“Where is the working class? It’s all over the world today”: Jairus Banaji in conversation with Sheetal Chhabria and Andrew Liu
The following conversation took place in December 2020. On the occasion of Jairus Banaji’s latest publication, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism, Sheetal Chhabria and Andrew B. Liu spoke to contextualize his work within a multi-decade trajectory of history, theory, and labor organization, across Europe and Asia. We noted the particular significance of an original intervention developed by Banaji in the 1970s, taking aim at the orthodox Marxist equation between capitalism and ‘free wage labor.’ Whereas the wage constitutes a particular ‘mode of exploitation,’ he argued in 1977, ‘capitalism’ points toward an epochal ‘mode of production,’ which is more capacious and universal.
The distinction thereby enables scholars to expand their vision of capitalism’s history, from the classical story centered on the urban north Atlantic to other societies and periods fueled by agrarian, unfree, and the nominally independent working classes. Sheetal Chhabria and Andrew Liu also touch upon Banaji’s early influences, transformations in theory and global capitalism since the 1970s, and the relevance of theory and history for political imagination in 2020... Listen on Spotify, Stitcher and Apple or click below:
The transcript has been slightly modified from the audio original; [brackets] indicate new information added after the recording had taken place.
Sheetal Chhabria (SC): Jairus, your work has been deeply influential for me and, I'm sure, for Andy as well. I remember reading as a graduate student a bunch of your essays, and I was particularly struck by the way in which you attended to the history of capitalism in a very longue durée. You were keen to decenter Eurocentric origin stories, you wanted the non-teleological account. I recently read a sort of unpublished essay of yours in which you talked about these family firms that managed and controlled Indian Ocean networks. All that stuff was hugely influential for me. And probably most importantly was the fact that you parochialize the wage form and wage labor.
But in addition to that, I just wanted to say, what strikes me most about your work is how empirically rich it is. And I use it as a model when I try to think about writing my own histories, because you tell deep empirical stories that have huge conceptual implications.
Because of all that and because your work is so sort of heavy, we were curious to know what made you do what you do. How did you come to be a historian? What were your influences? Why did you take up these kinds of questions?
Jairus Banaji (JB): So, I grew up in in Bombay until my parents decided to emigrate to the UK, which was around 1962, when I would have been . So, they took me across to England and I finished my schooling there, in a South London working-class school, a so-called comprehensive school, which was a pretty violent place in many ways. I mean, the kids were quite violent [and I usually stayed in the classroom during the breaks].
I first went to Oxford in Michaelmas term of 65. I did Lit. Hum [Literae Humaniores], which includes Classics, Ancient History, and Modern Philosophy. It's a four-year course, broken into 12 terms. After the first five terms, you do an exam in Classics, and then the rest of the course deals with history and modern philosophy. In a sense, those were formative influences because they forced you to address sectors which are otherwise studied independently. Classics was mainly literature, that’s Greek and Latin literature; the ancient history didn't go down to the late antique period, it usually stopped around the second or third century; and then modern philosophy, which I actually found quite repellent in some ways. That's what turned me to Hegel and Sartre….
Listen / read Part Two here