In the Present Tense

Saturday May 20, 4.15-5.30 pm

Moderator: Thomas DeAngelis

Joshua Price, “Jail, Bail or Marronage?”
Rasheed Olaniyi, “Boko Haram and Modern Slavery in Nigeria”
Sandipto Dasgupta, “The Construction of ‘Free Labor’: A Story of Legal Definitions from Postcolonial India”

Joshua Price, “Jail, Bail or Marronage?”

This essay explores two notions of freedom. Both are framed in terms of a carceral state in the unstable current moment of liberal reform. The first notion is freedom as freedom-from-debt, taking the contemporary jail, the U.S. bail system, and the Justice Department’s Report on Ferguson as paradigmatic: our jails are full of people, disproportionately people of color and disproportionately poor because (a) they are too poor to make bail or (b) they have been incarcerated because they have not been able to pay fines from tickets or warrants issued as a form of municipal fundraising (U.S. Justice Department Report on Ferguson). Along these lines, several contemporary commentators have likened jails to modern debtors’ prisons.  Pending lawsuits that may be heard by the Supreme Court have argued that the U.S. bail system (an anomaly in the world) is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. To see freedom from jail as freedom from debt, and freedom as equality before the law, is to frame freedom in negative terms, to use Isaiah Berlin’s formulation: freedom is unencumbered. Arguably, agency is un- or under-theorized in this account of freedom. The essay will review the evidence as well as the jurisprudential principles that underlie this notion of freedom, illustrated by examples from the author’s ethnographic and activist work on jails in New York. This position is not without its virtues and explanatory power: keeping a poor, disproportionately racialized Other imprisoned is a cornerstone of maintaining neo-liberal, capitalist, heteronormative white supremacy firmly in place.

This account will be contrasted with Neil Roberts’ notion of freedom-as-marronage. In Robert’s typology, freedom is linked to the flight of the slave. His is a dynamic and dialectical understanding, grounded not only in the individual escaping to the mountains but also mass revolution and reconfiguration of individual and collective agency, what he terms sociogenic marronage. To substantiate his claims, he draws on an array of thinkers and examples, including the Haitian Revolution and people who have theorized it. He grounds his account in a Black freedom tradition. Agency is central. “Theories of freedom from modernity’s underside,” he asserts, “disclose alternative transmodern solutions for agents seeking to subvert the omnipresent dialectics of slavery and mastery” (21).

Ultimately, this essay aims to take up this claim: how do these different notions of freedom – freedom-from-debt and freedom-as-marronage — point to different goals in the anti-prison, anti-jail movement? What tactics or strategies does each notion suggest? Which tactics or understandings does each eschew? Does it offer a useful lens to survey and evaluate contemporary anti-state violence movements?

Joshua Price is Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is the author of several books, including Prison and Social Death(Rutgers, 2015), Structural Violence: Hidden Brutality in the Lives of Women(SUNY, 2012) and coeditor of After Prisons? Freedom, Decarceration, and Justice Disinvestment (Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington 2016). From 2004 – 2007, he directed the NAACP’s Broome County (New York) Jail Health Care Project. In 2006, he co-founded the Southern Tier Social Justice Project to advocate for formerly incarcerated people. For his advocacy on behalf of incarcerated people, the Broome/Tioga County NAACP has honored him as Citizen of the Year and the New York State Assembly has cited him for “Outstanding Commitment to the Civil Rights of New Yorkers.”


Rasheed Olaniyi, “Boko Haram and Modern Slavery in Nigeria”

The escalation of Boko Haram violent conflicts in Nigeria has intensified the phenomenon of modern slavery, particularly in the northern part of the country where refugees fleeing conflict and terrorism have generated a humanitarian crisis. Modern slavery in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa was enabled by deteriorating economic conditions, violent conflict, territorial displacement and environmental crises. The anti-modern slavery organisation, Walk Free Foundation in the Global Slavery Index 2016 rated Nigeria top among 167 countries with most enslaved people. The havoc of Boko Haram has made Nigeria more enslaved people than any other country in West Africa with 875,500 out of 6,228,800 in Africa and 45.8 million in the world. Following the examples of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram kidnapped and enslaved women and children for sexual slavery, suicide bombing, forced labour in the domestic sector and forced marriages.  Boko Haram echoed slave-taking practices of girls and young women for sexual purposes by Algerian Islamists in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since the abduction of 276 high school girls in Chibok, Borno state, Nigeria, in 2014, Boko Haram has demonstrated that slavery was a way of handling prisoners-of-war. Boko Haram carved out a sphere of influence and territory for slaving raiding and kidnapping. This paper argues that modern slavery practice of Boko Haram is a reflection of how widespread the phenomenon has been in Nigeria.  The paper employs the Marxian political economy approach to discuss economic contradictions and failure of postcolonial economic development strategies which created loopholes for modern slavery. It argues that the soaring rate of enslaved people demonstrated the reversal slave mode of production that has become widespread in the region. This paper explains how terrorism shaped the contours of modern slavery in Nigeria, in particular the northeastern region that was poor by regional and global standards became poorer.  It contributes to the ongoing debate on the political, social and economic consequences of Boko Haram insurgency. The risks and hazards of terrorism threatened everyday lives and livelihoods of vulnerable households, women and young girls some of whom were enslaved or sold into slavery.

Rasheed Olaniyi is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Sub-Dean (Postgraduate) Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan. He earned his PhD from Bayero University, Kano in 2004.  He is the author of Diaspora Is Not Like Home:  A Social and Economic History of Yoruba in Kano, 1912-1999 (Muenchen, Germany: Lincom Europa, 2008) and Community Vigilantes in Metropolitan Kano, 1985-2005 (IFRA Ibadan, 2005). In the summer of 2008, he was a Visiting Scholar of African History at the Kennesaw State University, Georgia, USA. He was Visiting Professor of African History, Pan African University (PAUWES), Tlemcen, Algeria, February-March, 2015. Olaniyi has contributed chapters in books and articles in journals on urbanisation, migration, diaspora, Child labour, Women trafficking and intergroup relations. Olaniyi is a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS); Member, CODESRIA, Dakar Senegal; Senior Fellow, French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA), University of Ibadan and Fellow, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


Sandipto Dasgupta, “The Construction of ‘Free Labor’: A Story of Legal Definitions from Postcolonial India”

This paper would investigate the intellectual and legal history of the category of ‘free labor’ at the moment of postcolonial transition in India. The various mechanisms for exploitation and disciplining of labor explicitly sanctioned under colonial rule – including forced labor for public works, criminal mandates for labor contracts and debt bondage – meant that the questions of ‘free’ labor became entangled with what it meant to be a free citizen of postcolonial India. This forced those tasked with the creation of the legal foundation for the postcolonial regime to define what constituted unfree labor. The paper would investigate the tensions that such an attempt generated through the lens of the formulation of Article 23 of the Indian Constitution that sought to proscribe ‘forced labor’, and the subsequent legal and political challenges that it has given rise to.

Both industrial and agrarian production in late colonial India was maintained through a structure of varied and composite forms of domination of labor. These so-called ‘informal’ networks of domination did not represent an aberration of the ‘formal’ labor market of ‘freely’ negotiated contracts but rather what constituted the latter. In such a context, a clear separation between formally free and unfree labor in its ideal typical sense was impossible to institute without restructuring how the entire economy was organized and maintained.

In the usual story that is told, the abstraction of the concept of free labor understood through the lens of contract and consent ignores the concrete particularities of unfreedom in the social condition. However, faced with the problem mentioned above, the postcolonial elite in this context sought to tie the legal definition of ‘forced labor’ to examples of particular forms of coercion explicitly sanctioned by colonial law. On the other hand, those arguing for a more emancipatory conception of ‘free labor’ sought to push for a broader theoretical consideration of what ‘freedom’ in relation to labor could potentially mean.

The most significant version of the latter within the Constituent Assembly came from B.R. Ambedkar, who, belonging to the marginalized ‘untouchable’ strata of the Indian caste hierarchy was especially alive to the intricate networks of domination and exploitation in the Indian social condition. He sought to construe ‘slavery’ and ‘serfdom’ beyond the narrow particularities of colonial legal mechanisms, presenting a theory of unfree labor that was informed by the social history of India, yet situated within the contested global legacy of emancipation from slavery – from plantation colonies to reconstruction era United States. The paper would reconstruct these debates to present a historicized story of the construction of the category of ‘free labor’ in the moment of postcolonial transition. It would also show how the attempt of the elites to seek a juridical closure to the question of ‘free labor’ by tying it to colonial domination eventually came undone, generating legal contradictions and political struggles around Article 23 – especially regarding the questions of debt and servanthood –, problematizing the supposed distinctions between formal and informal labor in contemporary India.

Sandipto Dasgupta  is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, New Delhi who received their PhD in Political Theory from Columbia University. Before returning to India, Dasgupta was a Lecturer for Social Studies at Harvard University and a Newton International Fellow of the Royal Society and the British Academy, based in King’s College London. They also worked as a Judicial Clerk at the Supreme Court of India. A monograph based on their dissertation work, on the history of constitutional thought in the postcolonial world, is currently under review at Cambridge University Press.