Interview with Julia O’Connell Davidson on Modern Slavery


In this interview for the TCS Website, Angelo Martins Jr. interviews Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson about her recent book ‘Modern Slavery: the Margins of Freedom (2015).

Modern SlaveryIn her latest book ‘Modern Slavery: the Margins of Freedom’, Julia O’Connell-Davidson provides a historically and theoretically-engaged critical analysis of the term ‘modern slavery’ as deployed by anti-slavery campaigners and politicians, and of phenomena that are discussed under its umbrella (‘forced labour’, ‘debt-bondage’, ‘forced marriage’, ‘trafficking’ and ‘sex trafficking’). According to New Abolitionist campaigners, there are currently 35 million people living as ‘modern slaves’. But unless the term ‘modern slavery’ can be defined in such a way as to cleanly distinguish it from other similar or related phenomena (labour, debt, marriage, migration), O’Connell Davidson argues, such claims are meaningless. The definition offered by the New Abolitionists is far from adequate to the task, she contends.

The fact that the term ‘modern slavery’ is extremely vague means it offers a selective lens through which to view restraints on human freedom, and the fact it is also highly emotive gives it great rhetorical purchase in debates on the things people choose to apply it to – from “illegal” immigration, through prostitution, to child labour. It also encourages policies that seek to address ‘situations of modern slavery’ in isolation from the political and economic structures and inequalities in which they are embedded, since it tends to locate the problem in individual morality and/or ‘traditional cultures’. And this is very convenient for Western political leaders, O’Connell-Davidson argues. They can condemn ‘modern slavery’ but continue to authorise state sanctioned forms of violence, coercion and exploitation, such as the prison industrial complex, and immigration detention.

The book, ‘Modern Slavery: the Margins of Freedom’ has already sparked controversy. On BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed and Open democracy, for instance, Rahila Gupta has argued that O’Connell Davidson’s depiction of ‘modern slavery’ talk as ‘inane and clichéd’ works to ‘undermine anti-slavery activism and deny an appalling reality for thousands who are trafficked, sold and enslaved’ (Gupta, 2016). In this interview with Angelo Martins Jr, O’Connell-Davidson discusses and outlines the main points of her book, and elaborates upon some of its most controversial arguments.

Angelo Martins Jr: Can we start by discussing how and why you came to undertake this project?

Julia O’Connell Davidson: Since the millennium, I’d been deeply troubled by the fact that measures designed to control and prevent migration (including the growing use of often for-profit immigration detention, and deportation, even deportation of unaccompanied children), and/or to criminalise prostitution, were being presented as part of a noble effort to promote human rights by combatting so-called ‘human trafficking’. That tendency that was strengthened by assertions about ‘trafficking’ as ‘modern-day slavery’. Invoking the language of slavery also worked to shut down political debate about these ever harsher and more violent state controls over human mobility, and often also over sex workers. Because once you say “We are doing x, y, or z to eradicate a slave trade”, who can argue with you? If it’s slavery, even the most draconian responses seem justifiable.

There’s a real sense in which careless talk about slavery costs lives, then, and my concern was that the new anti-slavery NGOs that sprang up in the global North from 2000 were really being very careless in their talk of ‘modern slavery’. Worse still, ‘New Abolitionist’ organizations (like Free the Slaves, Not For Sale, Walk Free Foundation) have been very effective in spreading and popularising their careless talk of ‘modern slavery’. Their claims (such as, ‘there are more slaves today than at any time in history’, ‘the average cost of a slave is around $90’, ‘India has the largest slave population in the world’) are widely and uncritically regurgitated by journalists, and politicians frequently employ New Abolitionist rhetoric when speaking of ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’. But much of what New Abolitionists present as ‘fact’ about ‘modern slavery’ does not stand up to academic scrutiny, and is heavily ideologically loaded (their definition of ‘slavery’ and the lines they between poor work and ‘forced work’, ordinary indebtedness and ‘debt bondage’, patriarchal marriage and ‘forced marriage’, smuggling and ‘trafficking’, just for starters). So one aim of the book was to try to lay bare and critique the political and moral assumptions and value-judgments that underpin their claims, and more generally to debunk the discourse of ‘modern slavery’ as applied to contemporary forms of exploitation, violence and subordination.

I also wanted to take issue with what I see as the New Abolitionists’ very distorted vision of slavery historically, and draw attention to an incredibly rich, nuanced and interdisciplinary body of scholarship on transatlantic slavery which actually speaks very powerfully to questions about domination and unfreedom in the contemporary world. So the other starting point for the project was to ask what we could potentially learn about contemporary social and political life by thinking more seriously about transatlantic slavery and its living legacies. Because if we look behind the celebratory tale in which the rise of modern liberal society is a story of ever-growing freedom for everyone, and think seriously about the fact that transatlantic slavery emerged and flourished alongside the development of modern, liberal societies (which is to say if we recognize that transatlantic slavery was modern slavery), it opens up important questions about when and why profoundly illiberal practices and relations can be tolerated in modern liberal societies.

AMJ: By highlighting the complex relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ in the several themes discussed throughout the book, you confront the New Abolitionists’ assertion that it is possible to lose or be robbed of ‘free will’ and agency, and that slavery is defined by its reduction of persons to things. Actually, through the whole book you try to break with a set of dichotomies – such as person/thing, object/subject – which are present in both classical liberal theories as well as in the New Abolitionists’ discourses. Can you further discuss this complex relationship and theories that have helped you to make sense of this?

JOD: There’s a wealth of theory – Marxist, feminist, critical race and postcolonial – that helps us think critically about the liberal tendency to imagine the social and political order in terms of a series of oppositional binaries. The difficulty is always how to marshal insights from these different critical traditions simultaneously. As well as drawing inspiration from theorists who try to tackle this problem (the work of Angela Davis, 1981, Nirmal Puwar, 2004, Laura Brace, 2004, Gurminder Bhambra, 2007, Kathi Weeks, 2011, to name a few), I found recent critical scholarship on transatlantic slavery, along with the writings of freed and fugitive slaves, incredibly illuminating. One thing it makes you realise is that although the singular horror of slavery is widely considered to be its reduction of human beings to property (it converts ‘persons into things’ as one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society put it), transatlantic slavery actually implied something still more terrible.

The enslaved were given, in Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) words, a ‘double character’ as both things and persons. Yes, they were bought, sold, mortgaged, bequeathed, and gifted as property. But they were also acknowledged as persons in laws that deemed them criminally culpable human agents. Unlike the livestock to which they were routinely compared, they were arrested, tried, and barbarically and spectacularly punished when they transgressed the laws that criminalised their independent mobility, voice, and any effort to resist or defend themselves against the power of their masters and white people more generally. Those laws were necessary in transatlantic slave societies precisely because you cannot literally turn a human being into a ‘thing’ simply by constructing them as an object of property in law. The enslaved still retained agency in the sense that, except when physically held in chains or beaten to unconsciousness, they had to choose their course of action, to decide whether or not to resist commands, or to run away when the opportunity presented itself, and so on. The brutal body of law that constructed slaves as criminally responsible persons was designed to try to make compliance the most likely choice.

So without the state’s intervention to create slaves as persons (of a particular, inferior, and rightless kind), slaveholders’ property rights in them as things would have been empty. They could simply have fought back or run away – as, of course, some did. Here you have a very clear example of the Marxian – and Polanyian – insight that political life (state, law, civil society, the realm in which human beings are constituted as ‘persons’) is integrally bound to private economic life (the market realm in which persons act to produce and exchange commodities or ‘things’), and vice-versa. But slavery also cut across the public/private dichotomy that preoccupies feminist theorists, because whilst constructed as market-alienable property, transatlantic slaves were incorporated into the slaveholder’s household as dependents, along with women, children, servants, and apprentices. And yet slaves very obviously occupied a different position in the social order to that of white wives, children and servants, which alerts you to the fact that race was absolutely central to the particular ways in which the enslaved were incorporated into both the private domestic and the private economic realm. In fact, the history of transatlantic slavery helps explain why race is so fundamental to the liberal social order, right down to the very terms and categories that are used to make sense of it. Because as Charles Mills (2008: 1394) puts it, ‘the same developments of modernity that brought liberalism into existence as a supposedly general set of political norms also brought race into existence as a set of restrictions and entitlements governing the application of those norms’.

All of this is hugely relevant for structure/agency debates in relation both to the history of the enslaved, and to forms of oppression and exploitation in the contemporary moment. It allows you to work with Marx’s basic insight that people make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, yet ‘thicken’ it by recognising the multiplicity and complexity of the circumstances that constrain our choices. Think, for example, about the fact that the enslaved did forge affective ties to one another, even if those connections were not legally recognised or respected. Those ties to kin and community (which can get presented as astonishing evidence of slave ‘agency’ by those who imagine that human beings are literally dehumanized when legally constructed as subpersons) were often part of what had to be weighed up in decisions about compliance or resistance or escape. Could you choose to take advantage of an opportunity to flee if that meant leaving your children in the prison of slavery, for example?

The painful realities of being forced to make such decisions are documented in a number of slave narratives and powerfully elucidated by Edlie Wong (2009), revealing how agency is constrained by affective, as well as economic and political structures, and highlighting the ambiguities of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’. And closer attention to these ambiguities makes it possible to recognise slavery’s immense structural weight but also acknowledge and respect the political subjectivity of the enslaved, including its expression in what Stephanie Camp (2004) called the ‘hidden culture of opposition’ and ‘rival geographies’ created by bondwomen and children as well as men. These and other lessons about the complexity of the relationship between structure and agency can then be applied to contemporary contexts that are dubbed ‘modern slavery’ by the New Abolitionists, which is basically what I’ve tried to do in the book.

AMJ: As you mention in your book, there are many anti-slavery movements nowadays, with an impressive broad appeal coming from the Western affluent world and from the privileged elites of the developing countries. Poverty actions in ‘the non-modern/developing world’, for instance, have become a key part of how ‘the super-rich’ creates a sense of global citizenship, since ‘freeing slaves is joyous, cheap and ‘we’ can all be heroes’. However, this is based on the assumption that some groups and societies have still not yet fully joined ‘the modern world’. In this sense, would you claim that ‘their’ fight against ‘modern slavery’ is based on a (‘racial’) neoliberal discourse that instead of putting an end to ‘slavery’, actually helps to reproduce hierarchical relationships and socio-economic inequalities in the globe?

JOD: Well, maybe to legitimate rather than actively reproduce, but yes. I think the NGOs like Free the Slaves and Walk Free whose entire raison d’etre is to lead a popular movement against ‘modern slavery’ closely fit with what Teju Cole calls ‘the white saviour industrial complex’. They also often explicitly continue a colonial transition narrative, in which ‘debt slavery’ and ‘bonded labour’ in the Indian sub-continent, for instance, are presented as a problem of people trapped by their ‘traditional’ cultures and the solution is for white Westerners to help them on the road to economic development and modernization. And yet most serious research suggests that the forms of unfreedom experienced by the kind of informal sector workers they are talking about is an outcome of the contemporary twinning of neoliberal structural adjustment policies with export-oriented industrialization strategies in developing countries of the global South. This has intensified processes of land dispossession leading to increased internal, often seasonal, migration and also encouraged the expansion of an informal, non-unionised and unprotected economic sector.

So when we look at these groups of workers, we’re seeing one of contemporary neoliberal capitalism’s many faces, we’re watching the effects of Capitalism Unchained, not the age-old spectre of some traditional, slavery-like practice. Their problem isn’t that tradition or slave status has prevented them from freely circulating in the labour market, it’s that they have no social protection against the market, and that they lack rights and protections as workers. The solution to that has never been offered by campaigns for the abolition of slavery, and it certainly doesn’t lie with the very powerful forces mobilizing for greater liberalization of markets. So in this sense, I see the New Abolitionism as at best irrelevant to the problem, and at worst, providing ideological support for policies that actually protect the interests of powerful global elites, not those at the sharp end of neoliberal economic reforms.

Another important point about the race politics of the New Abolitionism is that while it presents transatlantic slavery as the historical comparator for contemporary forms of oppression and violence that in fact bear little or no resemblance to it, ‘modern slavery’ talk also ignores contemporary forms of exclusion and violence that are in fact direct products of transatlantic slavery. In the US, for example, the ‘afterlife’ of transatlantic slavery is a present in which black lives continue to be devalued and imperilled. This plays out especially vividly in America’s prison industrial complex – as illuminated by Dennis Childs’ (2015) new book, Slaves of the State – but its millions of victims aren’t present in the roll call of ‘modern slaves’ that organizations like Walk Free and Free the Slaves wish to emancipate. So ‘modern slavery’ talk works to conceal systems of racial as well as class domination.

AMJ: Within this neoliberal logic that ‘buries alive’ (Goldberg and Giroux, 2014) social, political and economic structures (by placing the problem into the individuals hands and to their ‘traditional cultures’), I would like to ask you to further develop the relationship between ‘modern slavery’ and the State. How does the discourse on ‘modern slavery’ play an important role in justifying the extremely violent State actions on ‘bordering and controlling’, which has been resulting in thousands of deaths and immigration detentions in ‘liberal democratic states’?

JOD: Politicians in Europe, Australia and North America routinely use the terms ‘human trafficking’ and ‘human smuggling’ interchangeably and frequently describe them as a ‘modern-day slave trade’. Now of course it’s true that many people’s journeys to affluent and politically stable regions are horrific, but the parallel between the transatlantic slave trade and irregular migration today is frankly ludicrous. The African victims of the transatlantic slave trade did not want to move to the New World, whereas the people described as victims of a ‘modern-day slave trade’ urgently wish to migrate, invariably for compelling reasons. The transatlantic slave trade was legally sanctioned by states, insured and financed by legitimate companies, and fully integrated into the formal economy of slave trading nations. It made entire cities as well as private individuals wealthy. What is today described as a ‘modern-day slave trade’ involves small scale, informal and criminalised activities. The transatlantic slave trade ripped its victims from their families. Many people described as victims of a ‘modern day slave trade’ are either travelling with their families, or attempting to join kin already abroad. And finally, where the transatlantic slave trade inevitably and invariably led to one appalling outcome – chattel slavery – the so called ‘modern day slave trade’ often serves to transport people into conditions that are safer and/or otherwise more desirable than the conditions they left. Hence people are willing to take the enormous risks associated with unauthorised migration.

If we want a parallel between what is happening today and the history of transatlantic slavery, then instead of looking at the forced movement of Africans into chattel slavery, we would do better to look at transatlantic slaves’ efforts to flee slavery, and the techniques employed by slave states to prevent this. Here the similarities between past and present are marked. In fact, virtually all the techniques that are used by contemporary states to control and prevent the unwanted movement of particular populations (from passports, patrols, fences, walls, and checkpoints through to carrier sanctions) were trailed by slave states seeking to control the mobility of slaves. And just as fugitive slaves in nineteenth century America often sought to evade such controls by making long and dangerous journeys by foot and/or seeking assistance from guides and smugglers (who sometimes saved but sometimes betrayed them), so today it’s the violent bordering actions of liberal democratic states that drive people to make difficult and risky journeys and to seek the services and protection of smugglers.

It strikes me that many European, North American and Australian politicians are firmly wedded to ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ discourse precisely because it allows them to bury the violence, and violent consequences, of immigration regimes in a narrative about individual immorality and criminality, and absolve states of moral responsibility for their lethal border controls.

AMJ: Would you say that the ways in which the media, politicians, academics and NGOs have been portraying ‘the refugee crisis’, in Europe, works in an analogous way to the discourse of ‘modern slavery’ and its functionality for State actions? Would the current fight on ‘the refugee crisis’ also be a ‘double-speak that is seen as part of a fight to secure fundamental human rights, as opposed to implying a violation of those rights’?

JOD: Absolutely in the case of mainstream academics and NGOs, and right wing and social democratic media and politicians. Think of the images of drowned children washing up on EU beaches, of parents struggling to care for new born babies in filthy, freezing, insanitary encampments in EU countries, of people on hunger strike at EU borders, lips sewn together, torsos emblazoned with the words “Save me or shoot me!” EU governments could very easily prevent all of this suffering by tearing down the borders and de-territorializing rights that are now linked to citizenship and residency. But they won’t, because it would mean surrendering certain powers that are currently framed as integral to sovereignty. So to preserve this version of state sovereignty, extensive and gross violations of what would in other contexts be understood as basic and universal human rights are not merely tolerated by EU states, but actively perpetrated.

In a number of EU countries there have been strong popular reactions against the callousness of immigration and asylum policy and the deadliness of border controls, so it’s a political moment where the immense and violent illiberality that liberal states are capable of could potentially be questioned and challenged. We could be mobilizing politically against the gap between the abstract rights that human beings are declared to have and the acknowledgement of those rights, as the original anti-slavery movement did. But that political space is closed down by discourses in which liberalism is constructed as itself under threat, whether from terrorists, or ‘traffickers’ and ‘modern slavers’, or the ‘hoards’ of migrants and refugees who will drown ‘us’ with their infinite demands for housing, healthcare, jobs, and education. So yes, I think that the portrayal of what’s happening at the borders as a crisis for the EU, which could in fact readily accommodate the numbers of people attempting to enter via the Mediterranean and the Balkans (Roth, 2015), is analogous to the discourse of ‘modern slavery’ (also that of the ‘War on Terror’). These are all framings that erase visible contradictions between the founding principles of liberal democratic states and the means employed to defend state power. So in the case of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ as with ‘trafficking’, violent and illiberal practices at the border are presented as regrettable necessities for ‘our’ very survival, and so become politically incontestable.

Again, the history of transatlantic slavery might have something to teach us, because in the anxieties today expressed about immigration, there are strong echoes of nineteenth century concerns about the threat that the abolition of slavery would pose to the liberal social order. American proslavery thinkers foretold its utter collapse and even white people who in principle opposed chattel slavery often feared that its abolition would have dire economic and social consequences (falling wages for white workers, the collapse of industries, loss of white privilege, race riots, etc.). Such fears were misplaced – it proved perfectly possible to sustain a system of racial domination in the absence of chattel slavery. In that sense, the history of abolition doesn’t provide a very hopeful model. However, it does at least show that social structures and hierarchies that appear to the vast majority of the population as utterly inevitable and entirely unalterable – as slavery once did and borders now do – can be torn down. Perhaps those of us who want to see an end to borders can take courage from this, yet also recognize that even this immense and positive change would not, on its own, spell freedom. Post-abolition history underlines the need for continuing collective political struggles around race, gender, class, caste, sexuality, disability, and age, and continuing efforts to understand and address their complex intersections.


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