Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Reparations are too confronting: let’s talk about 'modern-day slavery' instead

Governments and activists in Europe and America invoke the immediacy of “modern-day slavery” to sidestep challenging questions regarding the case for reparations. Instead of repairing harm, they promise rescue.

Joel Quirk
7 May 2015

Slavery memorial in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Jeffery DelViscio/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Tony Blair’s tenure as the prime minister of Britain was a tremendous disappointment. While most people now remember Blair as a key champion of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, this foreign policy disaster counts as only one of many times when he failed to do the right thing. One less high profile example came in late 2006, when Blair published a now infamous article in New Nation—a community newspaper geared towards Africans and peoples of African descent living in Britain—concerned with the role of slavery in British history. 

In this article, Blair expressed “deep sorrow that [the slave trade] ever happened”, and also stated that it was “hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time”. While Blair’s article was initially welcomed in some circles, it is now primarily remembered for what he didn’t say, since Blair deliberately refrained from offering an apology for centuries of slavery. The chief reason that was given at the time for this failure to offer a “full apology” was that it would leave “the state open to claims for reparations”.  

The British government has still not formally apologised for slavery. Neither of Blair’s successors—Gordon Brown and David Cameron—have been prepared to improve upon his carefully calibrated statement from 2006. When the British government recently apologised for serious human rights violations under colonial rule in Kenya, this apology was only compelled by successful legal action, creating an important precedent that campaigners seeking reparations for other wrongs have drawn inspiration from. While the politics of apology are by no means straightforward—how much can an apology really mean without other measures—this ongoing resistance to an apology remains emblematic of a more general reluctance to directly confront the history and legacies of slavery. 

The contemporary legacies of historical slave systems 

Blair not only failed to apologise. He also failed to engage with the legacies of slavery. While Blair’s article briefly referred to the “profound” impact of slavery “upon Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe”, he refrained from taking the further step of connecting this history to what he described as “the problems of Africa and the challenges facing the African and Caribbean diaspora today”. This was a notable omission. Recent reparations claims are not confined to a history that is now closed. They are also fundamentally concerned with continuing legacies found in patterns of injustice, inequality and racism today.

This approach to reparations is exemplified in the Ten Point Action Plan recently developed by CARICOM to address ongoing challenges such as public health, knowledge, education, illiteracy and debt. For reparation campaigners, slavery cannot be approached as a self-contained episode. It must instead be regarded as one component of the larger history of colonialism, segregation, apartheid, and racial discrimination. This also extends to the other side of the ledger. Patterns of wealth, power and privilege that were enjoyed by slave owners and the societies of which they were part did not end with abolition. They also persist to this day

Like most politicians in Europe and America, Blair was not prepared to confront the historical sources of contemporary poverty, privilege and discrimination. He instead fell back into the more comfortable language of humanitarianism, shifting the focus from harms inflicted to help provided. Having started his 2006 article with an expression of “regret” for abuses committed by the British state—centuries of enslavement—Blair concluded with a picture of this very same state as an instrument of virtue. In addition to listing measures to “help Africa tackle its problems”, he also went on to repeatedly highlight the need to “acknowledge the unspeakable cruelty that persists in the form of modern day slavery”.

No apology for slavery, but full speed ahead against “modern slavery”

It is this inclusion of modern slavery that I am interested in exploring further. Blair’s remarks are not unique, but are instead representative of a larger trend. Whenever politicians in Europe and North America talk about the history of slavery, they now almost ritually throw in references to trafficking and slavery today. When British parliamentarians formally debated the bicentenary of the legal abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade in 2007, much of debate focused not on slavery and racism, but upon modern-day human trafficking. One particularly revealing contribution to this debate came from Vincent Cable, then deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who declared: “The best way that we can honour the past and pay reparations to it, if that is what is sought, is by ensuring that contemporary slavery is properly and decisively dealt with”. According to William Hague, the current leader of the British House of Commons and noted biographer of William Wilberforce, “Slavery is out of sight to most people as it was two hundred years ago, but the world faces the same challenge nonetheless”.

Similar sentiments were also expressed by David Cameron, the current British prime minister, during a speech commemorating the 2007 bicentenary:  

Today we are not only remembering the slavery of the past. We bring to mind the many thousands of people who are still trapped in slavery, trafficked as labourers, sex workers and soldiers … The dedication of William Wilberforce and his colleagues is still needed today, and I salute the efforts of modern campaigners to stamp out this vicious abuse of human rights.

This is the same David Cameron who declared in 2013 that “I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for”. Like most of his peers, Cameron is comfortable talking about the urgent need to combat trafficking and slavery, but this commitment effectively takes place within a separate moral and political universe to that inhabited by the slave systems and colonies established by the same government he now heads.

Why repair when you can rescue?

The insertion of “modern slavery” into these types of conversations has the effect of shifting the focus of the debate away from the history and legacies of slavery—a theme that most people in Europe and America do not want to talk about—by introducing a new topic that is framed as “far more important”: modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Campaigns for reparations present a challenge to the self-image of most white Europeans— and their global descendants—as both “civilized” and morally superior, since the basic argument is about the need to repair the lasting effects of many centuries of exploitation, abuse and unjust enrichment. This can be contrasted with campaigns against “modern-day slavery”, which instead involve the moral validation of this very same self-image. Instead of confronting the history and legacies of slavery, Western citizens and governments are eagerly leading a “rescue industry” devoted to the protection and salvation of vulnerable people from “the darkest corners of the world”.  

In an article published on this site several weeks ago, Jim Stewart argued that modern-day abolitionists have failed to engage with the history and legacies of slavery. This failure is not accidental, but can instead be primarily traced to a fundamental incompatibility between competing worldviews. The main reason that most modern-day abolitionists have little to say about racism, reparations and the legacies of slavery is that their worldview is rooted in the underlying precepts of the “white-savoir industrial complex”. They consequentially suffer from recurring blindness in relation to the lasting impact of slavery, since this history presents a direct challenge to how they view their place in the world. Similarly, the main reason that campaigners for reparations have so little to say about “modern-day slavery” is that they have determined—correctly in my view—that recent talk about modern slavery has too often had the effect of deflecting or diluting further recognition of the history and legacies of slavery. 

It has sometimes been argued that reparations are a “lost cause”, since there are numerous procedural difficulties associated with developing a successful legal case. While it is true that existing laws make things hard, it would be a mistake to allow these laws to determine what is morally desirable or politically possible. It remains an open question whether ongoing reparations campaigns will be successful, but even if they don’t get as far might be hoped there is nonetheless tremendous value in initiating a major political and intellectual challenge to the widespread neglect of one of the key foundations of the world in which we live.

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