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The persistence of slavery
by Louis Proyect
21 March 2002 14:42 UTC
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Scientific American, April 2002

The Social Psychology of Modern Slavery

Contrary to conventional wisdom, slavery has not disappeared from the
world. Social scientists are trying to explain its persistence

By Kevin Bales 

For Meera, the revolution began with a single rupee. When a social worker
came across Meera's unmapped village in the hills of Uttar Pradesh in India
three years ago, he found that the entire population was in hereditary debt
bondage. It could have been in the time of their grandfathers or
great-grandfathers--few in the village could remember--but at some point in
their past, the families had pledged themselves to unpaid labor in return
for loans of money. The debt passed down through the generations. Children
as young as five years old worked in quarry pits, making sand by crushing
stones with hammers. Dust, flying rock chips and heavy loads had left many
villagers with silicosis and injured eyes or backs.

Calling together some of the women, the social worker proposed a radical
plan. If groups of 10 women agreed to set aside a single rupee a week from
the tiny sums the moneylenders gave them to buy rice, he would provide seed
money and keep the funds safe. Meera and nine others formed the first
group. The rupees slowly mounted up. After three months, the group had
enough to pay off the loan against which Meera was bonded. She began
earning money for her work, which greatly increased the amount she could
contribute to the group. In another two months, another woman was freed;
the following month, a third came out of bondage.

At that point, the other members, seeing that freedom was possible, simply
renounced their debts and declared themselves free. The moneylenders
quickly moved against them, threatening them and driving them from the
quarries. But the women were able to find jobs in other quarries. New
groups followed their example. The social worker has taken me to the
village twice, and on my second visit, all its inhabitants were free and
all their children in school.

Less than 100 kilometers away, the land turns flat and fertile. Debt
bondage is common there, too. When I met Baldev in 1997, he was plowing.
His master called him "my halvaha," meaning "my bonded plowman." Two years
later I met Baldev again and learned that because of a windfall from a
relative, he had freed himself from debt. But he had not freed himself from
bondage. He told me:

"After my wife received this money, we paid off our debt and were free to
do whatever we wanted. But I was worried all the time--what if one of the
children got sick? What if our crop failed? What if the government wanted
some money? Since we no longer belonged to the landlord, we didn't get food
every day as before. Finally, I went to the landlord and asked him to take
me back. I didn't have to borrow any money, but he agreed to let me be his
halvaha again. Now I don't worry so much; I know what to do." 

Lacking any preparation for freedom, Baldev reenrolled in slavery. Without
financial or emotional support, his accidental emancipation didn't last.
Although he may not bequeath any debt to his children, his family is
visibly worse off than unbonded villagers in the same region.

To many people, it comes as a surprise that debt bondage and other forms of
slavery persist into the 21st century. Every country, after all, has made
it illegal to own and exercise total control over another human being. And
yet there are people like Baldev who remain enslaved--by my estimate, which
is based on a compilation of reports from governments and nongovernmental
organizations, perhaps 27 million of them around the world. If slaveholders
no longer own slaves in a legal sense, how can they still exercise so much
control that freed slaves sometimes deliver themselves back into bondage?
This is just one of the puzzles that make slavery the greatest challenge
faced by the social sciences today. Despite being among the oldest and most
persistent forms of human relationships, found in most societies at one
time or another, slavery is little understood. Although historians have
built up a sizable literature on antebellum American slavery, other types
have barely been studied. It is as if our understanding of all arachnids
were based on clues left by a single species of extinct spider. In our
present state of ignorance, we have little hope of truly eradicating
slavery, of making sure that Meera, rather than Baldev, becomes the model.

full: http://www.sciam.com/2002/0402issue/0402bales.html

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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