Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Bales)

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford points out that we have passively accepted a disposable society. Planned obsolescence has become the default. We don’t mind because most of us don’t know how to fix things or do much with our hands. Besides, things are made so cheaply (and elsewhere) these days, that it has become easier and cheaper to replace them.

Kevin Bales applies much of that thinking to some of the makers of those things. He said in his new preface that he regrets calling what is going on today the “new” slavery, and I can see his point. It is not so much that what he reports on is new; it is more that it has evolved. He uses case studies in Thailand, Brazil and elsewhere (notably, not the United States, though there are some brief references to its existence here) to make his point. His research is methodical (as is, unfortunately, his writing) and persuasive. If he reaches for the overly dramatic phrase too often, it is an honest bit of overreaching. He wants us to feel and be as passionate about the abolition of slavery as he is. He is the unpaid director of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) and his royalties from this surprisingly expensive book ($33 for a paperback!) go to various anti-slavery projects.

My first struggle with this book was a structural / philosophical one. Much in the manner of academics – and appropriately so, I think – Bales has articulated a pattern or system that has prompted the evolution of slavery. Like the things Crawford writes about, people have become disposable. Slaves are easily replaced. The global economy, whose praises we so often sing, has accelerated this process. Profit drives everything, including the police. Where, Bales implies (he could do more here), has all of the moral leadership gone?

Given this attention to the steps in the process (which show up in all of the case studies to varying degrees), I wondered why he chose to organize his chapters around places (rather than these steps). He wants us to recognize the steps in order to interrupt them, but having chapters on places makes it seem like slavery is a problem for other people in other places.

In order to eradicate slavery, he wants us to focus just on slavery. I understand the need to focus and I accept the argument (and not just because it is the day it is) that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I also accept his argument that we should not dilute the power of a word like ‘slavery’ as slave holders are trying to do (“bonded labor,” “attached labor,” etc.). Consider how we reference the Holocaust.

That said, I think Bales overlooks the notion of what I understand as intersectionality. He notes that there are no straight lines anymore, that there is often a layer of managers between the one who own and the ones who manage slaves. He advocates for the equivalent of the eco-detective when it comes to rooting out slavery.

How we can develop the narrow focus he seeks until we’ve examined its underpinnings both in other places and at home? As Alice Goffman’s troubled and troubling book On the Run makes quite clear, we have our own form of “debt bondage” here in the United States. How can we develop moral leadership unless we take care of our own structural problems first? Reading, Frederick Douglass learned early on, makes people unfit to be slaves, but now students are choosing not to read (while Malala gets shot for going to school). Bales points to example after example of how illiteracy and innumeracy are a step toward enslavement. Shouldn’t we be more concerned that we seem to have reached the more sophisticated form of slavery here – where students are choosing to enslave themselves? We also need to take seriously the question of bail, for example. How is it that we continue to allow people to languish in jail because they are poor? If we don’t work on ourselves first, wouldn’t our efforts to free prostitutes in Thailand (though urgently needed) come from a place of moral superiority or smugness? The same is true for the question of transition, and I like Bales’ attention to it. It is not enough, as we ought to know by now, to simply free slaves. They need their 40 acres and a mule and more. But how can we do this without acknowledging Ta-Nehisi Coates’ call for reparations?

This leads me to another issue that I think Bales evades, save for one early example. If another culture deems it appropriate to treat a group one way, are we to judge otherwise? I think so. I think there are such things as universal human rights. But who says my version is the correct one?

This is a very powerful book. At times, it’s overwhelming. I recognize my power as a consumer and try to choose wisely, but such decisions are not as straightforward as Bales suggests. What would happen if I did as Bales suggests with his book? Who made the paper? Who made the building where it was printed?

He is right that I should not let this book just sit on my shelf. I will pass it on.

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