The fact that for most people the risk of slavery is low, but the law sanctions it for others, turns rights into little more than a myth. The question of whether or not a person becomes enslaved depends on whether they stay on the correct side of the law, a law that is destined to be crafted far more by the powerful than the powerless (that is, after all what power means to begin with).
kinda obvious but still, nice way of putting it
Focusing on slavery as a set of theoretical property rights constructions is therefore somewhat bizarre. It considers the types of legal rights the owner holds or exercises, rather than the person in question’s actual experiences. Thus the same two experiences could be slavery or not, depending on how they arose. If we see a row of men doing back-breaking work picking cotton, whipped and beaten, working 12 hour days, they might be enslaved. But what if we learn that they’re employees, that they’ve signed up for this since it’s the only job in the area? Well, according to all the theories we’re not dealing with slavery anymore, but it sure looks pretty similar.
That’s one of the reasons the phrase “wage slavery” arose to describe industrial toil. By the people-as-property definition of slavery, it’s an oxymoron; if everybody in the factory is being paid, nobody is being enslaved. But workers’ rights campaigners used the term “wage slavery” to illustrate a crucial point: being given wages so pitiful you couldn’t afford to move elsewhere meant that a wage system and a slave system could end up feeling exactly the same for the worker. Some even argued that wage-systems were worse; a capitalist who rented his labor could brutalize and destroy workers’ bodies and simply replace them one they wore out, while a slaveowner had some incentive to protect his investment. Most people treat rental cars with less care than cars they own, thus leased wage-workers could be even more poorly treated than slaves in many cases. (Rather than justifying slavery, that fact indicts wage work.)
Because the boundaries of slavery are difficult to pinpoint, and people tend to associate it so strongly with the slave regime of the American South and the Transatlantic slave trade (far more than they think of Greek slaves, slaves in the Middle Ages, or, well, Slavs), many situations resembling slavery in “all but name” are ignored or treated as normal.
Yet if we honestly examine what sort of experiences constitute slavery or its equivalent, we find that the experience of brutal and effectively involuntary work, is everywhere. Slavery is invisibly present in the architecture of our lives. In fact, we are surrounded by innumerable symbols of slavery, cunningly-disguised, made anodyne by ubiquity and routine.
The experience of slavery is present in countless products we unthinkingly purchase, consume, and discard every day. These items were created or harvested, in whole or in part, by fellow human beings who have been conveniently hidden from our sight. Such workers are not paid a living wage. Their lives are devoid of the most basic necessities. They live under conditions of abject misery and fear. And so once we get ourselves out of the conceptual muddle, and look below the surface, we are faced with the disquieting reality that we are all actively participating in a slave economy: today, right now, this minute.
sooo good omg
But slavery does not just exist as the continuing reverberation of a tragic past, and by focusing on rooting out the symbolic and material consequences of historical slavery, we risk missing something quite important: the world is still full of actual, literal slaves. From the penitentiaries of Louisiana to the garment factories of Bangladesh to the coffee plantations of the Ivory Coast, slavery is ubiquitous but invisible. Faced with this disconcerting fact, each person must decide whether she is comfortable in continuing to passively participate, or whether she will accept the conclusion of our 19th century abolitionist predecessors: that one cannot coexist quietly alongside a slave system, and that it is one’s basic moral duty to find every available means of eliminating slavery from the earth for good.