The cheap grace of condemning slavery

The cheap grace of condemning slavery

There is a long history of arguing that, in fact, no one can be entitled to our labor, and that to sell our labor is as morally wrong as slavery. I suspect this goes too far, and that the closest we can get to a short definition of slavery is labor without rights. There is a whiff of circularity about this since “right” is simply a claim one can make in justice, but this is perhaps being too picky. If there is some laborer who has no legal claim at all on the one demanding his labor, then he is certainly a slave. That said, to abolish slavery in this sense is, almost by definition, to open the discussion of just what rights labor does have. Assume that slave-owning Southern Christians were horrified by the fact that breaking up slave families cheapened marriage and so gave the slaves legal rights to keep their families together while leaving everything else unchanged. Great. They are now no longer slaves in the sense of persons lacking any rights at all. Slavery has ended! To be sure, we could congratulate ourselves at ending slavery in this sense (our hypothetical slaveowners would have too), but it is clearly the opening move in a much larger discussion about justice for laborers which, sadly, we don’t seem to care about as long as the laborers aren’t called “slaves”. We then fall into discussions about justice that are really just verbal, and can be won by anyone who manages to avoid taboo words or give his slaves new names like delinquent creditors, team members, members of the global economy, or adjuncts.

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