Freedom for all: Why the media’s use of the term ‘modern slavery’ is oddly dehumanising, and downright sinister

I have previously commented on how universities can distract from ongoing workplace exploitation by contrasting our situation with those of our ancestors bound in chattel slavery, from Ancient Greece and Rome (contexts which remain strangely ignored by reports into slavery’s long legacy) to the trans-Saharan (again, an oddly ignored context, seeing as it served as a context for what came next) and trans-Atlantic slave markets. Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery is recommended to students but seemingly ignored in media or popular attention on slavery, tending to focus uniquely on the moral dimension which condemns the practice of slavery (surely an indisputable attitude in an enlightened society) but not the economic underpinnings of the evil of slavery.

Eric Williams’ seminal study.

Recent studies seem to illuminate this underpinning, but still distract from it by focusing on the particular role of rich people in powerful institutions in the slave trade. This is not a structural explanation of slavery; rather it is a moralistic labelling of certain people as guilty of exploiting innocents around the world. This may be true, but it is dangerously narrow in its focus. It leads to punitive views like the idea that descendants of slaves are earned ‘reparations’ by descendants of slavers. Problem is: we’re all descendants of almost everyone in the past. We are of one race: Homo sapiens. Everything else is basically a sociological construct or ecological accident — ‘postcode lottery’. Race reductionism in the name of antiracism is merely a byword for racism. Antiracism is a modern racism; but really, it is just racism.

I think something similarly sinister is happening with discussions about ‘modern slavery’ — which is used to disguise the fact that slavery endures, in almost every aspect of our economy, which remains as rapacious and destructive to human potential as almost every economy in human history. It involves the dual mechanism of exploitation and manipulation. On the one hand, people’s wages are constrained by the price system, leading people to become caught between the pay check and rent payments. Caught between employers, landlords, and banks, ordinary people are victims of the greed of the rich and powerful. They are not owed reparations, for no reparations can undo the evil of this system. They are owed a general redistribution of wealth and socialisation of production to ensure this exploitation does not continue, since wage slavery — unlike chattel slavery, which was largely abolished in the nineteenth century — continues.

But chattel slavery does continue, and is labelled ‘modern slavery’. But this is not modern slavery. Modern slavery is slavery to the wage. Slavery to employers who refuse to pay a wage and use people’s bodies without compensation — differing from wage labour, in which people’s bodies are bought and sold on a daily basis — is an ancient form of exploitation. Modern slavery is wage slavery. What goes by the name of modern slavery is in fact a legacy of chattel slavery that is less focused on old-school racism than on the age-old exploitation of women by lustful men. This fact remains a tragic feature of the human condition in so-called ‘civilised’ societies which put women in vulnerable positions to powerful men, similar to the way in which the modern world racialised the distinction between civilisation and barbarism, labelling people barbarians on the basis of their skin colour.

The modern world took all the inequality of the ancient world and added layers of insidious justification and manipulative ideological sublimation. Is it any surprise these sublimated desires are deposited in violent ways? For it is the social system that is the true exploiter, the true manipulator, and the true villain of this narrative. There is no individual who runs the world. We are but cogs in a machine. And if this seems dismal or wrong, then do not look to me. Look to the whole. Look to the world as it falls down. Let us put it back together again. Let us build a new society from the ruins of the ageing system. Let us build a democratic republic without slavery, ancient or modern. A better world is still possible. Shall we begin?

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