Tom Brass: Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation.

Author:Strauss, Kendra
Position::Book review

Tom Brass Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation, Leiden: Brill, 2011 ; 314 pp: 9789004202474 (hbk) 77 [pounds sterling]

I feel compelled to begin this review with a caveat, which is this: I approach the task from a position of relative ignorance. First, I am not an expert in agrarian development or agrarian relations of production; and second, my familiarity with the long-running debates on these issues in, for example, the Journal of Peasant Studies (which Tom Brass edited for many years), is scant. Rather, I approached this book as someone with academic and political interests in labour regime change and unfree labour, who first encountered Brass's work while researching the resurgence of gangmasters and gang labour in the UK (his excellent paper on the topic, which appeared in 2004, forms the basis of a chapter in this volume). From this perspective, the 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. However, I would also suggest that the framing of the issues--the focus on those debates mentioned above to the exclusion of others, and the dismissal of all 'reformist' positions--may limit the impact of Brass's vitally important insights.

The book is broadly divided into four sections of two or three chapters each. The Introduction sets out Brass's key arguments: that unfree labour is not confined to periods and instances of primitive accumulation, but is compatible with (and widely found within) fully-functioning regimes of accumulation and mature capitalist economies; that unfree labour is the result of class struggle from above (by capital against labour) and results in deproletarianisation; and that unfree production relations are now regarded by the state as 'making a positive contribution to the accumulation process' (p. 9). The concept of 'class struggle from above' is hugely important in our current juncture, when any attempts to rein in the excesses of capital are framed as 'class warfare' or a 'politics of envy'.

These arguments reach their apotheosis in two interrelated claims. The first is that only a systematic transition (a transcendence of capitalism) will banish the spectre of unfreedom from labour markets, and the second is that only an...

To continue reading