New abolitionist organizations like ‘Walk Free’ and ‘Free the Slaves’ provide a definition of ‘slavery’ that, though inadequate in sociological terms, conjures up a vision of something so horrible that everyone immediately agrees it is absolutely wrong. Even the most fervent anti-immigration politicians and those most invested in the rise of neoliberalism condemn ‘modern slavery’. What if the focus switches to ‘freedom’?
New abolitionists don’t define ‘freedom’, but implicitly equate it with emancipation from ‘slavery’. The overarching narrative guiding the materials presented on their websites is one in which the suffering of the ‘slave’ is terminated by rescue.
This is the ending that transports the victim-protagonist to a ‘happy land, where things come right’. Kids return to being kids, the sexually abused get therapy, workers get paid, and everyone can pursue their dreams. In their campaign materials, release from slavery is the optimistic and emotionally satisfying ending that provides readers with closure, much like in fairy tales when marriage resolves all of the heroine’s suffering, conflict, loss and longing.
History tells us that the experience of those freed from New World slavery did not follow this narrative structure. They and their descendants became de jure free in societies where social rights, liberties, and protections were unequally distributed along lines of race, class and gender.
In fact, the historical experience of many groups of formally ‘free’ people – including many wives and industrial workers, as well as indentured labourers and sharecroppers – often looked remarkably like the conditions that, when found in the contemporary world, are described by the new abolitionists as de facto slavery.
And for those who were not still legally tied to a master in some way, ‘freedom’ often meant only the opportunity to starve or be criminalized for any strategy employed to escape that fate. Those caught were then locked in a workhouse or prison and subjected to forced labour.
Our perception of where the line between freedom and slavery falls varies according to our vantage point and over time. It shifted gradually in twentieth century western liberal societies, not as a consequence of anti-slavery campaigns, but as a result of political struggles around race, class, and gender. These were struggles for social and economic rights as well as civil equality and liberties.
They often reflected a belief that human beings are not fully free unless they are protected from the market by a welfare system that respects their human worth, regardless of their market price. Through these struggles, a form of ‘worker citizenship’ was achieved in affluent, post-war welfare states that stood in sharp contrast to virtually every aspect of chattel slavery (at least for white adult male citizens).
Is this the happy ending awaiting those rescued from ‘modern slavery’? Hardly. The vast majority of those dubbed ‘modern slaves’ are citizens of developing, often very poor, countries (Walk Free’s modern slavery index is topped by Mauritania, where annual per capita GDP is US$ 1070, and Haiti, where it is US$819). They are also frequently either internal or international migrants.
Leaving aside the fact that affluent states have been rolling back protections once afforded to citizens, they have always discriminated, and today discriminate even more fiercely, on the basis of nationality. The ending for international migrants rescued from ‘modern slavery’ is generally deportation. Meanwhile, in the developing world, governments’ already weak capacity to provide their citizens with welfare is further undermined by structural adjustment programs foisted on them by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, World Trade agreements, and so on.
In many places, access to the scant remaining social rights and protections continues to hinge on gender, caste, ethnicity and/or place of origin (internal migrants are often as rightless as international migrants).
In 1864, an American manual for newly emancipated slaves advised, “Put your trust in God, and bend your back joyfully and hopefully to the burden.” Isn’t this exactly what an apolitical movement offers the 29.8 million dubbed ‘modern slaves’, and the many more millions whose conditions resemble theirs? Let’s stop giving the architects and beneficiaries of an increasingly neoliberal world order a platform on which to parade their moral condemnation of ‘slavery’, and focus on efforts to transform the meaning of ‘freedom’.
This article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.