Guest post by Ilse van Liempt, Assistant Professor at the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her research is centred around irregular migration, smuggling, trafficking, refugee migration and qualitative research methods.

Review of Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom by Julia O’Connell Davidson (Palgrave, 2015)

Julia O’Connell Davidson is a leading expert in the field of trafficking. Her earlier work, and especially her article Will the real sex slave please stand up? has made a tremendous impact on the way we think and talk about trafficking. Her latest book Modern Slavery looks set to be as influential in its critique of the new abolitionist reading of ‘modern slavery’. The aim of the book is to lay bare and critique political and moral assumptions and value judgements that underpin the claims of new abolitionists and to debunk the discourse of modern slavery as applied to contemporary forms of exploitation, violence and subordination. Since 2000 no fewer than thirty anti-slavery books and a profusion of research articles have been published. The new abolitionist movement has remarkable broad appeal, it involves religious leaders from across faiths, trade unionists, big businesses such as Coca Cola and Microsoft but also famous actors and pop stars contributing to what Haynes calls the ‘celebrification of human trafficking’. Julia O’Connell Davidson in her book shows that all the anti-slavery NGOs that sprang up in the Global North from 2000 have been, and still are, very careless in their talk of modern slavery and how they use the term.

First of all, the term modern slavery experienced what Chuang has called ‘domain expansion.’ It now embraces a large and disparate collection of global social problems and right violations. Phenomena that are discussed under its umbrella are for example forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, inter-country adoption and fostering, organ trade, child soldiers as well as prostitution. Secondly, the term is also highly emotive and gives great rhetoric purchase in debates. Thirdly, because is it so emotive it encourages policies to look at it in isolation from other political and economic structures and inequalities in which they are embedded. As such it tends to locate the problem in individual morality and/or traditional cultures. Fourthly, by treating it as a moral issue it shuts down policymakers because who can be against fighting slave trade? Moreover, much of the data produced by the new abolitionists does not stand up to academic scrutiny. Claims like ‘there are more slaves today than at many times in history’ (see for example Skinner’ book A crime so monstrous: Face to face with modern day slavery) are misleading and meaningless when the term is not clearly defined.

The book draws on two sets of literature, first the rich literature on transatlantic slavery (including the writings of freed and fugitive slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries), on the original abolitionist movement, and on slave emancipation and its aftermath, from a range of disciplines including philosophy, political theory, English literature, law, anthropology, sociology and cultural studies as well as history. This literature complicates and challenges virtually all ideas and beliefs about slavery that are taken for granted in contemporary liberal societies. Second, the book draws on the substantial and growing body of ethnographic and interview research that illuminates the complexity and variability of phenomenon that are dubbed ‘modern slavery’ by new abolitionists. By bringing these sets of literature into dialogue with each other the book calls for more serious political debate and analysis of the systems of domination that restrict rights and freedoms in the contemporary world. The book is not about how to end slavery. It rather poses the following questions: Who sees modern slavery and what exactly do they see when they use this term? What leads to identify some, but not other forms of injustice, violence and exploitation as slavery? And how are these visions framed?

Provocative questions are also asked around current initiatives to end slavery and the mobilization of the idea of modern slavery. Whose interests are served by the new abolitionist campaigns? Davidson convincingly argues that current political interest in slavery can be traced back to threats around transnational organized crime and concerns around controlling immigration. She further claims that abolitionist movements do not offer solutions as they don’t offer rights but instead provide ideological support for policies that protect interests of powerful global elites not those at the end of neoliberal economic reform.

Anti-trafficking organizations focus on ‘rescuing’ victims (see Augustin for more on this) and are very active in promoting the notion that trafficking is a growing problem and the modern equivalent of the transatlantic slave trade. They have clearly set the agenda for talk of ‘slavery’ as a contemporary global problem.  But this book shows that if the past is to teach us anything that might help us to address the inequalities and injustices of our own times we need something more than the rescuing story of liberal society reproduced by the new abolitionists (as well as in liberal popular culture). Julia O’Connell Davidson’s reflections on what freedom is are fundamental to understanding this issue.

Freedom is a concept just as elusive as slavery. Though widely represented in liberal societies as the absence of controls and restraints a vision implicitly reproduced in the new abolitionist emphasis on the inability to walk away as the defining feature of slavery. But to imagine freedom as negatively constituted by release from physical bondage reflects a very narrow and particular vision of human sociality. Identifying all laborers who are constrained in freedom as victims/slaves has the danger that it deflects attention from the means by which (some) workers managed to change the nature and degree of restraints on their freedom. The discourse of modern slavery mistakes freedom for a thing that can be stolen or gifted or possessed rather than a relational practice or a collective endeavor. Taking slavery as a comparative for the experience of migrant workers, no matter how abused and exploited, deflects attention from the active desire for movement and for work and so from the structural factors that make individuals vulnerable both as migrants and as workers.

This book is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the complex discursive histories of the anti-trafficking movement, and it will be of great interest to the readers of Border Criminologies.

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