Who might be best positioned to understand the lived experience of those in contemporary slavery? After all, slavery is, first and foremost, a state of being—not a legal definition, an analytical framework, or a philosophical construct. At the moment it is occurring, slavery is first the experience of an individual human being, and secondarily a relationship between at least two people, the slave and the slaveholder. Slavery also carries cultural, political, and social meanings, and understanding these meanings are important to grasp the context of slavery and the many factors that might predict its occurrence. Because of these different dimensions of enslavement I believe that the lived experience of slaves is of primary importance and must remain the central focus of any study of slavery. For that reason, I feel it is important to respond to Professor Patterson’s chapter. It is important because the way in which slavery is classified and defined, in law and in public opinion, determines who is eligible for relief and who is not, who may live with some measure of personal autonomy and who may die in bondage.
I am privileged that Professor Patterson would single out my work for critique, but I fear that his critique is more a defense of his own work than a fair portrayal of my writing about slavery. In this response, I will take up some of the specific criticisms he makes of my work, and then address the wider and more important issue of his limited alternative definition of slavery, showing that the definition he provides arises from a philosophy of inquiry inappropriate to the subject under study. The crux of this response is that Patterson’s critique is successful in disproving things that I have not, in fact, written, but less successful in pressing his argument that the term slavery should be restricted to the narrow set of forms that he has selected.
Patterson’s critique draws primarily on assertions made in the first chapter of my first book on the subject of modern slavery, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. I will be the first to admit that this work, published in 1999, could benefit from a careful revision—I know I have learned much more about slavery, contemporary and historical, in the intervening years, which is reflected in more than thirty subsequent publications.1 I make several critical points about this evolution in the new preface of my 2012 edition of Disposable People. For example, in the preface, written before I had sight of Patterson’s critique, I wrote this about ‘old’ and ‘new’ slavery:
If there was one thing I would change in this book it is the emphasis I gave to the idea of ‘old’ and ‘new’ slavery. In the late 1990s, I was comparing the slavery I was finding in the field with my admittedly limited understanding of historical slavery. In my mind I was building typologies in order to help me and others make sense of what I was seeing, and, not surprisingly, as a first stab at understanding, my categories were simplistic. At the same time, while I was writing about the ‘new’ slavery in one chapter, another chapter is all about the oldest form of hereditary agricultural slavery and how it survives in large numbers in India. The more I learned, the more I realized that slavery always lives along a continuum, that it reflects each culture and society where it exists, and that trying to corral it into two conceptual categories just doesn’t do it justice. But like a lot of simple ideas, the notion of ‘old’ and ‘new’ slavery became very popular with journalists. The tidy contrast helped to illustrate and explain how so many people could be in slavery at the beginning of the twenty-first century even though slavery was a thing of the past. The result was that this flawed conceptual tool became common currency, something I regret. (2012:xxvi)
It might be that my regret over the emphasis on these conceptual categories represents a vindication of Patterson’s critique, but his critique has less to do with these categories than with his interpretation of assertions I made of trends within the larger social reality of contemporary slavery. There are a series of assertions in the first chapter of Disposable People, namely: that the acquisition cost of slaves tends to be lower in the present economy than in the past; that current profit margins on slavery tend to be higher than in the past; that the number of people who are available to be enslaved because of their vulnerability is greater today than in the past (though this is more a function of increased population than anything else); that the length of a person’s enslavement is tending to be shorter today than in the past; that less care tends to be given to slaves by their slaveholders today due to their lower cost and easy replacement; and that ethnic and racial differences are not as important as rationalizations and justifications for slavery as they were in the past.
Patterson is not the first scholar who found these assertions about trends in the nature of slavery hard to swallow; this reluctance has been especially true of historians. Unfortunately, he has responded by using two rhetorical techniques. Firstly, he recasts my assertions of trends as statements of absolutes. Secondly, he uses the rhetorical technique colloquially called ‘cherry picking’, that is, the act of pointing to individual cases or data points that seem to refute a position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that support the position. The assertions in Disposable People describe trends, not every individual case. After all, slavery is like all other human activities: it takes many forms in many different contexts. I take it seriously when someone finds an inexpensive slave in the past, or an expensive slave today, but until someone can demonstrate that the trends are false, I will continue to believe that exceptions are just that, and not the rule.
Patterson takes most of the assertions of trends made in the first chapter of Disposable People and reports and simplifies them as statements of absolutes. For example, my assertion that race and ethnicity are not as important today as they were in the past becomes, in Patterson’s words, ‘modern day slavery differs from former slavery in the absence [my emphasis] of ethno-racial differences’. Stated as an absolute, it can easily be refuted with a single contrary example. But the fact is that I never said that considerations of race and ethnicity were absent in modern enslavement, only that they tend to be less important, and I reported the influence of ethno-racial differences on enslavement in the slavery cases examined in every chapter of Disposable People. Perhaps where we draw apart is in the interpretation of race and ethnicity in contemporary slavery. My point was not that the effect of ethno-racial difference on enslavement was absent, but that it could no longer be seen as the ultimate defining characteristic of eligibility to enslavement found in some societies in the past. I assert that ethno-racial differences are, while important in themselves, equally if not more important as indicators of social deprivation and exclusion.
A second example will suffice to answer the re-casting of my assertions of trends into absolutes: my assertion that because of a number of economic and demographic factors there is now ‘a glut of potential slaves’, and that this had driven a global trend in the price of slaves leading to a collapse in prices after the Second World War. My evidence, at the time of writing in the late 1990s, was that all over the world I was finding that the cost of acquiring a slave was much lower than virtually all the historical examples with which I was familiar. I demonstrated this by pointing to an example that most readers would know about: the price of slaves in the American South preceding the Civil War. But I knew that this was just a theory, that it would take much more research to determine if the trend of slave prices had really tended to be high for centuries and the modern collapse in prices was fact.
Five years after the book came out I had the opportunity to test this assertion. About that time I came to know Winthrop Jordan,2 a well-known scholar of historical slavery. Jordan opened up his extensive personal library to me, and the only fair description is that I ransacked it. Drawing on it and other sources I compiled a list of every mention of the cost of slaves I could find in this historical record. Curiously, it was something of a problem when the cost of a slave was listed in terms of money. It is possible to calculate the value of an 1850 US dollar in today’s money, but what would be the equivalent in modern dollars of Roman silver denarii? At the same time, records from 1 AD show that a Roman soldier was paid 225 denarii per year, and a female slave cost around 4,000 denarii, which tended to support my assertion that slaves had tended to be a substantial capital investment in the past. Coinage and denominations change over time, so I shifted measurement to things that don’t change as much—oxen, land, and labor. I didn’t expect to find the value of slaves in the historical record often given in oxen, but I took the suggestion offered by Aristotle when he wrote ‘The ox is the poor man’s slave’. In the end, I was able to build a chart of slave prices over time that showed that for the most part slaves in the past were high-ticket capital purchase items even though occasional gluts caused prices to fall. Meanwhile, I was collecting more and more prices for contemporary slaves—and they were uniformly low in relative terms, even accounting for the fact that the purchasing power of the $30 it takes to enslave a family in northern India is much greater there than in developed countries. I now believe that this trend of a global collapse in the acquisition cost of slaves is a fact and no longer just an assertion. I believe this assertion to be true even when stated, as Patterson does, as ‘slaves were relatively expensive previously, whereas the purchase cost today is very low’, if this is understood to be the assertion of the existence of a trend and not a statement of absolutes.
I will admit that I did provide a hostage to fortune for academic reviewers when I chose to write Disposable People in a more accessible style. When we write for peer-review we make clear and precise each assumption and step in our argument and hedge statements against any imagined critique; such scientific writing is very important as it leaves little room for misunderstanding and less for rhetoric. However, I decided to present these theoretical assertions, and the case studies that I believe supported them, in a careful, but more popular, form of writing. It was my intention to stand with a leg on both sides of the fence, and in doing so I expected to be, and have been, criticized from both directions.
For example, judging my audience to be not academics, but reasonably educated members of the public familiar primarily with the history of Europe and North America, I chose the slavery of the ante-bellum United States as an example of previous, legal, forms of slavery. It was a very conscious choice, since every public audience I met at that time seemed to hold this form of slavery as the epitome and exemplar of slavery. My intention was to start from a point of general public understanding of the issue, and then proceed to further analysis and explanation. While I believe that the majority of readers understood the use of this example, some academics did not. Patterson, in fact, states that my ‘fundamental error is to equate [emphasis mine] what he calls “the old slavery” with the capitalistic slave systems of the Americas, especially the United States South’. Once again, by representing my use of this example as an absolute equation of all older forms of slavery with that practiced in that time period of the antebellum US South, it becomes easy for him to refute an assertion that I simply did not make. What he chooses to ignore is that in the very same chapter of Disposable People, I refute a general application of this model immediately after I discussed the US as a comparative example:
Charted on paper in neat categories, the new slavery seems to be very clear and distinct. In fact, it is as inconveniently sloppy, dynamic, changeable, and confusing as any other kind of relation between humans. We can no more expect there to be one kind of slavery than we can expect there to be one kind of marriage. People are inventive and flexible, and the permutations of human violence and exploitation are infinite. The best we can do with slavery is to set down its dimensions and then test any particular example against them. (1999:19)