Introduction: Moral Empire and the Rhetoric of Slaveries
Cynthia Hoffman and Joe Lockard
Issue #69, June 2004
George W. Bush's September 2003 speech to the United Nations, extolling his decision to invade Iraq as a high point in the history of global human rights, was received in the General Assembly with general silence. Bush laid out a manichaean vision of contemporary history, one where those who aligned themselves with US policy goals joined the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. Since September 11, he asserted, there has been the clearest of divides "between those who seek order and those who spread chaos; between those who work for peaceful change and those who adopt the methods of gangsters; between those who honor the rights of man and those who deliberately take the lives of man and women and children, without mercy or shame." The mantle of unchallengeable rectitude that Bush draped over US foreign policy did not include reference to international law or the United Nations Charter, both of which were openly and dismissively violated by the US invasion of Iraq.
Imperial militarism prefers to honor itself as a progressive and emancipatory movement, as a moralistic force whose arrival should be universally welcomed. Given the colonial ideology that US policy incorporates, however, it is little surprise to witness the photographs of degradation and servitude that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison. A photograph of a US soldier with a prisoner on a leash is not an exceptional image; it is graphic encapsulation of Bush administration policy towards Iraq. Such attempted enforced servitude creates its own manichean violence, as ever-rising US and Iraqi casualties testify.
For President Bush, the moral counter-example of global progress lay in his lengthy condemnation of human trafficking and contemporary slavery as forces of social injustice and international disorder. There is no contradiction in finding a US president engaged simultaneously in both imperial policies and anti-trafficking rhetoric. This is a rhetorical tactic that has a lengthy history, extending back at least as far as the early nineteenth century among some British pro-empire and anti-slavery parliamentarians. Arguments for Western cultural superiority have frequently relied on citation of slavery as rationale for diplomatic and military intervention; thus, for example, the European powers established colonial empires in Africa in the name of anti-slavery and civilizational progress. Slavery, considered offensive to human and civil rights only quite recently in history, came to signify the abased condition of non-Western cultures while Euro-American social triumphalists hypocritically preferred to overlook their own histories — unended histories, it should be emphasized — of slavery.
In many cultures, irrespective of continent, modernization meant that formal institutions of slavery metamorphosed into quasi-legal slaveries, informal slaveries, caste servitude, neo-feudal seigneurial arrangements, mass public penal servitude (labor drafts, chain gangs), bonded labor, debt slavery, foreign domestic slave-work, and ever-more inventive forms of industrial wage and non-waged slavery. The concepts of 'slave' and 'slavery' themselves became ambiguous, such that formal legal bans on slavery could be imposed and cited as evidence of social progress, yet parallel replacement systems arose that enforced the same racial, gender, and class hierarchies. As the number of formal institutional slaveries diminished, informal neo-slaveries rose to replace older systems. In the first years of the twenty-first century, these neo-slaveries have become more powerful, blatant, and inescapable of public notice. Now no season of Law & Order: SVU is complete without a show focusing on Romanian sex slaves or smuggled Chinese immigrants doing forced sweatshop labor.
If zealous religious evangelism leads George W. Bush and his kindred to trafficking and neo-slaveries as moral camouflage for their imperial and neo-colonial policies, an entirely different and secular political tradition — one that could be described as durable anti-colonial anti-slavery — has arisen in opposition. Many of the sharpest engagements with colonial racism in the twentieth century — from a disparate group that includes Franz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Ho Chi Minh, Emmanuel Levinas — emerged from late imperial histories where native cultures had been subordinated to colonial servitude. The collective thrust of their arguments was to shift the discourse of anti-colonialism from a sentimental nationalistic model of nascent citizenship — the colonial subject becoming a mirror of the cosmopolitan national — into an analysis of the effects of race, class, and privileged power on colonial subjects. Manifest absence of equality and the disestablishment of inequalities became the fulcrum of an anti-colonial ethics.
In anti-colonial political philosophy, social enslavement was a psycho-political condition that required overthrow in order to achieve communal and individual liberation. Ethical questions attaching to violence were rendered into a political discourse that originated within or incorporated the worldviews of subordinated subjects of violent imperial histories. This lengthy intellectual movement towards liberation of the colonial subject required de-sentimentalization of the colonized and/or enslaved subject as much as de-colonization of emergent nation-states. Where colonial histories sentimentalized slaves and conceived of slavery as an institution that had been ended through Western intervention, anti- and post-colonial historiographies employed slavery as a trope for imperial subjugation. The colonial subject was the new slave, irrespective of formal legal emancipation.
It is this anti- and post-colonial understanding of slavery as a constant re-invention of dominance that informs the Slaveries issue of Bad Subjects. As the choice of a plural title indicates, we believe 'slavery' is not a monolithic condition with unchanging or inflexible definitional boundaries. This is not a grant of definitional permissiveness that would trivialize the meanings of 'slave' and 'slavery,' opening them to unchallenged appropriation and loose usage. Rather, it recognizes the mutability, flexibility, re-invention, and adaptation of means of domination, economic abjection, expropriation, and ownership of human life. Slaveries are always plural, for as Frederick Douglass recognized in declaring himself free in spirit before he obtained physical freedom, slaveries are of both mind and body. Classes, races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, nations, peoples - all are subject to enslavements. This Slaveries issue of Bad Subjects remembers the original words of the Internationale: "Esclaves, debout, debout / Le monde va changer de base / Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout" (in the IWW songbook translation, "Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall; / The earth shall rise on new foundations, / We have been naught, we shall be all.")
Omar Swartz opens this issue with an examination of the intellectual and legal rationalizations of slavery in both positive and natural law. He looks first at the power of definition to establish categories of abjection and social eligibility for enslavement, a power that was exercised in historic US judicial discourse to define Africans as a subordinate population. Swartz then argues that, based on this definitional power, eighteenth-century natural law philosophy served to reify white racial hegemony. This was a double-edged sword, however, for the same natural law arguments were employed in the United States and France to assert revolutionary rights to freedom. What Swartz identifies is a fundamental conundrum that plagues natural law rhetoric, and one that is prominent in George W. Bush's rhetoric that posits both a "God-given" freedom and a moral right to violently occupy another people's land in order to achieve the "blessings of freedom."
In his essay on 'Slavery and Genovese's Delusions,' Manuel Yang discusses the intellectual career of Eugene Genovese. Genovese spent much of his career as a Marxist historian of slavery whose scholarship was notable for its analytic depth and influence. Genovese's later conversion to right-wing Catholic politics, Yang argues, were inherent in his "culturally refined, Gramscian critique of orthodox Marxist history [that] remained entirely blind to the historical fact that the state socialism he critically defended most of his life was nothing more than a species of state capitalism" and, in fact, strongly resembled the Southern seigneurial paternalism Genovese nominally critiqued. What Yang's essay suggests too is that slavery scholarship frequently serves as a political battlefield by another name and that the scholarship itself can devolve into a questionable quest for moral capital. Ben Schiller's essay takes up another aspect of those contested politics, dealing specifically with the issues of voice and authority in slave narratives. Ranging across both nineteenth-century American and twenty-first century African slave narratives, he provides a comparative cross-examination of literacy as a means through which slaves resist their objectification. Majoritarian Euro-American culture, he argues, has historically preferred illiterate slaves who could be voiced by more palatable substitutes and whose experiential self-authority remained open to challenge and appropriation.
Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard take the question of slavery in a different contemporary direction. In this, their third Bad Subjects essay, Kitlinski and Lockard examine sex slavery as a cultural map providing an understanding of Polish and eastern European politics. They hold that master-slave sadomasochism characterizes Poland's relationships with Western-dominated globalism and with its own civic body. A particular locus of resistance to prevalent violent masculinism and social abuse, they suggest, lies in the queer and feminist communities that are in revolt against theo-political authority. From Australia, Lev Lafayette assesses the national work-for-the-dole scheme as another form of wage slavery. This is paradigmatic slavery "on the basis that the individual is not in control of their life and that they must sell their labour in order to survive. It is forced, requisite, labour for the majority and not for a minority." He concludes that "the much-heralded system of 'mutual obligation' is yet another lie to protect political and economic elites from the dispossessed," and that work-for-the-dole is yet another fine-tuning of wage slavery.
Two essays deal with the representational aspects of slavery, the first in reality television programming and the second in an electronic art project. From Canada, Alison Hearn employs slavery theory to analyze reality television programs as a marketplace for 'disposable people.' Such programs offer the allure of near-unachievable instant fame as a means of avoiding wage slavery but constitute a post-modern meat-market, one that thrives on humiliation and sadism. "In this age of image-capital," writes Hearn, "reality television produces the image-slave." Lanfranco Aceti, a British electronic artist, contributes a theoretical essay based on his Internet project WWW.SLAVES4SALE.COM. The project asks its audience-participants to assume numbered digital identities and negotiate the terms of their new slave-identities. Through electronic abstraction, Aceti's project seeks to translate the concept of a slave market into cognizable reality.
Finally, issue co-editor Joe Lockard concludes with a review essay on Francis Bok's recent autobiography Escape from Slavery that contextualizes it within contemporary slave narrative production and addresses trafficking in an era of economic globalization.
Photograph: Abu Ghraib prisoner on a leash. Courtesy of The Memory Hole.