July 24th, 2021



Structures of unfree labor have always been at the edge of current and historical discourse on labor, mobility and caste in South Asia. This has been in focus during the COVID-led migrant crisis in India, where around 11.4 million migrant workers were forced into an exodus from urban to rural areas.

In a recent book, RADHIKA SINGHA unpacks the category of ‘menial’ labor as one structured by caste, class and race. She focuses on the massive role of Indian labor—involving 563,369 followers or non-combatants in the British Indian Army—in Mesopotamia and France during World War I.

From the book:

"In colonial civil offices, ‘menial establishment’ was the formal categorisation for the lowest rung of employees, from peons (messengers) down to file-suppliers, bhistis and sweepers. The label ‘menial’ was often used in discussion of their service conditions. In exploring this condition of ‘menial’ status, we have the benefit of a valuable body of writing which has shown how caste norms tended to hem powerless communities into the hardest and most stigmatised sectors of work regimes—even in those which were being refashioned under the drives of colonialism and capitalism. ‘Untouchability’ was thereby recast in new contexts, and low pay, degrading conditions of work, and corporal discipline were ‘naturalised.’ The attached followers found it particularly difficult to challenge their consignment to menial status because of the presence in their ranks of ‘untouchable’ castes who swept, cleaned latrines, washed clothes, and crafted leather. This was work characterised both as a ‘trade’—that is, as a caste structured specialisation—and as ‘polluting.’ Regimental followers, public and private, were, in the manner of domestic servants, expected to be constantly at hand to tend to the physical needs of their institutional superiors, who felt they had a personal right to chastise followers for inadequate service, evasion, or questioning of demands. The fact that regiments found themselves having to supplement the income of public followers and employ ‘private’ followers blurred the line between public employee and domestic servant."

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July 10th, 2021

Dawning Man


Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on Wednesday, plunging the country into greater political unrest following months of protests around Moïse's controversial decision to rule by decree.

A 2006 article by ROBERT FATTON JR. investigates Haiti's state formation after independence, shedding light on the country's current distributional struggles.

From the article:

"Slaves knew that their freedom depended on the destruction of the plantation economy; however, Haiti’s place in world production and utter dependence on sugar exports also rested on the plantation system. At independence Haitian rulers confronted a cruel choice. If they preserved emancipation by supporting the former slaves’ aspirations to become independent peasants, they would ultimately condemn the country to material underdevelopment. If they promoted an immediate economic recovery, they would be compelled to impose a military-like discipline on the newly freed masses and they would thus emasculate emancipation itself. Moreover, the high army officers who led the revolution were determined to keep and expand their power; this in turn required maximising revenues and foreign exchange. The plantation system facilitated the collection of taxes and privileged the concentration of land ownership in the hands of the new ruling class. Thus the imperatives of economic recovery and defending emancipation against the potential military aggressions of the great powers coincided with the class interests of the first postcolonial leaders to create patterns of unequal land ownership and forced labour. Gross material inequalities and political despotism opened a massive chasm between rulers and citizens. The outcome of the slaves’ revolution for freedom was paradoxically a new authoritarianism in the name of emancipation."

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June 5th, 2021

Essay on Urban Planning


This week marked the 640th anniversary of the 1381 Great Rising, a rebellion which swept across medieval England demanding an end to serfdom and an overhaul of the legal system and the aristocracy.

A 2009 book edited by A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi and Cristóbal Kay examines the past, present, and future of peasant studies, paying close attention to the impact of globalization on configurations of rural power.

From the book's conclusion:

"Agrarian restructuring has altered the land-, labour- and capital-intensity of production, in ways that have profoundly altered the terrain of the agrarian question. In Brazil and Vietnam, significant linkages between the export-oriented and peasant production subsectors has facilitated an asymmetrical but mutually reinforcing expansion of both subsectors, and consequently domestic demand. In both, the agricultural export sector now drives growth that, through its impact on product prices and wages, fosters increases in domestic demand in the rural economy in the first instance, but also more generally in the economy as a whole. Within both Brazil and Vietnam, rural accumulation continues to be of importance for both capital and labour and, in this sense, the classical concerns of the agrarian question remain salient.

By countrast, in countries as varied as Bolivia, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe, the processes of market-led land appropriation can be witnessed, though contingent trajectories of variation have produced manifestly different outcomes in specific settings. In particular, higher-value agricultural exports are an important determinant of aggregate rates of rural accumulation, but substantially weaker linkages between the export and peasant subsectors have fostered a significantly weaker distribution of the gains from rural accumulation and thus equality-deteriorating patterns of rural growth. Indeed, the greater emphasis on higher-value agricultural exports, coupled with devaluations and the removal of import restrictions resulting from ongoing structural adjustment in agriculture, has effectively, and in some cases deliberately, neglected agricultural production for the home market. Thus a range of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are increasingly engaged in the production of specialist farm output for niche consumer markets in developed capitalist economies, usually under the aegis of agro-food transnational corporations operating upstream in the commodity chain. The result, in many countries, has been to generate a reproduction squeeze within the increasingly fragmented peasant sector."

Link to the text.

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April 28th, 2021

Reconstruction Finance

Reconstructing the RFC

Like the world system as a whole, segregated cities in the United States have their own finance driven core-periphery dynamics. The world economy is structured by countries with competitive export sectors and trade surpluses, like Germany and China, who exhibit underconsumption and excess savings; the US's debt-fueled economy receives these savings through its domination of global financial markets. The dynamic strengthens the power of global finance at the expense of wages and living standards. And within the US, the allocation of credit and investment has exacerbated racial disparities and altered the municipal geography of debt. At the level of the city and the financial system, these developments warrant a powerful political response. But what form can that response take?

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February 20th, 2021

The Great Conspiracy


Earlier this week, millions of households lost power in the face of a powerful snowstorm. While these numbers are unusual, they are not new—the US suffers among the most frequent power outages of any industrialized country, concentrated especially in rural areas and the South.

In a recent paper, ABBY SPINAK analyzes the political trajectory of America's weak electrical infrastructure by comparing the underlying economic assumptions of the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration (REA) with those of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission in Canada.

From the paper:

"In the early twentieth century, experiments in electricity were experiments in statecraft. A malleable technology with significant financing and distribution challenges, electricity was a proxy through which budding welfare states could hash out their responsibilities to the public. Early public electrification efforts became sites of deliberation about balancing urban and rural needs, industrial development, and the public interest. Through electrification programs, policymakers in industrializing countries proposed and tested ideas of economic citizenship, the proper role for government, and the limits of private enterprise. Vibrant forums within and between industrializing nations intensely debated whether electricity was a right or a privilege—and where and for whom.

Why did REA power flow not quite so freely as it did in Ontario? With an explicit charter not to distinguish between private, municipal, or cooperative power companies for dispersal of loans, the REA focused on keeping rates low and distributing power to areas where it could encourage rapid economic growth. It only begrudgingly supported the use of federal loans in the construction of generating stations where power could not be purchased inexpensively enough through the private market. Despite the explicit connection of the REA to Dust Bowl mitigation efforts, its emphasis was less on protecting natural resources for the common good and more on ensuring the efficiency and sustainability of natural resources for national economic growth. In the latter case, who owned what mattered much less than how capably it would be put to use."

Link to the piece

  • "Although REA programs were planned and administered in Washington, D.C., western residents rather than New Deal administrators initiated most of the region's rural electrification projects." Brian Q. Cannon on "Rural Electrical Cooperatives and the New Deal." Link. & Carl Kitchens and Price Fishback examine "The Spatial Impact of the Rural Electrification Administration 1935-1940." Link.
  • "Africa is the most undersupplied region in the world when it comes to electricity, but its economies are utterly dependent on it." David A. McDonald introduces a book of collected essays on inequality and electrification across the continent. (Also inside: river privatization and hydropower, nuclear energy in South Africa, corporate power in Uganda.) Link.
  • Wuyuan Peng Jiahua Pan with a history of rural electrification in China. Link. And from Jonathan Coopersmith's 2016 book: "Electrification transformed capital markets, the military, manufacturing, the spatial geography of cities, and many other facets of Russian life." Link.
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February 6th, 2021

The Villa in the Snow


While the neoliberal era appears to be in crisis, we took on a project to investigate its historical foundations. The tensions of the current political moment are commonly traced to the financial deregulation and economic liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s. The "turn" that took place in these decades has been attributed to economic necessity, ideological commitments, and the interests of powerful political actors.

But key to critiquing the economic policies of this period is the assumption of viable political alternatives. Adam Przeworski's classic 1986 text examines the details of this question.

From the piece:

"What is a 'mistake'? The very possibility of committing mistakes presupposes simultaneously a political project, some choice among strategies, and objective conditions that are independent with regard to the particular movement. If the strategy of a party is determined by economic circumstances, then the notion of mistakes is meaningless: the party can only pursue the inevitable. In a world of economic necessity, the question of errors cannot even be posed.

The notion of mistakes is also rendered meaningless within the context of a radically voluntaristic understanding of historical possibilities. If everything is always possible, then only motives can explain the course of history. For an error is a relation between projects and conditions; mistakes are possible if and only if some strategies are ineffective in advancing the realization of a given project under existing conditions, while other strategies would have advanced it under the same conditions. If we are to draw lessons from historical experience, we can assume neither that the practice of political movements is uniquely determined by any objective conditions, nor that such movements are free to act at will, independently of the conditions they seek to transform. These conditions constitute at each moment the structure of choice: the structure within which actors deliberate upon goals, perceive alternatives, evaluate them, choose courses of action, and pursue them to create new conditions."

Link to the book.

  • In Phenomenal World's first book, Market Economy, Market Society, Przeworski reconsiders the issue: "The social democratic vision of transforming society survived for nearly one hundred years, even when it was imperative to cope with immediate crises, and even when social democrats experienced political defeats. This is what faded at the end of the 1970s." Link. In the book's second introductory text, Stephanie Mudge notes, "social democratic parties can make the difference between mere rights and actual representation. But simply occupying that space isn’t enough—it matters how these parties work, the agendas and policies they promote, and how and for whom (or what) they speak." Link.
  • "It is, decisively, the Italian left’s weakness in proposing achievable reforms at the state level which has made it particularly suffer the effects of the decline of the mass workplace." In the book's first section, David Broder analyzes the "Italian Left After Keynesianism." Link. Also in this section, an interview with former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, link, and interviews with Emanuele Macaluso and Claudio Petruccioli.
  • In the book's second section, an interview with former Spanish Prime minister Felipe González: "What worries me is that to some degree social democracy died of success. It died because it couldn’t understand that the society that it had helped create was not the society which existed when it started." Link to the interview, link to the section's introduction by Juan Andrade. Also in this section, interviews with Begoña San José and Héctor Maravall.
  • "Mitterrand shows that if the path of radical reformism is challenging and uncertain, the alternative has been disastrous." In the final section, Jonah Birch analyzes the political shifts in France. Link to the article. And the section also features interviews with Anicet Le Pors, François Morin, and Roger Martelli.
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January 30th, 2021

Turn and Burn


Next week marks the launching of our first book-length Phenomenal World publication: Market Economy, Market Society: Interviews and Essays on the Decline of European Social Democracy. The book examines the fracturing of the social democratic consensus through the eyes of policymakers, trade union leaders, and party politicians who lived through, and in some cases enacted, the liberal market reforms of the 1980s and 90s.

A 1997 essay by Eric Hobsbawm reflects on the social, political, and cultural importance of historical inquiry in shaping collective understandings of the present and future.

From the piece:

"To be a member of any human community is to situate oneself with regard to one's (its) past, if only by rejecting it. The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society. The problem for historians is to analyze the nature of this 'sense of the past' in society and to trace its changes and transformations.

Paradoxically, the past remains the most useful analytical tool for coping with constant change. Some sort of historicism, that is the extrapolation of past tendencies into the future, has been the most convenient and popular method of prediction. At all events the shape of the future is discerned by searching the process of past development for clues, so that the more we expect innovation, the more history becomes essential to discover what it will be like. However, at this point a contradiction arises: the capacity to discern general tendencies does not imply the capacity to forecast their precise outcome in complex and in many respects unknown circumstances of the future. History ceases to be of use at the very moment when we need it most. The value of historical enquiry into 'what actually happened' for the solution of this or that specific problem of present and future is undoubted. Yet the nature of this often arbitrary process of dipping into the past for assistance in forecasting the future by itself does not replace the construction of adequate social models, with or without historical enquiry. It merely reflects and perhaps in some instances palliates their present inadequacy."

Link to the book containing the paper.

  • "Students of history have imagined that they were dealing with phenomena like ocean tides, whose regularities they could deduce from sufficient knowledge of celestial motion, when they were actually confronting phenomena like great floods, equally coherent occurrences from a causal perspective, but enormously variable in structure, sequences, and consequences." Charles Tilly on explaining political processes. Link.
  • "By the late twentieth century, it can be argued that concepts of identity at every level are crucially derived from highly fashioned and coherent narratives about the past." A 1995 paper by Olivia Harris examines the relationship between historical narrative and political agency. Link.
  • A 1980 reflection from Braudel: "The one thing that fascinates me in the history profession is the extent to which it can explain the life of men as it is being woven before our very eyes, with its acquiescences and reticences, its refusals, complicities, or surrenders when confronted with change or tradition." Link.
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January 9th, 2021

Plucked Goose


The deep divisions in American political and social life have long been thought to explain the unique weakness of America’s welfare infrastructure, and the absence of an integrated system of universal benefits.

But on their own, demographic divisions need not necessarily fragment coalitions for universal demands—history is teeming with political movements which were capable of uniting different factions. In his 1981 book, City Trenches, political scientist IRA KATZNELSON situates a history of immigration and racial conflict within a structural account of America’s urban geography and economic development.

From the text:

"Analyses of games or contests, political or otherwise, must do more than describe the players and their adversary play. They must also say something about the boundaries of the contest, which define its limits prior to the playing of the game itself. Attempts to make sense of what is special about class in America have ordinarily proceeded without this specification. They have most frequently focused on one of three conditions of American life—the racial and ethnic fragmentation of the working class itself, the unusual economic rewards of the economy, or the values that integrate American society—and they have generally argued that these conditions have made virtually impossible the development of class-based politics.

But America’s working class was not created once and for all. It has been fashioned and refashioned as members of national, ethnic, or religious groups that had been outside of the frame of capitalist labor relations have entered the ‘free’ labor market. I argue below that the unique characteristics of American institutions are aspects of a sharply divided consciousness about class in American society that finds many Americans acting on the basis of the shared solidarities of class at work, but on that of ethnic and territorial affinities in their residential communities. Each kind of conflict has had its own separate vocabulary and set of institutions: work, class, and trade unions; community, ethnicity, local parties, churches, and voluntary associations. Class, in short, has been lived and fought as a series of partial relationships, and it has therefore been experienced and talked about as only one of a number of competing bases of social life. What is distinctive about the American experience is that the linguistic, cultural, and institutional meaning given to the differentiation of work and community, a characteristic of all industrial capitalist societies, has taken a sharply divided form, and that it has done so for a very long time."

Link to the book.

  • "The factors that lead people to see the world in class terms may not be the same as those that sustain organizations created to act on such a vision. We need to investigate the conditions which encourage both the world view and organizational longevity in critical moments." Kim Voss’s 1992 paper examines American Exceptionalism through the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor. Link.
  • Mike Davis considers the question in a 1980 NLR: "On the one hand we must discard the idea that the fate of American politics has been shaped by any overarching telos. On the other hand, we cannot underestimate the role of sedimented historical experiences as they influenced and circumscribed capacities for development in succeeding periods." Link.
  • "Perhaps the debate over American exceptionalism has gone on for so long and so inconclusively because the question itself is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps beginning our investigation with a negative question inevitably invites ahistorical answers." A 1984 article by Eric Foner casts doubt on the debate. Link.
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December 3rd, 2020

Transition Theory

On Jairus Banaji’s A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism

Capitalism is either eternal or it isn’t. There are people who defend the first view, or something close to it—the multivolume 2014 Cambridge History of Capitalism opens in Babylonia, circa 1000 BCE—but it is much more plausible that capitalism, like most other social phenomena, has its origins in specific historical developments. The trouble is that, once you’ve got everyone to agree that capitalism has a history, you have to define what capitalism is and then explain when, where, why, and how it emerged.

Of course, no one thinks you can date the transition the way you can specify when a battle took place or a patent was filed. But even after abandoning false precision, those who’ve grappled with the problem of defining and explaining capitalism’s emergence have been unable to agree even on which centuries and continents were involved.

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October 1st, 2020

A Popular History of the Fed

On Populist programs and democratic central banking

Since Lehman collapsed in 2008, central banks have broken free of historical norms, channelling trillions into the banking system to prop up global finance and the savings of depositors from Germany to Hong Kong. The corona crash has only accelerated this emancipation. In April, the Bank of England helped the Johnson government finance an ambitious furlough scheme, while the European Central Bank stepped up their older quantitative easing program, pumping liquidity back into the bank sector. Swap lines by state banks have been set up in the United States, while the latest European recovery plan ratified an extension of the Pandemic Emergency Purchase program. Adam Tooze cast all of this as “a remarkable display of technocratic energy and imagination in western financial centers”—necessary to both “control the epidemic” and “restore the world economy.”

Amongst these institutions none possess as much luster as the American Federal Reserve. While other banks waver or bow to political leadership, the Federal Reserve’s action is swift and decisive, protecting against financial collapse at home while safeguarding assets abroad. Unsurprisingly, the Fed is often singled out as one of the greatest triumphs of capitalist statecraft, from its creation in 1913 under Woodrow Wilson to its decisive role in the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s under Paul Volcker. Yet while the bank seemed deeply conservative for the intermittent period, its proactive capacity asserted itself with a vengeance in 2008, when Timothy Geithner’s New York Fed almost single-handedly saved the global financial system from collapse.

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