The Many Faces of Slavery

“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Wages is a cunning device of the devil, for the benefit of tender consciences, who would retain all of the advantages of the slave system, without the expense, trouble and odium of being slave-holders.”
–Orestes Brownson

The ancient world ran on slave-power. Lacking heat engines and cybernetic devices, the only way to accomplish the many things civilization ran on–agriculture, construction, crafts, child-rearing, military operations, mining, transport, shipping, and so forth, was to use human and animal muscle power. Human labor has five core competencies, according to economist Brad DeLong:

(1) Moving things with large muscles.
(2) Finely manipulating things with small muscles.
(3) Using our hands, mouths, brains, eyes, and ears to ensure that ongoing processes and procedures happen the way that they are supposed to.
(4) Engaging in social reciprocity and negotiation to keep us all pulling in the same direction.
(5) Thinking up new things – activities that produce outcomes that are necessary, convenient, or luxurious – for us to do.

Surveying the ancient world, we see that slaves were the primary method for accomplishing the first two tasks, while the latter three were monopolized by the “educated” elite classes of the ancient world, who were always–and had to be–a minority (including in our world today, which is why “more education” cannot solve inequality). Simply put, no slavery–no civilization, and no state, as James C. Scott writes:

Slavery was not invented by the state…[but]…as with sedentism and the domestication of grain…the early state elaborated and scaled up the institution of slavery as an essential means to maximize its productive population and thus the surplus it could approporiate.

It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the centrality of bondage, in one form or another, in the development of the state until very recently…as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage…Provided that we keep in mind the various forms of bondage can take over time, one is attempted to assert: “No slavery, no state.” Against the Grain (ATG), pp. 155-156

Hence the ancient world had to come up with all sorts of philosophical justifications for slavery. Initially, however, race was not one of them. Anthropologist David Graeber points out that underlying the various justifications for slavery was the idea that the slave would otherwise be dead. Because their lives were spared, they were, in essence, the living dead, kind of like zombies! Because they were socially ‘dead’ as people, they had no rights and could be abused, bought and sold:

Slavery is the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s context, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being. Another way to put this is that the slave is, in a very real sense, dead. This was the conclusion of the first scholar to carry out a broad historical survey of the institution, an Egyptian sociologist named Ali ‘Abd al-Wahid Wafi, in Paris in 1931. Everywhere, he observes, from the ancient world to then-present-day South America, one finds the same list of possible ways whereby a free person might be reduced to slavery:

1) By the law of force
a. By surrender or capture in war
b. By being the victim of raiding or kidnapping
2) As legal punishment for crimes (including debt)
3) Through paternal authority (a father’s sale of his children)
4) Through the voluntary sale of one’s self

The book’s most enduring contribution, though, lay simply in asking: What do all these circumstances have in common? AI-Wahid’s answer is striking in its simplicity: one becomes a slave in situations where one would otherwise have died. This is obvious in the case of war: in the ancient world, the victor was assumed to have total power over the vanquished, including their women and children; all of them could be simply massacred. Similarly, he argued, criminals were condemned to slavery only for capital crimes, and those who sold themselves, or their children, normally faced starvation. Debt, the First 5000 Years, (DTF5kY) pp. 168-169

Many of the authors and scholars in Michael Hudson’s ISLET series about the ancient economy argue that slavery played only a subsidiary role in the establishment of early civilizations, and most of the labor was given voluntarily, such as a sort of social obligation, often involving work feasts. Author James C. Scott disagrees. He sees the existence of compulsory and unfree labor, in whatever form it took, as absolutely essential to the formation of the first states. He writes:

The general consensus has been that while slavery was undoubtedly present, it was a relatively minor component of the overall [Mesopotamian] economy…I would dispute this consensus.

Slavery, while hardly as massively central as in classical Athens, Sparta, or Rome, was crucial for three reasons: it provided the labor for the most important export trade good, textiles; it supplied a disposable proletariat for the most onerous work (for example, canal digging, wall building); and it was both a token of and a reward for elite status…When other forms of unfree labor, such as debt bondage, forced resettlement, and corvee labor, are taken into account, the importance of coerced labor for the maintenance and expansion of the grain-labor module at the core of the state is hard to deny.

Part of the controversy over the centrality of slavery in ancient Sumer is a matter of terminology. Opinions differ in part because there are so many terms that could mean “slave” but could also mean “servant,” “subordinate,” “underling,” or “bondsman.” Nevertheless, scattered instances of purchase and sale of people–chattle slavery–are well attested, though we do not know how common they were. ATG pp. 157-158

Three obvious reasons why Third Milennium Mesopotamia might seem less of a slave-holding society than Athens or Rome are the smaller populations of early polities, the comparably scarce documentation they left behind, and their relatively small geographical reach. Athens and Rome were formidable naval powers that imported slaves from throughout the known world, drawing virtually all their slave populations far and wide from non-Greek and non-Latin speaking societies. This social and cultural fact provided much of the foundation for the standard association of state peoples with civilization on the one hand and nonstate peoples with barabrism on the other…The greater the cultural and linguistic differences between slaves and their masters, the easier it is to draw and enforce the social and juridicial seperation that makes for the sharp demarcation typcial of slave societies…

Mesopotamian city-states by contrast, took their captives from much closer to home. For that reason, the captives were more likely to have been more culturally aligned with their captors. On this assumption, they might have, if allowed, more quickly assimilated to the culture and mores of their masters and mistresses In the case of young women and children, often the most prized captives, intermarriage or concubinage may well have served to obscure these social orgins within a couple of generations…ATG p. 174-175

In other words, Greece and Rome captured “barbarians” from outside society and incorporated them as a lower-tier slave strata to do all the stoop labor and scut work. The very word barbarian referred to someone who didn’t speak the Greek language.

In Mesopotamia, by contrast, the warfare was often between rival city-states—people who would have spoken similar languages and shared similar customs and beliefs. Thus, they would have appeared less like a foreign entity in the records and more like just a lower tier of society–their status obscured by cultural similarities and ambiguities in the terminology. Furthermore, this process would have been ongoing, with new layers of war captives being continually added to form the bottom strata of society, eventually “blending in” and “moving up” over time as new immigrants–er, slaves–took their place:

The continuous absorption of slaves at the bottom of the social order can also be seen to play a major role of social stratification–a hallmark of the early state. As earlier captives and their progeny were incorporated into the society, the lower ranks were constantly replenished by new captives, further solidifying the line between “free” subjects and those in bondage, despite its permeability over time. p. 169

One must surely wonder whether the Mesopotamian city-states met a substantial portion of their insatiable labor needs by absorbing captives or refugees from culturally similar populations. In this case such captives or refugees would probably appear not as slaves but as a special category of “subject” and perhaps would be, in time, wholly assimilated. ATG p. 175

Integrating war captives into society and isolating them from their original ethnic group rather than making them as a class permanently apart would have forestalled rebellion. Atomized people, without social ties, are much easier to control and cannot mount any sort of collective resistance to the prevailing social order (a point not lost on today’s ruling elites):

Insofar as the captives are seized from scattered locations and backgrounds and are separated from their families, as was usually the case, they are socially demobilized or atomized and therefore easier to control and absorb. If the war captives came from societies that were perceived in most respects as alien to the captors, they were not seen as entitled to the same social consideration. Having, unlike local subjects, few if any local social ties, they were scarcely able to muster any collective opposition…ATG, p. 167…

The principle of socially detached servants–Janissaries, eunuchs, court Jews–has long been seen as a technique for rulers to surround themselves with skilled but politically neutralized staff. At a certain point, however, if the slave population is large, is concentrated, and has ethnic ties, this desired atomization no longer holds. The many slave rebellions in Greece and Rome are symptomatic, although Mesopotamia and Egypt (at least until the New Kingdom) appeared not to have slavery on this scale. ATG pp. 167-168

James Scott considers slavery in ancient Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt and China as a form of manpower recruitment on the part of states–the original “human resources strategy.” Often military incursions were less about seizing territory as it was about seizing captives–what Max Weber called “booty capitalism.” Often, the people seized were those with rare and highly specialized skills that the attacking state did not possess:

Slave taking…represented a kind of raiding and looting of manpower and skills that the slaving state did not have to develop on its own…Women and children were particularly prized as slaves. Women were often taken into households as wives, concubines, or servants, and children were likely to be quickly assimilated, though at an inferior status…Women captives were at least as important for their reproductive services as for their labor. Given the problems of infant and maternal mortality in the early state and the need of both the patriarchal family and the state for agrarian labor, women captives were a demographic dividend. Their reproduction may have played a major role in alleviating the otherwise unhealthy effects of concentration and the domus. ATG, pp. 168-169.

One of the most common forms of slavery was domestic work. A major hallmark of elite status in the ancient world was how many lives you had control over. Large households were typically staffed with huge amounts of domestic servants, who were, in essence, slaves, even if they were not explicitly designated as such in historical records. These domestic servants cooked and cleaned, took care of the children, maintained gardens, bore their masters about in litters, and numerous other routine chores that elites prefer to use trafficked and immigrant labor for even today:

One imagines as well, that most of slaves not put to hard labor were monopolized by the political elites of early states. If the elite households of Greece or Rome are any indication, a large part of their distinction was the impressive array of servants, cooks, artisans, dancers, musicians, and courtesans on display. It would be difficult to imagine the first elaborate social stratification in the earliest states without war-captive slaves at the bottom and elite embellishment, dependent on those slaves, at the top. ATG, p. 169

David Graeber also points out this fact:

…this ability to strip others of their dignity becomes, for the master, the foundation of his honor…there have been places-the Islamic world affords numerous examples-where slaves are not even put to work for profit; instead, rich men make a point of surrounding themselves with battalions of slave retainers simply for reasons of status, as tokens of their magnificence and nothing else. DTF5kY, p. 170

And many forms of slavery were less obvious in the historical record. Scott includes things like forced resettlement, migrant workers, and serfdom as forms of compelled labor which also made civilization possible, but would be less likely to be noticed by archaeologists and economic historians:

In Athens in the fifth century BCE, for example, there was a substantial class, more than 10 percent of the population, of metics, usually translated as “resident aliens.” They were free to live and trade in Athens and had the obligations of citizenship (taxes and conscription, for example) without its privileges. Among them were a substantial number of ex-slaves. ATG p. 175

Finally, there are two forms of communal bondage that were widely practiced in many early states and that bear more than a family resemblance to slavery but are unlikely to appear in the textual record as what we think of as slavery. The first of these might be called mass deportation coupled with communal forced settlement. Our best descriptions of the practice come from the neo-Assyrian Empire (9II-609 BeE), where it was…systematically applied to conquered areas. The entire population and livestock of the conquered land were marched from the territory at the periphery of the kingdom to a location closer to the core, where they were forcibly resettled, the people usually as cultivators…In some cases, it seems that the captives were resettled on land abandoned earlier by other subjects, implying that forced mass resettlement may have been part of an effort to compensate for mass exodus or epidemics. ATG pp. 177-178

A final genre of bondage that is historically common and also might not appear in the historical record as slavery is the model of the Spartan helot. The helots were agricultural communities in Laconia and Messinia dominated by Sparta…They remained in situ as whole communities, were annually humiliated in Spartan rituals, and like the subjects of all archaic agrarian states were required to deliver grain, oil, and wine to their masters. Aside from the fact that they had not been forcibly resettled as war deportees, they were in all other respects the enserfed agricultural servants of a thoroughly militarized society.

Scott points out that the conquering and subjugation of an existing agricultural society by an incoming martial elite–as seems to have been the case in Sparta–may not technically look like slavery but be similar in most respects. The elites compel the producers to toil on behalf of their overlords. It is, in essence, serfdom. People are tied to a plot of land and obliged to provide food and goods to a militarized aristocracy, which is mass slavery in all but name.

And metics appear to be quite similar to today’s globalized peripatetic migrant worker, such as the thousands of “second-class citizens” that are the lifeblood of places like Dubai, or who pick the fruits and berries that end up in the supermarkets of Europe and North America. Interestingly, many immigrant workers in France today have embraced the term “metic” (métèque) tin reference to themselves.

Slavery was also an early way to punish criminals and enforce justice. The ancient world did not have the resources to feed and shelter large amounts of unproductive people in cages (jails, gaols) as we do today. Dungeons were mainly about holding people who were about to stand trail. To have basic shelter and three square meals a day without having to work would have been quite a luxury in the ancient world–people would have been purposely committing crimes to get it! Fines were not effective in pre-monetized and non-market economies. That’s one reason for the gruesome corporeal punishments we see doled out in the ancient world (eye-gouging, flogging, etc.). Making people into slaves took away many of their freedoms, but still compelled them to work on behalf of society–sort of a “work release” program in what was, in essence, an open-air prison. Even in today’s United States, slavery is legal if you are convicted of a crime. We still talk of criminals owing a “debt to society.”

Debt slavery was also often ignored in ancient accounts of slavery. We know that debt bondage became so common and so widespread that leaders had to periodically institute debt annulments in order to keep their societies functioning at all. This could take the form of regular mandated debt jubilees as in Mesopotamia, or emergency legislative actions like those of Solon the reformer in Athens. As David Graeber says, all ancient populism boils down to one single idea: “cancel the debts and redistribute the land” (i..e the means of production).

Slavery was also a major barrier to industrialization. In the new novel Kingdom of the Wicked, the author envisages an alternate Rome that has undergone an Industrial Revolution by the time of Christ. Slavery has been abolished, led by the Stoics whom she equates with Quaker abolitionists in Britain’s 19th century. This has led to the flowering of a “tinkering culture” exemplified by Archimedes and Heron to further their inventions into true labor-saving devices similar to those of early industrializing England. This is not so far-fetched: We know, for example, that the Romans employed water power on a massive scale for milling bread and manufacturing armaments, for example at Barbegal in modern-day France, and that the earliest factories of the Industrial Revolution (Arkwright’s mills) were water-powered, with fossil fuels coming only later due to wood shortages. The author writes of Roman Slavery:

…While Roman-era scientists later developed designs for things like steam engines (Heron of Alexandria) and built fabulous mechanical instruments (the Antikythera machine), they did so in a society that had been flooded with vast numbers of slaves (the late Republic and early Principate), and large-scale chattel slavery and industrialization are simply incompatible.

Chattel slavery undermines incentives to develop labour-saving devices because human labour power never loses its comparative advantage. People can just go out and buy another slave to do that labour-intensive job. Among other things, the industrial revolution in Britain depended on the presence (relative to other countries) of high wages, thus making the development of labour-saving devices worthwhile. The Antikythera mechanism is a thing of wonder, but it is also little more than a clockwork executive toy; no wonder the great lawyer Cicero had one. It’s just the sort of thing I can imagine an eminent [attorney] having on his desk in chambers.

Slavery—and its near relative, serfdom—have been pervasive in even sophisticated human societies, and campaigns for abolition few and far between. We forget that our view that slavery and slavers are obnoxious is of recent vintage. In days gone by, people who made fortunes in the slave trade were held in the highest esteem and sat on our great councils of state. This truism is reflected in history: The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade met for the first time in 1787. It had just twelve members—nine Quakers and three Anglicans…

…we know that the Romans didn’t think some people were ‘naturally servile’, which is at the heart of Aristotle’s argument in favour of slavery. The Roman view (consistent with their militarism) was always ‘you lost, we own you’. Roman law—even in its earliest form—always held that slavery was ‘contrary to nature’. Human beings were naturally free; slavery was a legally mandated status, however cruelly imposed.

It is also important to remember that ancient slavery was never race-based. No Roman argued that slaves were lesser forms of the human. Middle- and upper-class Roman children educated at home by slaves who were manifestly cleverer than them (not to mention mum and dad) knew this, intimately.

Author’s Note-Kingdom of the Wicked (

The Roman explicitly defined the lack of freedom implied by slavery as “contrary to nature” in their legal codes!

In fact, even when labor-saving devices were invented in the ancient world, they often were often intentionally ignored or neglected in order to ensure that the large amounts of human labor available to elites would have some way to be utilized:

[W]hen Vespasian was offered a labor-saving machine for transporting heavy columns, he was said to have declined with the words: “I must always ensure that the working classes earn enough money to buy themselves food.”

Emperor Vespasian has a Solution for Unemployment (

Not only was race or ethnic origin not a factor in Roman slavery, the ancient Romans did not regard slaves as inherently inferior in any way! In fact, they knew that slaves might even be more talented than their masters! There was no racial segregation or racial hierarchy; slavery was simply a social construct not based on any notion of superiority or racism, unlike in North America (as was it’s flip-side “citizenship”). This colors our view of ancient slavery. It also blinds us to the reality and essential role of slavery and bondage in human history. We are used to regarding slaves as “naturally” inferior due to the racist views utilized in America to justify it. A racial hierarchy was established in America after Bacon’s Rebellion in the South to make sure that poor whites and blacks would not unite against their rulers–another example of divide-and-rule atomization.

The problem for any culture that wants to spend time on literature, art, philosophy and science, is [that] somebody’s got to do the laundry. And so what we’ve done is, we have a washing machine. If we didn’t have a washing machine, my guess is, all over California there would be a lot more jobs at the lowest end–of people doing laundry. Just as the Chinese who entered California as basically indentured railway workers, they began to set up what we call Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants. These are all low-skilled, high work.

Well, the Greeks; some of the cities–the ones that we admire like Athens–they had slaves because that was the way you got things done. They didn’t feel that slaves were inferior people. They just happened to be people often captured in war. We forget that the word slave comes from the word slav. The slaves come out of Russia into Europe through the Middle Ages. All the Middle ages were full of slaves.

The American slave experience was peculiar in that it was having people really who were not of their own culture; not of their own civilization. If you think about it, you’re in a Greek family and who’s the nursemaid for the children? Well, she has to be somebody who’s going to speak their language, and is going to be giving them the cultural values.

Anyone who lost in war…they were just people who lost; when you lost you got killed or be made a slave and most people given the choice thought, “well I’d rather try living and see how that works out.”

Tangentially Speaking – Jim Fadiman 57:10 – 59:35

David Graeber makes the same point regarding Roman slavery:

What made Roman slavery so unusual, in historical terms, was a conjuncture of two factors. One was its very arbitrariness. In dramatic contrast with, say plantation slavery in the Americas, there was no sense that certain people were naturally inferior and therefore destined to be slaves. Instead, slavery was seen as a misfortune that could happen to anyone. As a result, there was no reason that a slave might not be in every way superior to his or her master: smarter, with a finer sense of morality, better taste, and a greater understanding of philosophy. The master might even be willing to acknowledge this. There was no reason not to, since it had no effect on the nature of the relationship, which was simply one of power. The second was the absolute nature of this power… DTF5kY, p. 202

Indeed, H.G. Wells felt that the vast importation of slaves after the second Punic war was the final “nail in the coffin” for the Roman yeoman class. As Roman society was flooded with slaves from military expansion, the price of slaves went down dramatically. It then became cost effective to buy large amounts of slaves and work them to death on large plantations, meaning that ordinary family farms could not compete in what was effectively an early “free market” economy. Cheap slaves allowed unprecedented concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

In the Roman experience, this is the beginning of a 100-year-long process of Italy going from being a patchwork of smaller farms with some large estates to nothing but sprawling, commercially-oriented estates. And yes, the United States is continuing to go through a very similar process. At the founding of our republic, everybody’s a farmer, and now everything is owned by what, Monsanto?

Moving beyond just strictly agricultural companies, large American corporations are now employing more and more people. There seems to be this move away from people owning and operating their own establishments, and they’re instead being consumed by large entities. You’re talking about the Amazons of the world swallowing up so much of the market share, it just doesn’t pay to be a clerk in a bookstore or own a bookstore, you end up being a guy working in a warehouse, and it’s not as good of a job.

It doesn’t really feel like they could’ve arrested the process. Fifteen years after some land bill, you’d ask, “Who has the land? The poor?” No, they all just got bought up again. There never was a good political solution to it. The problem of these small citizen farmers was not solved until 100 years later when they simply ceased to exist.

Before the Fall of the Roman Republic, Income Inequality and Xenophobia Threatened Its Foundations (Smithsonian)

So slavery appears not to have been “race based” in most ancient societies, which is what makes the American experience so unique. Apart from places like plantations, mines and quarries, most slaves were probably indistinguishable from people around them. They went off to work every day just like everybody else. Again, slavery was a legal distinction more than anything else.

It’s also essential to keep in mind that our vision of slavery as constant beatings and starvation has also drastically colored our view. This is again a result of North American racially-based plantation slavery. In reality, slaves were an investment, and whipped and starving people hardly made the best workers.The cruelty of plantation slavery was highlighted and emphasized in written accounts, both by ex-slaves and abolitionists, to turn people against it. In reality, it was probably not as brutal as it is often depicted. To be crystal clear here, this is not a justification for slavery!!! But it also makes us overlook slavery in the ancient world, where it was more of a social/economic status than racial. In fact, most slavery looked indistinguishable from the routine of the average wage worker today!

John Moes, a historian of slavery…writes about how the slavery we are most familiar with – that of the antebellum South – is a historical aberration and probably economically inefficient. In most past forms of slavery – especially those of the ancient world – it was common for slaves to be paid wages, treated well, and often given their freedom.

He argues that this was the result of rational economic calculation. You can incentivize slaves through the carrot or the stick, and the stick isn’t very good. You can’t watch slaves all the time, and it’s really hard to tell whether a slave is slacking off or not (or even whether, given a little more whipping, he might be able to work even harder). If you want your slaves to do anything more complicated than pick cotton, you run into some serious monitoring problems – how do you profit from an enslaved philosopher? Whip him really hard until he elucidates a theory of The Good that you can sell books about?

The ancient solution to the problem…was to tell the slave to go do whatever he wanted and found most profitable, then split the profits with him. Sometimes the slave would work a job at your workshop and you would pay him wages based on how well he did. Other times the slave would go off and make his way in the world and send you some of what he earned. Still other times, you would set a price for the slave’s freedom, and the slave would go and work and eventually come up with the money and free himself.

Moes goes even further and says that these systems were so profitable that there were constant smouldering attempts to try this sort of thing in the American South. The reason they stuck with the whips-and-chains method owed less to economic considerations and more to racist government officials cracking down on lucrative but not-exactly-white-supremacy-promoting attempts to free slaves and have them go into business.

So in this case, a race to the bottom where competing plantations become crueler and crueler to their slaves in order to maximize competitiveness is halted by the physical limitation of cruelty not helping after a certain point…

Meditations on Moloch (Slate Star Codex)

Moes argues that the reason slavery declined in ancient Rome was not because slaves were treated so cruelly that they could not reproduce themselves (whips and chains), but as a result of widespread manumission. They were freed. Slaves often cut deals where they would buy their freedom by entering in with business deals with their owners. Often times, they would split the profits:

Profitable deals could be made with the slave or with the freedman, who could be and usually was obligated to render services to his former master. A freedman often continued in the same employment or else was set up in business with funds supplied by the master, or, on the land, was given part of the estate to work as a tenant. Hence the slave in fact bought his own freedom, either by being given the opportunity to accumulate savings of his own, the “peculium,” or afterward as a freedman, having received his freedom, so to speak, on credit.

This system was to the advantage of the owner because it gave the slave an incentive to work well and in general to make himself agreeable to his master. Thus, while the owner did not (immediately) appropriate the entire surplus that the slave earned over and above the cost of his maintenance, he still got great eeconomic benefits in the long run… the most highly valued slaves were the most likely to be freed, for the full benefit of their talents could not be obtained under the whiplash but only by giving them the positive incentive of immediate or ultimate freedom.

Seen from this perspective, the difference between a slave and the plight of the average modern American worker becomes awfully difficult to define. Of course, if you dare broach this topic, you are immediately confronted with opprobrium–how dare you! This is a legacy of the horrors of racebased plantation slavery to which we are constantly reminded. But, historically, slavery had nothing to do with racism or (direct) violence!

No, slaves were simply the people who had to labor above and beyond what they wished to in order to produce a surplus for someone else. They also had no control over their work circumstances. They had to do what their master told them to do, for the amount of time he told them to do it, in the place where he told them to do it, and the way he told them to do it. And the slave only kept a portion of what they produced, with the lion’s share going to his or her master.  That doesn’t sound all that different from the situation of the average worker today, now does it? The ancients were aware of this. Cicero wrote:

“…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.”

Thus wage slavery is simply another type of slavery, and not as distinct from its ancient counterpart as we have been led to believe. True, we aren’t regularly starved and beaten. Yes, we can find a different patron–er–employer. But we are just a human resource. We make profits for others. We don’t have control over our workplace. When you understand that, by and large, ancient slavery had nothing to do with racial inferiority–actual or perceived, or outright violence, and was just an economic category of individuals, you can understand why this is the case.

And consider this: how could our modern society function without the massive tier of low-paid workers? In fact, the people who get paid the least are the most essential to society’s everyday functioning, as David Graeber has pointed out. They do the non-automated agricultural work. They pick our fruits and vegetables. They cook and prepare our food. They look after our children and take care of our elderly. They teach our children. They drive our cars and trucks. They maintain our lawns and gardens. They build and maintain our infrastructure. They construct our buildings. They keep our shelves stocked with goods and deliver them to our doorstep. Not all of these are minimum wage workers, but an increasing number of them are! If they all vanished, society would grind to an immediate halt. Yet just three people “own” as much as half the American workforce!

The difference is that wage slaves are rented instead of owned. We are continually compelled by the invisible whip and the lash of utter poverty and destitution.

Today’s college system is virtually indistinguishable from indentured servitude. in fact, I would argue that it’s worse! With indentured servitude, it’s true that you could not leave your employer and “shop around” for another one. But, if you went into debt, you were guaranteed gainful employment for the duration of the loan–something today’s college students would kill for! Instead, they are expected to go deeply into the debt just for the mere chance of finding employment in their chosen field, which, more often than not, they don’t. Sometimes, they must even labor for free to get certain jobs (unpaid internships). And student debt, unlike other debt, cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. What, then, really is the difference between it and debt bondage??? H1-B visas are a similar scam, where imported workers often work for less than their native-born counterparts and cannot easily leave their employer (i.e. sponsor) to seek out other work.

And now, we are constantly informed that we must “love our jobs” to the extent that we will even work for free for the privilege! Employers depict themselves as a paternalistic  “family” (albeit one that you can be removed from at any time and for any reason). It’s a sort of Stockholm Syndrome on a societal scale. Today, we are totally defined by our work. It forms the core of our identity (“so, what do you do..?”). We are informed from birth that we must “love our jobs” and “like what we do” We no longer even think of our bondage as bondage! We are totally brainwashed to love our captivity and identify with our captors, the ultimate victory of tyranny over freedom. As Henry David Thoreau wrote:

“[i]t is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.”

So, when you take all this into consideration, clearly civilization has always run on compelled labor of one form or another. It cannot be any other way. Corvee labor, forced resettlement, military drafts, tributary labor, convict labor, serfdom, migrant and trafficked labor, debt peonage and indentured servitude have all existed alongside chattel slavery since the beginnings of civilization. Freedom is just an illusion:

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery, and “indentured service”-that is, the use of contract labor, workers who had received cash in advance and were thus bound for five-, seven-, or ten-year terms to pay it back. Needless to say, indentured servants were recruited largely from among people who were already debtors. In the 1600’s there were at times almost as many white debtors as African slaves working in southern plantations, and legally they were at first in almost the same situation, since in the beginning, plantation societies were working within a European legal tradition that assumed slavery did not exist, so even Africans in the Carolinas were classified, as contract laborers. Of course this later changed when the idea of “race” was introduced.

When African slaves were freed, they were replaced, on plantations from Barbados to Mauritius, with contract laborers again: though now ones recruited mainly in India or China. Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, and Indian “coolies” built the South African mines. The peasants of Russia and Poland, who had been free landholders in the Middle Ages, were only made serfs at the dawn of capitalism, when their lords began to sell grain on the new world market to feed the new industrial cities to the west. Colonial regimes in Africa and Southeast Asia regularly demanded forced labor from their conquered subjects, or, alternately, created tax systems designed to force the population into the labor market through debt. British overlords in India, starting with the East India Company but continuing under Her Majesty’s government, institutionalized debt peonage as their primary means of creating products for sale abroad .

This is a scandal not just because the system occasionally goes haywire… but because it plays havoc with our most cherished assumptions about what capitalism really is particularly that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom. For the capitalists, this means the freedom of the marketplace. For most workers, it means free labor. DTF5kY, pp. 350-351

Today, living in a high-tech age of fossil fuels and automation, why have our “energy slaves” not liberated us from this burden? We’ll consider that next time.

BONUS: Ellen Brown (Web of Debt) has an interesting piece on student loan debt slavery over at Truthdig:

The advantages of slavery by debt over “chattel” slavery—ownership of humans as a property right—were set out in an infamous document called the Hazard Circular, reportedly circulated by British banking interests among their American banking counterparts during the American Civil War. It read in part:

“Slavery is likely to be abolished by the war power and chattel slavery destroyed. This, I and my European friends are glad of, for slavery is but the owning of labor and carries with it the care of the laborers, while the European plan, led by England, is that capital shall control labor by controlling wages.”

Slaves had to be housed, fed and cared for. “Free” men housed and fed themselves. For the more dangerous jobs, such as mining, Irish immigrants were used rather than black slaves, because the Irish were expendable. Free men could be kept enslaved by debt, by paying wages insufficient to meet their costs of living. The Hazard Circular explained how to control wages:

“This can be done by controlling the money. The great debt that capitalists will see to it is made out of the war, must be used as a means to control the volume of money. … It will not do to allow the greenback, as it is called, to circulate as money any length of time, as we cannot control that.”

The government, too, had to be enslaved by debt…

Student Debt Slavery: Bankrolling Financiers on the Backs of the Young (Truthdig)

The Scars of the Past

There’s been an explosion in scholarship pinning the collapse of societies on both outbreaks of disease and natural variations in climate. James Scott dedicates a good portion of Against the Grain to considering the fragility of early states. As he points out, when it comes to the formation of complex state societies, the question isn’t so much “what took so long” as “how could this even happen at all?”  People don’t inherently want to be controlled or dominated by a sociopathic oligarchy, so why did they “bend the knee,” and remain kneeling ever since?

And, in fact, what we see is, rather than a direct, steady progression to larger and more complex societies as depicted by old narratives of history (the “progress” narrative), we see states rising and falling. The idea that “bigger is better” is not in evidence from the standpoint of the average peasant living in these cultures. As Scott points out at length, states are fragile things prone to undermining their own existence through various factors. We see this trend even today with active secession movements in Catalonia, Scotland, the United States, and the criticisms of the European Union and “free trade.”

Ancient Egypt may have fallen in part because of riots caused by climate change and volcanoes, according to a new paper. The new study paints a picture of the ancient civilisation riven by droughts and disasters. It looked at the impact of the severe events of ancient Egypt, finding that they caused stress on its economy and ability to fight wars.

The Nile was incredibly important for the ancient Egyptians of Ptolemaic Egypt, between 350 and 30BC. Each year monsoon rainfall brought summer flooding that helped grow crops to support the society. When those crops failed, societal unrest would ensue, according to detailed reports at the time.

Until now, researchers haven’t known what caused those strange but important floods. They now propose they were the result of volcanic activity – which in turn would have altered the climate and brought about disruption to the most central parts of society.

“Ancient Egyptians depended almost exclusively on Nile summer flooding brought by the summer monsoon in east Africa to grow their crops,” said Joseph Manning, lead author on the paper and the William K & Marilyn Milton Simpson professor of history and classics at Yale, in a statement.

“In years influenced by volcanic eruptions, Nile flooding was generally diminished, leading to social stress that could trigger unrest and have other political and economic consequences

Ancient Egypt may have been brought down by volcanoes and climate change, researchers say (The Independent)

What we are learning, principally from pathogen genomics, is that the fall of the Roman Empire may have been a biological phenomenon.

The most devastating enemy the Romans ever faced was Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague and that has been the agent of three historic pandemics, including the medieval Black Death. The first pandemic interrupted a remarkable renaissance of Roman power under the energetic leadership of the emperor Justinian. In the course of three years, this disease snaked its way across the empire and carried off perhaps 30 million souls. The career of the disease in the capital is vividly described by contemporaries, who believed they were witnessing the apocalyptic “wine-press of God’s wrath,” in the form of the huge military towers filled with piles of purulent corpses. The Roman renaissance was stopped dead in its tracks; state failure and economic stagnation ensued, from which the Romans never recovered.

Recently the actual DNA of Yersinia pestis has been recovered from multiple victims of the Roman pandemic. And the lessons are profound…

Was the fall of Rome a biological phenomenon? (Los Angeles Times)

The winter seasonality of the Plague of Cyprian points to a germ that thrived on close interpersonal contact and direct transmission. The position of the Roman Empire astride some of the major flyways of migratory birds, and the intense cultivation of pigs and domestic fowl such as chickens and ducks, put the Romans at risk. Climate perturbations can subtly redirect the migratory routes of wild waterfowl, and the strong oscillations of the AD 240s could well have provided the environmental nudge for an unfamiliar zoonotic pathogen to find its way into new territory. The flu is a possible agent of the pestilence.

A second and more probable identification of the Plague of Cyprian is a viral hemorrhagic fever. The pestilence manifested itself as an acute-onset disease with burning fever and severe gastrointestinal disorder, and its symptoms included conjunctival bleeding, bloody stool, esophageal lesions, and tissue death in the extremities. These signs fit the course of an infection caused by a virus that induces a fulminant hemorrhagic fever.

Church Records Could Identify an Ancient Roman Plague (The Atlantic)

1. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a pandemic “interrupted the economic and demographic expansion” of the empire.

2. In the middle of the third century, a mix of drought, pestilence, and political challenge “led to the sudden disintegration of the empire.” The empire however was willfully rebuilt, with a new emperor, new system of government, and in due time a new religion.

3. The coherence of this new empire was broken in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. “The entire weight of the Eurasian steppe seemed to lean, in new and unsustainable ways, against the edifice of Roman power…and…the western half of the empire buckled.”

4. In the east there was a resurgent Roman Empire, but this was “violently halted by one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recorded history — the double blow of bubonic plague and a little ice age.”

The Fate of Rome (Marginal Revolution)

Explanations for a phenomenon of this magnitude [Rome’s collapse] abound: in 1984, the German classicist Alexander Demandt catalogued more than 200 hypotheses. Most scholars have looked to the internal political dynamics of the imperial system or the shifting geopolitical context of an empire whose neighbours gradually caught up in the sophistication of their military and political technologies. But new evidence has started to unveil the crucial role played by changes in the natural environment. The paradoxes of social development, and the inherent unpredictability of nature, worked in concert to bring about Rome’s demise…

It turns out that climate had a major role in the rise and fall of Roman civilisation. The empire-builders benefitted from impeccable timing: the characteristic warm, wet and stable weather was conducive to economic productivity in an agrarian society. The benefits of economic growth supported the political and social bargains by which the Roman empire controlled its vast territory. The favourable climate, in ways subtle and profound, was baked into the empire’s innermost structure.

The end of this lucky climate regime did not immediately, or in any simple deterministic sense, spell the doom of Rome. Rather, a less favourable climate undermined its power just when the empire was imperilled by more dangerous enemies – Germans, Persians – from without. Climate instability peaked in the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian. Work by dendro-chronologists and ice-core experts points to an enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s CE, unlike anything else in the past few thousand years. This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years. This phase of climate deterioration had decisive effects in Rome’s unravelling. It was also intimately linked to a catastrophe of even greater moment: the outbreak of the first pandemic of bubonic plague.

How climate change and disease helped the fall of Rome (Aeon)

Wealth inequality has been increasing for millennia (The Economist)

Where hunter-gatherers saw themselves simply as part of an inherently productive environment, farmers regarded their environment as something to manipulate, tame and control. But as any farmer will tell you, bending an environment to your will requires a lot of work. The productivity of a patch of land is directly proportional to the amount of energy you put into it.

This principle that hard work is a virtue, and its corollary that individual wealth is a reflection of merit, is perhaps the most obvious of the agricultural revolution’s many social, economic and cultural legacies.

The acceptance of the link between hard work and prosperity played a profound role in reshaping human destiny. In particular, the ability to both generate and control the distribution of surpluses became a path to power and influence. This laid the foundations for all the key elements of our contemporary economies, and cemented our preoccupation with growth, productivity and trade.

Regular surpluses enabled a much greater degree of role differentiation within farming societies, creating space for less immediately productive roles. Initially these would have been agriculture-related (toolmakers, builders and butchers), but over time new roles emerged: priests to pray for good rains; fighters to protect farmers from wild animals and rivals; politicians to transform economic power into social capital.

How neolithic farming sewed the seeds of modern inequality (The Guardian)

Scientists have traced the rise of the super-rich deep into our historical past to uncover the ancient source of social inequality. Their conclusion? Thousands of years ago, it was the use of large farm animals – horses and oxen that could pull ploughs – which created the equivalent of our multi-billionaire entrepreneurs today.

It was only with the domestication of cattle and horses – sometimes thousands of years after land cultivation had begun – that serious divisions between societies’ haves and have-nots began to emerge, eventually creating the ancient equivalent of today’s island-owning, jet-setting billionaires...

Super-rich shown to have grown out of ancient farming (The Guardian)

Not only was prehistory more equal, but people were physically stronger too:

Prehistoric women had stronger arms than today’s elite rowing crews (

Unearthing a masterpiece (University of Cincinnati)

Q: What inspired you to look into this story?

A: When I was doing the History of Rome [podcast], so many people asked me, ‘Is the United States Rome? Are we following a similar trajectory?’ If you start to do some comparisons between the rise and development of the U.S. and rise and development of Rome, you do wind up in this same place. The United States emerging from the Cold War has some analogous parts to where Rome was after they defeated Carthage [in 146 B.C.]. This period was a wide-open field to fill a gap in our knowledge.

Q: One topic you describe at length is economic inequality between citizens of Rome. How did that come about?

A: After Rome conquers Carthage, and after they decide to annex Greece, and after they conquer Spain and acquire all the silver mines, you have wealth on an unprecedented scale coming into Rome. The flood of wealth was making the richest of the rich Romans wealthier than would’ve been imaginable even a couple generations earlier. You’re talking literally 300,000 gold pieces coming back with the Legions. All of this is being concentrated in the hands of the senatorial elite, they’re the consuls and the generals, so they think it’s natural that it all accumulates in their hands.

At the same time, these wars of conquest were making the poor quite a bit poorer. Roman citizens were being hauled off to Spain or Greece, leaving for tours that would go on for three to five years a stretch. While they were gone, their farms in Italy would fall into disrepair. The rich started buying up big plots of land. In the 130s and 140s you have this process of dispossession, where the poorer Romans are being bought out and are no longer small citizen owners. They’re going to be tenant owners or sharecroppers and it has a really corrosive effect on the traditional ways of economic life and political life. As a result, you see this skyrocketing economic inequality…

Q: Do you see parallels between land ownership in Rome and in the modern United States?

A: In the Roman experience, this is the beginning of a 100-year-long process of Italy going from being a patchwork of smaller farms with some large estates to nothing but sprawling, commercially-oriented estates. And yes, the United States is continuing to go through a very similar process. At the founding of our republic, everybody’s a farmer, and now everything is owned by what, Monsanto?

Moving beyond just strictly agricultural companies, large American corporations are now employing more and more people. There seems to be this move away from people owning and operating their own establishments, and they’re instead being consumed by large entities. You’re talking about the Amazons of the world swallowing up so much of the market share, it just doesn’t pay to be a clerk in a bookstore or own a bookstore, you end up being a guy working in a warehouse, and it’s not as good of a job.

Before the Fall of the Roman Republic, Income Inequality and Xenophobia Threatened Its Foundations (Smithsonian)

I’ve mentioned previously previously about the role that the transformation of land and labor into commodities which could be bought and sold was critical to the establishment of capitalist market economies (along with the extensive monetization of the economy by the state).

Prior to the market economy, most land was distributed by feudal relations and not simply something to be bought and sold like a waistcoat or a side of beef. Land ownership and tenure was something that was critical to the social fabric. In England (as in much of Western Europe), much of the country’s land was held by the Catholic Church. When Hnery VIII broke with the Catholic Church, he seized monastic lands, and eventually sold them off. This created a market for land that had not existed before, and which was unique to Britain. This may have been the key even in turning land into a marketable commodity, which was key in the development of market capitalism. As Polanyi put it:

Production is interaction of man and nature; if this process is to be organized through a self-regulating mechanism of barter and exchange, then man and nature must be brought into its orbit; they must be subject to supply and demand, that is, be dealt with as commodities, as goods produced for sale.

Such precisely was the arrangement under a market system. Man under the name of labor, nature under the name of land, were made available for sale; the use of labor power could be universally bought and sold at a price called wages, and the use of land could be negotiated for a price called rent. There was a market in labor as well as in land, and supply and demand in either was regulated by the height of wages and rents, respectively; the fiction that labor and land were produced for sale was consistently upheld. Capital invested in the various combinations of labor and land could thus flow from one branch of production to another, as was required for an automatic levelling of earnings in the various branches.

Previous scholarship has argued that the demographic disaster after the Black Death caused a shortage of labor and led to the demise of the feudal system. Flight into cities would also have contributed to wage labor taking the place of status relations as the main form of contract. This, combined with the establishment of a market for land, may have both been the causes of the transformation of labor and land into saleable commodities, which was a necessary step toward the market economy. This paper argues that places where land was heavily commoditized after the dissolution of the monasteries correlate with places where the Industrial Revolution first took off. To my knowledge, this historical connection was never explored by Polanyi himself, but it does provide an interesting addendum to his argument that universal markets are created by top-down state power and authority. Fascinating stuff:

In 1534, Henry VIII decided to break with the Catholic Church. In addition to severing ties with Rome, Henry appropriated all taxes that monasteries, churches and other religious institutions paid to the Pope. When his financing needs – due to wars in France – became too great, he expropriated all monasteries in England, which collectively held about one third of all land in the country (Youings 1967). When the management of these vast properties turned out to outstrip the bureaucratic capacity of his government, Henry sold all monastic assets in England. The main effect of this dumping of land was the creation of local land markets. Where lands were before held in long leases whose rates were set by medieval custom, lands now changed hands frequently and at market rates. In a few years between 1535 and 1542, the majority of monastic land was sold. Since monastic holdings were often ancient and were spread out unevenly throughout England, villages were differentially impacted by this shock. Some villages had no monastic assets in them (monasteries often owned land far away from their physical buildings) whereas in others, a local – or distant – monastery may have held large tracts of land. We hypothesise that the creation of a land market can be linked to local differences in subsequent development and, ultimately, industrialisation.

The origins of the Industrial Revolution (VoxEU)

It’s notable that this event did not take place in France, or anywhere else in Western Europe! Is this why France lagged in the race to industry? The lands of the Church were, in fact, eventually seized and sold off, as in England. But this took place only in the aftermath of the French Revolution centuries later.

And where it did take place, it seems it had a similar effect as in England centuries earlier: higher agricutureal productivity and more industrial output:

The law passed by the French Constituent Assembly on 2 November 1789 confiscated all Church property and redistributed it by auction. Over the next five years, more than 700,000 ecclesiastical properties – about 6.5% of French territory – were sold…We find that in regions where more church land was auctioned off, land inequality was higher in the 19th century. Further, we show that this wealth imbalance was associated with higher levels of agricultural productivity and agricultural investments by the mid-19th century. Specifically, a district with 10% more Church land redistributed had 25% higher productivity in wheat production, about 1.6 more pipe manufacturers (used for drainage and irrigation projects), and about 3.8% less land left fallow. Our study also shows that the beneficial effects of revolutionary land redistribution on agricultural productivity gradually declined over the course of the 19th century. This result is consistent with other districts gradually overcoming the transaction costs associated with reallocating the property rights that came with the feudal system.

Economic consequences of revolutions: Evidence from the 1789 French Revolution (VoxEU)

And this article wonders whether Rome could have had an industrial revolution:

Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution? (Medium)

And finally, the scars of destroying people’s way of life continue to linger hundreds of years later, down to the present day!

People living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions such as anxiety and depressive moods, more impulsive and more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation, according to a new study of almost 400,000 personality tests.

The findings show that, generations after the white heat of Industrial Revolution and decades on from the decline of deep coal mining, the populations of areas where coal-based industries dominated in the 19th century retain a “psychological adversity”.

Researchers suggest this is the inherited product of selective migrations during mass industrialisation compounded by the social effects of severe work and living conditions.

Industrial Revolution left a damaging psychological ‘imprint’ on today’s populations (

And entire populations continue to be destroyed under capitalism…