Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Modern Slavery I: Alienation and Isolation

[Number seven in a series. Resumes discussion of slavery started in number one]

A couple of times I have mentioned A.J. Conyers' contention in The Listening Heart that - in the return of slavery to Europe and its colonies that accompanied the rise of modernity's exploration, trade, and conquest - the chattel slave

is the ultimate autonomous individual. Stripped of every human tie, he belongs to no community but to a stranger. It is no accident, then, that the rise of modern slavery coincided with the Enlightenment itself.
Of course, every time this is mentioned folks freak a bit about the use of the word "autonomous" in the same breath with "slave". As one commenter said it does not mean "free" - it means "alienated or isolated" from family, community, culture, and support.

Indeed, Conyers points out
We have already seen how the modern, increasingly urbanized, technologically sophisticated, society had become organized in a way congenial to the uses of power and material acquisitiveness. The usefulness of human beings in this relationship was made more feasible when they were understood as equals in the modern sense - that is, as interchangeable units in a machine - and fundamentally alienated from natural associations, "belonging" only in the new, modern sense.

This new relationship is only adequately articulated, as we shall see, by the master-slave language, though this language - thanks to the pre-modern influence of Christianity - is highly offensive, causing modern people to reject the system of slavery when it is visibly evident (as in the plantation systems of the early U.S.) and to submerge it in forms that are less visible . . .

Two features of slavery - its transforming of a human being into an instrument for use, a resource for the masters of the larger society, and its destruction or at least neglect of natural relations within natural groups such as the family and clan and leaving in its place the alienated individual - are also features of modernity. Within the history of slavery we shall always find these two features prominent; it is no wonder that early modern leaders of the Enlightenment nearly always defended and promoted slavery. They were above all promoting the instrumentalizing of the individual and the individualizing (that is, the alienating from natural relations) of the human instruments of labor.
The previous parts in this series have looked at the way modern society seeks to break all ties except to the company, the military, and the state.

Conyers traces some pre-modern definitions of the slave:
for most of history, and among most peoples in history, the slave is one who specifically did no longer belong to the family, or to his own people, but belonged to a stranger. It might be said without exaggeration that everyone was thought to "belong" to someone, or to some family or group. But when one belongs to strangers, the misfortune is described by the status of "slave."
Some examples:
  • "Early Hebrews were restricted from making slaves of their own people; and if one of them had become so indebted that they sold themselves into slavery to foreigners, their next of kin was obliged to buy them back, to 'redeem' them."

  • "in early Saxon law 'the 'autonomous' stranger who had no family or clan to protect him was automatically regarded as a slave.'"

  • in most African nations, where the opposite of slavery is not '''freedom' qua autonomy but rather 'belonging.'''

David Brion Davis (as quoted by Conyers):
"the salient characteristic of slavery was its antithetical relation to the normal network of kinship ties of dependency, protection, obligation, and privilege, ties that easily served as a model of nonkinship forms of patronage, clientage, and voluntary servitude." [and] the "'modernity' of the slave lay in his continu¬ing marginality and vulnerability, in his incomplete and ambiguous bonding to a social group:' -- Slavery and Human Progress
Conyers makes the final tie between the relations of large masses of people to modern society and slavery thus:
when some populations are living sumptuously at the expense of others who are barely able to feed their young, is that not also slavery, one might ask? Or when large populations live as "alien residents" - which was a biblical term practically equivalent to "slaves" - then are there not some remaining signs of the institution? When so many people are heavily in debt, and some third world nations as well, can they truly be said to work for their own living? Or do they, just as in any ancient slave system, work for the primary benefit of others-even for others they do not know? This latter-day slave system has the convenience of remaining out of sight, and thus inoffensive to a sensitive bourgeois population.
Earlier, Conyers has said that Marxism has made us sensitive to the expansion of the word "slave", but the alienation Marx saw as making us "wage slaves" was alienation and isolation from our own labor; whereas Conyers traces it as alienation and isolation from vocation: from ties to family, church, tribe, etc. that make us part of an organic community. His presentation is that that severing of ties to organic community and reattaching them to modern organizations like the state, the company, and the military leaves us in exactly the same isolated and alienated position - working for the benefit of another with whom we have no real ties.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly