The new millennium confronts prosperous nations with two apparently intractable problems. One is persistently high unemployment, with the number of long term unemployed also at high levels.
This threatens to create an underclass locked into welfare dependency, educational underachievement, despair and alienation. The second problem is that many of those who work suffer marginal and insecure employment. Increasing numbers of workers in Western nations are engaged in low-paid casual or part-time or temporary contract work, or are beset by economic insecurity. For many, this has meant that planning for the future is out of the question.
Relentless restructurings and ruthless downsizings in both private and public sectors are driving more and more people into unemployment or marginal employment. While Western economies are growing quite strongly as the century draws to a close, those workers who are not yet unemployed are either actually insecure and relatively impoverished, or justifiably anxious. This is part of wider trend to increased economic inequality. The wealthy of advanced capitalist societies are getting seriously richer while the real incomes of the majority of working people are stagnant or falling.
In affluent but widely unequal societies, substantial numbers find themselves without sufficient resources for a decent life within the prevailing social conditions. The condition of those on the bottom of the pile — the unemployed underclass — is tantamount to social exclusion. At the other end of the social spectrum, the top ten per cent of our societies has opted out of threadbare public structures into a world of largely private provision – private schools, private health care, private security, and so on.They are retreating from responsibility for the poor and disadvantaged, calling ever more stridently for lower taxes and less social welfare provision.
The super-rich, like the corporations they partly manage and own, tend to lead multinational lives, moving themselves and their money from nation to nation as they wish, shedding assets and workers in one country and investing in another whenever this seems advantageous.Meanwhile the majority of taxpayers in advanced capitalist nations have been seduced by free-market ideology into accepting policies of privatising public resources and cutting back public expenditure, especially on social welfare. These policies have only further pushed the underclass toward social exclusion. Are things about to get better, at least in some countries, following the election of labour and social democratic governments in Britain, France and Germany?Will the emergence of ‘compassionate conservatism’ in Britain, Australia and elsewhere also make a difference? With both the social democratic ‘third way’ and ‘compassionate’ conservatism, it seems that the same policies of marketisation, free trade, privatisation and welfare cutbacks will be pursued.
What both offer is the prospect of some kind of social inclusion to counter the effects of these policies. But, in practice, will they offer anything more than smoke and mirrors?We have a proposal that might make a modest but real contribution to a solution for the new millennium to problems of unemployment, insecurity and social exclusion. The Proposal. Our proposal is that we reintroduce chattel slavery — but this time on an optional basis — for all those facing the prospect of social exclusion.
We should change the law to allow individuals the choice of contracting into a term of slavery — even lifelong slavery — as chattels of wealthy owners capable of providing them with secure sustenance in return for unpaid labour at the behest of their masters.It is not envisaged that voluntary slavery would replace the familiar employment of wage labour by capitalists; it would, rather, be an addition to it, an option for those who fear for good reason that they will not be able to find secure paid employment. This new institution of slavery would be regulated so as to impose obligations of adequate slave maintenance on the owners. Slaves would have some basic rights – rights to food, lodging and medical care for themselves and any dependants.
Of course, slave-owners would receive child support payments that enslaved parents would have received, and could receive a subsidy for including their slaves in a comprehensive private health insurance policy. Slave-owners who were still unable to meet their obligations would be able to sell their slaves in regulated slave markets to other reputable owners. Slave markets would be the mechanism guaranteeing slaves lifelong security, even if their owners become insolvent.Of course, after the initial free choice the new slavery would still be similar in crucial respects to older forms of the institution.
Runaway slaves would be lawbreakers who could be hunted down and returned to their owners. Recalcitrant slaves could be summarily punished by their owners. The Benefits. The primary benefit of the reintroduction of slavery would be to solve, very largely, the problems of long-term unemployment and socially-excluded underclasses.
At a stroke the cost of absorbing the unemployed into useful work would be cut to the bare minimum.At the moment one of the main barriers to full-employment is the high cost to employers of wage labour – costs that include paid holidays, sick leave, superannuation contributions, the expense of meeting occupational health and safety standards, and much more besides. Employers have moaned for years that they would employ more people if only the cost of doing so were not so high. Slaves would obviously be much cheaper than waged workers.
They would be less expensive to maintain than dependant teenagers (for they would not need to be expensively educated) or a dependant spouse.So the super-rich could afford quite a few slaves, as servants and personal assistants, and as extra labour for use in their various business interests. Even the moderately well-off should be able to afford one or two. Slavery would not always be cheaper than employment of independent contractors, but it would provide another alternative to waged employment, alongside and supplementing exploitation of contract labour.
One currently fashionable way of avoiding the high cost of employment in the fashion trade, for example, is to contract with a seamstress to sew shirts at home, paying a pittance for each shirt sewn.Limitations on working hours, sick pay, occupational health and safety standards and all the other costs of usual employment can be side-stepped, with contractors forced to work eighteen or more hours a day. Slavery would not replace this practice, but complement it where it would be useful to have a long-term, reliable, supply of labour for any purpose that a master might desire. Manifestly, then, a new institution of voluntary slavery would be capable of soaking up the permanently unemployed and underemployed into useful service to the rich and well-off.
Many accept that the pressures of globalisation and technological change mean that governments cannot provide employment where the private sector has failed to. But though there may not be enough real jobs to go round, there is nevertheless a virtually unlimited amount of work that those of us who are relatively well-off would like to have done if only it could be done for virtually nothing. Cleaning. Cooking. Gardening. Serving. Fetching. Carrying.
Slaves would be ideally suited to these forms of servile labour. Slavery would open up a whole new dimension of useful service work for those now suffering the enforced idleness of unemployment.One of the curses of unemployment is the sense of uselessness, of not being socially needed, that attends it. Voluntary slaves, on the other hand, would have a far greater sense of self-worth than welfare dependants, since they would be valued pieces of personal property performing useful and helpful tasks.
In slave states before the US Civil War, masters loading ships employed Irish free labourers in the holds, where they were in danger of injury, and used slaves on the wharves, because slave owners would not risk injury to their valuable slaves.Slaves have thus been treated as more valuable than free-labourers in the past, and will be more valued again. Voluntary slavery would not in many instances be radically dissimilar to the sort of life endured by housewives during the first half of the twentieth century, before the upsurge of feminism. Some housewives then complained that they too would have liked ‘wives’ of their own, if only it were possible.
Voluntary slavery could revive the housewife in a more politically correct, non-sexist form.Since men and women alike could own slaves, rich women too could have male ‘wives’ (that is, domestic and sexual slaves). What was once only a feminist fantasy could become a reality. Men who preferred sexual slaves to partners with minds and resources of their own could purchase a slave rather than treat their spouses as such.
Men and women would be equal under the slave system: they would be equally able to own slaves; and equally entitled to opt for slavery. Voluntary slavery would also diminish demands on our public welfare systems, which are being wound back under pressures to cut expenditures and lower taxes.Just as many countries seek to partially privatise support for the elderly through superannuation schemes, so support for the unemployed and indigent could be partly privatised through slavery. Slaves would be securely maintained by the rich in return for unpaid service.
By lessening the welfare drain on the public purse, slavery would help our economies become leaner and meaner. This would generate a virtuous circle, whereby slavery produces more rich people, who could in turn support more slaves. As indicated earlier, the super-rich in our societies are withdrawing from public obligation.The reintroduction of slavery, however, could re-ignite a sense of noblesse oblige among the rich, inspiring personal support for the poor by way of slave-ownership.
Here the principle of mutual obligation would be satisfied and be seen to be satisfied: slaves would labour at the whim of their masters (or mistresses); and masters (or mistresses) would provide for their slaves. Indeed the new slave system could be seen as a sort of privatised extension of the work-for-the-dole schemes currently fashionable in Australia and parts of America.Another benefit of slavery would be increased security for wealth. Members of under-classes quite often and naturally resort to crime, especially crimes against property.
Crime and vandalism worsen as our societies grow more unequal, as the poor are constantly provoked by the contrasting conspicuous consumption of the rich. Lurking behind rising crime rates is the even worse threat of social revolution. A system of voluntary slavery, however, would help safeguard wealth and property from both crime and revolution.It would turn a goodly proportion of the underclass itself into property, thereby placing many of the poor under the direct control of wealthy slave-owners, who would be armed with powers of summary punishment.
It would provide a private alternative to developing a massive state prison system like that in the US, which functions as a system of state slavery. Not that powers of summary punishment would be needed as much as police and prisons are now, for the new slaves, enjoying material security for the first time in their lives, would be less liable as well as less able to commit crimes.We should also remember that crime threatens the less well-off even more than the very wealthy, as they are less able to protect their possessions. Voluntary slavery would make everyone more secure, including both slaves and the free poor.
The unemployed poor now face social exclusion. Many could rejoin the social mainstream by opting for slavery. Slaves to the very rich might well enjoy a sumptuous lifestyle beyond the imagination of those now trapped at the bottom of our liberal capitalist societies.Unfortunately the institution of slavery at this point in history has a bad image, largely because at the time of abolition the dominant form was the brutal plantation slavery of the Americas and the Caribbean.
In ancient Greece and Rome, however, slavery was not always oppressive and brutalising. Slaves to rich and powerful men often themselves had a great deal of derivative wealth and power; some even had slaves of their own. Under slavery in the new millennium, many slaves would also share in the lifestyles and amenities of the rich and famous.They would eat exotic fare, sail about on luxury yachts, fly around in private jets, and share expensive vacations and recreations.
Some would be treated as valued members of wealthy extended families. Others might come to exercise considerable degrees of delegated power. For the most part the new slaves would participate more fully, if indirectly, in our consumer society than would the free poor. The younger unemployed might opt for a period of slavery only, during which their owners could exploit their youth.
Those who are thrown on the unemployed scrap heap in their late middle age could opt for life-long slavery and the security that would bring. The old might not be as hardy or desirable as the young, but they would bring the benefits of their experience, and additional benefits to both the slave-owner and society that would accrue from their status as property. Since slave-owners would own the bodies of their life-long slaves at and beyond the point of death they would be able to sell on the body parts for use in transplant surgery and medical experimentation.A shortage of transplant organs would no longer be a problem.
Owners would even be able to lease the bodies of slaves for medical experimentation while they were still alive (subject to broad safety conditions established by industry regulators). Advances in medical knowledge would consequently accelerate. Slave-owners could also own the DNA of their slaves, so that they could patent and make available on the market any advantageous genetic sequences they were discovered to possess (such as those that provide protection from serious diseases).In summary, the reintroduction of slavery would have far-reaching benefits.
It would benefit everyone – slaves, slave-owners, and other free citizens. It would not be a return to barbarism, as many might unreflectively think, but rather a higher stage in the development of liberal values and liberal societies. Voluntary slavery would actually enhance individual liberty by widening the range of freedom of choice to include the options of both slavery and slave-ownership.