Disposable People by Kevin Bales

by Colin Bosio-Cady on December 30, 2004

There are more slaves now than ever before in history, there are also fewer per capita then ever before. Though I haven’t seen a study documenting it yet it also seems safe to claim that slavery is receiving less attention now than it ever has before. A fact that highlights one of the more prescient points that author Kevin Bales makes in Disposable People. That we are once a large and growing world society which is increasingly interconnected, and a society which relies more and more heavily on its least connected members.

Copiously researched, well written, and successful in capturing the writers as well as the readers emotions. Disposable People’s greatest asset is not what it has accomplished with its investigative methods, but what it has done in re-framing the issue on a philosophical level.

The simplest thing to do when dealing with any issue with as many moral overtones as slavery is to allow the research to begin, and end, by asking “how could this happen?”Allowed to stand by itself this question cannot help but lead to an incorrect analysis. This author never falls into the trap and moves us through this moralistic road block and onto the prescient question “How could this not happen?”. In a world whose global economy is driven so madly toward the bottom line, and whose global economic system is governed by organizations whose interests are stability and economic growth, and not humanitarianism, how indeed could this not happen?

Kevin Bales never insults his subjects by making broad assumptions, it is never assumed that a slave holder is a slave holder because they are evil and maladjusted person, or that a slave in the new system of slavery has never had any options. He points out that slave holders are slave holders for the same reasons now that they were several hundred years ago, because it is profitable. Slave ownership is allowed to exist not because of an “evil” intent on the part of a slave owning society but because entire regions are dependant on the profitability of the slave trade. Those regions are expanding, and are increasingly global, the author does well to point out that any reader might now be in possession of slave produced products. Whether it is a steel product made with charcoal created in a Brazilian slave camp, or a rug made in India.

The book carries itself with the stories that it presents, the children sex workers, the Brazilian coal camp slave families but it never relies on the readers heart strings to make its point. The author has done an exemplary job of analyzing the ever-changing situation and provided those readers interested enough to become involved important new intellectual tools with which to frame the debate around the new slave trade. Possibly most important is his deconstruction of the moorings of both the old and new slavery. He does well to point out that the new slavery unlike the old is illegal, it is also short term and can at times appear voluntary. Each of these points runs contrary to the common wisdom surrounding slavery.

The author makes the salient point early on that the largest problem with fighting slavery in the modern world is convincing people that it exists. The same obstacle that opponents of racism and fascism have identified for decades applies to the new slave abolitionists. In discussing this book with a comrade recently he pointed out to me that as early as the 1930’s in America the most forward political thinkers observed that in the USA fascism would not come draped in the swastika, but would bear the mark of the American flag. When we rely on society’s opposition to the symbolism of oppression, we create an opening for the new slave holders to take advantage of. As the author points out one of the best things to happen to Mauritanian slave holders was the legal abolition of slavery. With this legalism in place there were free to continue their practices while singing the praises of abolitionism, that the laws are unenforced, they can claim, is not their responsibility.

I recently reviewed another book whose author had coupled his analysis with the creation of an organization for the implication of his ideas. This author, in creating Free the Slaves has taken this same step and departed bravely from the tired dogmas of old sociological thought. Rather than being content in documenting and observing the suffering of subjects, this intellectual has made common cause with his subjects and crafted a new tool in the struggle for their liberation. An inspiring move for an academic, and one which certainly needs to be emulated.

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