Unfree Labour

“The preoccupation with the origins of ‘freedom’ and a persistent understanding of market economies as essentially ‘free’ has clouded our perspective of the past. It is time to engage with new explorations on the role of unfree relations, not only in the form of slavery, but in other variations as well. Studying the role of slavery in the Dutch global empire and the presence of slavery in the Dutch Republic is only a modest first step. It is important to critically re-examine the role of coercion in other parts of the history of and explicitly in Europe as well. How did debts, legal and economic force, or other limits to freedom influence migration, labour relations, social strategies, everyday life and politics?…As much of the global history of slavery, these questions are waiting to be explored” (Karwan Fatah-Black and Mattias van Rossum. 2014. “Slavery in a slave-free enclave?: Historical links between the Dutch Republic Empire and slavery, 1580s-1860s.” Werkstatt Geschichte 66-67: 55-73.



What is liberalism? Liberal principles have been asserted as rear-guard, ad hoc defenses of elite privileges under significant assault by absolutist rulers, chartered corporations, and centralized states. Across these rear-guard defense options, one principle grounds liberalism: absolute private property right.

  1. See Losurdo 2011.
  2. Fatah-Black and van Rossum: The States General (1776) “The freedom of the Negro and other slaves, brought here from the State’s colonies to these lands” ordinance stipulated that “the freedom of the citizens of the state, who would lose their property (if slaves were freed), would be damaged more severely than that the upholding of the principle of freedom would be worth… ‘This would be a far graver affront against the birthright and immediate freedom of the inhabitants of this Republic,’” the preamble announced (64).
    1. Roman Law was introduced in 1629 to manage slavery in the Dutch Republic (62).
    2. Creditors’ rights superseded both plantation owners and slaves’ rights (65).


Varieties of domination across space: Why (where) slavery and not wage-wage slavery or genocide?

Premise 1: There are different forms of slavery.

Premise 2: Imperialists rely on genocide where slavers’ freedom cannot be supported by the slavery of the regional population.

What conditions support or attenuate slaver freedom?

  1. Structural explanations:
    1. As slavery contributes to slaver societies’ value accumulation–for example, between 1595 and 1829, slavery contributed around 70 million guilders to the Dutch port cities’ economic profit margins (69), slavers are an economic network. Within this network, slave traders‘ profits are typically “modest” (70), and could be a bottleneck for the development of slavery.
    2. To capture and distribute wealth within an oligarchical metropole, specific commodity chains produced by slavery promote or prevent slavery across locations.
      1. Slavery-promoting commodities: Cotton, sugar, rum, coffee, sexual services, domestic service, diamond mining. See also economic sectors that rely heavily on “volunteer,” “labor of love,” and “intern” labour: education and research, conservation, community and social services,…
      2. Wage slavery commodities: Expansive, alternates with slavery, see above.
      3. Genocide commodities: Commodities requiring total territorial control? Doubtful. Rather than “genocide commodities,” genocide probably is structurally caused by irreconcilable oikoi within a region, and may be indicative of a closer power balance than is present in slavery and wage slavery regions. As they are central in financing slavery commodity production, expanding financial metropoles and capitalization may play a role in spurring oikos rivalry blocs into genocide.
      4. To parse out the distribution of slavery, wage slavery, and genocide, compare commodity production and capitalization histories of high- indigenous population American regions–Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, the Four Corners, USA, (New Zealand?); and American regions that relied more heavily upon genocide: The Eastern US, extractivist Canadian regions, Argentina, Australia, etc. What is happening with commodity production and capitalization in indigenous-settler mixing zones– “La Malinche” Mexico, (New Zealand?), and Metis Manitoba?
  2. Cultural & social network explanations:
    1. Within this structure described above, relative regional coordination capacity and culture would matter.
      1. In Dutch Asia, slaves came from East Indonesia because the non-Islamic population had low coordination capacity and lacked anti-slavery culture (60). By engaging in internecene war and raiding, supplying slaves to the imperial merchants, Indonesian parochialism made Dutch slave traders’ work easier and profit margins higher.
    2. The trade in slaves was (re-)produced through elite networking. Slaves were taken from merchant elites’ business travels and dislocated around the globe, via elite network gifting, etc (59-60).
      1. Network symbolic capital, distinction (63)–as in modern, inegalitarian, imperial, cosmopolitan immigration/colonial settler societies–incentivizes the separation and relocation of humans as slaves, and by that, produces “trouble” in metropoles.
        1. This trouble had to be regulated with metropole laws that progressively reduced slaves’ freedom further, until at the last owners’ sacred property was threatened by punitive law (65-67).
    3. Slavers could depend on black overseers to use their human capacities to innovate torture, to control slaves on plantations (72).
      1. The Master’s dependency on the humanity of the dehumanized: “Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have in the woman most nearly connected with them not a forced slave but a willing one.” –JS Mill, 1869, “The subjection of women.”
        1. See also Hegel’s critique, “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” (1807).
      2. The human capacity for unmaking (see Scarry 1985): Using others’ human sentience against them to destroy their material worlds, and in place of their semantic world, promote the imperial voice and order.
      3. The stimulated jump from a state of unsolidaristic, competitive, parochial soveriegnty to a state of subordinate patriarchal intermediary secures the social construction of steep and complex social hierarchy.
        1. According to Federici 1998, patriarchy in complex societies invokes intimate and, by categorical extension, systematic alienation and fear of the target of defection and the defected relation, to realign trust and solidarities to an inegalitarian, socio-spatially dispersed network, an imagined global community of men. This trust realignment permits the transfer of property to and up the hierarchy of men. Alienated on multiple everyday levels, and crippled by fear, non-elites are compelled to reproduce exploitation and appropriation.
          1. Not all communities are responsive to patriarchal co-optation, and it is not structurally advantageous. For example the Basque maintained intra-community solidarity that permitted an autonomous and successful economic development path within capitalism (Federici 1998). Some communities rather are disposed to the protection racket bargain and patriarchal co-option. Why? What are the factors?
            1. As well as Robin (2004), the comparative history of the Scandinavian countries suggests some hypotheses, see Barton (1986). Ask Jonah Olsen about the Basque exception as well.
        2. Once instituted, capitalist law recreates the vertical-solidarity, competitive patriarch.
  3. See Losurdo (2011), Robbie Etheridge, Fatah-Balck and van Rossum.




Against torture from an historical-materialist perspective

Were I to rewrite the position on the cruelty of solitary confinement from a Marxist historical-materialist perspective (rather than phenomenological), this is what I would say:

Consider the recent article on the social and habitat isolation of the bipolar Colorado mass murderer James Holmes.

Prolonged isolation inflicts a harm, one that can never be justified. This harm is ontological; it dismantles the very structure of our relational being–our species being as a social species, how our senses are built to depend on communicating with other humans. Consider a basic example: Every time someone walks around the table rather than through it, or bumps into a table, my brain quickly mirrors their action and receives an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation of my own experience that the table exists in a specific way in the world, and that my sensory experience of tables is shared by others.

When I don’t receive such implicit social information, I can usually ask someone — but for the most part, we don’t need to ask because our sensations and concepts are already interwoven with the sensations and concepts of many other sensing, communicating beings who relate to the same world from their own unique perspective. This multiplicity of shared perspectives within one world is like an invisible scaffolding that helps order, prioritize, provide boundaries to, and confirm my sensory experience of the world.

If we truly want our prisons to rehabilitate and transform criminal offenders, then we must put them in a situation where they have a chance and an obligation to explain themselves to the others we need them to be accountable to, to repair damaged networks of mutual support, and to lend their own sensations and unique perspective to communities creating both shared meaning and the world beneath and informing meaning.

Consider as well that some people’s epistemologies-ontologies are more robust under torture, as Elaine Scarry famously discussed–In particular, those that recognize human intercourse in terms of “making” and “unmaking.” People whose epistemology-ontology allows them to recognize that someone is trying to unmake their world, for example via solitary confinement torture or other forms of torture that are designed to alienate your bodily senses from you, to unmake your world and impose theirs upon the vacuum that they have created in you– people with such making/unmaking perspectives are more protected from torture, from imperial, colonizing unmaking.

That doesn’t mean it’s easier, knowing that someone is laboring to destroy your world in order to implant their order within you. And being able to resist might mean the prisoner is tortured to death. Torture is to be abjected as an abomination against our social humanity.

Why Do They Hate Our Liberal Feminism?

“American diplomats also cast a wide net to gather information on police brutality, the cables show. Through contacts with human rights lawyers, the embassy follows numerous cases, and raised some with the Interior Ministry. Among the most harrowing, according to a cable, was the treatment of several members of a Hezbollah cell detained by the police in late 2008.

Lawyers representing the men said they were subjected to electric shocks and sleep deprivation, which reduced them to a “zombie state.” They said the torture was more severe than what they normally witnessed.

To the extent that Mr. Mubarak has been willing to tolerate reforms, the cable said, it has been in areas not related to public security or stability. For example, he has given his wife latitude to campaign for women’s rights and against practices like female genital mutilation and child labor, which are sanctioned by some conservative Islamic groups.”


Landler, Mark & Andrew W. Lehren. 2011. “Cable Shows Delicate US Dealings with Egypt’s Leaders.” The New York Times, January 27.

US Torture Report, Spring 2009

Links to US torture reports:

The New York Times

Knowlton, Brian. 2009. “Report gives new detail on approval of brutal techniques.” New York Times, April 22.

Shane, Scott and Mark Mazzetti. 2009. “In adopting harsh tactics, no inquiry into their past.” New York Times, April 22.

Shane, Scott. 2009. “2 suspects waterboarded 266 times.” New York Times, April 20.

The editors. 2009. “The torturers’ manifesto.” New York Times, April 18.

Danner, Mark. 2009. “Tales from torture’s dark world.” The New York Times, March 14.

Krugman, Paul. 2009. “Reclaiming America’s soul.” The New York Times, April 23.

Glenn Greenwald

Greenwald, Glenn. 2009. “The NYT’s definition of blinding American exceptionalism.” Salon.com, May 8. In which Greenwald points out that the American press calls all non-American-based torture by its name.

“(U)sing the editorial standards of America’s journalistic institutions — as explained recently by the NYT Public Editor — shouldn’t this (non-US-based torture) be called ‘torture’ rather than torture — or ‘harsh tactics some critics decry as torture’? Why are the much less brutal methods used by the Chinese on Fischer called torture by the NYT, whereas much harsher methods used by Americans do not merit that term? Here we find what is clearly the single most predominant fact shaping our political and media discourse: everything is different, and better, when we do it. In fact, it is that exact mentality that was and continues to be the primary justification for our torture regime and so much else that we do.”