The People Without History

A while back I was told that the workers in some slaughterhouse in Kansas were all laid off when management decided to close up shop and decamp to other parts. My reaction was: Well, finally some good news! Only after a few seconds of awkwardness did I realize that the proper reaction was one of somber bemoaning of the state of the economy, the absence of job security in our precarious age, etc. But honestly, if it comes down to minimizing the disgrace of the factory-farming industry versus preserving the jobs of slaughterers, I know where I stand, and it is not with the working class. From my point of view, the dignity of animal lives trumps the need for human jobs as an absolute good to be fought for, and to be preferred wherever the two are in conflict with one another. The same goes, and even more so, for any conflict between the interests of indigenous peoples and the interests of any other constituency, of any class, that encroaches upon them.

It often seems as if the Left is still stuck in a moment of the not too distant past in which it made sense to glorify a certain kind of labor (of a certain species)– namely, industrial labor. This is a kind of labor that was new in the 19th century, and that inspired many statues and public murals in the early-to-mid-20th century. It is the kind of labor that gave rise to the labor movement, and to all of that movement’s laudable gains. For a while, it seemed like such a world-changing form of life that many people took it to be one of only two social classes that mattered, and a good portion of the world was consequently transformed on the presumption that it was the historical destiny of this class to govern the affairs of all men.

But rather than simply assuming that all varieties of industrial –or, somewhat more broadly, of blue-collar– labor are worthy of equal valorization simply in view of the class membership of the laborer, I would much prefer a perspective on labor that takes into consideration what is being labored towards. And where the telos is indefensible, I would rather not feel obligated to defend labor simply because it is labor. After all, is it not a gross perversion of the laudable aims that brought labor unions into existence to see employees of the American prison industry gaining job security for themselves through collective bargaining? Can anyone honestly say that a victory for prison guards in a state like California –where 27 times more money is spent on juvenile detainees in the criminal justice system than on students in the public school system– is a victory for oppressed peoples?

The industrial proletariat, I mean to say, has no particular grip on my sense of justice, when right alongside it –frequently as a condition of its thriving– we find millions of disenfranchised prisoners, and billions of domesticated animals, all of whose lives consist in unmitigated suffering from beginning to end. Moving from the American to the global context, we find labor –the labor of blue-collar oil industry workers, logging-industry workers, miners, ranch-hands, and so on– coming up against the interests of people who have never yet had so much as the opportunity to enter the working class. They’ve never worked at all! They are the people Marx thought were beyond the pale of history, the people who can’t even be cast as extras in the grand play of class conflict. Again, here, I know which side I’m on.

There is nothing worse for members of pre-labor communities, particularly indigenous and nomadic peoples, than to be forced by dint of circumstance into a social world that recognizes only the working class and the various gradations of the upper class: management, ownership, and so on. Forced to enter a social world that recognizes only these distinctions, they of course come in at the sub-basement level, and they are despised for being so unable to get their acts together that they can’t even make it as common laborers.

They are the drunk Inuit on the streets of Montreal, the Roma in France, the Indian slum-dwellers in urban Mexico. With their hand-me-down Salvation Army clothing, their knock-off sports garb and vestimentary advertisements for products and wrestlers they likely know nothing about, these people can easily appear as very poor representatives of the working class, as low-end proletariat.

But this is an illusion: in fact, where they come from a class designation like this means nothing, and they only get assimilated to the lowest of the lower class of the class-stratified society because they have to be placed somewhere or other, and clearly are not going to be permitted to be absorbed directly into, say, the middle-management class. A homeless, alcoholic, urban Inuit sports some of the symbols beloved of members of the working class, but these symbols are no more accurate a measure of his class background than a knock-off Versailles fountain in a Jersey Shore suburb is a reliable indicator of aristocracy. They are not Lumpenproletariat, or sorry excuses for workers, but something entirely different. In fact, they are frequently the first to be harmed by the promotion of the interests of those with gainful employment. It is my belief that these are the people most in need of protection and of defense, and indeed glorification in the old sense that once caused statues to be commissioned, both because they are themselves the most exposed and defenseless, and also because they offer a valuable model for the construction of a society beyond the boring and plainly inadequate choice between the glorification of factory workers and the glorification of bankers.

When revolutionary ideology was extended to parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, that lacked an industrial proletariat, the role of the peasantry in revolutionary change was correspondingly elevated in order to compensate for the absence of one of the members of the desired ‘worker-peasant alliance’. But from Romania to Cambodia the fundamental precondition of transforming the peasantry into a usefully revolutionary class was that they be fully sedentarized, counted, registered, and in various other ways made ‘legible’, to use James C. Scott’s felicitous term, by the state. Revolutionary ideology has, then, generally held up the industrial worker as the key player in social transformation, but has dipped down where necessary to have the peasantry play the transformative role, while stipulating conditions on how the peasants must first themselves be transformed in order to be ready to do this. No revolutionary thinker has ever contended that there is a transformative force to be harnessed in the form of social life of entirely nomadic and document-less pastoralists, let alone the social life of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers. Curiously, while Marx thought the final stage of history would amount to a sort of return to humanity’s initial state (‘primitive communism’), Marx and his successors never supposed that our own era’s ‘primitive communists’ had any place in the transformations about to take place. You can’t be an agent of history, the presumption went, if your form of life places you outside of history altogether.

I believe that much of the ongoing neglect of indigenous rights throughout the world has to do with a widespread perception among people at all points on the political spectrum, inherited from the Enlightenment view of history accepted by Marx and many others, that people who are not (at least) workers cannot be significant actors in the making of history and in the modeling of society. But there are many things we now know, in the age of ecological crisis, that remained occluded from the view of high Enlightenment thinkers. For one thing, we know that there is far too much work being done in the world. There is in fact very little labor that does not chip away at the delicate balance of the ecosystem, as anyone who has tried to secure an environmentally friendly mutual fund can affirm.

It seems odd, given this brute fact, to continue supposing that labor can show the way forward for world history. Under the circumstances, it seems that it is precisely the people who have managed to stay outside of history, in a certain admirable sense, who should be held up, if not as a vanguard of active transformation of the world, at least as an exemplar of how others might transform themselves. Indigenous peoples then –the ones without papers, without fixed addresses, and most importantly without jobs– need to be defended not only because they are the most vulnerable members of our global society, and not only because we owe it to them, but also because they provide a possible model for how to get out of the dismal situation we’ve created for ourselves with all this hard work and history-making.

For further reading:

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, London, 1974.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 2009.

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, University of California Press, 1982.

Justin Erik Halldór Smith is Associate Professor and Graduate Programme Director in the Department of Philosophy, Concordia University in Montréal, Québec, Canada. He can be reached through his blog

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