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.




  1. Boethius said,

    July 23, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Related example: Conscription for military service, which almost all societies have accepted and used, has no defense when up against most definitions of slavery..

  2. robalspaugh said,

    July 23, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    Your cleaned up version is in some ways weaker from its polish–I like you more savage and punchy. Still, the new focus that comes out of that last paragraph is constructive. Can we say something like “We don’t have a good theory of labor, so we don’t have a good ethics of labor, so we can only ever use the term slavery as a talisman”?

  3. July 23, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Working as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store for minimum wage has no defense either. Why has this travesty not been abolished so that courtesy clerks get paid more than their masters?
    Sorry…slight sarcasm but it is a very intriguing point to make about slavery. Slavery is one of the most misunderstood concepts for progressives because they never really bother to think about the consequences of their actions because they are generally part of the privileged class even though many of them claim to be part of an under-privileged class or claim to defend the under-privileged.
    Clearly, working as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store for minimum wage cleaning up the fecal matter of other people in the restrooms, taking out other people’s waste a good majority of it is likely toxic or has been developing into a potential biohazard, having to go and fetch carts for half-hour periods continuously in the sun meaning that employers are required by OSHA to let you have access to water, and then having to lift heavy objects that customers cannot lift does not qualify you as “privileged”. It qualifies you as having a job but that does not mean “privileged” since, by the way, you are getting minimum wage.
    And yet, no progressive ever thinks in such ways. They think themselves as a lecturer who’s views are everyone else’s moral guidance and hence why most people are starting to shut them down which is a good sign.

  4. July 24, 2017 at 6:51 am

    I wonder if more can be said for “treating people as property” as the root problem for slavery. While Calhoun might claim he is only interested in using the person’s labor, it becomes increasingly implausible once people are being exchanged in the way property is exchanged – namely, they are being bought and sold. Maybe the slave owner would respond by saying that they aren’t really “buying and selling” people, only their labor or something along those lines. But such responses seem more like rationalizations than actual serious positions to me.

    • Janet said,

      July 25, 2017 at 5:16 am

      Indeed. And also, slavery is inherently built on violence– the master can beat the slave with impunity and (de jure in some systems, de facto in all the others) male masters can rape slave women with impunity as well. Slaves have no access to the courts for redress of any kind against anyone, and have no right to any kind of property, however minor or necessary for their survival. Anything they have can be taken by the master, whenever and for any reason at all.

      Any amelioration of slave conditions to address these human rights violations– allowing slaves to marry and have that marriage respected, to own at least the clothes on their backs or a portion of the products they made, to be protected from wholly arbitrary violence by their masters, to bring court cases, etc.– granting those rights ends the slavery. The former slaves are now serfs. Historically, this is in fact how serfdom came about, as the slaves on the Roman latifundia gradually won these basic human rights. This was mostly due to economic and political pressures– without new slaves available for purchase, the current ones must be treated better, well enough, in fact, that they will maintain themselves through procreation (i.e. they must have marriages and homes)– and also through pressure from the Church.

    • theofloinn said,

      August 6, 2017 at 10:40 pm

      Or it’s like professional baseball in the era before free agency. Teams routinely bought, sold, and traded players — or contracts for their labor. Movie stars, too, under the old studio system.

  5. July 24, 2017 at 8:09 am

    […] The cheap grace of condemning slavery […]

  6. Captain Peabody said,

    July 24, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    This is true and devastating.

    One small addendum and anecdote, though, to contribute to your point about euphemisms. A friend of mine got a job last fall working for a fast food restaurant. He had been homeless for some time previously, but had finally managed to get secure an apartment a little before. Still, he desperately needed work to pay his rent, and was also planning to work simultaneously for a second fast food restaurant in order to make ends meet. At this one, though, he had been hired at the lowest possible position, basically a grunt. He showed me, though, the official job title assigned to him by the company, which was (and I swear I’m not making this up): “Service Champion.”

    God help us.

  7. July 24, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    Interesting. It would be good to have more elaboration about specific problems with the current labor system–perhaps something about the living wage debate, overworked people burning out, migrant workers, etc.–and what actions we might take to improve them.

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