Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The practical necessity of utopian thinking

BTS editors introduce their series on utopia, arguing that only by striving for utopia can we hope to move beyond the limited liberties that are commonly mistaken for freedom.

Neil Howard Julia O'Connell Davidson
18 January 2016
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marco monetti/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nd)

‘Freedom’, it has been observed, is like apple pie and motherhood—everyone is for it. Just as everyone is against what is sometimes asserted as its opposite: slavery. But what does ‘freedom’ mean? The historical study of slavery shows that liberation in the form of manumission never propelled former slaves to the freedom enjoyed by slaveholders. As the American Judge, Joseph Lumpkin, put it in 1853:

The act of manumission confers no other right but that of freedom from the dominion of the master, and the limited liberty of locomotion; it does not and cannot confer citizenship, nor any of the powers, civil or political, incident to citizenship.

Full and equal citizenship, or socially recognised personhood, continued to be denied to African Americans following their emancipation from chattel slavery, as were reparations for slavery and economic justice. Through the history of transatlantic slavery, freedom and citizenship were racialised as white. This racial encoding has yet to be undone, as evidenced in the continuing stream of police killings of unarmed black people in the US and Brazil, and the massively disproportionate rate of incarceration and deportation of those racialised as black and brown in the UK as well as the US. Nor did liberation from the bonds of slavery usher in gender equality in former slave societies. In the Americas, the ‘liberty’ envisaged by abolition’s rich, white, and male architects remained perfectly compatible with the persistence of gross racial, gender, and class inequalities.

Today, the ‘freedom’ proposed by many anti-slavery activists and their political or business allies is little different. Legal freedom from the dominion of an individual employer, creditor, ‘trafficker’, or husband is meaningless without independent access to the means of life and full and equal social and political rights, including freedom of locomotion within and across borders.

Between now and April we will feature a stream of articles as part of our ‘possible futures’ project that consider the freedoms that might lie beyond the limited liberties historically construed through manumission. Some, like our opening pieces from Andrew Sayer and Graham Harrison, are primarily concerned with the restraints on freedom produced by economic inequality and injustice. But where many contemporary anti-slavery NGOs suggest that we can achieve economic justice without changing economic structures—that we can 'shop our way to a fairer future'—these authors argue that only thoroughgoing redistribution will suffice. In a world of gross economic inequalities, this means ending poverty by ending the extreme concentration of wealth. Instead of 'saving the poor', they suggest, our freedom goal should be ridding ourselves of the rich.

However, we will also feature articles that draw attention to the fact that rights as currently conceived in mainstream political discourse, whether economic or political, are not enough. For example, African Americans’ political struggles for economic justice, and for rights and equality, have led to their formal inclusion as equal citizens. But this has not been enough to ensure that black lives matter in the US, as Ahmad Greene-Hayes makes painfully clear in one of our opening pieces. And even if effective measures to address black economic exclusion were implemented, basic economic rights coupled with formal civil rights cannot spell freedom in a context where those racialised as black must live in fear of being pulled over and shot by the police as they go about their daily business. The liberal model of rights and freedom that was initially designed to exclude black people, Greene-Hayes powerfully argues, cannot be reformed but must also be dismantled. In the UK context, as Kehinde Andrews notes in his article on the sanitization of history in British education and popular culture, reframing the teaching of transatlantic slavery would be a step towards initiating this process.

Similar arguments about the limits of reform can be made in relation to gender, age, and class. This is because the liberal model of freedom and rights that is used to divide political and economic life, as well as structure relations within them, was originally designed to exclude white women, children and men without property, as well as all those racialised as black. More than this, it was designed to authorise the domination of these groups by white, adult, propertied males. In doing so, it served to preserve ‘society’ and its existing hierarchies against the potentially disruptive effects of an emerging free market, capitalist economy. People have, again, struggled politically to transform this. But while formal rights and inclusion in the public realm have been gradually extended to previously excluded groups, this has not ended the substantive inequalities structured by class or gender, even within nations. Viewed globally, emancipatory gains for some groups in some regions have been equaled by, or even secured at the expense of, losses for other groups in other parts of the world. “The dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism”, as Domenico Losurdo puts it.

Struggles for reforms that extend or deepen political inclusion are not to be sniffed at. There is no doubt that it is preferable to be included in than excluded from the game that allocates access to material resources and social privileges. It is better to be exploited than discarded as entirely extraneous to social and economic life; it is also better to be protected against disease, starvation, and ignorance by hierarchical forms of social protection than to be counted as not worth protecting at all. But if we are committed to overcoming domination in all its guises, we have to want more.

The nineteenth century American pro-slavery thinker, George Fitzhugh, accused his antislavery contemporaries of wishing to tear up the existing social fabric and replace it with a world in which there was “No private property, no church, no law, no government, free love, free lands, free women and free churches”. Fitzhugh was wrong to attribute these ideals to most mid-nineteenth century abolitionists, but the fact that a pro-slavery thinker perceived them as such a profound threat is a reminder that to pursue a world without domination, we need to keep dreaming of what he disparagingly described as “a better, but untried, form of society”. We have to keep trying to imagine a borderless world, a world without white privilege, gender hierarchy or heteronormativity, a truly human and sustainable global economy.

Some of the articles to be published in this stream will therefore embrace the kind of thinking that is often dismissed as ‘utopian’, ‘unrealistic’, and even irrelevant to the job of liberating the 35 million people said by organisations like Walk Free to be held as ‘modern slaves’. But since freedom is not a ‘thing’ to be defined by the powerful and doled out to the powerless in the proportions they see fit, we would argue that such thinking is necessary and inescapable.  As Ernst Bloch famously put it, “The Real is process…the mediation between present, unfinished past, and above all: possible future”. Freedom too is a process, an ethical practice, a collective and a relational endeavour. Pursuing it requires us to keep interrogating systems of domination and exploitation today that reflect intersecting inequalities of race, class, gender, generation and nation in light not merely of the past, but also of possibilities for a better tomorrow. And while no single, short article can take on all of this, we hope that taken together, the articles to follow will help to provoke such interrogation.

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