The Hidden Abodes of Production. Labour, commodities and repertoires of evaluation in the European eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Conference, 19-20 February 2015, Antwerp, Belgium



Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. – Karl Marx

Research and debate on workers’ alienation and estrangement during the industrial revolutions has in its heydays in the 1970s and 1980s predominantly focused on technological, organizational and managerial transformations. From a Marxist point of view, the loss of control over the means of production and the division of labour remained the fulcrum around which alienation could be explained in a setting of disciplinary practises and deskilling processes. Harry Braverman drew on his long experiences as a factory worker to explain the long-term tendency of homogenisation of labour in the execution of industrial production. His work Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) caused heated debates among labour historians, political economists and sociologists. Subsequently, discussions during the ‘cultural turn’ have helped to appreciate the importance and relative autonomy of perceptions of and discourses on labour - whether from outside or from the workers themselves. E.P. Thompson brought the workers’ agency in the production process to light, and emphasized the importance of extra-economic elements in the transformation of concrete labour into labour power – i.e., moral conventions, social status, community ties. Nonetheless, theoretical debates on alienation and commodity fetishism notwithstanding, historians have refrained from examining the practical and at the same time imagined and discursive connections which artisans and workers forged with raw material and the products of their labour. How did the relationship of artisans and workers with their materials and products change during periods of economic transformation?

The organisers of this conference intend to enter that terra incognita by studying the importance of cultural practices and repertoires of evaluation in material processes of production and the construction of product value. To that end, labour will be related to every day practices on the shop floor, political discourses on labour skills and product values, the changing conditions of the workplace, and changing relations, practices and sources of power.

This conference attempts to adopt a comparative angle between European regions. Doing so, this angle can promote further de-limitations of heterodox, integrative approaches:

  1. the perception of labour skills and the assessment and construction of product values;
  2. the repertoires of evaluation concerning the relation between labour and the exchangeable commodity;
  3. different forms of alienation and microphysical relations of power and conventions in the putting-out networks, manufactures and factories during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
  4. continuities and changes in the political discourse on labour processes and institutional reforms.



General arrangements:

  1. There are no registration fees for this conference. Guests attending the conference must register before 02/15/2015 by e-mail to
  2. Lunches and reception are by the courtesy of the organising institutions.

 University of Antwerp, Department of History - The Centre for Urban History, City Campus, Grote Kauwenberg 18, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium,

 Thursday, February 19 (City Campus, Klooster van de Grauwzusters)

12.00-14.00 Welcoming lunch and registration (participants and guests)

14.00-14.15 Opening Speech: Bert De Munck (University of Antwerp)

14.15-15.15 Key note lecture: Richard Biernacki (UC San Diego)

Labor Practices in the Abode of Production as Repertoires for Intercourse

15.15-16.00 Leonard Rosenband (Utah State University)

Always Industrious: A Shopfloor Perspective on Early Modern European Paperworkers

16.00-16.30 Afternoon break

16.30-17.15 Thomas Max Safley (University of Pennsylvania)

Mercury and Miners between Markets and Monopoly: The Political Economy of Strategic Metal Production in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

17.15-19.00 Evening Reception (participants and guests)


Friday, February 20 (City Campus, Klooster van de Grauwzusters)

10.00-10.30 Welcoming coffee

10.30-11.15 Ad Knotter (Maastricht University)

Trade Unionism, Labour Organization, and Labour Markets: Comparisons between the Belgian and American Flat Glass Industry and the Amsterdam Diamond Industry in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

11.15-12.00 Sabine Rudischhauser (Zentrum Marc Bloch/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Collective Bargaining as Repertoires of Product Evaluation. Changing ¨Perceptions of Labour in Systems of Flexible Production in France and Germany

12.00-13.30 Lunch (participants and guests)

13.30-14.15 Jelle Versieren (University of Antwerp)

Capitalism between Formal and Real Subsumption: Repertoires of Labour, Accountancy, Technology, and Wage Formations in the Dutch Ceramic and Glass Industry (1840-1900)

14.15-15.00 Christos Andrianopoulos (University Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense)

Realising the Social Character of Labour: Labour, Work, and Production according to Louis Blanc’s’ Organisation of Labour

15.00-15.30 Afternoon break

15.30-16.15 Alexander Van Ransbeeck (Ghent University)

Sharing the Burden: Unfree Plantation Workers and Collective Action in the Kabare Territory (Belgian Congo, 1920-1940)

16.15-16.30 Closing Speech: Philippe Minard (Institutions et Dynamiques Historiques de l'Economie et de la Société, Université Paris 8/CNRS, et CRH-EHESS)

18.30- Conference Dinner (participants)


Organised by:

Bert De Munck, Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp, Centre for Urban History

Philippe Minard, Institutions et Dynamiques Historiques de l'Economie et de la Société, Université Paris 8/CNRS, et CRH-EHESS

Jelle Versieren, Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp, Centre for Urban History