On capitalism and coercion
Are trafficking, slavery and forced labour actually necessary for maintaining liberal capitalism?
Apr. 18 2014
Slavery, trafficking and forced labour are crimes which sit at the far end of the labour exploitation spectrum. As Bridget Anderson observes, they are to “badness” what apple pie and motherhood are to “goodness” - that is, just as we all know that apple pie and motherhood are “good”, so everybody knows that these three are “bad”.
And by any measure, they’re getting worse. Barely a day passes without stories of trafficked women here or child slaves there. Governments all over are passing laws, NGO interest is exploding, films such as 12 Years A Slave are mobilising the media, and more people are either being exploited or are in sufficient precarity to be attuned to that exploitation.
Yet there are major problems with this trend. Although exploitation merits our attention, the contemporary focus on its extreme forms obscures far more than it reveals. By concentrating on extremes which are considered to lie outside of the liberal capitalist system, we are in fact led away from a discussion as to how liberal capitalism is itself responsible for these extremes, and for the wider exploitation and dispossession of which they are but the worst manifestations.
In what follows, I wish to make the case, therefore, not only that we must be more critical when thinking of trafficking, slavery and forced labour; but that, conceptually and politically, we would do well to understand these apparently “outside-of-the-system” extremes as systemically necessary to the maintenance of liberal capitalism itself.