The war on trafficking is a contemporary imperialist move that involves ‘the West’ saving ‘the rest’, appearing as a reconfigured version of the ‘white man’s burden.’ Modern-day slavery abolitionism, abolitionist feminism, and celebrity humanitarianism together make up this renewed imperialism.
In the early 1990s the debate on human trafficking was restricted to a handful of feminists and revolved around establishing ‘the trafficking of women’ as a case of labour migration or one of ‘female sexual slavery.’ Two decades later, the topic has become a household word and involves a more complicated debate. Within this proliferation of attention on trafficking and slavery, a convergence among some of the most vocal and visible campaigns is discernible, looking disturbingly like a reconfigured ‘white man’s burden.’
The ‘burden’ has at least two dimensions. One is that the dominant anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns are primarily inspired by, located in, and directed from within racialised ‘developed’ centres of the world. The antislavery movement, for example, is dominated by white middle-class or elite men—in the US, Britain and Australia—who founded the majority of international organisations and populate executive boards and directorships, with the resources and cultural capital to produce books, news items, and films on the subject. People of color and non-westerners are positioned in their campaigns as objects for rescue and education, modern-day ‘slaveholders,’ or ‘survivor leaders.’
With unquestioned obligation and entitlement to intervene, and convinced of their righteousness, modern anti-slavery men feel free to roam the earth saving poor people. Histories of earlier abolitionist movements as steeped in white guilt, fear of black violence, distrust of black men, paternalism, conservative Christian values, and an uncomfortable politic between whites and blacks over social equality, are not addressed. Instead the campaigns feature the daring white knight morally obligated to save the world—especially Asia and Africa—affirming white masculinity as powerful and heroic.
Abolitionist feminism extends this ‘burden’ to white middle-class and elite women. Rooted in the 19th century white slavery discourse that spawned maternal feminist charitable rescue work, the movement locates its moral obligation and civic responsibility in the rescue of poor ’prostituted’ women and children (victims) from male privilege, power, and lust (sex trafficking). It reproduces a colonial maternalism in relation to the impoverished non-western world, while reconfirming the white western middle-class woman as benevolent. The uncomfortable politic between white radical feminism and ‘third world,’ black and postcolonial feminisms is pushed aside in favour of an essentialising notion of global victimized womanhood.
Both types of abolitionist politics inform celebrity humanitarian campaigns against trafficking, starring Demi Moore, Emma Thompson, Mira Sorvino and more. Celebrity humanitarianism is broadcast widely—hearts are in the right place, pockets deep, and star status focuses attention on a problem believed to be one of the worlds’ most heinous. Yet as Dina Haynes points out, “their often ill-informed characterisations of the problem and its potential solutions lead to unintended consequences, misallocated funds, and misdirected victim services” even while they are designated “heroes.”
Accolades for such anti-trafficking and antislavery work include a Pulitzer and an Emmy, honorary doctorates, and awards for human rights and peace work. Campaigners in the Global North applaud and celebrate each other. White privilege rules.
Second, while global inequality in wealth is acknowledged as the economic context within which trafficking and slavery occurs, global capitalism is not targeted for eradication. Corrupt and greedy individuals, ‘bad’ corporations that violate labour laws, and isolated national governments that oppose ‘the West’ (think Cuba, South Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, etc.), become the problem. Campaigners work to bring these ‘rogues’ into compliance with hegemonic (western, capitalist) standards and values.
The resulting regulations produce more criminalisation of greater areas of human life, leaving the source of inequality intact. As one American journalist puts it, “more capitalism is needed to bring more people out of poverty, and [it] can also be the most effective tool to bring people out of slavery.” Even so, the ‘big bang approach’—the injection of large sums into poor areas or communities by philanthropists such as Bill Gates or Jeffrey Sachs—is not a workable solution. Charity is not sustainable economic development. But this work propels CEOs into the limelight and alleviates the guilt of those whose grotesque wealth was accumulated off the sweat and blood of millions of others. By naturalising neoliberal capitalism as “the only game in town,” as Ilan Kapoor puts it in Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity, the ‘white man’s burden’ not only masks but depoliticizes the workings of the global economy.
In sum, modern-day slavery abolitionism, abolitionist feminisms and celebrity humanitarianism combine to create a neoliberal white chivalrous crusade across the world, born of a moral sense of goodness, with the ‘developing’ Global South and East as the dumping grounds for, what Barbara Heron calls in Desire for Development, “helping imperatives” involving rescue and charity. Suffering bodies are captured, rehabilitated and returned home (preferably with a photo shoot of smiling brown or black children as proof). The fantasy of help legitimises the endeavours as altruistic and humanitarian, obscuring the reliance on and reproduction of, racial knowledge about the Other. This knowledge settles around the historical tropes of the hopeless, impoverished victim incapable of attending to their own needs, and of the benevolent, civilizing white subject who must bear the burden of intervening in the Global South. With no effect on the causes of the problem and, indeed, advocating more neoliberal regulation and stronger corporate capitalism, imperialism is given a new lease of life.
This piece is adapted from a forthcoming article in the Journal of Human Trafficking.