Meditations on Slavery Today, Part 1


Thoughts on slavery are in the air.* It is not only because Martin Luther King, Jr. Day makes us think about the Civil Rights Struggle or because of the extraordinary historical drama 12 Years as a Slave (2013) but also because of the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor across the world today.

Much of this development is based on attacking many of the remaining safety nets for those who are destitute.  Greed has become such that shortcuts are taken away from production and from the building of national infrastructures. Instead, wealth is increasingly generated from new forms of theft as avaricious elements go after everything from pension plans and social security to public services such as sanitation and the post office.

The Supreme Court deliberation on the unionization of home-care workers is an example. While the state of Illinois points out that unionized workers actually produced better and cost-efficient services, saving the state millions of dollars, a small set of right-wing activists under the misguided title of “National Right to Work Foundation,” is trying to destroy collective bargaining as an opportunity available to public employees. What that group really wants is the right to erode workers’ rights, that is, ultimately the right to enslave.

The contradictions are patent. Complaining on one hand that government is inefficient, these groups are now trying to destroy an instance of demonstrated efficiency. The attacks on the US Postal Service have been pretty much the same. They pile up new demands the result of which is forcing the post office to be in the red.

In the midst of all this, there are some other consequences to consider. The US government prints billions to bail out banks while municipalities, institutions created for the sake of local services, such as Detroit suffer bankruptcy. In the middle of all this are laws permitting money to be made not only on our past and present but also on our future in the form of financial derivatives.

Now think about it. Betting on a future that one may not even occupy means that one’s debt not only could but would most certainly also carry over to one’s descendants. We’re looking at debt-bondage to financial institutions that eerily mirror serfdom, indentured servitude, and, to make it plain, slavery—at least of a new kind.

It’s appropriate that ancient Athens is valorized as a model of democracy for those who have prepared the current generation to wage their protected theft. That society was, after all, one in which at times 4/5th of the population were enslaved. But the world today has outdone them, since in effect only about 1 percent of the current population doesn’t face forms of bondage reaching into the distant future.

We need meditations on what slavery means today. Most of us are being, as Malcolm X said, hoodwinked and bamboozled.

How have we come to a point where so many of us are setting the course for the majority of humanity facing permanent servitude? What is that but a world without a meaningful future? Can we afford to be in effect the living dead?

Perhaps many of us need serious reminders of what slavery really means. And it is with that in mind that I’m going to devote several segments to meditations on that subject.

The “happy slave,” we should remember, is nothing short of an obscenity.

* See, for example, Jane Anna Gordon, “Theorizing Contemporary Practices of Enslavement,” American Political Science Association Foundations in Political Theory Best Paper (2012), available on Scrbd

** David G. Savage, “Supreme Court to Hear 1st Amendment Challenge to Labor Unions,” Los Angeles Times (January 20, 2014):,0,853132.story#ixzz2r5uo7DgD

*** Josh Eidelson, “Three Big Lies at the Heart of Republican Attacks on the Post Office,” truthout (September 28, 2011):

© Lewis R. Gordon