The exploitation of labour workers to benefit capitalism: Reference to the Opium Act of 1908

“ While the pivotal point in the rule of law is ‘equality of all before the law’, the provision of formal equality in the legal sphere does not extend to the economic sphere. Thus the law maintains only the appearance of equality, because it never calls into question the unequal and exploitative relationship between capital and labour.” – (Comack 2006)

The quote written above by Comack illustrates how laws that are enacted by a government or any powerful institution are not created to benefit both the elite class and working class equally. In fact many laws that are enforced are shaped specifically to benefit the elite class while exploiting the working class. The reason laws are created in such a way is to protect the functions of a capitalist society. Therefore the overall goal of law in relation to Comack quote is not to maintain equality but rather preserve a capitalist society.

In order to exploit the working class effectively, the laws that the government enforces must appear as legitimate. In order to appear legitimate the government utilizes two tools; ideologies and hegemony. Ideology is the specific way in which knowledge is used to hide injustices while also justifying the dominant class ideas (Pavlich, 2011). Hegemony is the process by which the elite try to make their ideas, knowledge and values appear to be legitimate or natural, and therefore something everyone in society should want for themselves and their community (Pavlich, 2011). Ideology and hegemony are utilized together to give the illusion of a law as being legitimate.

In order to fully understand the law as a tool of capitalism, as well as the concepts of ideologies and hegemony, it is crucial to utilize a case study. The case study I will be using to illustrate law as a tool of capitalism is the Canadian Opium Act.

In 1908 the government decided to label opium as an illegal drug (O’Grady, 2011). Usage of the drug or selling of the drug was deemed as a criminal behavior (Boyd, 2001). Through the use of the media, the elite class created the ideology that opium was dangerous and should be feared by society. The working class accepted the ideology and therefore anyone who was found in possession of opium would be charged with a criminal offence and could be punished with a term of imprisonment or a fine up to $1000 (Boyd, 2001).

At its surface it would seem as though the government and the elite class are helping society by criminalizing a drug that is deemed as harmful. However what the working class did not realize is that the government was creating an ideology that did not benefit the public’s interest but rather the elite class interests. Opium was being used by Chinese labor workers to help them sleep and recover physically (Boyd, 2011). Due to the fact that the Chinese workers were working extremely long hours and forced to exert themselves to their physical limits, the use of opium was necessary so that they could recover physically and attend work the following day. Opium did not make Chinese individuals dangerous or a threat to society, as it acts as a sedative (Boyd, 2011). The working class was given false information.

The true reason why the government wanted to criminalize opium was to gain control over labor workers’ wages (Boyd, 2011). When the government discovered that opium was allowing workers to recover and work long hours and therefore accumulate more money the elite class decided to take action. By criminalizing opium, corporations could control the amount of time a worker would be able to physically work and a corporation would as a result have a reason to cut an individual’s wage when he was unable to attend work the following day or could not work for as many hours (Boyd, 2011).

The Opium Act is just one of the many examples of how the government managed to use ideologies and hegemony to achieve the consent of the working class to create a law that benefited capitalism while exploiting the working class. The Opium act also emphasizes the accuracy of Comacks quote, that law can be utilized to created inequality between capital and labour.

References

Boyd, N. (2001). Anti-asian riots led to Canada’s first anti-drug laws in 1908: Excerpt from a

presentation to the Senate committee on illegal drugs, Ottawa, October 16, 2000.Canadian Speeches, 15(3), 26-27.
Retrieved from http://ezproxy.kwantlen.ca

O’Grady, W. (2011). Crime in Canadian context: Debates and controversies (2nd edition).

Ontario, Canada. Oxford University Press.

Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. New York: Oxford University Press.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The exploitation of labour workers to benefit capitalism: Reference to the Opium Act of 1908

  1. Your post opens with a clear and concise overview of Comack’s (2006) quote, and a nice description of the nature and purpose of ideological hegemony.

    Regarding the Opium Act of 1908, you state that:

    “Through the use of the media, the elite class created the ideology that opium was dangerous and should be feared by society. The working class accepted the ideology and therefore anyone who was found in possession of opium would be charged with a criminal offence and could be punished with a term of imprisonment or a fine up to $1000”

    I wonder, though. Was it primarily the successful framing of opium as dangerous that led to the acceptance of the Act by the working class, or did racialized politics play a role? You do a good job of laying out Boyd’s (2011) argument – which emphasizes the class interests at stake. Many historians have described the Opium Act as a measure to limit Chinese business activity, and its creation coincided with increases in the Chinese head tax system and other racialized mechanisms of social control. Melvyn Green’s “A History of Canadian Narcotics Control: The Formative Years”, in Boyd (ed. ) The Social Dimensions of Law (1986, Prentice-Hall) offers a good overview of the politics of prohibition during this period.

    Ultimately, I believe that your analysis is accurate and effective, and a good illustration of what Comack is referring to. There were many dimensions to the implementation of opium prohibition in Canada, and the capital-labour dynamic was certainly central to the process.

    Question: Would incorporating the perspectives of Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory help to broaden our analysis of this issue?

    Quibble: Is it Boyd (2001) or Boyd (2011)?