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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Kevin Bales (p. 366)

From chapter "Production"

I called Kevin Bales—probably the world’s foremost authority on modern slavery. I’d wanted to talk to him ever since I’d read his book, Disposable People, which deals with the fact that there are more slaves living today than came over on the Middle Passage. I asked him to define modern slavery.

“In many ways,” he said, “it’s exactly the same as slavery two or three hundred years ago. It’s still slavery in the sense that people are controlled by violence, allowed no free will, not paid, and are economically exploited. That definition applies whether you’re talking about ancient Greece, Mississippi in 1850, or Los Angeles in 2000.”

Although Bales has spent a lot of time in the States, he still has a clean British accent. He continued, “Slavery is different, too, of course, in the same way life is different now than it was in ancient Greece or antebellum Mississippi. We live in a global economy, and nowadays slavery is more globalized than ever. Also it tends at least sometimes to be more temporary—slavery for a more limited amount of time, as opposed to slavery over generations. Perhaps most importantly, there are now a lot more people who are enslaved—there is now an absolute glut of human slaves on the market—meaning that slaves have become very, very cheap, far cheaper than they’ve ever been in human history.”

I asked him to define slavery.

He said, “I like Orlando Patterson’s definition having to do with what he calls the ‘social death’ of the slave: Slavery is the permanent, violent domination of alienated and dishonored people.” Bales hesitated a moment before he continued, “I think, however, that this definition, and the power relationship between slaveholders and slaves, can be broken into three components. The first is social, and involves the use or threat of violence by the slaveholder to control the slave. The second is psychological, and has to do with convincing slaves to perceive their slavery as actually being in their own best interests. The third is cultural, and has to do with transforming force into a right of the powerful and obedience into a duty of the powerless, which, as Rousseau would have put it, ensures that the powerful maintain continual ownership. This latter means of course that the coercive power of the slaveholder is and always has been tied intimately to the coercive power of the state. The former can’t exist for long without the latter. All that said, my own definition, the simplest one and the one I use most often, is that a slave is anyone held by violence or the threat of violence, paid nothing, and economically exploited.”

I commented that he had used the word slaveholderas opposed to slave owner.

He responded, “In the past, slavery entailed one person legally owning another. But modern slavery is different. Slavery in terms of ownership is illegal everywhere, and there exists in the world no more legalownership of human beings. But there still exist many many millions of people who are controlled and economically exploited by violence. This nonownership turns out in many cases to be in the interest of slaveholders, who now have all the benefits of ownership without the obligations and legalities.”

I thought of the words of proslavery philosopher John Henry Hammond: “In all countries where the denseness of the population has reduced it to a matter of perfect certainty, that labor can be obtained, whenever wanted, and that the laborer can be forced, by sheer necessity, to hire for the smallest pittance that will keep soul and body together, and rags upon his back while in actual employment— dependent at all other times on alms or poor rates—in all such countries it is found cheaper to pay this pittance, than to clothe, feed, nurse, support through childhood, and pension in old age, a race of slaves.” I thought also of Hammond’s conclusion, that “if I could cultivate my lands on these terms, I would, without a word, resign my slaves, provided they could be properly disposed of.” Finally, it occurred to me, talking to Kevin Bales, that slavery didn’t disappear in the United States or elsewhere because we suddenly became less racist, or less exploitative, or more enlightened, or more humane, or for any of the other reasons I was taught in school. It didn’t disappear because of the efforts of abolitionists, or even because of the Civil War. Slavery didn’t disappear at all. It merely changed form, and did so because the newer form better serves the high priests of our theocracy: the producers.

I asked, “What’s the relationship between globalization and slavery?”

He said that slavery was one of the first proto-globalized industries: “The Middle Passage, for example, tied together three continents—Africa, Europe, and the Americas—and the profits made around that triangle shifted back and forth among these continents. It was very internationalist. But in the past, once slavery was in place, the slaves themselves and the products of their labor often remained local. Although slave-produced cotton was exported from the U.S., and slave-produced sugar was exported from Brazil and the Caribbean, to provide two examples among many, slaves often produced foods and other products for local markets. Today it’s far more likely that the output of slaves feeds into the global market. For example, we know that there is a significant slave input in the cocoa plantations of West Africa. Now, chocolate is eaten all over the planet. Maybe forty percent of the world’s chocolate is tainted with slavery. Steel, sugar, tobacco products, jewelry, the list goes on and on. There are so many products tainted with slavery, and these products move so smoothly around the globe, that the global economy has smoothed the way to move slavery around the planet as well.”

I commented, “It sounds like everyone—or at least everyone in the industrialized world—probably has slave products at home.”

He agreed. “A lot of people would be surprised to learn there’s a very good chance they’ve got something in their homes that’s got a link to a slave. One of the difficulties in being sure, however, is that because the global market in commodities is like a money laundering machine, slavery can be very difficult to trace. Cocoa coming out of West Africa and entering the world cocoa commodity market, for example, almost immediately loses its label, in the sense that if you’re a buyer for Hershey’s or another chocolate corporation, you don’t say, ‘I’d like to buy six tons of Ghanian cocoa.’ You just say you want so many tons of cocoa. When the cocoa is delivered at your factory, you can’t actually tell whether this is Ghanaian cocoa, which might be free of slavery, or cocoa from the Ivory Coast, which has lots of slavery in it. So you pass the slave-tainted product on without knowing, and the consumers buy it without knowing.

“That’s one thing I mean,” he continued, “when I talk about the globalization of slavery. But I mean something else as well. It used to be that slavery tended to be virtually unique in every culture: The form of slavery you found in Pakistan wasn’t the same as what you found in Thailand. But since the Second World War, slavery in different countries has become more and more alike. We’re seeing a new, global form of slavery.”

…“The kind of slavery most Americans hold in their minds is of course slavery as it was in the United States before the Civil War,” Kevin Bales said to me. “That kind of slavery had very expensive slaves. Today slaves are cheap, for a couple of reasons. The first is the population explosion, and the second is the pushing of large numbers of people in the Third World into economic and social vulnerability. This means there are a lot more potential slaves out there. Now, factor in the third leg of the stool—with the first being sheer numbers of people, the second being that a lot of them are vulnerable, and the third being the ability to enforce slavery through violence, usually done by or with the approval of corrupt police or governmental officials—and you can see how slaveholders can harvest so many slaves.”

I had never before heard the word harvest used to describe the capture of human beings.

“I’m not sure what the average price of a slave is in the world today,” he continued, “but it can’t be more than fifty or sixty dollars. That’s obviously a significant change compared to the $50,000 you’d have paid for a slave in 1850. And the low prices slaveholders put out for slaves influences how the slaves are treated. If you pay a hundred dollars for someone, that person is disposable. In gold-mining towns in the Amazon, a young girl might cost one hundred and fifty dollars. She’s been recruited to work in offices there, but then is beaten, raped, and put out to prostitution. She can be sold up to ten times a night, and can bring in ten thousand dollars per month. The only expenses are payments to the police and a pittance for food. And if the girl is a troublemaker, or if she runs away, or if she gets sick, it’s easy enough to get rid of her and replace her with someone else. It’s not uncommon in some of these villages for people to wake up in the morning and see the body of a young girl floating by on the river. Nobody bothers to bury them. The slaveholders throw the girls’ bodies in the river to be eaten by the fish. Antonia Pinta described what happened to an eleven-year-old girl who refused to have sex with a miner: He cut off her head with a machete, then drove around in his speedboat, showing off her head to the other miners, who shouted their approval.”

For a moment, neither of us spoke.

Finally, he continued, “One of the reasons modern slavery is so pernicious is that people are so cheap that they’re not even seen as a capital investment: You don’t have to take care of them, you just have to use them, use them hard, use them up, and throw them away. In this way people have become completely disposable tools for making money, an input to the productive process, in the same way you buy a box of plastic ballpoint pens.”