End of Slavery
End of Slavery: Technologies of Freedom. This essay explores the possibility of a Social Contract attuned to the technologies of the Information Society as a central tool in the abolition of contemporary slavery.
Two hundred and one years have passed since the trade in slaves was abolished in the British Empire with those dealing in slaves subjected to a fine of one hundred pounds (Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1807). Sixty years ago this December the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations expressed in plain words the fundamental and inalienable rights held by every human being around the planet; universal in each nation and in each culture it made freedom from slavery a fundamental human right. Three years ago at the 2005 World Summit the Assembly introduced a new concept of a moral imperative (known as the Responsibility to Protect) for countries to protect their own people from exploitation, and to help those in need in fellow countries (United Nations General Assembly, 2005).
These events in history pretend to show a lineage in time of extending freedoms, with the sovereign states consenting to protect the freedoms of every man, woman and child. But perhaps these are just words substituting for realities, empty declarations with little meaning if one looks at the statistics of contemporary slavery.
Forced labor and unfree labor together with slavery are the words one will find in many reports concerning work and labor around the world. Even though constituting a smaller percentage of the overall population of the planet, the total number of people in slavery today may be at least as large as it was in the heyday of slavery over two hundred years ago. According to global research there are at least 12.3 million people in forced labor (International Labor Office, 2005, p. 17). An expert on forced labor Steven Bales gives a larger number, estimating there are 27 million in forced labor around the world (Bales, 2004, p. 8), 15 million of them children (Bales, 2004, p. 237) yet marking these are conservative figures. There are other estimates show numbers which are even larger but sometimes also take into account aside from forced labor the collateral damage of extreme economic situations such as extreme poverty, war and hunger (Anti-Slavery Project, 2007). There remains little doubt that by any estimate and however strictly defined, slavery is a contemporary problem.
Consequently, it would be profitable for many to look at how this suffering could be ended.
Not a new idea, the philosophy of a Social Contract is not only the basis for government as defined by the Princeton University Dictionary – “an implicit agreement among people that results in the organization of society; individual surrenders liberty in return for protection” – but also a basis for democracy, constitution, and the acceptance and respect for others. Just as in the seventeenth century at the time of Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes, the intellectual fathers of the social contract, slavery, in its roots is a problem of the lack of respect for the rights of others.
Of all the victims of slavery, today children are the part of most concern, as they are currently the part of demographics most susceptible to psychological and physical terror from forced labor. One must consider that children who remain captive in places which have little or no access to education, media, the Internet or any other type of information modern man takes for granted, remain ignorant of the fruits of culture, science, arts, and etcetera. If these children are subjected to violence and are not allowed to leave their workplace, and are deprived of meals, or fed only enough to keep them alive, one must also consider the profound physiological effects in addition to the psychological damage. Perhaps most descriptive thought is the thought that if these children spend all their day working, they have no opportunity to play as children. Thus, if the reasoning in the preceding paragraph is fair, the obvious conclusions drawn must be that the abolition of slavery and the building of freedom can only begin with inspiring respect for others in children; that is to say the greatest tool of freedom and the Social Contract is education.
Often the inferiority complex caused by systematic debasement and belittlement of the human nature as a slave can be enough to keep the slave in harness – it may create a certain mentality of hopelessness and submission. But if children understand they have certain inalienable rights, they can have the will and opportunity to stand up for themselves. In other words, belief in freedom is the beginning of creativity and vision – it is in the root of motivation and the possibility of self-fulfillment. Children who have an understanding that they can do better than their parents believe change is possible in the duration of their own lives and themselves become more easily the agents of change; but to engender this spirit of freedom, there must be trust in the society.
As adults such children will have more confidence and a sense of respect towards their environment and fellow man; they will not silently accept forced labor as a necessity of the economy. The belief in progress and a positive look towards the future are the values in the belief in freedom and encourage children to develop the courage to work for their own goals and dreams. Unlike those who fall in submission to forced underage unskilled labor, children with a belief in freedom will have a real chance to contribute to their own live and to the society.
Concerning adults and the phenomenon of public acceptance of forced labor, it must be said that no exploitation of the gravity and magnitude of slavery can be viable without public support. Whether in the form of a silent and passive non-participatory support because of lack of caring, or by the action of doing nothing to protect the children because of fear repercussions from the perpetrators of the crime – there must be public will. The question raised here is the following: what is the rationale for supporting slavery? Does one hold an illusion that forced labor is a reality that has to be accepted for some or other reasons that override common morality? Or as the English poet William Cowper living on eighteenth century Madeira put it
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
for how could we do without sugar and rum?
Perhaps as in history two hundred years ago, these six and seven year olds can be enslaved and exploited because the public at large looks away from the actions of perpetrators. In poor areas selling children to forced labor may be seen as an unfortunate economic necessity; even if regarded as an ugly and perhaps undesirable problem, one may convince oneself it is a necessary evil resulting from one’s regrettable situation. Again it is the way of thinking without respect for the wellbeing of others that encourages one to forget one’s humanity and believe this is the only way to make ends meet.
While it may be argued that is natural that many people would have their own interests before those of the other, and that this can lead to the acceptance of forced labor as a necessity in certain situations, freedom is still considered by many people a commodity to be held in high regard – something desirable for all people of every age, sex, religion, race, nationality, ethnicity or other group affiliation or categorization. Moreover, non-democratic states, criminals, and those who do not respect the laws agreed upon by the society, are in general looked down upon. States are not pleased if organizations such as Human Rights Watch release a negative review of the country’s situation and by that smudge its human rights record. It is part of each state’s illusion of the self that they are just and good; and such an illusion must be retained.
In other words, few totalitarian governments see themselves as aggressors and criminals but rather their self image is that of the guardian of some ideology or fighter for some ideal. Even if this ideology is cynical and perhaps based purely on economic self interest, it would be difficult psychologically for one to live with oneself without justifying one’s actions trough a narrative where one is on the side of the just and good. Just as the child who must break free from the mentality of enslavement, so must the state break free from the ideologies of cynicism, hypocrisy and deceit and accept a positive view of freedom and cooperation of the society.
The belief in freedom is most prominent in societies where individuals feel responsible for their actions. Accountability and respect for fellow citizens are important in any civilized and safe community but safe communities cannot be created where the lack of education, unemployment and poverty threaten the rights of the people. Rights cannot exist without rules – agreed upon by the society and written down in laws that specify what is allowed and what is not allowed, or as put by David Hume, “liberty is the perfection of civil society; but still authority must be acknowledged to its very existence” (Hume, 1854, p. 38). Thus freedom has a fundamental role in society; it is in many a sense the basis for the existence of law, because freedom always involves choice.
The fundamental idea of an agreement between people, the Social Contract where each carries the responsibility for respect and the government creates social order or as articulated by Rousseau “a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force of the person and the good of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before” (Rousseau, 2003, p. 9) is the foundation in the protection of freedom and abolition of slavery. That is to say the creation of a social contract is in the interest of each and every one; the personal freedom achievable for any person by agreeing to be part of society is greater than that possible by refraining from the society. If one would refrain from the social contract, one would only achieve the freedoms one would be capable of attaining by force or cunning. In that sense, when one accepts the society and upholds the responsibilities of a social contract, the state becomes the arbiter for disharmonies that arise in the society. And thus modern man is incapable of existing without depending on the state to protect one’s rights. The state constitutes a framework in which maximum freedom is created for the maximum number of people. Therefore it is the weakening of the social contract that creates slavery and unfreedom. Where one disregards one’s responsibilities towards the state, one undermines one’s own safety.
In modern societies that are increasingly interconnected and globalized every person is more connected to everyone else than ever before. One can see on television how the children in the slums of Brazil prefer buying access to a computer to spending the same money on food. Social networking sites are connecting people in ways not imaginable before the rise of the Internet. The current population social networks numbers in hundreds of millions, the largest would be the eleventh country in size (Zuckerberg, 2008).
Because of the profound importance of the Internet in the contemporary world one must consider its impact on freedom. Both the United Nations and the European Union have pressed for the right to Internet to become a human right. The 2005 UNESCO conference on Internet, Human Rights and Culture made recommendations and released a position paper on making Internet access a human right (UNESCO, 2005). The European Union has protected European citizens in individual cases from the removal of Internet access stating that “the Internet is a vast platform for cultural expression, access to knowledge, and democratic participation in European creativity, bringing generations together through the information society” (European Parliament, 2008) and calls on the Member States “to avoid adopting measures conflicting with civil liberties and human rights and with the principles of proportionality, effectiveness and dissuasiveness, such as the interruption of Internet access” (European Parliament, 2008). Thus while Internet access has so far not been enshrined in law or in an updated declaration of human rights, there is widespread recognition in the International community of the profound importance of the Internet in the protection freedom.
Consequently, the way out of enslavement is trust and technology. Two hundred years ago Europeans enslaved many thousands in pursuit of profit; today forced labor and slavery are largely pushed out of Europe. But slaves still number in millions in other parts of the world and Europeans would be hard pressed to argue they have no part in this – one can see the suffering on the television screens in one’s living room, on screens of one’s computer and mobile phone. History does not give the ones with power the license to go through with any sort of atrocities because in the past worse has already been done. Trough the power of communication technology, the Internet and the Media, it is no longer so hard to explain why people should be granted freedom; the former narratives that allowed for slavery such as national or racial supremacy are being broken down. Technology is the source freedom and democratic power. The ideas of the Social Contract today have stronger platform on the Internet than ever before, transcending political divisions and embracing the whole of humanity in all of its diversity.
Anti-Slavery Project. (2007). Global Estimates of Slavery. Sidney: University of Technology Sydney.
Bales, K. (2004). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
European Parliament. (2008, October 04). Cultural industries in Europe. Retrieved December 27, 2008, from European Parliament: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/oeil/file.jsp?id=5498632
Hume, D. (1854). The Philosophical Works of David Hume. London: Little & Brown.
International Labor Office. (2005). A Global Alliance. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
Parliament of the United Kingdom. (1807). An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. London: Georg Eyre & Andrew Strahan.
Rousseau, J.-J. (2003). On the Social Contract. New York City: Courier Dover Publications.
Zuckerberg, M. (2008, August 26). Our First 100 Million. Retrieved December 25, 2008, from Facebook: http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=28111272130
UNESCO. (2005). Conference on Internet, Human Rights and Culture. Recommendations (p. 2). Oegstgeest: UNESCO.
United Nations General Assembly. (2005). 2005 World Summit Outcome. 2005 World Summit Outcome (p. 31). New York City: United Nations.∎ Back to Index