ON SLAVERY (PART ONE)
The past, it has been said, is a foreign country where things are done differently. At times, when looking back at the past, one feels a sense of relief to live now and not then. Who, for example, has heard of accounts of people enduring surgery while awake and aware and not thought “thank goodness I live now, when anaesthesia exists”?
And then there is the practice that is the main topic of this series. Slavery was once legal and widely practiced. Thank goodness we live now, when it is not only illegal but considered so morally repugnant there is a call to take down the monuments of historical figures whose fortunes partially depended on it, regardless of what philanthropic achievements they may also have accomplished. Not everyone believes this move to strip historical figures of their monuments because they did not live according to modern ethical principles is just, but we must all feel that the abolishment of slavery ranks as one of the high points of human progress.
Yet I feel like we have the wrong belief when it comes to slavery. Not wrong in the sense of our moral attitude toward it, but in the sense of how we think it ended and the extent to which it did end.
The way its end is popularised
In the popular imagination, it was the superior moral argument that ended slavery. Abolitionists campaigned to make it illegal and as right was on their side they ultimately won. And that was that, slavery was abolished. And while it was being practiced, we are encouraged to believe it was always the most brutal violation of a person’s liberty. Dramas and documentaries always portray the practice as white Europeans colonising foreign lands and, finding people of colour and being too prejudiced to see we are all the same beneath the superficial difference of skin tones, treat them like beasts of burden. They round them up, clap them in chains, throw them into the cargo hold of a ship and then sell them in markets to brutal masters who force them to toil under the crack of the whip.
What these beliefs do is make it seem like a chasm exists between the past and the present. Over there, beyond that great dividing line, there was slavery. Thank goodness we live over here where there is freedom and career opportunities.
But, really, this is a flawed belief. The abolishment of slavery was neither as decisive nor as complete as we are lead to believe. There is no gulf between slavery and jobs; rather, they exist on a continuum. And if there is freedom to be found along this path, then we have not yet reached that point.
You only have to imagine how a sudden transition to illegality for slavery would play out in practice to see how it would have been a gradual evolution toward freedom. Picture the scene. You are a slave and, as such, you own nothing at all, not even your own body. But then slavery is abolished and now, for the first time since your capture, there is something you can call your own. You are the sole owner of your labour power. But you don’t own anything else, and everything around you is the property of others. You cannot farm the land in order to grow your own food because that’s somebody else’s private property. You own no tools and have no money with which to buy them and you cannot just take some for to do so would be stealing.
All in all, as a former slave who now owns your own labour power and little else, your options are going to feel very limited. In fact, you would probably feel like there is only one thing you can do. You are going to have to beg your former masters to employ you. Now, this is hardly going to be a negotiation between equals. Pretty much all the bargaining power will be in the hands of the rich, propertied and well-connected former owners. So, when you come begging for a job, are you really going to be offered reasonable hours, paid vacations, entitlement to in-work safety protocols and a decent salary? No, certainly not, not if your former masters follow capitalist logic and are out to hire labour as cost-effectively as possible. What you will be offered would be work that is barely distinguishable from your former state of complete servitude, with no rights other than the right to quit and wages so low you can only subsist on them (which of course means that actually quitting work altogether feels like an unobtainable fantasy) and (if there are plenty of former slaves also looking for employment) not much chance of getting offers that are better anywhere else. After all, why would former owners not squeeze every last drop of value out of your labour power, when they hold all the bargaining chips?
The comedian Steve Hughes summed up how it really felt the day slavery was ‘abolished’ in one of his stand-up shows:
“Right! You lot are free to go. We’ll see you back here tomorrow at six-thirty!”.
In the next instalment, we will see that the situation was probably even worse, because of how rigged society was against those recently ‘liberated’ slaves.
“The New Human Rights Movement” by Peter Joseph
Steve Hughes standup routine
ON SLAVERY (PART TWO)
Slavery and racism
No essay on slavery can avoid talking about racial prejudice. After all, racism is often portrayed as being synonymous with slavery. But while there is no denying that an attitude of white superiority has existed, especially during the late 19th and early 20th century, we are wrong to suppose that blacks were enslaved simply because white racists considered them inferior. No, what actually drove slavery (or, at least, American slavery) was economics. Simply put, there was market pressure to secure cheap labour and profitable investments, and the commodity of slave labour just seemed a better deal compared to what was to be had.
As professor of Sociology, William Julius Wilson explained, “the conversion to slavery was not only prompted by the heightened concern over a cheap labour shortage in the face of rapid development of tobacco farming as a commercial enterprise and the declining number of white indentured servants entering the colonies, but also by the fact that the slave had become a better investment than the servant. As life expectancy increased…planters were willing to finance the extra cost of slaves. Indeed, during the first half of the seventeenth century, indentured labour was actually more advantageous than slave labour”.
That term ‘indentured labour’ is worth pondering. You may recall from part one how slavery is often portrayed as a violent theft of a person’s liberty (in movies, for example, there is often a sequence showing people being rounded up and physically forced into their new role as labourers or domestic servants). But a person did not always come to be in a position of servitude because others physically forced them into it. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery. Now why on earth would anybody do such a thing? For the same reason plenty of people submit to employment. They are in debt and faced with likely punishment if it is not paid and so they ‘voluntarily’ give up their liberty and labour for others until the debt burden is lifted. In the case of 17th century indentured servants (and quite a few people today, actually) debts were so substantial it could take a lifetime in order to clear a debt, meaning little practical difference in such cases between an indentured servant and an outright slave.
I put voluntarily in scare quotes because I believe it is possible that, even though people who made such a decision may not have been physically forced into slavery, nevertheless there were other pressures which, if coercive enough, could have psychologically forced them into a life of servitude. In other essays I have referred to this as ‘negative motivation’, taking action not because you hope to be rewarded if you do, but because you fear the outcome if you don’t. For some reason free market ideologues believe that, once you legally grant the right of the individual to remove his or her labour, any deal involving the hiring of labour must be one that is free of any form of coercion and is voluntary in the true meaning of the word (“if they don’t like the deal being offered, they can walk away!”) It seems much more realistic to me that, rather than a sharp distinction between unfree slaves and employees whose decision to hire their labour is entirely volitional, you can instead draw a smooth continuum from the slave who is physically forced into servitude, to the indentured servant who is psychologically coerced into servitude, to the employee whose experience is a kind of ‘carrot and stick’ combination of rewards and punishment and so on up to the worker who regards his career as his true calling and does it gladly.
European indentured servants were not only practically similar to slaves. Attitudes toward them were also similar. As civil rights professor Carter A Wilson explained:
“Colour prejudice against Africans was rare in the first two-thirds of the 17th century. Legal distinctions between black slaves and white servants did not appear until the 1660s…Interracial marriages were common in the first half of the 17th century and…at this time they provoked little or no reaction”.
How slavery became racist
So, if market economics and not racism was what caused slavery, how did prejudice end up such a dominant part of the practice? It seems as though racism and class distinction was deliberately stirred up as a means of exerting control. Around the last half of the 17th century, expanded agriculture in Southern states created a huge demand for cheap labour, and that demand was answered by way of the global African slave trade. That also obviously meant a dramatic increase in population size. Thus, it was around this time that public policy began to change, with the intent to create security through hierarchical dominance. The invention of division between poor whites and black slaves was carried out in order to achieve the social distinction necessary for hierarchy. According to historian Edmund S. Morgan, for example, a government assembly in Virginia:
“Did what it could to foster contempt of whites for blacks and Indians…In 1680 it prescribed 30 lashes…’if any negro or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any Christian’. This was a particularly effective provision that allowed servants to bully slaves without fear of retaliation, thus placing them psychologically on a par with masters”.
The purpose of this prejudiced-based bullying was to ensure the growing slave population remained subdued and controllable. As Peter Joseph put it, it was a move to “generate a culture of bigotry and dominance that echoes to this day. So, in a sense, racism has effectively been a system reinforcer to optimise slave labour by way of sociological manipulation”.
Even after slavery was supposedly abolished, there continued to be an interest in controlling minority and lower-class populations. Segregation played an obvious part here, effectively trapping people in areas and circumstances where political and economic oppression were ever-present. As Peter Joseph explained, “the legal system morphed from direct racial oppression to indirect by targeting the outcomes of historical and present socioeconomic inequality, rather than any specific group”.
In other words, although in theory slavery has been made illegal in most countries, in actual fact societies were, and in many places continue to be, structured in such a way as to ensure a ready supply of labour that is not as free as we would like to believe. More on that in the next instalment.
The New Human Rights Movement by Peter Joseph
Centuries Of Change by Ian Mortimer
ON SLAVERY (PART THREE)
How slavery is still legal
In part one we were asked to imagine a newly liberated slave who is deciding what to do in order to live. We imagined that he would refrain from stealing or trespassing on the grounds that to do so would break laws. In reality, he would have found it incredibly hard to avoid breaking any laws, because the judicial system was so rigged against his class.
The aftermath of the civil war left the South in a state of economic turmoil, and under such chaotic conditions authorities played fast and loose with the power to arrest and detain. There were vagrancy laws that were vaguely defined and other dubious reasons to charge folk (typically blacks and poor people). This actually had little to do with a drive to restore law and order. The purpose was actually to ensure prisons were kept well stocked. You see, forced labour as a form of punishment was still legal so anyone (a former slave, say) who got arrested and found guilty of whatever could be commanded to do what was to all practical intents and purposes slave labour. The practice even had a name: Convict leasing. So popular was this practice that, by 1898, 73 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing, and it took many decades for federal government to shut it down completely.
But, actually, an argument could be made saying the practice was never completely abolished. Even today we have private prisons and corporations exploiting the labour of inmates. Companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks ‘employ’ prisoners, who in some cases earn as little as 23 cents an hour. Also, there are contractual agreements between state and local governments and private prisons that require the state to meet prison-occupancy quotas or otherwise pay for empty cells. The practice of convict leasing resulted in corrupt arrests being carried out in order to meet labour demand, and this current practice of maximum occupancy of prisons regardless of a region’s actual crime levels has also resulted in corruption. There was, for example, the 2008 ‘kids for cash’ scandal in which two Pennsylvanian judges were taking millions in bribes from a for-profit prison company to increase the number of inmates. With a pool of labour for hire at mere pennies an hour, one can appreciate the economic incentive to keep prisons well stocked.
The prison-industrial complex
Having said that, the largest beneficiary of slave labour from prison inmates is not private business but rather the State. As was explained in the Storyville documentary “Jailed In America”, “when someone is convicted and moves from jail to a federal or state prison, the government now has legal access to them as a workforce. These prisoners work for almost nothing, making road signs…or just about anything the government decides”. They may also be put to work providing services the prisons require in order to function, such as doing laundry or maintaining the building’s plumbing. Incarceration is part of a massive prison-industrial complex, an industry worth some $265 billion a year. It could not exist were it not for inmates and so there needs to be a steady supply of new people. Hierarchical societies are structured in such a way as to ensure poor people face limited life choices that are highly likely to lead to incarceration. And the way such things as parole are conducted further adds to the idea that the prison-industrial complex is structured in such a way as to provide a supply of slaves. Being on parole comes with conditions which, if broken, lead to violators being returned to prison. These include such things as being homeless or out of work. Note that for everybody else these are not illegal. Nevertheless for those on parole being made homeless or losing your job (and plenty of other situations that are not law-breaking) result in your being thrown back into jail and the slave labour that often awaits.
Why do we punish the guilty?
When it comes to prisoners, we are encouraged to believe that inmates are just bad people who freely chose to commit crime. Such an attitude probably has its roots in monotheism and its portrayal of the human as an individual with free will who exists separate from the rest of nature. Although one should be careful not to absolve individuals of all personal responsibility, the fact of the matter is that what free will we have is easily overcome. Both magicians and fraudsters understand and exploit flaws in our ability to make decisions and process information, tricking us into carrying out actions of their choosing while believing we are exercising pure free will. There are also plenty of experiments that show how easily people’s ability to make independent choices can be affected by peer and authoritarian pressure. Environmental and social factors impact on our ability to freely choose, and these predominantly affect the lower classes. What kind of upbringing you had, the state of your education, the quality of your diet, economic factors and more can set people on a course that is more likely to end in a conviction compared to the life choices presented to others.
Again, I should stress that this is not being pointed out in order to argue that personal responsibility does not exist, because it does at least to some degree. But, equally, we really shouldn’t condemn those found guilty when we know nothing of the factors that may have influenced the way their life turned out. Crime is sometimes described as a ‘social disease’. Sometimes it is necessary to quarantine people who have a contagious biological disease. Note, however, that no moral condemnation is attached to such a decision. But when it comes to those who catch the social disease of criminality there does tend to be moral condemnation along with the need to separate such people from society. Any society based around competition for material advantage via whatever method you can get away with, and which also incentivises negative attitudes towards the losers of such competitive behaviour (being labelled as failures and so on), is just bound to create conditions in which some will succumb to the temptations of crime. In a neo-liberal free market where everything is a commodity with a price tag attached, how ethical you are depends on how ethical you can afford to be. Morality doesn’t really come into it. As Peter Joseph said, with regard to corporations exploiting the cheap labour of prison inmates:
“This pursuit of cost-efficiency is what notably defines market efficiency…This is simply the nature of capitalist logic, and the still-common idea that the rise of capitalism was somehow instrumental in the general ending of abject slavery on the structural level is little more than denialism”.
Indeed. For, as we have already seen, the popular conception of how slavery ended is quite wrong. It did not just end with the passing of laws that made it illegal. Rather, there has been a long process of rooting out the opportunities for exploitation and establishing the rights people (particularly lower classes) require in order to live in reasonable comfort and security. While capitalism should get some credit for its contribution toward creating the wealth that makes it more affordable to be ethical, it should not be forgotten that most rights we have now come to expect as workers had to be fought for. I have no doubt that, were it not for the pressure from socialist movements, work under capitalism would have remained so exploitative, life for the majority would be akin to slavery and the wealth generated would be much more concentrated as indeed it has been in all redistributive societies where the poor have little or no voice with which to protest their conditions (those being the sort of societies we have predominantly lived in since the Neolithic revolution).
Nor should we kid ourselves into thinking the struggle to end slavery is over. It continues to exist in varying degrees of obviousness, mostly because the root cause of most slavery persists to this day. We have encountered this cause several times throughout this series. It was there when we talked about people in debt selling themselves into slavery. It turned up again by implication when we discussed the forced labour of prisoners, for incarceration has long been justified as a means of making wrongdoers ‘pay their debt to society’.
Yes, the root cause of exploitation is debt. That’s what we will look into next time.
Storyville: Jailed In America
The New Human Rights Movement by Peter Joseph
ON SLAVERY (PART FOUR)
Along with war and conquest, the imposition of debt stands as one of two major causes of slavery and servitude. Some would probably argue that debt is a natural and inevitable part of any society involving interactions between individuals with differing whatever. While it’s true that any society can only function so long as people recognise and meet ongoing obligations toward one another, the amount of debt that exists in the world today is way out of proportion of anything required to maintain a prospering, egalitarian society. It is instead diagnostic of a market system that has become decoupled from reality.
Much of the pursuit of profit now has little to do with making physical products intended to solve real problems, but instead has moved to the abstract world of financialisation in which Wall Street and its equivalent in other countries collude with governments to create and manipulate complex forms of debt. Major companies no longer derive their profits principally from selling actual products. Instead they float their shares on the stock market, borrow cheap money from the government, buy back their own shares and thereby gain a boost in the paper profit of the company.
This move into abstraction is not without consequences, for there are real downsides to this expansion of debt. Any investigation into how banking works will reveal that banks don’t actually lend out money others have deposited, but instead create money ‘out of nothing’ whenever anyone meets the criteria of being worthy of a loan.
Actually, money is not really being created out of nothing. Rather, wealth is being snatched from the future in order to pay for goods and services here and now. This practice is fair enough when the wealth snatched from the future gets into the hands of those who really can build a better tomorrow. But in reality it too often ends up being used for short-term profit that ultimately causes long-term harm. Banking is a complex system in which people bring about the creation of money out of debt (and of course it is predominantly the poor who need to take out loans) and then, thanks to the negative and positive externalities of market capitalism, the debt and money separate, with the upper classes extracting the money while the poor get burdened with the debt. Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes, but then one can also find exceptions to the ‘survival of the fittest’ rule that drives evolution. Nevertheless evolution is fact and the consequences of this kind of inequality are fact.
How impactful is debt? It’s relative…
How much it matters that you are in debt really depends on how likely it is that you will encounter somebody more powerful than you who can demand repayment. This means that, for the most powerful player of all, debt is of no consequence whatsoever because the day of reckoning will never come. As Alan Greenspan once pointed out, “the US can pay any debt it has because we can always print money”. Or, to put it another way, the US can endlessly snatch wealth from the future without fear that a mighty one will one day come along demanding repayment (of course this rests on the assumption that the country remains the dominant power in the world).
But for weaker players, it’s a different story altogether. Consider the words of President Obasanjo of Nigeria:
“All that we had borrowed up to 1985 or 1986 was around $5 billion and we have paid back so far about $16 billion. Yet, we are told that we still owe about $28 billion…because of the foreign creditors’ interest rates”.
By 2004, the developing world was having to pay $20 in interest repayment for every dollar received in foreign aid and grants. The result was crippling austerity and the creation of highly vulnerable people ripe for exploitation by predatory corporations. And austerity is not just a third-world phenomenon. Even rich countries had to put up with it following the last great speculative bubble (in sub-prime lending as you may recall). But, in keeping with the idea that the powerful escape the consequences of bad societal decisions while the weak must bare the cost, the CEOs who lead the way in reckless speculation got away with it for the most part, riding off into the sunset with breathtakingly large pensions and severance packages, while the poor had services cut and good, secure jobs taken away and replaced with gig work stripped of many hard-won benefits.
As debt grows and its harmful consequences fall predominantly on the vulnerable, such people become more desperate, more prepared to do anything to delay the day of reckoning. As Kevin Bales, who is an expert in human trafficking, explained, “the question isn’t ‘are they the right colour to be slaves?’, but ‘are they vulnerable enough to be enslaved?’. The criteria of enslavement today do not concern colour, tribe, or religion; they focus on weakness, gullibility and deprivation”.
How many are slaves today?
Slavery has not been abolished. It still exists to varying degrees. That slavery continues to this day cannot be doubted (any human rights organisation will correct you with evidence if you believe otherwise) but how much of it there is depends on how you define servitude. According to UN estimates there are roughly 27 million slaves in the world today. However, another organisation called the Walk Free Foundation has put the total at more like 46 million. They are mostly bonded labourers or debt slaves in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
But could the numbers be higher still? Think back to the notion of debt bondage and selling oneself into slavery, which we touched upon in part one. What, fundamentally, is the difference between selling yourself to one master for life, and being in a position where you must constantly make your labour available for hire, toiling away for minimal reward while others gain most of the rewards being generated by workers like yourself? Doesn’t that just show a continuum of exploitation from abject slavery to indentured servitude to wage labour? Yes, one could argue that the conditions of wage labour is preferable to outright slavery (at least in a lot of cases) but you cannot really call either condition ‘freedom’. After all, if to be free is to work for oneself and to gain most of the rewards from a job well done (and also to carry the costs of not doing your work competently) then precious few can claim to be truly liberated from the bonds of servitude. For as Federal Reserve expert G Edward Griffin said:
“No matter where you earn money, its origin was a bank and its ultimate destination is a bank…This total of human effort is ultimately for the benefit of those who create fiat money. It is a form of modern serfdom in which the great mass of society works as indentured servants to a ruling class of financial nobility”.
If Robinson’s argument is valid, the true number of slaves in the world today would be counted in the billions.
At the beginning of this series a question was posed: Is the popular portrayal of slavery’s end incorrect? We have seen how slavery did not just get abolished with the passing of an Act, creating a gulf between the un-free past and the liberated now. Rather, escape from slavery has been a long process that has made only modest progress in breaking the bonds of servitude and, in some cases, none at all. Progress toward freedom is so slow because, at its very root, market capitalism contains the socioeconomic structures that have given rise to exploitation since the Neolithic period: Systems that justify competition, self-interest, hierarchy and inequality, perpetuating scarcity and profiteering from the growing environmental and social fallout of negative externalities by exploiting the vulnerabilities lower class people and developing nations feel under such circumstances.
Yes, to some extent progress has been made. But not as much as we are lead to believe by apologists for capitalism and certainly nowhere near enough compared to what is technically possible. For example, much is made of the apparent reduction in abject poverty around the world (a condition most likely to result in exploitation). But what’s not appreciated is that such results are obtained by using an infeasibly low threshold for an absolute minimum wage. On the other hand, were we to use the ‘Ethical Poverty Line’ devised by Peter Edward (set at about $7.40 a day), then 4.2 billion people or 60 percent of the world remain in an impoverished state, ripe for exploitation.
Or consider that it would cost about $30 billion a year to end world hunger and that the 1800 billionaires in the world could provide such provision for 200 years and still have roughly $500 million each. It is disgusting that malnourishment and other forms of deprivation that are completely unnecessary continue to exist. The reason they persist is because market capitalism profits from servicing the problems they generate, and really has no interest in bringing about an end to scarcity because assumptions of scarcity are fundamental to how this competitive system works. If you add up all the deaths caused by various negative externalities ultimately traceable to market competition’s root socioeconomic orientation, capitalism has killed more people than all of the 20th century’s despots combined, and has enslaved more people than any other system in history.
“The New Human Rights Movement” by Peter Joseph
“The Creature From Jekyll Island” by Edward G. Robinson
“Modernising Money” by Joseph Lietar