The cheap grace of condemning slavery

The pride we take in eliminating slavery can easily become not just morally vacuous but also morally blinding. Making this clear demands making what will look like a series of strawmen, but stick with me till the end.

One guy is obliged to work for another. Therefore, slavery is moral.

Examples: the prisoner has to make license plates, the child has to clean the bathroom that he just covered in crayon out of anger, the plumber has to fix the toilet I paid him to fix, the cashier has to give me my change, a father has to work to support his family.

So the initial inference must be crazy, but why? Sure, we can just define the word “slavery” as meaning “any gravely unjust or exploitive claim on the labor of another” but then our condemnations of it are perfectly circular. If we leave off the idea of slavery as punishment (which is already a major concession since morally evil acts can’t be used as punishments) then is slavery working without compensation? This can’t be right, since all slaves get housing and food, and even if persons on a plantation or in a gulag got some money in return for their work it wouldn’t ease the main objection we have to their state.

So is slavery bad for being involuntary?  But all sorts of slave contracts were voluntary, as David Graeber points out in Debt. Africans ran up credit debts they couldn’t pay and the bank offered to accept payment in labor (wink, wink). Say someone signed a slave contract to keep his family property from being seized.  So there he was, on the middle passage, getting whipped on a sugar plantation, with his offspring being born into his own state, all voluntarily. This is not okay either. True, all the cinematic tales of the slave story start with someone being abducted, but this muddles the moral problem. Everyone is against kidnapping, but aren’t we supposed to be against slavery? 

Let’s re-write Roots with only one difference: Kunta Kinte’s family gets into debt and he agrees to everything that happens to him in order to avoid property seizure. Isn’t it a problem that we somehow think this would (even slightly) justify what happened to him? What if he didn’t exactly agree to it, but was drafted into it by his tribe in order to pay back tribal debts? What if someone is conquered in a war and is made a slave instead of being killed? It’s hard to argue that this can’t be the more merciful and humane option, and it is historically how most slavery occurred.

No one is doing anything to stomp out prison labor so I can assume we all take it as moral to have forced labor as punishment. But then we rule out an in-principle objection to VISA using it as a penalty (and again, this is how slavery has actually happened.)

So let’s add an epicycle: slavery is bad because you can’t quit. But by now it’s clear what’s wrong with this. All that we have to do is set up a system where the consequences of quitting are worse than slave working conditions. Lo and behold no one ever wants to quit. It’s as cynical as saying that, in our re-write of Roots, KK could have just let the family farm get seized. The more fundamental problem is that all sorts of contracts don’t allow someone to quit. I just signed one. If I quit my job in the next year I can be compelled to return to it. So we have no in-principle objection to being unable to quit, and we might even prefer the security that comes from such a contract.

If what we mean by slavery is “I abduct whoever I feel like and sell him to another guy who beats him unless he works himself to death” then, sure, slavery is wrong as soon as I say “abduct”. But this is an account of slavery that even John Calhoun could condemn. If you mean that you condemn treating persons as property (which is supposedly what chattel slavery consists in) then Calhoun might very well respond that slavery he is defending consists in being morally entitled to someone’s labor. Who said anything about owning a person?

So when we condemn slavery or take pride in wiping it out we have to be clear that we’re not just condemning a black and white photo of whip marks on someone’s back or the use of a word that we’ve defined as meaning, with perfect circularity, “an unjust and exploitive claim on the labor of another person”. But I suspect this is all that most of us are doing when we congratulate ourselves for ending slavery or when we wring our hands over all the passages in Scripture which are really only guilty of using the taboo word “slavery” while seeking to advance justice for those who, like all of us, have someone who is morally entitled to our labor.

There is a long history of arguing that, in fact, no one can be entitled to our labor, and that to sell our labor is as morally wrong as slavery. I suspect this goes too far, and that the closest we can get to a short definition of slavery is labor without rights. There is a whiff of circularity about this since “right” is simply a claim one can make in justice, but this is perhaps being too picky. If there is some laborer who has no legal claim at all on the one demanding his labor, then he is certainly a slave. That said, to abolish slavery in this sense is, almost by definition, to open the discussion of just what rights labor does have. Assume that slave-owning Southern christians were horrified by the fact that breaking up slave families cheapened marriage and so gave the slaves legal rights to keep their families together while leaving everything else unchanged. Great. They are now no longer slaves in the sense of persons lacking any rights at all. Slavery has ended! TO be sure, we could congratulate ourselves at ending slavery in this sense (our hypothetical slaveowners would have too), but it is clearly the opening move in a much larger discussion about justice for laborers which, sadly, we don’t seem to care about as long as the laborers aren’t called “slaves”. We then fall into discussions about justice that are really just verbal, and can be won by anyone who manages to avoid taboo words or give his slaves new names like delinquent creditors, team members, members of the global economy, or adjuncts.


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