Slavery seems to have become a hot topic recently. A lot of Americans seem to be deeply ashamed to discover that it was practised in much of the United States until about 1865.
Why the belated shame? Why now? Are Italians ashamed of the Roman empire, in which slavery was also practised? Or Greeks ashamed of the practice in Athens? They don’t seem to be. In fact they seem to be proud of the Colosseum and the Parthenon and Plato and Aristotle and Virgil and Cicero.
Yet slavery lasted far longer in Greece and Rome than it did in the Americas.
Perhaps the answer is that Greeks and Romans couldn’t be expected to know any better, while civilised and cultured Christian Englishmen were expected to know that it was wrong to force people to work for them, and they should never have done it. And that’s why the statue of the slaveowning Edward Colston was recently torn down and thrown in Bristol’s river Avon, in an extraordinary wave of public guilt, 200 years after it had been erected,
But I think that, but for the fact that we now have numerous engines to do the hard work of lifting and transporting all the materials we use, we would still have slavery in Britain. It’s thanks to Rolls Royce and engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel that we have iron ships and bridges and trains and cars and planes. But for them we’d still be working as hard as the Greeks and Romans. and most of us would be slaves. What else could happen when everybody has to work from dawn to dusk every day? Isn’t it inevitable that in that circumstance very few people would be free to do as they please? We should be thanking our lucky stars that we have this freedom, not suffering from guilt that our forebears never saw it.
People must work to survive, and this work occupies some fraction of their lives. If they need to work for 95% of their days, then either everybody must work 95% of the time, or 95% of them must work all the time. The former is a condition of perfect equity, and the latter is one of extreme inequity, in which some are slaves and others are free.
Why is it that it is this latter circumstance of inequity that has been the norm throughout recorded history?
One possible explanation: in equitable societies in which all work is shared equally, nobody has any incentive to find quicker ways to do the necessary work, because they will always end up working just as hard as everyone else. It is only in inequitable societies that anyone can become richer (or freer) than anyone else. And so innovation and invention will happen faster in inequitable societies than in equitable societies. And there will be a tendency for equitable societies to be static societies whose condition never improves.
A variant of this explanation is that if there is a division of labour, in which different people do different work, then those people who perform one task = e.g. of pottery or carpentry – will always become more skilled in that task than those people who perform multiple tasks, and these skilled workers will complete their tasks more rapidly than the unskilled.
In addition, the unskilled will always want to learn for themselves these various skills, and so skilled workers will become teachers of unskilled students, and there will arise an instructive hierarchy of masters and pupils. And this hierarchy will bring with it another kind of inequity.
In this manner inequity will gradually increase until the extreme is reached with society composed of masters (teachers) of various ranks and slaves (pupils).
And this has happened throughout history everywhere. It’s why there armies with generals at the top, and private soldiers at the bottom, and a hierarchy of ranks in between. It’s why there are chief executives at the top of companies, and unskilled workers at the bottom. And it’s why there popes at the top of religions, and all manner of vicars and priests above the ordinary laity at the bottom.
But this hierarchical society can only endure if there is always the possibility of promotion within its ranks. If slaves and their children are to remain slaves all their lives, and aristocracies become heredity, with power retained in families, automatically passed from fathers to sons, regardless of their competence, then incompetence will gradually prevail at every level of society, and life will get harder for everyone, and it will likely end with a revolt in which the entire system is dissolved and replaced with a new one.
And this is what happened in the United States, where slaves remained slaves all their lives, with little or no hope of promotion into the ranks of the slave-owning aristocracy whose families ruled America.
The American Civil War was in many ways a repetition of the Revolutionary War of independence from British rule, by Americans who had no way of being promoted into the ranks of the hereditary British aristocracy. In the intervening century there had emerged a new and very rich American hereditary aristocracy, and a permanent underclass beneath it with slaves at the very bottom. It was now the turn of this underclass to revolt against this new aristocracy, just as that aristocracy had once revolted against British rule.
And perhaps now history is once again repeating itself, with a new super-rich aristocracy (“the 1 %”) presiding over a large and growing subclass of people with little or no prospect of promotion in a society in which their are few jobs in which to find such promotion. And there are few jobs because innovation and industrialisation has removed the jobs. So new pressures have begun to build up. The new underclass may not consist of slaves, but they are no more able to improve their lot than slaves once were.
If slavery has become topical, it is perhaps because extreme inequity has again appeared, and historical slavery (and sexism and racism and homophobia) acts as a proxy for this new inequity, which has yet to acquire its own name, and so uses another. Instead of a society in which 95% of people need to work, there is one in which only 5% need to work, and in its own way this is as inequitable as what came before.