DISCLAIMER: This essay does not put into question the end of slavery or human rights. Its purpose is solely to examine the arguments used by slavery proponents and what can be learned from these arguments in our political struggles for more freedom and equality today.
The most recent debates over the end of slavery emerged during the enlightenment. In France, for instance, these issues were debated by intellectuals in the 18th century among which Montesquieu, mostly famous for the separation of powers between judiciary, executive and legislative, and a supporter of slavery.
In this essay, we will focus on some of the main arguments advanced by the likes of Montesquieu to other figures like the settler Pierre-Victor Malouet.
1) Slavery is just one of the many forms of social/political/economic forms of domination of the “powerful” or “rich” on the “weak” or “poor” and is, in that sense, no better or worse. The only difference between slavery and other forms of domination is that a slave does not choose his master. In all societies, people without any form of property or wealth, who only have their “arms and feet”, have to put them at the disposal of the rich and powerful. Yet a master has extra “obligations” to his slave besides paying them for their work: a master has to care for the slave’s good health (to protect his investment), provide food and housing, care after the slave’s children if he/she has any....
2) Not only are slaves (read “black people”) naturally more lazy, but because they work/live in parts of the world where there is abundant food growing on the trees and wild life in the forests, they would go back to an idle life, doing nothing, and certainly not working in the cotton or sugar cane fields. This would spell the doom of the world economy, which relies on these cheap, raw materials. There would be no more sugar, no more cotton...
3) Slaves are in their right place, being “naturally” inferior, especially intellectually, to white men.
Of course, all of these arguments are deceitful. Besides the obvious violation of the most fundamental human right, that of habeas corpus, most working conditions of slaves were absolutely horrible.Nevertheless, these arguments are extremely useful to inform us about our present political struggles for fairer, equal and inclusive societies.
1) The term “wage slave” has all but disappeared in our modern discourse, yet was commonly used just a century ago. Indeed, the working conditions of “free” workers in the 18th century were sometimes worse than that of slaves. They were “free” in the sense that they could choose which “master” they would sell their labour to, but their pay and living conditions were no less horrible. For instance, in industrial cities like Liverpool, the mean life expectancy at birth went from 25 years in 1860 to 30 years in 1890! But with the threat of Communism and the struggles and protests of workers (sometimes very violent) for improving their rights, notably by organizing into worker unions, working conditions improved to such an extent that the “collective bargaining” powers of workers could usher in an era where “wage slavery” was no longer a reality. Nowadays, only a few Anarchists (like Noam Chomsky) or Marxist intellectuals (like Richard D. Wolff) still use the term, but given the growing inequalities, stagnant low/middle wages, increased unemployment, fading power of labour unions (a process well under way for several decades in countries like the US), and increased pressure to “liberalize” labour markets (as is the case with the El Khomri law in France), the term “wage slave” might come back with a vengeance; in the form of the resurgence of the class of the “working poor”, people with a job, but earning too little income to make ends meet or live a decent life. We must never forget that in the end, the labour market is a “totalitarian” system: there is no way around it. If one has no property or wealth, there is no way to “live off the land”, and he/she must insert him/herself into the labour market to “earn” a living. The conditions in which one “sells” him/herself to an employer determine if workers are gradually becoming “wage slaves” once again. To finish, let us not forget that we may have stopped using the term “wage slave” in our developed countries, but in the developing world, this has been the norm since their "independence" (or new form of economic so called "neo-colonial" dependence).
2) The argument of “laziness” and “economic collapse” has made a striking come-back as a reason to dismantle the “welfare state” and criticize ideas like a “universal income”. Time and again, various experts, economists and commentators, especially in the United States, slam the “entitled”, people that get government benefits and do nothing, profiteering from the system and acting as parasites sucking the blood and sweat of hard working people. From a purely economic perspective, however, these transfer payments are subsidies preventing an economy from sinking into a depressive spiral. Most of these people receiving social benefits spend the entirety on housing, food and basic goods/services which keep an economy afloat in hard times: real estate owners get their rent, various shops and enterprises enjoy steady consumption patterns (food, clothes…) and the State gets some of this money back via VAT, corporate tax or real estate tax, hoping to compensate for the loss by creating a stable business environment for the creation of new jobs which will be filled by the unemployed, temporarily living with social benefits, thus generating economic growth which should offset the social benefits spent. The fact that the latter does not happen (investment, job creation…) is pinned by many of those same “experts” on the excessive burden of regulation (labour laws, taxation…). I would argue that it is due to shareholder value maximization which aims at compressing costs and human capital to squeeze higher dividends for investors (read my article about that here). More profoundly, however, it is interesting to dig deeper into the claim that providing every single citizen with a minimum income, high enough to live a decent life, would spur a mass drop in the economic activity and production. An interesting research was conducted by the MIT, to find out whether money is a genuine factor for motivating people to work. Their conclusions are surprisingly counter-intuitive: the magnitude of the economic incentive was inversely correlated with performance! This is consistent with other research showing that many retirees, who have a pension allowing them not to work out of necessity, have never stopped being active yet also, are much happier, given that they could freely choose the activities and their level of investment. All of this leads to conclude that economic incentives play only a minor, and sometimes counterproductive, part in encouraging people to work, and that given the right opportunities, people will naturally contribute to society according to their ability and passions. Motivational speaker Simon Sinek uses the example of the Wright brothers to show that great contributions to society comes from passion and inner-drive, not money. Of course, his argument is to encourage companies to devise sophisticated propaganda about how their business activities match people's passions and inner-drive, something Slavoj Zizek describes very well when talking about Starbucks: "by purchasing a Starbucks coffee, you support the conservation of the rain forest, fair trade, starving children across the world..." All in all, it is interesting to notice this contradiction between companies shifting their efforts to "resonate" with their workers' sense of purpose to motivate them to work, yet arguing that people are "lazy" and would do nothing if given a chance (universal income).
3) Finally, the argument of “natural inferiority”, especially on intellectual grounds, has re-emerged to criticize democracy and voters themselves, depicting voters as “dumb”, not knowing what is best for them or for society, thereby justifying the dilution of sovereignty into supra-national institutions and treaties (TTIP, TAFTA, CETA, TISA, WTO, even the EU to some extent...) to ensure that the “dumb people” would not meddle in things they don’t understand. We have seen the signs repeatedly in the past decade: the referendum on the European Constitution, rejected in the Netherlands and France, yet still ratified in the form of a treaty. The same with Greece and its referendum rejecting the undemocratic Troika’s imposition of impossible repayment conditions which even traditionally conservative institutions like the IMF denounced. The disregard for democracy and democratic values by many democratically elected governments, applying nearly the same policies over the decades regardless of their political affiliation, have not only made the bed of extreme right and extreme left parties/politicians (as observed with the US elections and the French elections), but also strengthened the resolve and legitimacy of authoritarian, dictatorial or wannabe-dictators to tighten their control and powers. In China, the election of Trump was spun as an “excuse” to delay or even cancel opening up Chinese society and politics to democracy under the pretext that people were not “ready” and might make a similar “mistake”: “You see what happened under a democratic regime in the US? Is that what you want?” At the same time, some democracies have slowly slipped into dictatorships in recent years, like Turkey and Hungary.
In conclusion, it is interesting to see that the reactionary forces advocating for keeping slavery used the same or similar arguments as reactionary forces today, either fighting to dismantle the “social acquis” of the last century, or resisting progressive and potentially revolutionary proposals for a fairer and more equitable society. The dangers of these arguments are clear: these reactionary forces are sapping the very foundations of democracy and human rights, and by doing so, they leave a vacuum for dictatorships which argue that they are better placed to address challenges such as growing inequalities or unemployment than so called "liberal" democracies. Thus liberalism is faced with a major existential crisis: either it agrees to measures ensuring that the “market” works for the majority of the people, or its very foundations, the ideals of “freedom”, might be annihilated by competing dictatorial states which successfully implement populist social policies on the back of racism, nationalism, and the termination of elementary freedoms such as free speech, free assembly and so forth.