An Introduction to Modern Slavery

Modern slavery should need no introduction. Modern slavery already intrudes into every aspect of life, debasing all it touches. It is the underlying organizing principle for all major economic institutions east and west, north and south. Its support and defense are the unspoken but automatically-understood objects of all major – and the vast majority of the minor – social, political and cultural institutions. Its infrastructure and demands extend into the deepest levels of modern consciousness, coloring our dreams as well as our nightmares. Yet modern slavery is largely invisible.

Modern slavery is officially non-existent. It has been tossed down the memory hole. It is not spoken of in polite company. Every institutional and government functionary, from the lowest levels of bureaucratic purgatory to the upper levels of elite power, knows instinctively that any explicit mention of its name as a contemporary reality means instant social death within the hierarchy. It is a rare day when it is acknowledged in any public context, even by the most radical or reckless of iconoclasts.

The dwindling numbers of union organizers and rank-and-file union members in the post-industrial nations less and less often speak even of wage slavery, despite a long and persistent history of naming this scourge during the dark decades of modern industrialization. Conservative writers usually reserve mention of slavery, if it’s mentioned at all, to excessive governmental regulation of business operations and, especially, of juridical property rights (which themselves are, ironically, always codified and enforced by that same government). Radical leftists (never mind the even more tamed moderates) are almost embarrassed to bring up the subject of slavery these days, except when speaking of history or, maybe, describing sweat-shop labor in the still-industrializing regions of the world. Even the extensive slave-labor systems employed in US prisons are unfit for public discussion, much less condemnation, especially in the allegedly “free” commercial press. Most of the population is blissfully unaware of their very existence.

Only the most extreme or titillating discoveries of enslavement around the world are usually acknowledged in these enlightened days. Stories of underground criminal syndicates running sex-slavery enterprises, stories of illegal immigrants imprisoned in slave-labor factories, or stories of slave-holding in the so-called “backward,” more “primitive” regions of Africa are given occasional exposure. This is largely in order to sell papers and magazines – or web ads, of course, along with drumming up charity support for administration-heavy humanitarian organizations. But it is also to demonstrate a moral lesson showing how much better off the rest of us are. After all, everyone knows that slavery as an institution has been officially abolished almost everywhere on the planet! It’s what we are taught in schools, what we hear the media, and what all the other social and cultural institutions tell us. Today, we’re all “free.”

But “freedom” has become just another word for modern slavery

The always ongoing propaganda wars for ideological hegemony have long been locked down by the religious, corporate and statist powers that be. Not just fought to victory over surrendering but still visible popular insurgents, but fought through to the virtual oblivion and disappearance of those now utterly demoralized foes. The ongoing crises of the age of revolutions were ended through the successful totalitarian – and semi-totalitarian – war-time mobilizations and post-war stabilizations of the mid-20th century. This was especially thanks to industrial commodity overflow and the immense semantic powers of the spectacular media to define reality, in full coordination with the immense social, economic and political powers of the major institutions of modern civilization. We now live in this spectacular brave new world, yet most people have little or no comprehension of what it means.

Everywhere we look slavery still exists throughout the civilized world. The trick is that it is not permitted to be named as such.

Everywhere we look slavery still exists throughout the civilized world. The trick is that it is not permitted to be named as such. And even those who would attempt to question its ubiquitous existence are most often no longer strong enough to name it explicitly for themselves, much less publicly for others as well. Instead, the entire concept of slavery has been ideologically narrowed, distilled and reified to the point where it is reflexively understood as including only the most obvious and egregious forms of chattel enslavement – which is itself for the most part functionally obsolescent in modern, industrialized societies. The new (both conservative and liberal) politically-correct redefinitions of slavery conveniently serve to obscure the actual meanings and existence of the modern forms of bondage and servitude. The historical fact that chattel slavery has been vanquished precisely because it is generally inefficient, even incompatible, with more effective modern forms of labor domination and exploitation is not mentioned. Instead, the naive republican and democratic myth that chattel slavery has been suppressed primarily due to the victories of modern morality and political idealism is everywhere promoted.

The correlate of the disappearing act performed on institutionalized slavery has been the nearly ubiquitous rise of state-guaranteed freedoms – even under the most repressive and despotic of modern political regimes, along with the rise of democratic institutions around the world. Aside from a few remaining unapologetic kingdoms, theocracies and military dictatorships, every regime with pretensions to modernism attempts to project at least a semblance of social, economic and political freedom functioning within democratic institutions of some sort. What is never officially spoken – especially by the organs of mass media – is that the new forms of modern freedom can be legally expressed only in terms defined by the enforcers of state repression and work discipline. Once there still existed substantial numbers of people who maintained a modicum of autonomy guaranteed by their ability to live largely outside the commodity economy. Now there are only masses of (increasingly dependent, deskilled, demoralized and often functionally disabled) wage slaves, unemployed and homeless people inhabiting the major population centers of the modern post-industrial states. As long as they have the cash or resources they are “free” to buy commodities and sell themselves on the market. But any significant degree of autonomy or personal self-possession has long been absent. The commons have been appropriated, sold off, regulated or paved. Dispossessed of any significant means of livelihood beyond the economy of commodity exchange or stingy government handouts (“social benefits”), and of any genuine community outside of the local homeowners association, food co-op or Facebook people have for the most part lost even the ability to imagine what substantial freedom to live their own lives might mean. The only remaining utopian goal is to make a world of never-ending slavery more humane and more comfortable – if not as lived reality, then at least in its depictions in the spectacular media and the new frontier of blogs and social media! Left liberals and democratic socialists now settle for inspiring new visions in which a change in figurehead leaders, legal technicalities and regulatory personnel makes everything so much better! While all the ideological libertarians and anarchists of left and right tag along demanding a world of self-managed slavery!

Modern Slavery calls for a renewed struggle to abolish all forms of slavery!

As Lewis Perry points out in his essay “European Anarchism and the Idea of Slavery,” the mainstream of European anarchism – as well as those marginal to this mainstream – “defined [anarchism] by attacking slavery.” (see the appendix to Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought, Cornell University Press, 1973, p. 309) It was hardly surprising then that large numbers of abolitionists in the Antebellum United States quite logically turned toward anarchism, even in the absence of any established North American movement. And even then it was not uncommon for anarchists to point out that abolition of chattel slavery in order to inaugurate a new regime of generalized wage-slavery was not necessarily much of an improvement if there was no provision for any real autonomy and self-possession after manumission. Today anarchists have largely forgotten this central truth.

This is the reason Modern Slavery has been launched. To remind the libertarian milieu in general that promoting visions of freer slavery is no more than a continuing road to nowhere. For libertarian projects and movements to become relevant and more than sometimes amusing side shows to an onrushing future of post-modern cybernetic
totalitarianism we need to stop all the self-defeating compromises with the pro-slavery left and right: both socialists and capitalists, red fascists and black fascists. If we can’t call slavery “slavery” and show ourselves and others that we won’t tolerate it, then we haven’t got much worth contributing to any anti-political, anti-state debate. If we can’t demonstrate that it’s possible to build new communities where slave holders, slave drivers and slave auctioneers are an extinct species, why call ourselves
libertarians or anarchists at all?

Modern Slavery is a meeting space for all those interested in moving on beyond the dead-ends of ideology and postmodern fashions. Modern Slavery is for anyone and everyone interested in choosing to live their own lives to as great an extent as possible here and now. Modern Slavery is not the place to read the latest theories about organizing the masses, buying ecology-friendly commodities or reforming capitalism through direct democracy, neighborhood associations, industrial unions or abolishing the Federal Reserve! Modern Slavery is written, edited and published for those who think and act for themselves and want to encourage others to do so here and now and always.

Critical self-theory and the non-ideological critique of ideology

Modern Slavery promotes the non-ideological critique of ideology. There is a direct correlation between the rise of institutions of slavery and the rise of ideology. Prior to the development of shared ideological systems defining and justifying enslavement, the existence of slavery could not develop beyond particular individual instances. It takes a community-wide ideological system in which legitimated roles of domination and submission are explicitly defined in order for slavery to become institutionalized in developing hierarchical societies.

So the spread of ideology around the world, initially in the form of religion, accompanied the spread of slavery – all the various forms of forced labor. It can be argued that the rise of civilization – the centralization of religious, political and economic power in hierarchical, urban centers dominating their respective territories of resource extraction – has been co-extensive with the rise of both institutionalized ideology and slavery. In fact, it would be hard to find any factual arguments against this thesis, although there will probably always be apologists ready to argue that the role of slave in ancient Greece or the latifundia of Rome, serfdom in medieval Europe, indentured servitude in imperial colonies, or wage slavery under capitalism really isn’t so bad! And the reason this simple truth is almost never taught in schools, admitted by professional historians, or spoken of in any of the organs of dominating institutions isn’t hard to understand. Those who are subjected to the systems of forced labor – all of us without the means of livelihood and the power to live our lives unmolested by the regulative hierarchical institutions of modernity – will remain easier to manage as long as the dominant culture sings hymns to our many “freedoms” in order to drown out any occasionally discordant notes.

The only way to genuinely move beyond all the ideologies of modern slavery is to move beyond any apologies for any forms of forced labor. This requires a non-ideological critique of ideology, which can only arise from unreified, non-institutionalized theory and practice.

It becomes obvious, then, that the fight against slavery is also the fight against all the ideologies of slavery, the ideologies by which the institutions of forced labor are legitimized. However, this fight is complicated by the historical evolution of the institutions of slavery themselves, whose developments are always accompanied by appropriately new forms of ideology. This has given us the entire panoply of competing modern ideologies: nationalism, liberalism, socialism, fascism, Marxism, communism, etc. (Many naive – or occasionally cynical – people turn libertarianism and anarchism into competing new ideologies as well.) Superficially, it can seem that some of the more radical of these ideologies claim to oppose all ideology. However, a closer examination always reveals that none can rise above the level of the competitive ideological critique of other ideologies. The only way to genuinely move beyond all the ideologies of modern slavery is to move beyond any apologies for any forms of forced labor. This requires a non-ideological critique of ideology, which can only arise from unreified, non-institutionalized theory and practice. This means a completely libertarian practice and theory that rests on no artificially-constructed subjectivities that can be turned back around to demand our subjugation and domination. This especially means no collective subjectivities that are represented as something other than or more than the particular persons who make them up at any given moment in space and time. And this, in turn, leaves us with any non-ideological critique of ideology arising from – and only from – the critical self theory of particular living individuals in their own chosen relationships with each other. Critical self-theory is the non-ideological critique of ideology, and this is the ultimate basis for any non-ideological anarchy.

Neoliberal potlatch and the end of empire

Modern Slavery will examine the neoliberal economic crisis – a structural crisis far more serious and long-term than has been generally yet acknowledged. And the predictable effects of the collapse of neoliberalism – the end of empire for the United States. We have already seen the Soviet empire collapse in 1989 and subsequent years. The upcoming collapse of neoliberal empire may be even more spectacular, though it will be likely to last for a decade or more of increasing retrenchments, unlike the rapid Soviet collapse. Whatever else we can expect there is no actual neoliberal “recovery” in sight as the Eurozone disintegrates, structural unemployment continues to grow throughout the industrialized world (clumsily hidden in the US by classifying most of the unemployed as not part of the work force), and much of the world’s financial systems and stock markets collapse. With peak oil, the effects of global warming, and the impending declines of the world’s agriculture, fisheries and fresh water supplies, combined with still growing populations and onrushing worldwide industrialization, there is no hope for economic stabilization under the rule of capital over the coming decades. The world is on a path towards massive social, economic, technological, military and political upheaval. It is extremely important that we get out in front of the coming changes in order to anticipate what will be ahead and act appropriately as the world’s population and development trends for centuries grind to a halt before they turn to decentralization, deurbanization and the winding down of overly complex technologies, as well as irrational development patterns, and production and distribution systems. The world will neither look or feel the same in the upcoming decades, and the pace and direction of the changes will undoubtedly surprise most of us.

No future for modern slavery?

The end of neoliberalism, the end of the US empire, the decline of fossil fuel production, and the intensification of the ecological crises of our time do not mean that the end of 10,000 years of human slavery is necessarily in sight. None of these processes guarantee on their own or together the end of capitalism, the end of hierarchical social institutions, the end of resource despoliation or the end of mass species extinction. If modern slavery is to be ended it will only be ended by people refusing to submit any longer as slaves here and now in all aspects of our everyday lives. This can be accomplished only by beginning to live differently in convivial, mutually-beneficial, non-hierarchical and anarchic relationships. And, most importantly, doing so with an eye on preventing recuperation of our efforts through the creation of ever newer forms of enslavement by all the ideologues and bosses ready to take over. Will you join us on this journey?

-Jason McQuinn

[Issue #1 Table of Contents]

3 comments

  1. Lee Wood says:

    Greetings,
    Before I share greast theory and practice, I need to ask if your organizing supports Israeli “Slavery as Spoils of War” against Palestine? Thank you.
    Towards Abolition of All Slavery,
    Lee Wood

    • Jason McQuinn says:

      Excuse me, but how could we be more clear than “A Journal for the abolition of all forms of enslavement”? No exceptions anywhere, any time, any galaxy, or any dimension intended.

      • Lee Wood says:

        Thanks Jason. It is encouraging to know that you are aware of the phoney self labeled, and unusually very well financed group that promotes Slavery as a Spoils of War against the Palestinian people; yet has the temerity to call themselves ABOLITIONISTS.
        I represent the Committee to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS), and we’ve been working for the past short 40 years to abolish the ‘EXCEPTION for slavery as a punishment for crime’ as found in the 13th Amendment. As such we have also established a disciplined history of opposing all EXCEPTIONS for slavery including slavery as a punishment for crime, slavery as a spoils of war, and slavery as an economic class status.

        Here’s a recent post to our FB group that gives more of our perspective:
        “Without cameras, the old Abolitionists did parallel education/action organizing with protests against the old Antebellum Slavers (Slave Catchers/modern police) by exposing the capture, jailing, beating, murder and return of Freedmen, and runaway Slaves alike, back to Southern Mastas (jail and imprisonment today).
        Joseph “Jazz” Hayden is being persecuted similar to like-minded Abolitionists of old with his video defense exposing unconstitutionally captured slaves. Without being “DULY CONVICTED” these Citizen victims of the police ‘stop and frisk’ ‘search and seizure’ automatically become slaves > with the automatic loss of their Citizenship Rights to be free from illegal search and seizure, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, due process, and equal protection, freedom from forced/coerced labor, loss of voting rights, etc. Likewise, the Slave Catchers have taken these rights away from Jazz relegating him to the status of a Slave > without first being “DULY CONVICTED” as provided for in the 13th Amendment.
        This enslavement is completely backwards! Police emphasis, in a “Free” society should focus directly on the “Pro-Active” PROTECTION of Citizenship Rights and Freedoms, rather than capriciously taking those rights and freedoms away. “Pro-Active” Protection of these rights would correctly designate America as the “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave”; while taking these Constitutional/​Citizenship/Human rights away exposes the hypocritical Slavocracy Rule of America as the “Land of the Slave, Home of the Brave”!