Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slavery 3 The evolution of slavery in modern times and the struggle for its abolition

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny, a thrilling story of an escape from Stalin's GULAG.

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In my last post (Slavery 2) I argued that the emergence of slavery was the first Great Fall of humankind.

Many slave systems in different parts of the world are well known to the broad public. Most North Americans, hearing the word “slavery”, will immediately recollect early modern slave plantations in both Americas. Those who know world history can also recollect ancient slavery in construction of the Egyptian pyramids (though as recent archeological data show the issue is not straightforward and that pyramids might be built not by slaves but by free professional craftsmen), ancient Greek silver mines, Roman stone quarries, and chained rowers on ancient, medieval or early modern galleys.

People today, when they read about slavery, can’t understand how anyone could do such a gruesome thing to their fellow human beings. To understand how they could, one must know that the notion that every human in the world is a “fellow human being” became the rule only well into the modern age. It was first clearly formulated only in the 18th century Enlightenment. Before that, everybody divided other people into “us” and “them”. Many people still do. From this point of view, a person is a fellow human being only if they are one of “us”. A person who is one of “them” is not quite a fellow human being, but something less. So the norms of behaviour towards a fellow human being fully apply only to those who are one of “us”, while the norms of behaviour towards those who are one of “them” vary with the circumstances: from neighbourly coexistence to fighting in war to treating them like domestic cattle or hunted wild animals.

For a kin-based or tribe-based traditional culture, the division between “us” and “them” is based primarily along kin or tribe lines: to be one of “us”, one must be a relative in the clan or a fellow tribesman, or possibly a member of another tribe related by blood or marriage. Any other human is one of “them”, with lesser status and weaker protection by one’s norms of behaviour. Later, the division between “us” and “them” is based upon ethnic divisions, borders between states, or religious divisions, such as that between Christians and heathens or between Muslims and infidels. For example, in the Middle Ages the Roman papacy explicitly banned enslavement of fellow-Christians and from the time of prophet Muhammad Islamic law similarly banned enslavement of Muslims. From then on, both Christians and Muslims generally enslaved only people of a different faith. Crusaders enslaved captive Muslim Moors, and German knights during their conquest of Slavic and Baltic lands enslaved pagan Slavs and Balts. In fact the word “slave” comes from the French word “Esclaves” (“Slavs”), used as a generic term for ethnic Slavs and Balts who were sold en masse in the late 12th and 13th centuries on European slave-markets. From the 16th century on, Europeans with colonies in the New World viewed “uncivilized” natives, whether Black or Indian, as “lawful” human material for enslavement, especially for use as plantation farm hands.

Only after the European Enlightenment of the 18th century did the most enlightened educated people in Europe and its colonies finally come to the conclusion that keeping fellow human beings of any nationality, race, religion or education in slavery or bondage was abnormal and immoral in principle. Only then did anti-slavery (abolishinism) movements begin. And only well into the 19th century did the anti-slavery movement gain enough momentum to bring about the abolition of slavery by the major European and American powers: 1833 in the British Empire, 1848 in the French colonies, 1865 in the whole United States. By the end of the 19th century slavery became practically extinct throughout Europe and the Americas.

However, it was resurrected later in the 20th century in the form of the Soviet GULAG, Nazi concentration camps, Japanese slave-labour camps and similar systems in totalitarian regimes of one stripe or another.

Though banned throughout the world, this scourge of history is far from extinct. Slavery still exists in many parts of Africa (e.g. Sudan and Mauritania) and Asia (e.g. Burma and parts of Pakistan). It also exists in Russia, in the northern Caucasus, but also in many northern and central regions. Perhaps half of these modern-age Russian slaves are self-enslaved homeless people. Others are illegal migrants and street children, captured by modern slave-traders, who are often police officers. Still others are conscripts in the armed forces, sold into slavery by their commanding officers. Surviving communist regimes like China, Vietnam and especially North Korea still run labour camps. In Russia there is yet another incarnation of slavery; conscript soldiers are reduced to a kind of temporary slavery. Not only are they denied (like any conscript) the right to choose their occupation and place of living during their service, but they are not paid, are rarely if at all allowed leave, usually combine military drill with mandatory labour are perpetually overworked, and are subjected, especially in the first months of their service, to constant physical and moral abuse, which leads many of them to suicide .

Thus slavery, like war and famine, has not yet become history, but remains a problem for humankind today.

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