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Research in Progress Seminar (RIPS)

Dr. Robbie Shilliam, Professor, John Hopkins University, September 30 - The Free Labor / Freed Labor: The Case for an Abolition Political Economy

Sep 23, 2019

A Research in Progress Seminar Talk 2019

Who: Dr. Robbie Shilliam
Where: L. R. Wilson (LRW) 1003, Wilson Community Room
When: Monday September 30, 2:30pm - 4:00pm

The Free Labor / Freed Labor: The Case for an Abolition Political Economy

Might Black Lives Matter have an intellectual as well as an activist purchase for the field of political economy? Few political economists outside the Black Radical tradition have taken up this challenge in detail. In this respect, the work of Angela Davis, which has always been central to Black Lives movements, might prove instructive for the field. In critiquing criminal justice systems, Davis has regularly drawn upon WEB Du Bois’s conception of “abolition-democracy”, especially his recognition that legal manumission historically required the building of alternative institutions to substantiate freedoms: abolition exceeded legality and flowed necessarily into political, economic and social dimensions. Building on Davis’s Duboisian intervention, I want to present a case for “abolition political economy”. I demonstrate the salience of this approach by turning to classical political economy. Received wisdom treats this tradition’s problematization of labor primarily in terms of a “free” status – that is, as contractually independent, waged and/or proletarianized. However, I argue that “freed” labor  - the prospective abolition of slavery – was a more fundamental intellectual and political fault-line in the eighteen century rise of capitalism than the regulation of “free” labor. Using Adam Smith’s discussions on labor and its “liberal reward” under “commercial society” as my framing device, I examine how, in struggles between the British crown, parliament and fractions of imperial capital, the prospect of abolition challenged the existing patriarchal compact wherein inherited property rights were buoyed by legal regimes that coded labor as a master/servant relation. Ultimately, I suggest that a realignment of the heritage of classical political economy to account for its entanglements in abolition affirms the necessity to bring the work of Davis and the hieroglyph of “Black lives” into the center-ground of political economy.

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (Agenda, 2018), and The Black Pacific: Anticolonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). He is currently writing an undergraduate primer for Political Science as part of Polity Press’s Decolonizing Disciplines series.