The Dutch scholars Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden recently argued that “the real norm or standard in global capitalism is insecurity, informality or precariousness”. If this is the case, 20th century Africa could be seen as a model case for global capitalism. In this presentation I argue that Africa represents a context in which capitalist production regimes and their related forms of employment have confronted social practices and cultural forms that questioned the normative pretenses of the wage relation and challenged the universalism inherent in ideologies of “free” commodity-producing work. The history of wage, precarious, casual, and informal labor in Africa rather brings into sharp relief the exceptionality and contingengy of the social conditions through which capitalist employment can be conducive to socially inclusive deals. The penetration of wage labor across the continent was uneven, delayed, and contested, as it responded to highly localized social processes and coexisted with complex non-capitalist relations. Even where wages relatively quickly became the dominant form of income, as in mining or transportation nodes in urban centers, African workers chose casual labor, despite its precariousness, in opposition to more regular workplace rhythms. Although capital drew significant advances from such arrangements, which allowed for remarkable flexibility and containment of labor costs, they also persistently represented a challenge to capitalist control of the labor force. Finally, work in the capitalist sector was enabled by considerable degrees of coercion, usually carried out by authoritarian colonial states armed with racial ideologies of domination and hierarchical visions of the social order in which African elders and notables played despotic roles while colonized working populations were relegated to manual labor.
In essence, I argue that the history of different labor forms in Africa – as well as how they were categorized in much of the scholarly work on the continent - have a great deal to offer by way of lessons to both the study of capitalism and of labor interested in tracing the historical connections between regions and in critically engaging with the idea of the North Atlantic World as “normal“ and the rest as “exceptional“ and “in need of explanation“. If our historical analysis of capitalism has to transcend the notion of a single telos modelled after the example of the West, that is supposed to be achieved everywhere, or if we are to go beyond the conception that the non-realization of this telos represents somehow a “lack“ or a ”lag“ in the societies concerned to understanding their specific examples coevally – to echo Johannes Fabian’s insight – with that of the West, then we must take the different social forms – in this case particularly of labor – in Africa seriously in all their complexity, and all their linkages with labor forms elsewhere.