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Empire of Innovation: Rethinking Abolition, Labor, and Freedom in British India and Beyond

The abolition of slavery in the British empire made available a global vocabulary of critique for a variety of unfreedoms – not only of formal systems of owning human beings as property but of coerced labor in general. This official commitment to anti-slavery on moral grounds was furthermore accompanied by the ascendence of ideas of political economy that insisted that free, consenting wage labor was more efficient than enslaved and unfree labor. However, much scholarship has demonstrated that the capitalist global economy in fact continued (and continues) to rely on multiple forms of unwaged and coerced labor – both new and old. This paradox drives the analysis for the book and generates my central question: how were agents of the British empire able to stave off a variety of institutional and political forces that emerged to censure and seek to eliminate all forms of slavery, coerced labor, and labor exploitation? Specifically, how did they deflect the countervailing forces of anti-slavery legislation, freedom of contract laws, state welfare reforms, and finally social movements?


Empire of Innovation argues that colonial regimes had to be innovative. Centering the case of British India, I focus on a set of “innovations” that were not cutting-edge technologies, novel forms of manipulating production processes, or methods of spatially reorganizing activities. Rather these were stories told and retold about different racial subjects and their capacity to consent – how it could be proven and when it could be assumed. The three innovations I theorize in the South Asian context are racial slavery, the labor contract, and the customary relationship. The analysis culminates in the interwar years, a period I characterize as a “second abolition” moment when anti-slavery sentiment was again resurgent on the international stage. I show how imperial agents carried these innovations with them to the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization (ILO), ensconcing them in documents foundational to twentieth century labor governance. This historical analysis offers an explanation for the persistence of the many forms of unfree labor regnant in the global economy today.

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