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JOHAN MATHEW (Rutgers University) 

Historicizing Human Capital: Rickshaws, Narcotics, and a

Global History of Labor


17 January 2022 | 3pm GMT

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This paper attempts a pre-history of "human capital." It examines the neoliberal concept of human capital seriously but critically, drawing particularly on Marxist-feminist analyses of social reproduction and studies of racial capitalism. I argue that a re-appropriation of human capital as a concept might provide important insights into the history of migrant labor and the ways that capitalist enterprises attempted to manage the physiology and the sociality of their laborers. The opium or cannabis-smoking rickshaw pullers of colonial Singapore, Bombay and Durban are examined as case studies of how the physiology of human bodies was a central concern of employers. Moreover, this history suggests that rickshaw owners treated pullers as capital goods which generated returns rather than sellers of abstract labor power. Aging pullers were yoked to rickety rickshaws while young pullers manned newer vehicles on routes and at times that maximized returns to capital investment.

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Johan Mathew is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (University of California Press 2016), and numerous articles and chapters on the history of the Indian Ocean world. He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled Opiates of the Masses: A Biography of Human Capital.

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