pressing issue. Bales (2004), a prominent figure in the contemporary anti-slavery movement, estimated that there are 27 million people in the world today working under slavery, which he defines as a relationship in which the subject is controlled by violence, paid nothing, and economically exploited. The concern with ending these conditions demonstrated by NGOs and civil society actors has been matched by the International Labour Organization which announced a ‘global alliance against forced labour,’ (ILO 2005) and campaigns for the elimination of forced labour as two out of four of its core labour standards.

Campaigns to end bonded labour in the developing world have been subjected to a withering critique by the left for their single-minded focus on the worst conditions and the general belief that slavery, bonded labour, and other forms of work by coercion are somehow exceptional in the course of capitalist development, from its origins to the present day. The question therefore arises of whether forms of bonded labour are integral to capitalism, are optional to it, or are outside its sphere entirely.

This essay will attempt to answer that question from within a Marxist framework. While there are different approaches within Marxism to the question of free labour, tied to various discussions including the relationship between extra-economic coercion and pre-capitalist modes of development, uneven capitalist development, and the articulation of different modes of production within capitalism, little attempt will be made to address these here, except as they impact directly on the main argument. After defining Marx’s conception of free labour and the role of bonded labour in primitive accumulation, the critique will move on to a discussion of Banaji’s (2011) article on the “fictions of free labour,” in order to critically elaborate on contemporary Marxist theorizations. Finally, a case study will be attempted of the American South to illustrate concretely the existence of bonded labour within capitalist production. By this it should be shown that although Marx’s notion that ‘doubly free’ labour is constitutive of capitalism at a fundamental level, this functions as one end of a continuum with forms that are less ‘free’ and play a role in capitalism while not being integral to it in the same way.

Free and Unfree Labour in Marx

Marx most explicitly deals with the division between free and unfree labour in the discussion of primitive accumulation in volume one of Capital. His most lucid statement on the relation between free labour and capitalism is as follows:

The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production,’ i.e., it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. It is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production… (Marx 1992, p. 899)

Under primitive accumulation, then, the rising bourgeoisie needed the state to enforce conditions necessary to accumulation through violence. But compulsion which was not needed after these conditions were finally secured. Whereas Marx in this passage recognizes a role for both economic and extra-economic coercion under capitalism, he describes a broad qualitative separation between “direct extra-economic force” and “the silent compulsion of economic relations” which find their division expressed temporally in the divide between the period of initial accumulation and the subsequent history of capitalist development, when direct extra-economic coercion of the working population becomes the exception rather than the rule.

In the pages following the above passage, Marx develops a justly famous history of the period of primitive accumulation, centred on the coercive measures that were used to establish the preconditions for capitalist production in early modern England. The enclosure of common land and the expropriation of the free peasantry, the enforcement of brutal laws on begging and vagrancy, the establishment of hellish poorhouses and work-houses, and the purposeful driving down of wages follow each other in this history. What was meant by this process, according to Marx, is the creation of a class of wage workers that was “doubly free”—free to sell their labour-power to anyone they choose, and freed from any ownership over the means of production.

Marx evidently meant the formula of “double freedom” to be understood in an ironic sense. “Freedom” from ownership over the means of production is a negative freedom brought on by some of the most brutal methods in history, while it leads directly to the freedom of the wage-labourer to sell their labour-power. It would be best to understand Marx as using his caustic wit to express a real paradox that is central to capitalist social relations.1 This is implied in another formula in Capital: “the wage-labourer… is compelled to sell himself of his own free will” (Marx 1992, p. 932). Here, Marx again expresses the dialectical contradiction between the freedom to sell one’s labour that is brought into being by the “silent compulsion” of capitalist relations in the labour market. It would be a misreading of Marx, however, to imagine that because this freedom is the product of coercion, it is devoid of any real content.

Marx’s concern with the conditions of free labour, and that he thought much of the struggle to emancipate bonded labour, are evident throughout his entire career. To take just one example, his writings on the US Civil War (1861-1865) display his concern that the Union, representative of the system of free labour under capitalism, should be victorious over the slave-capitalist society of the South (Marx and Engels 1961).2 Here, Marx’s concern was that not only the condition of free labour was superior to that of plantation-slavery, but that only the extinction of this system, which he regarded as brutal and exceptional within the course of capitalist development, could lead to a united American labour movement—that white workers could never emancipate themselves while black workers were bound in slavery (Marx 1992).

Banaji’s ‘Fictions’ of Free Labour

Banaji’s (2003) article “The Fictions of Free Labour” represents an engagement with the contemporary debate on bonded labour, particularly the writings of Ramachandran (1990) on Indian agriculture and Brass’ (1999) broader theorization of unfree labour. It also represents a belated intervention in the “modes of production” debate in Indian agriculture, carried on during the 1970s in Economic and Political Weekly, in which Banaji made several key contributions.3 The article elaborates on a point made in an earlier article (Banaji 2011a): that the epoch of capitalist relations featured a wide variety of different modes of surplus extraction. Capital could extract a surplus through forms incidental to wage-labour such as slavery or debt bondage. In this earlier work, Banaji stresses the need to determine the underlying relations of production both by reference to the “laws of motion” analysed as particular to a mode of production, and by empirical study of each individual case.4

His later article shifts from this to regard the laws of motion—what Banaji calls the level of “social capital”—almost exclusively. Marx, in Banaji’s reading, developed an understanding of the labour-contract as a mystification and/or mediation of the worker’s subjection to the capitalist, and he quotes from Capital in support of his view that the nature of wage-labour cannot rely on the ‘free’ contract between capitalist and worker, which Banaji regards as merely an ideological legitimation of this subjection (Marx 1992). Rather than being non-capitalist, debt is actually a way by which the wage-labour typical to capitalism can be recruited. Both Brass and Ramachandran, by emphasizing the consensual wage-bargain between capital and labour as integral to capitalism, buy into a form of Marxism that is tainted by liberal mystification.

The upshot is that forms of ‘unfree’ labour such as sharecropping, labour tenancy, and debt-bondage “may just be ways in which paid labour is recruited, exploited and controlled by employers” (Banaji 2003, p. 83). Capitalism, in other words, can and has used a multiplicity of such forms of exploitation that are based on wage labour, and indeed more extreme ones—Banaji here cites sharecropping in the American South, the forced recruitment of labourers in French West Africa, and the use of slave labour in German-occupied Poland during the World Wars.

There is much to be said in criticism of Banaji’s essay. All the historical cases he mentions might well be recognized within the Marxist framework as exceptional circumstances—which Marx regards as aberrations from the norm. Furthermore, whereas Banaji says early on that it is impossible to draw a clear line between free and coerced labour, it is clear that Marx regarded these as distinct categories, even if they were not completely separable. As Bernstein (2013) notes, in Banaji’s account borders between primitive accumulation and industrial capitalism, along with those between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies tend to dissolve, eliding the historical specificity of capitalist economic coercion.

Rather than this absolutism of Banaji, it is more correct to view the distinction between free and unfree labour as a continuum, as Lerche (2007) discusses, in which forms of labour can be identified as free or unfree relative to each other. Or more precisely,

it has become clear that pure ‘free wage labour’ in the double Marxian sense is an ideal type, the conceptual nucleus of far more complicated historical realities. Pure free wage labour… forms a kind of analytical core surrounded by numerous rings of labour relations that we would like to call intermediary (Amin and van der Linden 1999, p. 7).

Banaji, therefore, starts out with a distinction that is useful—that all forms of labour under capitalism are subject to some form of coercion—but by focusing entirely on the level of social capital, his thesis becomes useless analytically. As Lerche (2007) notes, what Brass and Banaji, as well as and Rao (1999) all have in common is that their critiques operate at an abstract, a-historical level—which they share with mainstream conceptions of unfree labour, including ‘anti-slavery’ campaigners such as Bales and the ILO. As Banaji’s article in many ways shows us the dangers of abstraction, the essay will conclude with the illustration of one historical case study of unfree labour which he mentions—sharecropping in the American South.

Sharecropping in the Southern U.S.

Banaji deals with sharecropping in the southern U.S., relying solely on Angelo’s (1995) article, alongside similar labour systems in colonial India and the Byzantine Empire. This inevitably involves a series of major (and unwarranted) historical and theoretical abstractions. The remainder of the essay will take up the case of sharecropping in the American South to concretely demonstrate the nature of this form of “bonded” labour.

Sharecropping was a system stamped by profound class struggles in the postbellum South. As Post (2011) notes, the defeated planter class initially imposed a series of laws known as the Black Codes which would reduce the former slaves to wage-labour on the plantations. The freedmen, however, having successfully thrown off slavery in a general strike with the support of the federal army, were not inclined to return to cotton-picking in conditions which they recognized as being similar to slavery. The class of freedmen, holding local political office and buoyed by the federal occupation of the South, were powerful enough to bury the Black Codes and substitute sharecropping, a system which allowed them considerably more autonomy. As Foner writes,

Planters strongly resented the sense of “quasi-proprietorship” blacks derived from the arrangement—the notion that sharecropping made the tenant“part owner of the crop” and therefore entitled to determine his own family’s pace of work… While sharecropping did not fulfil blacks’ desire for full economic autonomy, the end of the planters’ coercive authority over the day-to-day lives of their tenants represented a fundamental shift in the balance of power in rural society, and afforded blacks a degree of control over their time, labour and family arrangements inconceivable under slavery. (Foner 1988, p. 405-6)

Rather than providing abundant supplies of cheap labour as it is often seen, sharecropping instead tended to drive up labour costs across the board and blacks, being able to survive on their share in addition to traditional subsistence plots, had no desire to work longer hours (Post 2011). The planters increasingly turned to violence to reassert their power. Simultaneously, merchant capital entered the rural South offering loans to the freedmen against a portion of the crop, which was ruthlessly exploited to extract exorbitant levels of interest—providing the solvent that unglued black sharecroppers’ economic autonomy.

Even despite the great amount of autonomy the sharecropping system afforded the former slaves, even at its height it could never have been regarded as truly existing in their interest. The slogan “forty acres and a mule,” translatable as a demand for the federal government to empower ex-slaves as a class of petty farmers, had never received a hearing outside of the most utopian of the Radical Republican circles. Freedmen were in the end unable to resist reincorporation into the system of cotton production for the world market, a prospect they had vigorously rejected ever since Emancipation. They remained dependent on the planter and merchant to provide the seed and equipment, and bound to give up part of the crop they worked under a relationship of contractual obligation. In the last instance, the freedmen were much closer to the position of wage-labourers than that of their aspiration, petty proprietorship—a distinction which must be treated with some care.5

Even at its empowering height, Southern sharecropping was at best a bitter compromise that left both of the main classes deeply dissatisfied. It would best be regarded not as an iteration of “democracy against capitalism” and hence a non-capitalist labour system, as Post (2011) argues,6 but rather as a relationship of surplus extraction in which market relations were increasingly mediated through the personal relationship of the freedman to the merchant and planter. By the end of the Reconstruction period, sharecropping was no longer a system allowing blacks some amount of economic and political autonomy, but one that forced free blacks into dependence on their former masters in a barely disguised wage-relation.


This essay has demonstrated that forms of bonded labour have a contradictory nature under capitalism. As it has been seen, Marx (1992) recognized a role for generalized forced labour during primitive accumulation, regarding at as an exception afterwards. While Banaji (2003) dissolves the category of free labour in a fit of over-abstraction, the most defensible Marxist theory of the distinction between free and bonded labour would rest on a continuum, in which a number of mediated labour forms lie between the ideal type of doubly-free labour and absolute coercion. The case study of sharecropping in the American South allowed us a glimpse of the concrete dynamic in which one of these mediated forms was brought into being and reshaped through the class struggle between planters and freedmen. It shows that forms of bonded labour do not exist outside of the capitalist economy, and just like free labour may be shaped and negotiated by the struggle over terms and conditions of employment.

The existence of a defensible concept of capitalist bonded labour should encourage a return to the origins of the contemporary debate outside of Marxism, where debt-bondage, child labour and slavery are still thought of as exceptional in the course of capitalist development. A Marxist intervention into these debates would not only maintain the idea these “worst forms of exploitation” are just as capitalist as “free labour,” but would extend its inquiry into the forms of agency of employers and bound labourers. Examining the ways in which these intermediary labour relationships are constantly open to resistance and contestation would mark the beginnings of a project vital to the understanding of a global struggle seeking to emancipate labour from all forms of coercion, exceptional violence and normal economic laws alike.


1 This much is evident about much of Marx’s writing. Miéville (2006), for example, notes that his famous quip about the class struggle under capitalism—“between equal rights, force decides”—does not necessarily imply the insignificance of “equal rights.”

2 Chapter 3 of Anderson (2010) provides a useful summary of his writings and of his and Engels’ pro-Union activism within the British labour movement.

3 Most of the debate from the 1970s is collected in Patnaik (1990), including two of Banaji’s articles.

4 Banaji (2011b), an earlier version of which is collected in Patnaik (1990) is one such empirical study.

5 Amin and van der Linden’s (1999) model, referenced above, conceives of a triangular circuit of ideal free labour at the core with absolute bondage and self-employment as the two legs, which strikes me as useful here.

6 Whatever the merits of Woods (1995) analysis elsewhere, Post’s application of it to the postbellum South does not quite convince.

Works Cited

Amin, S. and van der Linden, M. (1999) Introduction. In: International Review of Social History. [Online] 41 (Supplement 4). p. 1-7. Available from: [Accessed: 2 December 2013]

Anderson, K. (2010) Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Angelo, L. (1995) Wage Labour Deferred: The Recreation of Unfree Labour in the US South. In: Journal of Peasant Studies. [Online] 22 (4). p. 581-644. Available from: [Accessed: 5 December 2013]

Banaji, J. (2003) The Fictions of Free Labour: Contract, Coercion and So-Called Unfree Labour. In: Historical Materialism. [Online] 11 (3). p. 69-95. Available from: [Accessed: 1 December 2013]

Banaji, J. (2011a). Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History. In: Banaji, J., Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. p.45-101. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Banaji, J. (2011b). Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century. In: Banaji, Theory as History. p.277-332. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Bernstein, H. (2013) Historical Materialism and Agarian History. In: Journal of Agrarian Change. [Online] 13 (2). p. 310-329. Available from: [Accessed: 28 November 2013]

Brass, T. (1999) Towards a Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates. London: Frank Cass.

Foner, E. (1988) Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row.

Lerche, J. (2007) A Global Alliance against Forced Labour? Unfree Labour, Neo-Liberal Globalization and the International Labour Organization. In: Journal of Agrarian Change. [Online] 7 (4). p. 425-452. Available from: [Accessed: 1 December 2013]

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marx, K. (1992) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1960) The Civil War in the United States. New York: International Publishers.

Patnaik, U., ed. (1990), Agrarian Relations and Accumulation: The ‘Mode of Production’ Debate in India. p. 119-131. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Post, C. (2011) The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1660-1877. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Rao, J.M. (1999) Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham: The Debate over Unfree Labour. In: Journal of Peasant Studies. [Online] 27 (1). p. 97-127. Available from: [Accessed: 2 December 2013]

Ramachandran, V.K. (1990) Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wood, E.M. (1995) Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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