This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s a needed chance for Americans to talk about slavery that has helped us reexamine our history.
For example, recent documentaries and museum exhibits on America’s Founding Fathers regularly show that slavery played a big role in the lives of several heroes of the American Revolution. So, now we know that while Thomas Jefferson proposed legislation against slavery, he may also have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemmings. We also know that George Washington was the only founding father to free all his slaves, if only in his will.
But too much of today’s talk about slavery is just telling stories from history, which can lead to finger-pointing at past generations and self-congratulation about how much better things are today.
Yet, to get an accurate picture of how the past relates to the present and to try make the emancipation project of Lincoln’s proclamation complete, we also need to talk about the shame that is slavery today. And to understand modern slavery we need to see its connection to the globalized economy and technology which, instead of merely replacing humans with machines, has also created a bigger market for the cheapest human labor.
Slavery by another name
We already know that Lincoln freed some slaves in 1863 but it took Congress to free the rest by passing the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. We also know that slavery’s effects lingered through the following century, when former slaves continued to suffer under the sharecropping peonage that was the lot of many rural blacks well into the twentieth century.
But when the Civil Rights movement helped end formal segregation in the rural South, it didn’t end bondage labor of blacks in the United States.
That unfree labor simply went behind closed doors and out of public sight into the criminal justice system with its hundreds of prison-factories across the United States. While prisoners of all races are put to work, due to racially biased criminal convictions and sentencing, a disproportionate number of prison workers are black. Today, 37.1% of inmates in America’s prisons are black, even though African Americans make up only 13.1% of the U.S. population.
And these days, those prisoners are doing a lot more than just making license plates.
Producing 100% of a variety of military supplies — helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags and canteens — along with more than 90% of paints and more than a third of home appliances, America’s prisons have become a profitable manufacturing powerhouse built on the cheapest and most compliant labor. Prisons are one place that manufacturers will never have to worry about unions.
Ironically, after decades of American manufacturing moving overseas, prisons remain one of the last bright spots for products Made in the USA.
Outside the U.S., other major slave holding nations such as Brazil freed their slaves later in the nineteenth century. It took until the twentieth century for some African and Middle Eastern nations to follow suit. Oman abolished slavery in 1970 and Mauritania took until 2007 to outlaw slave ownership.
Today, slavery is illegal in every country on Earth. Yet, labor in bondage continues. Women caught up in human trafficking from Bangkok to Bucharest to the Super Bowl are living proof, as are debt slaves in South Asia or factory slaves in China.
This is not your average exploited Third World labor, with 12- or 18-hour days at pennies an hour. What separates slaveshops from sweatshops is that enslaved workers aren’t paid at all and they can’t leave.
Surprisingly, there are more slaves today then ever before — 27 million worldwide.
Why in this age when advanced, computerized, machine-slaves do so much of our daily work, has the market for old fashioned human slaves actually increased?
Call it the Cotton Gin Paradox.
In the late eighteenth century, Eli Whitney’s invention of a machine that made it dramatically faster and easier to separate cotton fiber from seed, suddenly made cotton hugely profitable. By hand, it took one slave all day to produce a single pound of cotton. With the cotton gin, two slaves could prepare a full 50 pounds of cotton each day. So, all of a sudden, the demand for slaves skyrocketed. From 1800 to 1850, the number of slaves in the U.S. jumped fivefold.
So, ironically, in the nineteenth century, the cotton gin became a labor-saving technology that created a huge new demand for more human labor in the form of slaves. Likewise, today, technology has also created a huge demand for slaves.
Advances in both manufacturing and transportation have allowed factories in poor countries to produce goods more efficiently than in the past and to ship them more cheaply to price-conscious consumers in Europe and North America. To stay competitive using an unskilled workforce, those manufacturers have focused less on trying to achieve high quality than on offering rock bottom prices, in a viscous cycle that relentlessly demands ever-cheaper labor.
Now, slaves make thousands of products, from soccer balls in India and Christmas decorations in China to footwear in Brazil, according to the Anti-Slavery Society.
White man’s burden
The nineteenth century global abolition movement tried to get the white citizenry of Britain, the U.S. and other powerful nations to hate slavery. One way was to appeal to the pity and shame of whites by sharing heart-rending stories of the suffering of slaves. But another way was to get whites to realize that slavery harmed them as well — in short, to appeal to whites’ self-interest.
In the Old South, even slaveholders recognized that the institution harmed the master as well as the slave.
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1785.
Seven decades later and just before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee wrote that slavery “is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former.”
Could this appeal to self-interest work today? The biggest challenge is the difference between legal domestic nineteenth century slavery and modern globalized illegal bondage.
Since slavery in the Old South was a home-based business mostly operated in the open-air for anyone to see, planters couldn’t ignore how their slaves suffered and toiled. It also became plain to whites of all classes how the cruelty required to own and drive slaves corrupted the planters and their families.
By contrast, modern slavery is hidden from those who benefit, primarily the distant investors who profit from über-cheap labor and the distant consumers who demand Always Low Prices.
Human trafficking and sex slavery involves a brief personal encounter between slave and customer. But otherwise much of today’s slavery is impersonal, conducted across the ocean through the global economy’s countless product supply chains, with dozens of intermediaries between slave worker and final consumer.
As with so many problems today, from drone wars to climate change, First World voters and consumers who can make a difference on an issue are shielded by geographical and economic distance from the many evils that are required to maintain our comfortable lifestyles.
Living in blissful ignorance in our plastic bubbles, it’s all too easy for us to believe that we live virtuous lives, honestly earning our bread by the sweat of our brows (or our fingers on a keyboard).
In a subtle way, we experience what Buddhists call the suffering of ignorance. When it comes to the slavery that makes our everyday consumption more affordable, our lives become a see-no-evil-speak-no-evil kind of lie.
And of course, relying on slave labor, even if we never have to apply the lash to a slave’s back ourselves or even see it being done by someone else, is exactly what Hannah Arendt termed the Banality of Evil. That’s the situation where the Nazi office worker whose job was to keep the concentration camp trains running on time can claim innocence because he never killed one actual Jew himself.
That kind of excuse doesn’t hold up in court.
Wealth from the bondsman’s toil
Even once you realize the extent of modern slavery, you have to address how much rich-country consumers would have to sacrifice to emancipate all the slaves.
Jefferson, Lee and other slaveholders may have recognized that the evils of slavery extended beyond the bondsman to afflict the master, but like other Southern planters, both the president and the general were loath to give up the riches and the comfortable lifestyle that slavery afforded them.
Today, we can shake our fingers at Southern slave owners all we like, but it’s easy to see why the leading antebellum statesmen both South and North couldn’t live with slavery, but couldn’t live without it either.
In 1860, the South’s four million slaves were worth more than all of America’s factories and railroads put together.
Trade in slave goods connected the cotton ports of Charleston and Savannah in a lucrative Transatlantic commerce with the bankers of London and the mill owners of Manchester. By the 1850s, Southern planters provided 80% of Britain’s cotton.
That was a lot of trade and real wealth to surrender merely on an abstract principle espoused at the time by a few abolitionists. Cotton profits surely helped assuage the guilt of many a slave holder.
Likewise, billions of dollars in value is created in today’s economy by slave labor. It’s unlikely that today’s slave-masters, big corporations, will emancipate their slaves any more cheerfully than did planters in the Old South. That’s why the most likely force against slavery today will be the average First World voter and consumer.
The battle cry of freedom
If you’re already aware of modern slavery and if you want to help eradicate it near you and across the globe, you can join one of the active campaigns against slavery.
If you’re not ready to become an activist, you can set an example with your own consumption. Those with an appetite for research can try to limit imports to Fair Trade or products certified free of slave labor. Campaigns like Free2Work in the apparel industry list the brands that use slave labor and those that try to avoid it.
But in that case, you have to take somebody’s word, no matter how credible, that any particular product’s 6,000-mile long supply chain is virtuous. It’s safer to simply assume that all imports are suspect and decide to start buying as much as we can closer to home.
By reducing our demand for cheap products and cheap labor from abroad, American consumers can start to do our part to free modern slaves.
If we don’t free what are essentially our slaves, though they’re at a distance and held through many intermediaries, fate may free them whether we like it or not, and perhaps at a very inconvenient time for us.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural. “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Will it take the equivalent of the Civil War and its destruction of slave-wealth, but this time on a worldwide scale, to get modern society off of cheap-labor globalization?
Whether you fear divine judgment or not, surely you will join me in hoping and praying that industrial society can find a peaceful way to free modern slaves and, by so doing, emancipate ourselves from dependence on cheap imports and the cheap lives they make possible.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice