FRIED LIGHT The persistence of slavery

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

Not long ago I wrote a column in which I drew the modest conclusion that “the end of slavery is probably the best thing that ever happened to us.”Not long ago I wrote a column in which I drew the modest conclusion that “the end of slavery is probably the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Not long ago I wrote a column in which I drew the modest conclusion that “the end of slavery is probably the best thing that ever happened to us.”

It was in the context of having just listened to a series of educational tapes surveying more than 1,000 years in the history of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

“The Renaissance had slaves in the Fifteenth Century and so did the Reformation in the 16th and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, dwindling down over the next couple of hundred years, well into another era of republics,” I wrote, on my way to what seemed to me to be a pretty obvious assertion.

A few people have questioned that conclusion, noting among other things the persistence of slavery in other forms.

And they are exactly right to do so.

Even as classical slavery began to recede during the dark ages, slavery revived in part as an economic condition, according to Marc Bloch, the author of an unpublished study entitled, “How and Why Ancient Slavery Came to an End.” Bloch was killed by German occupiers in France in 1944, before he could finish his work.

“(T)he wars of the fifth century threw large numbers of prisoners onto the market and…the impoverishment caused by these wars drove many people to sell either themselves or their children” he wrote. “At the beginning of the Middle Ages, human merchandise became abundant again at a reasonable price.”

The French scholar, Pierre Bonnassie was among many historians who pursued lines of research that Bloch opened up. In his book, “From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe,” which has just been published in a new edition by Cambridge University Press, Bonnassie says the question of how and why slavery came to an end, must be argued in terms of “profitability.”

Bonnassie wrote, “The maintenance of immense herds of slaves was expensive, extremely so, and of all animal husbandry, that of human animals was the most difficult.”

In Western Europe, the economy to accommodate efficient forms of servile labor evolved into feudalism and later in Eastern Europe into serfdom, as the lords and masters of the land worked out a way to avoid responsibility for their laborers during the winter or years of famine. They discovered it was cheaper to have a work force that was “half free.”

In 2008, Douglas Blackmon, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief in Atlanta, for example published a book titled, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” which shows a similar transformation at work in a more modern context.

In an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales on Democracy Now last month, as a reader thoughtfully called to my attention, Blackman explained that his book was about what happened in the South for a century after slavery was abolished in 1865.

“(T)here weren’t laws on the books anymore that authorized slavery, and you couldn’t file a deed on a slave down at the county courthouse anymore. But the reality was that in the years after the Civil War, all of the Southern states passed this array of new laws, which were specifically designed to intimidate African Americans out of the political process, to inhibit their ability to have economic success, and eventually to force first thousands, and then eventually hundreds of thousands, of African Americans back into a form of involuntary servitude. And it wasn’t called slavery, but it was slavery by another name.”

Another form of persistent slavery has to do with sex-slavery or forced prostitution, as it is sometimes called. This is a specialized form of the more general category known as human trafficking and these are clearly variations on a practice that preys especially upon young women in developing countries, or poor and vulnerable youngsters just about anywhere.

Another famous example was the English Morecambe Bay disaster in which 21 Chinese cockleshell pickers were drowned in the tide, calling attention to an extensive slave-like exploitation of immigrant workers under the control of international gangsters.

Even the current media frenzy about Rep. Joe Wilson’s yelling out, “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care speech to Congress earlier this month has been attributed to the enduring pathologies of southern slavery.

All this is certainly bad enough, which is why after I said, “The end of slavery is probably the best thing that ever happened to us,” I added, “Let’s get on with that.”

Slavery is no longer a state and church-sponsored institution, as it was for many centuries. It’s not a deeply ingrained and culturally nourished blind spot in the human psyche. Now it’s more like criminal and dysfunctional behavior.

I realize it may be asking a lot to call that progress.