Accidental Labour

In my second year of college we had a paper called Comparative Government and Politics. The syllabus of this paper was faithful to the Cold War – two massive units were dedicated to the United States and the former USSR respectively. The information imbalance between these two heavyweights was such however that ‘good’ books on the Soviet Union were very few in number – they were carefully prescribed in class, jealously guarded in the reference section of the college library, and issued only to the quick and the deserving. When we reached the U.S unit however, the teacher gave up and we were left like a pack of wild dogs to run through the entire general section, and issue what caught our fancy.

This unsupervised reading on the United States proved to be one of the most useful accidents in my life, and I want to keep returning to the word ‘accident’ in this post. In the general section I stumbled upon a little gem on the American political system by an man called E.S Greenberg which changed the way I thought about the U.S, and about capitalism and modernity forever. On first glance I thought I had struck gold as far as exams are concerned – the book looked compact and had useful-sounding chapters on the history of the U.S, the electoral system, American culture, political economy and so on. But in fact as I started reading it, I realised it was a completely unusual book, and would have almost certainly never been prescribed. It told the entire ‘story of America’ through the history of industrial accidents. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed logical to narrate national history in this way. Starting from first-hand accounts of workers in hazardous industries and mines during America’s first industrialisation, it moved to ‘safer’ industries in the 20th century, painstakingly recounting both qualitatively and statistically the record of lethal or near-lethal workplace accidents that went into making American capitalism what it is today. Limbs severed, lungs punctured, faces burnt in sudden fires, spines snapped with extra load, fingers numbed by repetitive work processes, brains dulled and reflexes slowed down by noxious industrial gases…it seemed like when Greenberg thought of this book, he had no idea himself that the material simply wouldn’t end – the statistics are staggering. This history was then woven into the history of a rapidly expanding capitalist power at the turn of the century, and further into an analysis of the American electoral system. There was no sentimentality, just damning and systematic analysis of all the connections between hazardous labour and the glory of nations that we work so hard at forgetting. As Ernest Renan, the pioneering scholar of nationalism reminds us, simultaneous remembering and forgetting is the most serious business a nation can indulge in.

To me, at eighteen as now, its clear that Greenberg’s book was an act of love and rage – the only sensible response to the blotting out of the brutal history of death and crippling ‘accidents’ which are routine facts of workers’ everyday lives. All over the world, then as now, workers are brutalised, worn down to the bone and exposed to the most horrific conditions routinely – conditions that would invite screams of human rights abuse if they were to suddenly appear in front of ordinary citizens…how appropriate is it to continue to use the word ‘accident’ in these circumstances? Notions of who is/are expendable are structured quite deeply into our unconscious minds, there are no ‘accidental’ emotions there. Two days ago, a fire in the Lakhani shoe factory left six dead and 30 in hospital.

This news story appeared on the city supplement of one paper, while the front pages were filled with workers’ hooliganism against Haryana CM Hooda and the subsequent lathicharge they ‘invited’. This is how our GDP is created – by boiler blasts and lathicharges, by long-term worker genocide. Our democracy has come down to shiny happy people holding hands and wagging a finger at us to vote because, after 26/11, ‘enough is enough’. Clearly the Lakhani fire, or Bhopal or the thousands of workers dying at work every week has not been, for the past sixty years. Try calling the Mumbai terror attack an ‘accident’.

10 thoughts on “Accidental Labour”

  1. one of the most well articulated articles i have read on kafila. true, history is not about how stories are told and in what way, but also those whose stories are not told or even ignored. third rate textbooks and the rigid approach to the discipline reduces it to simply “selective forgetfulness.” a profound way of reflecting on seemingly “unimportant issues” such as worker conditions in india . thank you for the post.


    1. good story about disregard of human life for the quest for profit and enrichment in America. The same has been the history of capitalism in India whether it is recent deaths at Lakhani, killing of thousands in Bhopal or accidents in mines in India some decades ago – chasnala where more than 350 labourers were trapped and killed. This has been the history of captialist accumulation since its inception in all countries. It is recorded that when Industrial revolution was raging in britain, to get cheap labour in cities, the government carrried out a process of forcible eviction of millions of farmers from their lands to compel them to go to citities and offer cheap labour. This was called the land ‘enclsoures movment’. Nearer home we find the same in ruin of farmers in India and a prallel process in communsit china.


  2. Assad, thanks very much; I can’t remember the last time worker conditions were an election issue as far as the media are concerned. Our only contact with labour in the main pages of any newspaper (apart from so-called accidents and industrial action gone wrong) is the employment classifieds, which are situated in a rosy world of interview tips and workplace motivation. This in a world in which less than a quarter of the global workforce will ever have to worry about which shirt to wear for the interview; where the limbs and bodies recruited will, if they are lucky, be thrown into a space of hazardous and repetitive work for life. If unlucky, the limbs will hang around in labour haats and illegal immigrant colonies for life, shifting from one occasional ‘job’ to another. And as your rightly point out, our history textbooks are completely complicit…


  3. Great post, Sunalini. Knowing the folks who make up Kafila, you must by now have been offered this reference, but if not: I think you might enjoy reading Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey, where among (many wonderful) other things, there are two chapters on the accident… I remember there being something in there about how pre-industrial accidents were natural calamities, they attacked people and society form the outside. But after the Industrial
    Revolution, accidents became internal, they were part and parcel of the technology that humans now lived with.


  4. Thanks Trisha. I actually didnt know about this reference, but it sounds great. Will look it up. It is amazing as you say, that such ‘industrial’ levels of worker death and disfigurement should coexist with the humanism of our age…


  5. It seems as though the corporate and industrial world have a law of their own, and it’s the government that takes time to figure out how the laws of this world is different and abusive, and only in time after a lot of consideration are new laws drafted to rein in the abusive practices of companies. Not only factory workers, but high-ranking corporate professionals are also expendable — not to belittle the grave and routine injustices done to factory workers. The world is still not prepared to rein in forces of capitalism and tell them what to do rather than figure out what to do after enough has been done. In this era of unprecedented humanism (and I believe that), we still have such a long way to go!


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