Bose, Sugata ‘A Hundred Horizons’

A hundred horizons

The tens of thousands of desperate, displaced and unskilled workers shuffling around in the slums of Karachi, and selling their services to the hundreds of garment factories in the city has had me thinking about labor as a commodity. I am trying to understand the history of unskilled labor as an export and domestic commodity in the service of industry, and how policies and priorities effective create this commodity. We have to understand the continuities of practice and the economic, social and political arrangements that create this vast pool of exploitable labor, and the social injustices that go with the practice. When a nation’s major industries depend on the presence of a large number of unskilled and exploitable labor, we have to ask how this labor pool is created and maintained, and what decisions ensure its continued availability.

Sugata Bose’s book has a detailed discussion about the use of the indentured labor during the British rule over India. As Bose points out in Chapter 3 of this wonderfully provocative and surprising book:

India was the source of some of the largest circular migrations of labor in the modern world. The abolition of slavery gave rise to insistent demands for Indian indentured labor from the 1830s onwards…Within the Indian Ocean arena streams of colonially regulated Indian laborers were exported in the century spanning 1830s to the 1930s. In particular, these countries received approximately the following number of workers: Ceylon 2,321,000: Mayala, 1,911,000; Burma, 1,164,000; Mauritius, 455,000; Natal, 153,000; Reunion, 75,000; and East Africa, 39,500. The corresponding numbers of Indian laborers migrating to the Atlantic and Pacific worlds during this period were: British Guiana, 239,000; Trinidad, 150,000; Jamaica, 39,000; other British West Indies, 11,000; French Caribbean, 79,000; Dutch Guiana, 35,000; and Fiji, 61,000…There were undoubtably certain analogies, if not global uniformities, of forms of labor in the plantation complex worldwide.

What is fascinating to me as I read Bose’s account of the movement of Indian labor across the globe, is the thought process that reduces the Indian to merely a human commodity. This labor served industries whose products served the advanced markets of the European world. It extracted raw resources, and was in itself a raw resource in the service of European markets. Eventually, the availability of this labor became intrinsic to the operations of the European industrial machinery, just as the markets of the East become essential for its growth and profits. And just as I have argued elsewhere, it wasn’t that Europe charged ahead and left behind the other nations because of industrialization. It charged ahead and left other nations behind because its industrial machinery needed the other nation’s to feed it their raw resources, and their human labor. The modernization of Europe because of industrialization came at the price of de-modernization and de-industrialization of the rest of the world. (See reference below)

That pattern – the creation of a vast labor pool of low-skilled labor that works to produce products and extract raw materials for the service of the more advanced markets of the West, remains true even today. The continuities of economic and social thought may explain the inability of nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh to advance beyond being merely low-skill labor marketplaces for the more affluent nations. I continue to explore these questions as I attempt to understand the forces that enable Pakistan’s vast pool of commodity labor. Sugata Bose’s book – beautifully and humbly written, is provocative and insightful.

As an aside: the chapters on Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore are two of my favorites, and offer a powerful reminder of the universalism and pluralism that underpinned the thought and ideas of these two amazing Indian men. Teaching Pakistanis about their lives, their aspirations, and their world view would be a powerful antidote to the provincial, shallow, exclusivist and terribly reductive ideas we hold today about our identity and sense of self.

Reference: David, Mike Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines And The Making Of The Third World Verso Books 2002