Most Americans are shocked to discover that slavery still exists in the United States. And yet, without knowing it, most of us buy goods made by people who aren’t paid for their labor–people who are trapped financially, and often physically.
When I first learned that slavery was still happening in modern America, I thought it seemed important and interesting, but I never thought it would be anything more than a magazine article. The more I learned about it, however, the more I realized what a deeply scary phenomenon it was that slavery was still happening in the land of the free. What I realized is that I wasn’t just looking at the abuse of a few hundred or thousand poor foreigners in the US: I was staring at an issue that has everything to do with you and me and everyone else in our wonderful, globalizing world.
In Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, I write about three cases of modern slavery: one in Florida, another in Tulsa, and a third in the US Commonwealth island of Saipan, a few hours south of Japan. One thing I learned from these cases was how easy slavery is. Slavery seldom looks like slavery. Most of the people I wrote about who were benefiting from slave or abused labor felt that they were doing something positive! Another thing I learned is how un-exotic, how predictable slavery is. It’s not an accident, a freak phenomenon from the past, back when people were dumb, un-technological, and generally horrible. It’s a constant, built-in part of the human psyche, like a virus, lurking around, waiting for the conditions to thrive. And once it sets in–again, like a virus –it’s awfully hard to get rid of.
Today’s world, both domestically, in the U.S., and globally, is marked by rapidly increasing inequality. And to me, despite the current, popular rhetoric about free trade, this is troubling. In America, we used to buy from workers who were free–from Americans who could vote for whomever they want, organize, speak out in public, and inform themselves with a free press. Now we buy things (for example) from Chinese workers–who are free in none of the above ways. And this is the miracle of “free trade.” I would argue that not only is this self-serving, delusional, and dishonest, but it’s also stupid, and will come back to haunt us. Because if nothing else, globalization means that what goes around, comes around. In the same way that China’s growing pollution problem is becoming a threat to our environment, China’s low labor standards are a major threat to American’s political freedoms. (Think of Adam Smith in reverse: nations of free people who trade with nations of unfree people will see a decline in their own freedom.)
The way that this is being played out is with the way income is distributed in the United States. In the 1920’s (coincidentally, the last time income inequality between rich and poor was as rampant as it is today in the United States), Justice Louis Brandeis said, “You can either have a great disparity between rich and poor, or you can have democracy. But you can’t have both.” There’s no better way to understand how this works than to observe how modern slavery works.
All my life, I’ve been extremely cynical about and bored by politicians and corporate-types talking about “democracy,” and “freedom.” The words get used so often they seem meaningless. What I found while writing Nobodies is that it only takes one garden-variety slavery case to make these concepts become terrifyingly clear.