In this weekend’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times, David Priestland, an expert on communism and a professor of modern history at Oxford University, argues that, at least in the developed world, the conditions might be ripe for a resurgence of certain communist ideas—not of the totalitarian, but of the redistributive kind, such as universal basic income (currently on trial in Finland, for e.g.).

The article is astonishing because who can remember the last time anyone took communism seriously, much less at the self-styled “paper of record”?

What’s old is new again, it seems. The developed world is at a confounding moment, and its thinkers are reaching for insight wherever possible.

Last summer, in the heat of the US presidential primaries, Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal wrote a piece for the left-wing Dissent magazine, arguing for a second look at the ideas of mid-twentieth century Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi.

 

To grossly oversimplify, Polanyi, the author of The Great Transformation, argued that there was nothing free about the free market. Its creation was the product of deliberate state coercion. Especially dislocating to traditional societies was the commodification of land and labor—the latter, a euphemism for the commodification of human beings themselves.

 

Polanyi may not yet be fashionable, but he does have supporters in the highest echelons of academia, including Joseph Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik.

Half a world away, in another context, the historian Margaret Slocomb has been applying Polanyi’s paradigm to the economic history of Cambodia.

In Colons and Coolies: the Development of Cambodia’s Rubber Plantations, she traces the development of Cambodia from a traditional agricultural society to a market economy.

Of particular relevance to the present article is the commodification of labor that occurred along with the development of labor-intensive rubber plantations in Cambodia. To hear Slocomb tell it, there are many parallels with the West’s flailing middle classes today.

At the time the first rubber plantations were being set up, Cambodia was sparsely populated. The local Khmers, deeply attached to their traditional ways of agriculture, did not care for the rubber plantations, with their “strange rituals for tapping trees and collecting latex performed to the beat of the tam tam by men herded together in teams and beaten like cattle for barely perceived mistakes, living together without family and eating food they did not produce…”

To be sure, the region had its fair share of violent conflict and colonization prior to the arrival of the French (the Chinese in Vietnam, and Cambodia itself once a colonizer), but the older waves of colonization did not did not fundamentally alter the very nature of society.

Deprived of a local labor supply, plantation owners had to look elsewhere, from places as far afield as China and Java. Groups were evaluated according to their suitability for the work. The Chinese were “inclined to indiscipline,” and the Javanese were “good and steady workers, though less robust than the Chinese.”

The biggest group of workers came from within French Indochina itself, i.e. Annam and Tonkin in what is today Vietnam, where colonial policies, such as the privatization of land, environmentally destructive mono-cropping (which also caused food insecurity), and the levying of punitive land and head taxes led to a complete breakdown of society, forcing the able-bodied into the novel act of selling their labor in order to feed their families. (In his writings on colonial capitalism, Polanyi drew comparisons with the Tudor enclosures in England.)

In Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation, plantation worker Tran Tu Binh recalls:

“It was heartrending to see the recruited workers awaiting the ships. We were all farm folk from the provinces… We did not have an inch of land or even one zinc coin. These were people forced by intolerable circumstances to band together and go to work the rubber plantations: few were actually taken in by the enticing words of the recruiters.”

The influx of Vietnamese workers into a historically hostile territory was nothing short of a “peaceful invasion.” In 1937, there were 191,000 Annamite coolies (itself a derivation of a Tamil word meaning “for hire,” the south of India being another part of the world where disruptive colonial policies led to a massive exodus of labor) living in Cambodia. Desperate workers even sought employment in distant French colonies such as the New Hebrides and New Caledonia.

The conditions on the plantations were brutal. Well-meaning colonial efforts to improve the lot of the workers were largely ineffectual. It’s not surprising that many of these plantations later became hotbeds of communist activity. (In 1974, Pol Pot held a seat in the Kampuchea Representative People’s Assembly as a a “representative of the rubber plantation workers.”)

Of course, we all know how that story ended, and for a while, at the end of the twentieth century, it seemed as though labor conflicts had gone the way of history itself. The movements of workers around the world (H1-B, anyone?) were given the gloss of globalization (and admittedly, the modern corporation is a dramatic improvement on the rubber plantations). Finally, labor itself became “human resources” to be handled with all the precision of management science.

But if recent events are any indication, the story of the rubber plantation and others like it do not live in the past. They were never truly resolved. Today, they have reappeared in a new form and in a new place. As Priestland ominously puts it in his article, “Lenin no longer lives, the old Communism may be dead, but the sense of injustice that animated them is very much alive.”