Modern Slavery; A New Face, But The Same Old Cause

No-slaveryIn a previous post I wrote briefly about William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was a central figure in establishing the illegality of slavery in Britain at the end of the 18th Century. Mansfield’s judicial comments are a reminder that when greed results in an abrogation of moral responsibility then legislation is the only solution. In no other case than slavery is it more clearly apparent that good laws, along with appropriate recourse to contest bad laws, extend our freedoms.

An American Benevolent Master; Unacceptable Then, Unacceptable Now

As a European republican, slavery means something very specific to me and opposition to it lies at the heart of what it means for any of us to be truly free. Fundamental to modern republicanism is the so-called principle of ‘non-domination’ which demands that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master situation who allows his/her slaves freedom of action and possibly wealth, but could change his/her attitude at any moment.

There is an outstanding example of the ‘benevolent master’, United States founding father Thomas Jefferson’s controversial relationship with one of his slaves (with which he had several children) following the death of his wife. It is claimed that despite owning Sally Hemmings, Jefferson allowed her every freedom of action. This may be acceptable on libertarian grounds where freedom exists when there is no de facto interference in the affairs of another but it is unacceptable in republican terms which includes the non-domination concept. Essentially, under the laws of the time Jefferson could simply change his mind and allow Hemmings no freedom at all. Jefferson exhibits a contradiction at the founding of the United States and why for very many people the discovery of Americas fostered a new birth of slavery rather than a historic expression of freedom.

Wage Slavery – Consumers Not Citizens

So why are the words and actions of Mansfield and Jefferson relevant to us today in Britain? Because though the circumstances of slavery have changed the fundamental principles of slavery are still with us. Using the republican idea of freedom based on non-domination gives us a useful indicator. In a modern world where slavery is illegal, the issue of wage slavery associated with people trafficking is major and growing problem.  But the comparison between wage earners and slavery is an old one, being mentioned by the great Roman republican theorist Cicero. In his De Officiis he says:

…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

Karl Marx used wage slavery as a fundamental plank in his theory during the 19h Century, viewing it as a socioeconomic issue and analyzing it in terms of class. Though I am not a Marxist I think his point is a good one. If economic conditions force workers to be dependent upon the grace and mercy of employers then they are in a position of slavery. Wage slavery is a central issue of liberty today as a direct consequence of the creeping commodification of almost all aspects of our world. Encouraged to consider ourselves and others to be consumers rather than citizens many human relations are reduced to commercial interactions at whatever price the market will bear.

It is not only in professional sport that people have become commodities, to use or sell at their ‘owners’ discretion. I have blogged previously on the way that popular culture fetishes and provides a ‘shop window’ for the neo-liberal ethos. With austerity and minimum wages sold to us as a necessary condition of life it is no wonder that people are forced to think in terms of ‘every person for themselves and their family’. Such conditions are ideal for the spread of slavery. In a recent Guardian article, Felicity Lawrence connects the economic environment to the legal and moral responsibility in a not dissimilar way to Mansfield:

It is hardly surprising that the most egregious forms of exploitation should appear where economic, legal and moral responsibility has been deliberately diffused. Modern slavery is the flipside of the coin that has seen corporates offshore their profits and dodge tax.

Time for politicians to Take Responsibility

MCaricature_gillray_plumpuddingodern corporates are merely continuing a past trend following the slave labour based Atlantic economy of the 18th and 19th centuries from which Britain profited more than most. This extended throughout the rest of the Empire via such organizations as the British East India Company, something which the Make Britain Great Again promoters conveniently overlook. But the lessons of the past show that ending such iniquities is a matter of political will and that moral considerations can win out against narrow greed.  In a letter to the Guardian, historian Howard Temperley wrote about the compensation paid by Parliament to slave owners following abolition:

What was truly extraordinary about abolition was not that parliament paid £20m to slave owners, but that it put paid to a system that had served Britain well in the past and would doubtless have continued doing so. Parliament’s ex gratia payment was the least of the sacrifices involved. By withdrawing, first from the slave trade and then by freeing its slaves, Britain was effectively handing over lucrative markets to its continental rivals.

Modern slavery is a complex issue and many of the solutions will involve international cooperation. This is not easy in a world where cooperation is breaking down rather than increasing. Some steps can, however, be taken immediately. Firstly the practice of blacklisting to prevent workers changing employer must be ended and resources devoted to bringing culprits to justice.

Secondly, the principle of freedom of contract must not be regarded as inviolable.  The state must intervene when there is a clear case of misuse of corporate power.  This includes individual employer-employee contracts with the possibility of arbitrary sacking or release (Zero hours, for example). Next, austerity has stripped the authorities of the personnel required to effectively police illegal trafficking. In the longer term there there must be a change in our culture. We must start to view our fellow humans as citizens with rights and responsibilities rather than consumers to be simply cast aside when they are no longer of use.