Important recent research highlights the role of forced labor in the expansion of neoliberal capitalism in the global South. In this article I make the case that coerced labor was central to the first industrial revolution, the classical case of Great Britain. I demonstrate that in an area known as the Black Country for its coal, steel, and related industries, master and servant laws allowed criminal prosecution of workers deemed problematic, to insure labor control in the workplace. Employers relied on these laws when they were unable to use machinery to embed control in the labor process, and when they had recourse to reliable local courts (or petty sessions), in which many were magistrates, so they could rely on convictions under summary jurisdictions for fines, damage payment, and incarceration. I conclude by suggesting that this particular historical case can reorient our perspective on labor coercion and the law across the long arc of modern capitalism.

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