By Mike Kolhoff
“The ideological push for the “science” of free trade has unleashed enormously destructive forces for social and cultural change that have wreaked havoc on the populations of developing countries. Rapid urbanization and restructuring of agricultural activities, upon which people have depended for centuries, has spelled disaster. In rural areas, the loss of common land, combined with the switch to the production of cash crops from subsistence farming, has in effect destroyed people’s livelihoods.”
From: The Economic Foundations of Contemporary Slavery, By Justin Guay , Topical Research Digest, 2014
The extractive power of capitalism has always existed. The ability to extract profit from people, production and resources is necessary for capitalism to function. There was a time when this was accompanied by a sort of creative power of capitalism. Capitalism once built things, even as it extracted profit from people and things. It built electrical power plants, built libraries, built universities and paved roads. These activities were in no way altruistic, they were adjustments, investments made to improve extraction of profit and to prove the superiority of capitalism over any competing system, but they still benefited non-capitalists just the same.
Any creative power capitalism may have once had began to decline in the last half of the 20th century, well after capitalism had faced its greatest crisis: the crisis of over-production and under-consumption that brought on the Great Depression. This crisis continues today, despite World War 2 and despite the invention of consumer capitalism (a wasteful system based on the production and sale of mostly useless things) and the conversion of the wartime propaganda machinery to the peacetime sales machinery. An economy based on selling people things they don’t want, and people buying things they neither want or need, on credit, is an economy treading water.
That creation and building ended once the USSR was eliminated, as profits extracted from a freshly globalized economy made creation unnecessary. The capitalism of today is nothing but extraction, with the only benefit trickling down to the rest of us being “jobs”. This mania for ever-increasing rates of profit is similar to that of the era of the birth of industrialism, with one important difference: the tactical goals of the creative period included the entrapment and incapacitation of the social forces that had offered opposition during its formative years. The very social forces which once called for the replacement of capitalism with a more humane and fair system, now merely pine for a return to its more creative, less destructive, past.
The biggest glaring contradiction of consumer capitalism has always been the issue of wages. This flimsy, credit-based bamboozle demands that workers be paid enough to purchase the things they produce, which means capitalists must accept reduced profits for the scheme to function, and for capitalists this is a philosophically unacceptable idea. So instead we have “easy financing” and massive government subsidy of capital (direct and indirect, by taxes collected from workers of course) and even such scavenger-like inventions as “disaster capitalism”. All of which have only postponed what promises to be a savage and bloody NEW stage of development, bloodier even than capitalism’s robber-baron beginnings. An indication of just how savage and brutal is evidenced in the dramatic growth of modern slavery, the ultimate capitalist solution to the wage problem.
Beginning with the above-mentioned utter collapse of the Soviet Empire, the growth of the slave trade has outpaced any other sector of capitalist industry: a 2001 UNESCO report estimated that there were 1.7 million slaves in the world. As of 2013 that number had increased to 30 million1. That is over 2 million new slaves every year since 2001, and a total number considerably larger than those living in slavery at the time of the American Civil War (approximately 4 million).
If your definition of slave includes forced labor (debt slaves, bonded labor where their debt increases as they work; and prison labor where forced labor is part of their prison sentence), some anti-slavery groups put the number of people living as slaves at 200 million worldwide.
“A common link in many forms of contemporary slavery is the use of illegal contracts. Domestic servants in the Philippines, textile workers in the United States, and sex workers in Thailand are all examples of contract slavery. The vulnerability of the world’s poor is a key ingredient to the successful implementation of this type of slavery. Slave traders offer desperately poor people, usually in rural areas, employment through illegitimate contracts. Once the victim has been subjugated, the contract is used to keep the slave convinced that the arrangement is valid. The contract is also used to flaunt anti-slavery laws in case of problems with authorities….2
The rise of modern slavery has followed the incredible growing inequality of income across the globe. The Indian sub-continent holds the distinction of having the largest number of slaves of all types. It cannot be an accident that India is also a hot spot for market expansion and capitalist growth. Where capitalism goes, slavery grows. Pakistan comes in a close second to India in total number of slaves of all types. Pakistan is of course also a capitalist playground and free-market fun zone. But slavery is not a regional problem. Like global capitalism, slavery is also globalized.
“As opposed to the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when slavery was confined to colonies and peripheral territorial holdings, contemporary slavery has permeated countries at every level of development in the global economy.” ((The Economic Foundations of Contemporary Slavery, P. 74))
Slavery is NOT some sort of dirty secret. The rise of modern slavery is generally known, though the numbers involved and the scope may be surprising to some. In the global north people are well aware of modern slavery, called “human trafficking”. For the mass media human slavery has become a plot device in every police procedure show of any merit: in The Wire it was Ukrainian girls in shipping containers; on Major Crimes it was young blonde Americans shipped in the back of semi-trucks; all for the purpose of sexual abuse. From the American media viewpoint one might believe sex slavery was the only slavery that exists.
“Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colors will baby people become interested–for a while at least. The people are a very fickle baby that must have new toys every day. The “righteous” cry against the white slave traffic is such a toy. It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs–parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth.”3
The estimate of between 30 and 200 million slaves demonstrates both the prevalence of modern slavery and the differences of opinion over who is and is not a slave. Free marketers might consider debt slavery not a condition of slavery at all, but as a free contract between the lender/master and the debtor/slave to resolve their obligation. Actual circumstances are less important than legal status. But the reality is that it is the circumstances and conditions that define slavery, not legalities.
“Slavery is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they’ve finished with their slaves, they just throw these people away. This is the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money.” ((Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, UC Press, 1999, page 4))
Slavery is a part of class-based, hierarchal civilization and always has been. It is a type of exploitation and oppression that has existed since the first city states were formed. Attempts to end it were part of the social period known as The Enlightenment, but the last lights of the Enlightenment went out a good while ago, extinguished in the savage birth of industrial capitalism and the industrialization of war that followed.
The return of mass human slavery in the 21st century marks the transition to a new stage of capitalist barbarism, with wars of revenge and conquest, an atmosphere of hopeless doom and fear among the mass of humanity, and billions of people trapped in a web of imprisonment, debt, and depression. The rise of modern slavery signals the coming of what can only be called a capitalist dark age, which we as individuals and groups will all succumb to if we fail to destroy this system which seeks to destroy us.
End Part 1
Part 2, Slavery in the USA
Part 3, Fight Back and Ending It
- Global Slavery Index 2013, http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/ [↩]
- The Economic Foundations of Contemporary Slavery, By Justin Guay , Topical Research Digest, P. 73 https://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/slavery/economic.pdf [↩]
- Emma Goldman, The Traffic in Women, 1910 [↩]