Labour recruiters as Lumpen-brokers

Monday, 27 March, 2023 - 16:00

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This is the final chapter of my recently published book Touts: Recruiting Indentured Labor in the Gulf of Guinea where I propose a provisional theory of labour recruiters as "lumpen-brokers", both because the usually illegal labour recruiters or "touts" were seen and maligned as sordid declassé brokers, but also to signal the reverse: those they recruited were very much a type of what Marx called the “honest and ‘working’ lumpenproletariat", and touts in turn could also act very much in their collective interest, as their "brokers", in situations where syndicalism could not appear. I refine this well-worn and sometimes eyebrow-raising concept in relation to what Georges Balandier called the “colonial situation” – the term he coined to designate the “dislocation of traditional groupings, the appearance of social classes, the nature and role of the proletariat, etc.” – by recovering the early but failed post-colonial attempts to develop it, in particular Peter Worsley’s 1972 essay “Fanon and the Lumpenproletariat” and the study of “rogues of vagabonds” in the African and labour history that seemed to be more fixated with class composition. The argument is that this salvaged concept contains a unique analytic for understanding the historical emergence and transformations of labour markets. The distinctly frenzied, erratic, shifting and escalating commercial techniques of recruiters squarely belong to the lumpenproletariat. While the lumpen concept has partial parallels in other theoretical traditions, it is unique because Marx specifies its “financial science”, or the promises of “gifts and loans,” as he says in the Eighteenth Brumaire. The combination of lumpen and brokers goes beyond the socio-economic aspect of the broker as a mediator of simple exchange or circulation or the lumpen as a criminal or outcast object of social opprobrium and invisibility, and gives them an almost excessively productive, but accurate, role in the colonial economy as it unfolded and imploded through its undercurrents.

*I also append, as a supplement for context, the short conclusion of the book, which flows out from this final lumpen chapter and provides a concise historical summary of the studied recruiting networks and techniques, especially in colonial Nigeria, but valid, it would seem, across various islands and enclaves of indenture and contract labour in global history.

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