Thursday, November 26, 2009

Disposable People, Slavery in Contemporary Brazil

For those of you have have not read Kevin Bales's book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, you have truly missed out on a fantastic read. Through impressive research, Bales uncovers the processes by which slavery covertly flourishes across the globe, with chapters focusing on exploitative practices in Pakistan, India, Thailand, and Mauritania.

Due to (1) the world's massive population increase since World War II, (2) the ability of capitalists to forge covert, corrupt relationships with governmental and law enforcement agencies, and (3) systemic tactics involving trickery and violence, slavery now flourishes without reaching the public's consciousness.

Additionally, Bales contends that with some exceptions, slavery's practices have shifted significantly in contemporary society. Old Slavery was characterized by the following characteristics:
  • legal ownership asserted
  • high purchase cost of slaves
  • low profits
  • shortage of potential slaves
  • long-term relationship between slaves (including their families) and slave masters
  • slaves "maintained" to work over the life-course
  • race differences important
In contrast, Bales illustrates how slavery in today's global economy generally holds stark differences:
  • legal ownership avoided
  • low purchase cost of slaves
  • high profits
  • surplus of potential slaves
  • short-term relationship between individual slaves and capitalists
  • slaves disposable
  • race differences less important
Bales's final point, above, suggests that the racial differences, which were crucial in old slavery systems, have now dwindled in significance. Some scholarship mildly challenges this contention, pointing out there are still numerous cases today where racialized and gendered identities influence what groups of people are targeted as disposable peoples; still, even this scholarship acknowledges that contemporary slavery also frequently involves exploitation within the same racialized group (Lindio-McGovern, 2003).

Of course slavery would not flourish if there was not a massive consumer society demanding the goods slave systems produce, and this is where Bales argues citizens from high-income countries share significant responsibility.

The following two YouTube videos show slavery as it exists in rural areas of Brazil and illustrate many of the points made in Disposable People -- how those in poverty are tricked into slavery, kept enslaved through violence, the corrupt relationships between law enforcement and slavers, and how slave systems contribute to goods purchased in wealthy countries. The videos are good teaching tools to augment this great text.

Another powerful, eye-opening reading on contemporary slavery that also illustrates points made in
Disposable People: The Dark Side of Dubai.

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