On the Strange Case of “Work” without Workers

“It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” — Samuel R. Delany, Dahlgren

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger warns us in The ‘Air of Liberty’: Narratives of the South Atlantic Past that “[I]t’s not enough to condemn [this] slave trade as having been a crime; the details of its afterlife, the cultural heritage it left in its wake, have to be understood as a contemporary dilemma, an open wound.” And yet there is scant critical analysis in the Netherlands of slavery’s afterlife. In general, Dutch attitudes are very much in line with contemporary neo-liberal discourse that “treats the present,” as Issa Shivzi observes in The Struggle for Democracy, “as if the present has had no history.” This uncoupling of the present and the past is actively done and maintained as an aspect of power.

We need to make visible these obscured, deliberate modes of violence and place the present in relation with history. As I will argue, a critical engagement with the afterlife of slavery forces us to re-think concepts like freedom, progress, work, production, exploitation, freedom, as well as contemporary conceptualizations of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. Prior to emancipation White Dutch politicians imposed their vision of “freedom” and their circumscribed definition of autonomy on Black folks in the Dutch Caribbean. The attempts of the Dutch state to control and prescribe the comings and goings, desires, and behaviour of “freed slaves” have left lasting marks on the ways we imagine freedom and what constitutes work.

In this piece, which is informed by the works of Afro-pessimist thinkers, I’ll examine Dutch parliamentary meditations on the pedagogies of emancipation, and their implications. This investigation is relevant—especially, in light of the newly conceived participation society (you can read a blog post I wrote on participatory labour here), which places a lot of stress on productivity, and deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher’s proposed participation contract, which requires all foreigners who want to settle in the Netherlands “to sign a contract in which they agree to uphold the Dutch constitution and the rule of law.”

In the 1862 legislative session pertaining to the abolition of slavery Peter Marius Tutein Nolthenius declared,

The state supervision for 10 years. Against this, I have heard great objections being brought forth. I have even heard mention that state supervision and obligation to labour are disguised forms of slavery. There are people, Mr. Chairperson, who are never satisfied, who overlook all local interests and special circumstances entirely and who, when a cherished principle or theory is not applied absolutely, resolutely speak of halting between two opinions, half-heartedness, narrow implementation and many more such complaints, which I frankly consider simply as beating the drum. State supervision is for me, who is a proponent of emancipation, the only anchor which perhaps can guarantee a good outcome for some of the colony and the emancipated. I would even go a step further and not limit myself to ten years, but extend supervision even further, if it turned out to be needed further down the line, and declare it, if need be, applicable to the whole present generation that is being emancipated.

Handing complete freedom without any limitation to people who are actually like children now in society and whose main idea of ​​freedom is the right to do nothing; who, due to their very few needs, can obtain whatever they need in a particularly mild climate without undertaking significant work—I ask: what would that lead to?

Tutein Nolthenius further argued that the colder climate is what forces workers in the Netherlands to work; a genial climate would not exert the same influence on the newly-emancipated.  In Race and the Education of Desire Ann Stoler notes that Dutch colonial authorities focused obsessively on “the intensity of the environment; on the tropical heat and secreted recesses of the home, on the seductions that environment encouraged or allowed.” The colonial authorities believed that Dutch colonists were liable to environmental influences. Europeans could be made degenerate by the tropical climate.

In the same legislative session Gerrit Adrianus de Raadt is quoted as saying,

Is the proposed emancipation plan in the interest of the Negro slave? Can it be aligned with the interests of the Treasury? These are the two points to which I would like to draw attention for a moment.

Is the emancipation plan, as proposed, in the fundamental interest of the slave? The immediate abolition of slavery is the main purpose of this draft bill. It demands the immediate freedom of the slaves, because slavery is an abomination; it demands the immediate freedom, because that is the only way slaves can become religious and moral, industrious and valuable members of society. However, will the latter be achieved through a law, a sudden declaration of freedom? I very much doubt this.

If one wants to know whether a measure will have a positive influence on a person’s development, then one will have to ask, above all, under which conditions and circumstances his development is possible. And if one poses that question with regard to the negro slave, while bearing in mind, that, according to his common nature, the abolition of slavery, in his estimation, licenses him to lead an idle and wandering life, then, it seems to me, the answer is obvious, freedom can only lead to his development when he is placed in a position, in which working for the satisfaction of his needs is inevitably necessary and in which he is granted an opportunity to socialize with those who are more civilized.

The afore-cited reflections on what is beneficial for the enslaved not only stress work discipline, but also the role geography/the environment played in explaining the drive to labour as a means for sustaining life. The enslaved were thought to be incapable of disciplined labour in a tropical climate, and needed to be made suitable for wage labour. As both arguments attest, what the enslaved had been doing was not perceived as work. “Work,” as Frank Wilderson states baldly, “is not an organic principle for the slave.” Wilderson further states that,

“work is a white category. The fact that millions upon millions of black people work misses the point. The point is we were never meant to be workers; in other words, capital/white supremacy’s dream did not envision us as being incorporated or incorporative. From the very beginning, we were meant to be accumulated and die.”

What constitutes chattel slavery is not labour relations, but property relations. Chattel slavery was “the ‘accumulation’ of black bodies regardless of their utility as labourers.” The fact that slavery is marked by “the ‘accumulation’ of black bodies” and, what Saidiya Hartman has termed, the “fungibility of the captive,” is significant in relation to the subjected Black female, the quintessential “slave.” The accumulation of Black bodies coupled with the desire for capital accumulation marked the Black female body as an assemblage “created and connected by flows of desire and intensity,” which defined her as continuously emergent property. Under slavery the reproductive labour of Black women became bound not only to capital accumulation, but also slave accumulation. As Hazel Carby noted, “black women gave birth to property and, directly, to capital itself in the form of slaves, and all slaves inherited their status from their mothers.” The system of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy was built on the Black female body, which made the subjugation and exploitation of the Black female slave materially and symbolically necessary to its expansion.

Frank Wilderson makes in The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal and Gramsci’s Black Marx; Wither the Slave in Civil Society, his  twin critical essays on Marxism, a few astute observations regarding the relationship between the slave and productivity. Wilderson posits in Gramsci’s Black Marx; Wither the Slave in Civil Society  that “marxism suffers from a kind of conceptual anxiety,” whose mark is “its desire to democratise work.” The democratization of work, as Wilderson argues, ensures the coherence of the principles of productivity and progress, and precludes idleness as a post-revolutionary possibility. He writes,

“The worker calls into question the legitimacy of productive practices, while the slave calls into question the legitimacy of productivity itself. Thus, the insatiability of the slave demand upon existing structures means that it cannot find its articulation within the modality of hegemony (influence, leadership, consent). The Black body cannot give its consent, ‘generalized trust,’ the precondition for solicitation of consent, ‘equals racialized whiteness’.”

“slavery is natal alienation by way of social death, which is to say, a slave has no symbolic currency or material labor power to exchange. A slave does not enter into a transaction of value (however asymmetrical), but is subsumed by direct relations of force. As such, a slave is an articulation of a despotic irrationality, whereas the worker is an articulation of a symbolic rationality.”

The positionality of the slave “imposes a radical incoherence” in Marxism, which assumes a subaltern that operates within a framework of capitalist exploitation, and not White supremacy.

The intersecting logics of White supremacy are not, however, as Dylan Rodriguez argues, “accumulation, surplus value, and labor exploitation, but are civilization (read in verb, not noun form), genocide, and incarceration.” After the enslaved were “emancipated,” that is when they ceased to be fungible property in legal terms, they became useless and idle and required “civilization.” Their status as “non-property” required justification. As such, the abolition of slavery ushered in a narrative of progress, which promised the reworking of the slave, “the subject-effect of an ensemble of direct relations of force,” into a worker. As the ruminations of Tutein Nolthenius and de Raadt highlight, the requirements, which only served White Dutch interests and needed to be satisfied by the formerly enslaved in order for them to be recognized as “workers,” were narrowly tailored along the lines of “respectability politics.”

Ann Stoler notes that the “civilized body” (as well as national belonging and racial membership) was defined by “middle class morality, nationalist sentiments, bourgeois sensibilities, normalized sexuality.” Black sexuality, according to White sensibilities, was (and arguably still is) imagined as savage, uncontrolled, and excessive. As many queer of color theorists have argued: in the White imagination, Black sexuality has always been queer: not queer as in gay, but queer “in the sense of marking disruption to the violence of normative order and powerfully so.” In that sense, Black sexuality did not and does not register within the realm of what was and is considered “normal” sexuality. Not only was Black sexuality perceived as debased, but it was also perceived as a potentially harmful force on the racial and national purity—as such, Black sexuality needed to be restrained. Note that mr. De Raadt suggested socialization with those who were “more civilized” and not simply with the “civilized.”

In the attic of a white family’s large mansion there was a jar containing a black doll; black means power, health.
In the attic of a white family’s large mansion there was a jar containing a black doll; black means power, health. Image via Louis Philippe Römer

Wage labour, contract (the Emancipation Act demanded that each “freed slave” sign a 10-year contract of apprenticeship with the colonial administration), and sentiment for “the Mother country” were offered as pedagogies of self-improvement through which the formerly enslaved could overcome slavery, become “more civilized,” and enjoy their “freedom.” What constituted freedom for the formerly enslaved was drafted during slavery by White men in slavery-free Europe and in response to antagonistic structural positions between “the human (non-Black) and anti-human (Black).”

The definition of freedom in the 1864 edition of the dictionary I.M. Calisch en N.S. Calisch, Nieuw woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal had, most likely, little purchase with the formerly enslaved. The 1864 edition defines freedom as “the opposite of slavery.” Freedom, as such, becomes something that is granted—not something that is innate. Such a limited definition of freedom positions Black bodies as merely “placeholders of freedom for those who would claim freedom as their rightful yield.” Such a narrow definition of freedom fails to recognize the structural position of the slave, whose “chattel status is a heritable condition passed down through the mother,” whose Blackness marked her as destined for captivity—who is, to echo Fanon, a slave of her own appearance. Black people are still interpellated as slave through the word neger. Freedom conceptualized from the position of the Black is, therefore, not the opposite of slavery, but a flight from captivity.

However, freedom was not only defined as the opposite of slavery and subjection, but also in terms of racialized geography, “a complex interplay between race, class, and place, occurring at the nexus of political, economic, and social systems.” The “free soil principle” helped conceive and sustain the illusion of the Netherlands as a space of freedom. Seymour Drescher asserts that “[c]onceptually as well as legally, the operative distinction in northwestern Europe between slavery and freedom was geographical and racial, and it remained so.” The main reason “was to keep slavery an ocean away.” The entanglement of freedom with geography and the heritability of social status still inform contemporary constructions like “Allochtoon” and “Autochtoon.” Allochtoon, a heritable condition, literally means from a different soil. However, instead of thinking of race as an equally integral aspect of what it means to be “Autochtoon,” the significance of race is constantly put into question. Race is scripted as ir/relevant to the Netherlands. According to the dominant narrative, the Netherlands did not have a racism problem prior to the successive waves of immigration of people of African descent. Racism migrated to the Netherlands by way of bodies that signify race and racism. Racism has become anchored to Black(ened) bodies.

The Dutch state positions itself as offering protection from Black(ened) bodies through a web of restrictive immigration policies. Vilna Bashi makes a compelling argument for the “global nature of anti-blackness in Western immigration history,” which is “based on the certainty that black persons were inassimilable.” Bashi argues that anti-blackness (and by extension racialization) is the logic that structures the global economy. The everyday processes in the Netherlands through which certain bodies are coded as non-White, non-European are disavowed through White narratives, that frame White supremacy and anti-Black racism as (Anglo-centric)  aberrations in civil society.

The compulsive irrationality of gratuitous violence and the logic of capital accumulation—both of which regulated the conversion of captive bodies into “cargo,” fungible and alienable property—is constitutive of Dutch civil society. Stephen Small notes in Living History: The Legacy of Slavery in the Netherlands that “ideas of race were the basis of sovereignty, national identity and society [right here] in the Netherlands itself.” The etymology of the Dutch word for society, maatschappij, reflects a deeply embedded racial-capitalist through line. The emergence of the word maatschappij in the sense of open trade association is closely linked to the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602.

The VOC was a chartered company funded by a group of wealthy merchants. “At the heart of the relationship between shareholder and capital was the bond, a form of agreement between groups of citizens and the VOC chambers to fund voyages and maintain the VOC’s administrative and military infrastructure.” Maatschappij is a derivation of maatschap, which came about in the fourteenth century by adding the suffix –schap to the word maat, meaning “buddy, companion, helper.” The coupling of maat and schap created the collective noun maatschappij, indicating a partnership or union of two or more persons who share a common purpose. The word acquired the meaning of society in 1724.

Maatschappij along with two other Dutch words for community gemeenschap, which also means intercourse, and samenleving join together on a conceptual level economic activity and intimate relations. All three words for society imply mutual knowledge, intimacy, and a shared orientation; they rest on a “sense of ‘that person is one of us.’Samenleving, which is a conjunction of samen and leving, gestures more explicitly toward kinship. Samen shares the same etymological roots as same and leving (the act of living) derives from the Proto-Germanic word for body. Samenleving presupposes a certain kinship through the privileging of bodies that are alike.

The linkage between economic activity and kinship is articulated concretely in Debora Silverman’s essay Weaving Paintings: Religious and Social Origins of Vincent van Gogh’s Pictorial Labor. She observes that “Dutch economic progress through the mid-nineteenth century unfolded with a corporate nexus of connected families.” She further notes, that the “Dutch economy of corporate connection exhibited interesting mixtures of entrepreneurial adventurism, civic duty, financial advantage and religious imperative.”

Viviana Zelizer lays out lucidly in The Purchase of Intimacy how we use money to manage intimate ties, and communicate, to those around us, the extend of the connections that unfold. We establish, cultivate, and strengthen (or loosen) intimate ties through economic connections. “Our emotional relations and interactions,” Joyce Davidson and Christine Milligan write, “weave through and help form the fabric of our unique personal geographies.” These personal geographies help us orientate ourselves in our environment. Moreover, they help us discern how close to or distant we are from other people, while we strive for coherence. Not too long ago the tangle of intimate ties and economic connections became apparent—yet again—when Dutch politics explicitly entertained the question: How much does an Allochtoon cost?

The networks that emerge through the interplay between economic activities and intimacy act as a normative grid, saturated with racial energy. Civil society coheres politically “through the violence of black erasure”—for example, through anti-Black immigration policies aimed at discouraging immigrants from coming to the Netherlands to “take advantage of the welfare system.” Anti-black violence, thus, “manifests as the monumentalization and fortification of civil society against social death.”

Instead of regarding civil participation uncritically as a general good, we should ask ourselves, who gets to participate, and on which, and whose, terms—and more importantly: should we participate? Only a certain kind of civil participation is equated with “empowerment.” Protests, for instance, are not perceived as legitimate actions of civil participation. What does participation mean when White Autochtoon Dutch folk have a monopoly on political participation—when “White democracy is a democracy based on exclusionism and an organizational monopolization of political participation”? Civil participation, as conceptualized by the government, is geared toward the consolidation of White supremacy. As the mayor of Amsterdam recently let know those of us who break the rules are morally deficient, and socially inferior.