[Reprinted from Quicksilver (the publication
of the Henry George School of Social Science, San Francisco,
California, Spring, 2000]
When Henry George wrote Progress & Poverty in 1879, he
devoted an entire chapter to the relationship between monopolistic
patterns of land ownership and chattel slavery. He was writing to an
audience for which the battle over slavery was still a fresh memory.
He argued that the denial of land-rights was simply another form of
bondage. Anyone who is dependent on another human being for survival
because he or she does not have access to a lair share of socially
created value is a de facto slave. It would be more accurate to call
this condition quasi-slavery, since control is neither total nor
imposed by law. This form of slavery is hard to perceive in American
society because it is indirect rather than overt in fact wage slavery
has come to seem so normal to us that we regard ourselves lucky if
someone will place us in short-term bondage by giving us a job. The
idea of genuine economic freedom is so far from our experience that
most of us cannot even Imagine it.
In much of the rest of the world, the level of economic domination is
more total than anything most of us are used to. This situation often
crosses the line from quasi-slavery to genuine bondage.
Although formal legal slavery has been outlawed throughout the world,
it is still informally sanctioned in many places. According to
Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, a recent book by
Kevin Bales, slavery is far more common even in Europe and the U.S.
than is commonly recognized. There are thousands of imported children
and teens working as household slaves in Paris, London, New York,
Zurich, and Los Angeles. There are industrial slaves in Pakistan,
agricultural slaves in the Caribbean, and sex slaves in Thailand.
Bales estimates that there are about 27 million slaves in the world by
his relatively strict definition of slavery: "the total control
[through violence] of one person by another for the purpose of
economic exploitation." Bales therefore believes there are more
slaves alive today than all the people stolen from Africa in the time
of the transatlantic slave trade." that is a conservative
estimate. Others have proposed that there are as many as 200 million
slaves in the world today.
Bales offers a simple explanation for slavery, in contrast to the
racially-based slavery of the 19th century (which still exists in
Mauritania), humans now control other humans on the basis of "weakness,
gullibility, and deprivation." Those who are enslaved are
invariably those without other economic choices. In some cases, this
means that individuals set themselves or a family member into contract
slavery. In other cases, a person may borrow from a landowner and fall
into slavery by not being able to repay the ban. In fact, debt slavery
remains the most common form of bondage. Finally, there are those who
are denied the means of subsistence on any land and are easily lured
into prostitution or into work settings from which there is no exit.
For them the "choice" is between starvation and slavery.
A major difference between chattel slavery of the 19th century and
the new form is that slaves no longer represent a large investment.
They are cheap. Slaves may be purchased for as little as $25 or $50 in
some countries. As a result, when modern slaves get sick or lose their
usefulness, they are often just executed so that another can replace
them. Prostitutes are often kicked out of a brothel to die alone when
they are tested positive for HIV.
Now that slavery is no longer based on a formal relationship in which
some people have legal title over others, trying to stop the practice
through formal, legal means is pointless. This amounts to bailing
water rather than looking for the leak.
In the long run, only policies that provide the means of earning a
livelihood to all people will bring about an end to slavery.
Socialists thought they had found the solution in public ownership
arid "cooperative" enterprises. But even if their intentions
were good, the result was a gulag that stretched from Eastern Europe
to Indochina. There are still millions of state-owned slaves in China.
White one might say that was not "true" socialism, even
small communes have failed to provide positive examples of the
equality and cooperative spirit that socialism was supposed to bring
about. "True" socialism as a practical matter is just
domination by another name.
The genuine alternative to socialism is not the system we ordinarily
call socialism, but an entirely new social order -- a geocracy. It
would be based on private ownership of all land, combined with public
collection of the value generated from it. This would spell the end to
poverty by forcing (through the market) the owners of large tracts of
idle urban or agricultural land to turn those parcels over to other
people who would use them productively. There is more than enough
honest work for everyone on earth to do, but that is masked by an
economic system that denies large numbers of people a chance to make
use of the resources that are hoarded by a few.
We should be troubled. We have not come as far from the days of
slavery as our proud self-image would have us believe. Read Kevin
Bates book if you have any doubt about that. But read Progress &
Poverty if you want to understand the true remedy.
For those who want to follow up on this issue, you might read an
article by Charles Jacobs, research director, American Anfi-Slavery
Group, on the Internet at www.progress.org/archrve/slave01.htm.
Information about the AASG can be found at www.anti-slavery.org.