Posts Tagged ‘New Amsterdam’

Further Observations on Workfare, Slavery and Negro Apprenticeship

November 10, 2013

Yesterday I put up a piece comparing George Osborne’s proposed expansion of workfare to the system of ‘apprenticeship’ imposed on former slaves in the British Caribbean after the official abolition of slavery in 1837. Under this system, the slaves remained tied to their former masters and forced to work on their estates, ostensibly in order to make them self-reliant and industrious, and so able to take their place as responsible members of society. Workfare is similarly supposed to train the unemployed to be self-reliant and industrious, and so prepare them for proper, paid work and their place as responsible members of society. In practice, both of forms of servitude in which nominally free men and women are forced to work as cheap labour for big business – sugar plantations in the 19th century, Sainsbury’s and so on in the 21st.

Now let’s look at some possible objections to this comparison, and see if they invalidate the statement that workfare constitutes a form of slavery.

1. Slaves have no political rights, and cannot hold property. Workfare does not interfere with the individual’s political freedoms, and their property remains theirs. Therefore, workfare cannot be seen as a form of slavery.

This argument does not refute workfare’s status as a form of slavery. The statement that slaves have no political rights and have no property was horrifically true of western chattel slavery, such as transatlantic Black slavery in Britain, the Caribbean and America. It is not true of other forms of slavery and servitude. For example, in the ancient world and in some forms of African slavery, the slave could own property and rise to high office. The viziers in the Ottoman Empire were slaves. Free men are known to have sold themselves into slavery to become public slaves in the Roman Empire, because this gave them power over their cities’ treasuries. In early medieval Germany under the Ottonian dynasty, crown lands were administered by a class of royal servants called ‘ministeriales’. Although their status as slaves has been called into question, they were nevertheless unfree servants held by the Crown. These men held immense power, and when freed, were knighted to join the ranks of Germany chivalry. Similarly, in African slave states such as Calabar, kings frequently found their slaves far more trustworthy than their own sons, and so frequently bequeathed their kingdom to them rather than their sons on their deaths.

2. Slavery is the result of the forcible capture and sale of people against their will, or else of people, who have been born into it through their parents being slaves.

Again, the above describes how historically the majority of people fell into slavery. Not all slaves or serfs were the victims of capture or were born into it, however. In the ancient world, and the early Middle Ages, many people, apparently of their own free will, sold themselves into servitude as a way of saving themselves and their families from starvation. Their land and their lives would no longer be there own, but their lord was obliged to feed and protect them. Similarly, people generally sign on for unemployment benefit and so pass into workfare in order to avoid poverty and starvation.

3. Slavery and related forms of servitude, such as serfdom, were the products of pre-modern, agricultural societies. They therefore cannot and do not exist in developed, industrial nations.

Medieval serfdom and transatlantic slavery certainly were based in agriculture. This does not mean that they were not also linked to what could be described as a capitalist, market economy. The growth of villeinage in medieval Europe and in Europe east of the Elbe in the 16th and 17th century was based on the cultivation of wheat in a market economy, rather than simply to support the villagers themselves. Similarly, transatlantic plantation slavery arose to provide the labour to cultivate the similarly highly profitable cash crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slavery and serfdom could thus certainly be part of a modern, capitalist economy.

It is also manifestly untrue that slavery is purely agricultural, and has not and cannot be used in industrial society. Peter the Great in Russia began his nation’s industrialisation using serf labour. The first industrial metal furnaces were set up when he draft about 200 or so serfs to work in them. In the 20th century, the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia both used slave labour from the concentration camps, gulags and P.O.W. camps to build massive industrial plants and complexes. There’s a chilling passage in the book Black Snow: Russia after the Fall of Communism where the American author interviews a former KGB responsible for running one of the gulags – the political slave labour camps in Siberia. Living in his luxury apartment in Moscow, the man confesses that most of the inmates were completely innocent. He is, however, completely unrepentant, telling the author that they needed to use slave labour in order to industrialise the country. Without it, the great Soviet heavy industrial complexes would simply not be built. Even when the prisoners were released from the gulags and technically free, their freedom was extremely limited. Other employers would not take them on because they were still considered to have been traitors and political criminals. The result was that they remained tied to the towns and working in the same factories and furnaces that the gulags served, long after they were formally free men and women. These cities were themselves closed to outsiders. There were thus cities with populations of hundreds of thousands that were, in origin and in practice, vast prisons. Osborne’s, IDS’ and McVey’s workfare similarly serves as the basis for what remains of British industry, however much they may disguise it.

4. Slavery and serfdom are for life, although in most societies manumission – the freeing of a slave by their masters – was a possibility. Workfare is not intended to last for life, and in fact is deliberately arranged so that the individual on it will eventually leave it for better, paid employment.

Again, this point does not necessarily mean that workfare does not constitute a form of slavery. Most slaves in the ancient world at one time were freed before they were forty, in order for their masters to avoid the cost of paying for their upkeep in their frail old age. When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, now New York, in the 17th and 18th century, slavery then was only intended to last 25 years. If the slave was able to live that long, then he or she was automatically free.

Workfare and Feudal Forced Labour

There is a closer similarity between workfare and some forms of forced labour, than the state of slavery per se. In many feudal societies in Europe and around the globe, the peasants are forced to provide customary unpaid work on behalf of their masters at certain times in the year. This was a feature of villeinage in Europe. The corvee remained a feature of French peasant servitude until it was abolished during the Revolution. Similar forms of collective, unpaid forced labour were also used in Fijian society, and in ancient Egypt. While not necessarily a form of literal slavery, such forced labour is still now considered an illegal form of servitude and in that sense classed as it.

Workfare and Roman Colliberti

Contemporary workfare could also be compared to the status of the colliberti – the freedmen – in the ancient world. These were men, who had been freed by their masters. They were technically freemen, and were frequently extremely rich, due to their employment and membership of vital industries, like fulling, that were below the dignity of free Roman citizens. They could not, however, hold political office, although this was possible for their children. They were also dependent on their patrons for legal protection, although this relationship did not exist in law. The rank of collibertus in Roman society, with its dependence on the patronage of one’s master, that eventually formed one of the roots of medieval serfdom. Similarly under workfare, the jobseeker is technically free, but in fact reliant and under the direction of the decision makers and clerks in the Job Centre.

5. In slavery, the power of the slave’s master is absolute. Under workfare, however, the jobseeker still possesses full legal protection. Moreover, workfare is in theory contractual. The jobseeker signs a formal agreement at the Job Centre, which binds him and the state into a particular relationship, each with obligations. This is completely unlike slavery.

This argument too is invalid. Many societies had laws limiting and protecting slaves and serfs from abuse. The medieval villeins were protected under feudal law in Britain. Spanish medieval law contains provisions protecting slaves. In the early 19th century prior to abolition, Britain attempted to ameliorate the condition of slaves in its colonies by passing laws stipulating the amount of rations they were to be fed, and limiting the number of lashes masters could inflict on their slaves as punishment. These were based on the Spanish slave code. The British also set up an official, the Guardian and Protector of Slaves, based on the Spanish alcalde, whose job was to protect slaves from abuse by their masters. These had the power to investigate allegations of abuse made by the slaves themselves. Beating and cruelty would result in the slave’s being compulsorily sold to another master. The murder of a slave was punished with the death penalty. The Islamic shariah similarly limits the punishment a slave may receive for particular crimes. Where the punishment for an offence is whipping, the number of lashes is frequently less for a slave than for a free man. He may also wear some kind of shirt instead of his bare back to protect him. These legal protections for slaves do not mean that slavery as an institution did not exist, or prevent it from being degrading.

As for workfare being contractual, and thus not a form of servitude, this is also false. Feudalism was also based on a contract between the lord and peasant. Under the contract, the peasant gave his life, land and labour, while the lord was obliged to protect him. Similarly, modern forms of slavery, such as bonded labour in Brazil, are frequently disguised as legal employment under a long contract.

It is therefore clear that the formal legal freedoms, which still exist at the moment for job seekers under workfare, are nevertheless comparable to other forms of slavery and servitude, which contain some elements of freedom, legal protection and even political power. Workfare can still therefore be reasonably compared with some forms of servitude and force labour, at least in the forms under which George Osborne plans to expand it.