On capitalism and coercion

Are trafficking, slavery and forced labour actually necessary for maintaining liberal capitalism?

Some people might willingly enter into forced labour circumstances because of poverty and desperation, argues Howard [Reuters]

Slavery, trafficking and forced labour are crimes which sit at the far end of the labour exploitation spectrum. As Bridget Anderson observes, they are to “badness” what apple pie and motherhood are to “goodness” – that is, just as we all know that apple pie and motherhood are “good”, so everybody knows that these three are “bad”.

And by any measure, they’re getting worse. Barely a day passes without stories of trafficked women here or child slaves there. Governments all over are passing laws, NGO interest is exploding, films such as 12 Years A Slave are mobilising the media, and more people are either being exploited or are in sufficient precarity to be attuned to that exploitation.

Yet there are major problems with this trend. Although exploitation merits our attention, the contemporary focus on its extreme forms obscures far more than it reveals. By concentrating on extremes which are considered to lie outside of the liberal capitalist system, we are in fact led away from a discussion as to how liberal capitalism is itself responsible for these extremes, and for the wider exploitation and dispossession of which they are but the worst manifestations.

In what follows, I wish to make the case, therefore, not only that we must be more critical when thinking of trafficking, slavery and forced labour; but that, conceptually and politically, we would do well to understand these apparently “outside-of-the-system” extremes as systemically necessary to the maintenance of liberal capitalism itself.

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It is the discursive-ideological work that the idea of them does, that sustains both the fictitious binaries and the foundational principle upon which liberal capitalism rests. It is thus precisely due to their contemporary fragility in the context of capitalist crisis that we are currently witnessing such an upsurge in modern-day abolitionism.

Capitalism and contract

There are two core dualisms at the root of liberal capitalist mythology. These are those between consent and coercion, and freedom and force. Each can be understood as deriving from capitalism’s foundational principle – that of private property. For liberal capitalist theory, one’s property represents a sacrosanct extension of oneself, to be disposed of according to personal predilection, and protected as if part of one’s person.

In John Locke’s famous phrase, it is no less than “natural law” that man be entitled to “life, liberty and estate”. One is therefore free to sell one’s “estate”, or indeed to buy from someone else, so long as both parties exchange consensually and without their liberty being infringed upon by force or coercion.

This principle extends also to labour-power, which is viewed under capitalism as a property-like commodity to be bought and sold like any other. In this understanding, provided the worker can freely consent to the sale of his labour-power, without being subject by the capitalist to force or coercion, then nothing untoward is said to have taken place, and the labour-capital exchange can be formalised in contract – precisely as one does, for instance, with the sale of a house.

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It is those practices which do not conform to this model of consensual, contractual exchange that are seen to lie outside the bounds of legitimate, liberal capitalism and which are thus, by definition, illegitimate. In the case of material goods, this includes theft or forceful appropriation, while with labour, it includes “trafficking, “slavery or “forced labour, since each boils definitionally down to the presence or absence of consent or coercion in the exacting of labour by one person from another.

Definitional discontents 

All well and good, you might say. But how can we apply these dualism-respecting criteria to the nuanced and much more messy cases we find in real life? Take, for example, the mother, who is so poor and so lacking in economic opportunities that she has to accept the proposal of the “trafficker” who promises to feed her children if only she’ll commit to a period of sexual servitude. Who is guilty of coercion here? And where is the line between freedom and force?

Or what about the Indian farmer, who is so indebted, as a result of trying to keep his family afloat, that he too agrees to sell himself into slavery-like debt-bondage in order to pay off what he owes? Is his contract illegitimate simply because we find it morally unpleasant, and even though he has offered his consent?

It is crucial to recognise that these are not merely philosophical questions. A wealth of academic research now demonstrates how often people at the margins of the global economy actually choose to submit themselves to such exploitation as the least worst option among their very limited set of alternatives. This includes many of those identified as victims of trafficking, slavery and forced labour, who often submit willingly to their exploitation, rather than being tricked or kidnapped.


The importance of this cannot be underestimated. For it explodes the binaries which structure liberal capitalism’s idealised notion of consensual, contractual exchange, and the moral legitimacy of the ideology of private property that lies beneath it. It is clear that these workers have both consented to their treatment and simultaneously been coerced. Yet their coercion is not of the criminal, contract-violating type, but rather of the “dull” kind pertaining to “economic relations” – that is to say, it is attributable to the private property-protecting legal regime which strips them of any meaningful alternative.

It is thus exactly here that the idea of slavery, trafficking and forced labour does its discursive-ideological work. Recall that these three crimes are understood universally as “bad” and are presented, definitionally, as lying outside of the capitalist system, because they violate the principle of consensual exchange in the sale of labour-power. Well, presenting those cases which embody the breakdown of capitalism’s binaries as actually outside of the capitalist system, draws attention away from the fact that it is the system itself which is broken.

And depicting labour relationships which we find unpleasant as non-consensual, criminally coercive, and in a certain sense other, protects the system from the moral scrutiny that it deserves for creating those relationships, by pushing its legitimacy beyond the threatening reach of question.

It is arguably precisely because we are living through a generational crisis of capitalism, when the system’s contradictions and fictions are more apparent than ever, that we are now witnessing such an explosion of latter-day abolitionism. Although the emperor may not be entirely naked, his clothes are currently very frayed indeed. And, of course, while the inevitable response of his courtiers is to distract attention, that of his more loyal and prudish subjects is to look away.

For as Mark Fisher writes, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” And under those distressing circumstances, it is no less than a psychological self-defence mechanism to confront the locus of its most senseless and brutal failings – the body of the exploited worker who submits to his exploitation – with the cognitive dissonance that is and always has been the mainstay of “sanity”.

Neil Howard is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. His research focuses on labour, migration and trafficking.

Follow him on Twitter: @neilphoward.