Slavery, while illegal, is far from dead, especially since externalizing the cost of labor onto the laborers themselves is profitable, both for the slave owners and for people like us who enjoy the fruits of slavery from a safe distance. On the other hand, most of the jobs added to the American economy in the last decade were non-traditional. This means that a lot more people are relying on temporary jobs, part-time work, freelancing, and “gigs” – exactly the sort of marginal people who live one accident or illness away from the mainstream American version of debt slavery.
Yesterday in Part 1, we talked about human trafficking in the United States, as well as how debt bondage and outright forced labor in Asia make products much cheaper in a globalized economy. Slavery, while illegal, is far from dead. Externalizing the cost of labor onto the laborers themselves is profitable, both for the slave owners and for people like us who enjoy the fruits of slavery from a safe distance.
It’s easy to imagine slave owners as monsters. A recent article in Aeon, however, took the unusual perspective of trying to understand the minds of the men who force other humans to labor. As it turns out, they don’t think of themselves as evil. (Does anyone?) They are more powerful than their debt slaves, but only marginally. These people described themselves as doing what they have to do to get by. Slave owners explained that they feel a kind of paternalistic care for the lesser tier of people they employ, thinking of it not as slavery but as being part of a family together. They stepped in to help with money and medicine, and the workers, they believe, are grateful and proud to help at the quarry. If only it were like the old days, when the bondsmen didn’t complain about their station in life.
As Anaan, a Brahmin slaveholder, explained to Aeon, “To manage a group of labourers is like managing a group of primary-school children. They have to be provided with food or clothes, and they are taught how to behave … sometimes they start drinking alcohol; sometimes they indulge in feasts. So we have to pay them with caution. We divide them into small groups because larger numbers of workers tend to form a union and sometimes engage in mass holidays or strikes.”
That paternalistic attitude as well as the nostalgia for a time when people “knew their place” strikes a familiar note, doesn’t it? Make America Great Again, indeed. A time when America was first, enjoying the fruits of imperialism, maybe even when we directly benefited from slavery. But the times, they are a-changin’. Instead of ruling the roost, American workers, while not technically slaves, are competing against international slave labor, driving wages down. At the same time, the cut-throat urge to profit means that the cost of labor is externalized onto American workers.
This “new normal” even enjoyed a moment of discussion during the confirmation hearing for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, as a handful of Senators (including Al Franken) questioned him about his dissent in the “Frozen Trucker” case. If employers don’t think it amiss to value cargo over the lives of their employees, and can expect at least a wink of approval from the highest court in the land, we’re edging towards a future of more disposable workers, even if it’s not legally slavery.
Last fall, Lyft, the smaller ride “sharing” competitor of Uber, shared a story on their company blog about a pregnant Lyft driver. She picked up a few passengers, and then, a week early, started having contractions while driving folks to their destination. On the way to the hospital, she even picked up another ride request. While Lyft celebrated this driver as the very model of gumption, it’s also a story about the desperation of workers in the gig economy who don’t generally receive employer-supplied benefits like health insurance or maternity leave. Most of the jobs added to the economy in the last decade were non-traditional. This means that a lot more people are relying on temporary jobs, part-time work, freelancing, and “gigs” – exactly the sort of marginal people who live one accident or illness away from the mainstream American version of debt slavery.
“Deaths of despair” are surging in white America, by the Brookings Institution
At the same time, there’s been a steady uptick in despair and mortality among middle aged white men. Between overdose, alcohol-related deaths, and suicide, mortality for Caucasian American men aged 50-54 with a high school diploma or less climbed 130% between 1998 and 2015. This demographic was also likelier to be unemployed or under-employed, unmarried, and suffering from health problems. During the same years, African-Americans and Hispanics were economically worse off than white men overall, but were not having the same mortality issues. Instead, they were living longer.
Hypotheses abound as to how this happened, but one seems especially worth considering. African-American and Hispanic populations in the United States have been marginalized throughout history, having started out in slavery or in slave-like conditions (perhaps as migrant workers). Meanwhile, Caucasian men traditionally enjoyed a position of relative economic privilege. With the increase in economic precarity brought on by declining fortunes, white men simply had more to lose. Populations used to living near the edge have long practice at living through hard times, though it can be a shock to folks who are used to better. It’s hard to go from King of the Mountain to being someone the lords of industry exploit.
After all, at least slave owners are obligated to feed, clothe, and shelter their slaves, however marginally. Employers have no such obligations.