New economy, new slavery

Disposable People
November 12, 1999

Where once there was "old" slavery, based around the legal ownership of other human beings, there is now, according to Kevin Bales, "new" slavery, where "the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation" is the norm. This change is intimately related to the advent of a truly global economy, in which producers and consumers exist at even further remove from each other. Here, profit is the sole driving force behind the enslavement of people who are now victimised not because of their race, but because of their vulnerability: they are enslaved simply because they can be, their servitude no longer legitimated by reference to any standard of civilisation but maintained by their poverty and illiteracy, the corruption of public authorities, and the ever-present threat of violence. In Bales's words, this new slavery is "faceless, temporary, highly profitable, legally concealed, and completely ruthless".

In Disposable People , he provides a number of personally researched case studies of new slavery, hoping in the process to end widespread ignorance of the extent to which slavery is alive and well and to stimulate renewed efforts to abolish it. In this latter endeavour he is largely successful: the stories he tells are interesting and sometimes shocking accounts of the reality of the lives of new slaves, the number of which he conservatively estimates at million. The book's main contribution lies in this, rather than in deepening our theoretical understanding of the ways in which broader social and economic changes at the

global level create and reinforce modern slavery. Here, Bales's argument is often weak and inconsistent, failing to grasp systematically enough the ambiguities inherent in economic globalisation and the coming of modernity. Disposable People is at its best as an empirically informed general discussion of slavery in the modern world economy.

The key to Bales's account of new slavery is that it is fundamentally related to globalisation. The mobility of capital allows multinational corporations and investors to seek cheap wages and high returns while western consumers demand high-quality goods at ever lower prices. The result, Bales shows, is that everything we buy and everything we invest in is likely, somewhere, somehow, to involve slavery. In Brazil, charcoal produced in near concentration camp conditions is used to make steel, which is then used to make cars. The slaves who work in these camps, or in Thai brothels, or on the land in India, or in Pakistan's brick-making industry, are the victims of population growth and rapid industrialisation,developments that create a large surplus of potential slaves who represent such a low initial investment for the slaveholder that when they are no longer of use they can be instantly replaced.

There are two aspects of this process with which Bales does not fully get to grips: first, the relationship between "tradition" and "globalisation"; second, the extent to which having the phrase "economic exploitation" in a definition of slavery makes it difficult to separate various forms of slavery from the kind of economic exploitation that hundreds of millions of people suffer by virtue of their poverty and powerlessness in a global market.

The relationship between globalisation and tradition is tricky. Although new slavery flourishes "where old rules, old ways of life break down", time and again Bales shows how pre-existing cultural traditions and social norms are essential to legitimise new slavery - attitudes to women in Thailand, the caste system in India and Pakistan, the need to borrow to pay for weddings or bride prices, long-standing cultural rules about honour and debt repayment. Indeed, although Mauritania is included as an example of old slavery, the centuries old links between members of a particular slave family and those of a particular master are also found in India and Pakistan. Traditions, far from being eroded by globalisation, frequently support slavery, prejudice and ill-treatment; thus globalisation finds fertile ground for even more exploitation.

More than this, Bales also fails to draw links between this side of the modernising project and other parts of it that are seen as an antidote to slavery - human rights, non-governmental organisations, international law for individuals, gender and racial equality, education as a right. Globalisation is thus ambiguous in its effects. In the case of India, the existing power of the landlords is under threat from the rising middle classes - but when this bourgeoisie comes to own most of the land, will the tens of millions of poor farmers find themselves suddenly free of debt?This leads to the second concern.

Defining new slavery is not easy, and in addition to Bales's description, he goes on to say that while child labour, for example, may be cruel and unjust it is not necessarily slavery because it does not always feature "someone controlled by violence and denied all of their personal freedom to make money for someone else". That this is the case in relation to prostitution in certain Thai brothels is clear, and the treatment of the women enslaved there is truly awful. But in India, which "may have more slaves than all of the other countries of the world put together", some of Bales's accounts have a very different character.

For Indian bonded labourers, corruption often serves to turn a small initial debt into one that can never be repaid and that will pass from generation to generation. But not always. The situation of very poor farmers such as Bales's Baldev and Shivraj, and their families, who face permanent debt because of low income and great uncertainty (weather, illness), seems more like feudal serfdom than slavery (although they can vote). Yes, they are hugely economically exploited by their landlords, with their prospects for long-term security desperate. But they seem neither instantly disposable, nor subject to threats of violence, nor to particularly transparent corruption (although here they may be the exceptions). They are slaves only under a broader definition in which economic exploitation becomes more central and then the number who fit into this category expands enormously, and the "spectre of Marx" reappears.

There is, underlying Bales's account, an under-theorised narrative of modernity, where bonded Indian labourers live in "the dark ages", where Mauritania is "almost medieval", where the situation of slaves is seen as analagous to that of slaves in the Deep South of the United States in the 19th century. We must, therefore, be clearer about what "progress" means, jobs and education for women being a good thing, along with human-rights NGOs and international condemnations of slavery, but "western-style materialist morality" being bad. These linkages need more thorough analysis.

The book is also liberally sprinkled with vast cultural generalisations designed to imply guilt by association. For example, the treatment of women and the extent of the legal commercial sex industry in Thailand is treated in detail, but it is not synonymous with slavery on Bales's definition, even though he claims: "Thailand is a country sick with an addiction to slavery." Or, in Pakistan, the role of Islam in perpetuating ignorance and social injustice is hinted at: "The problems of brick-workers are ignored in the heat of holy war." There are also occasional lapses into the language of the "exotic": "Mauritania has a certain Alice in Wonderland character." These and many other sensational and rather careless phrases can make Disposable People an infuriating read,but overall the book is a sobering empirical introduction to certain aspects of the post-colonial and post-cold-war world.

Stephen Hopgood is lecturer in international politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy

Author - Kevin Bales
ISBN - 0 520 21797 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 298

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments