Abolitionism: A hostage to capitalist forces?

Modern-day ‘abolitionists’ need to frame labour exploitation so that it fits the narrative of their funding sources.

Although normal people experience genuine moral outrage at the suffering of the exploited workers, their outrage is diverted from sustained political action in favour of those workers, writes Howard [Getty Image]

The contemporary rise in “modern-day abolitionism” may be understood as a political-psychological response to the unmasking of capitalism’s fictions in the context of capitalist crisis. Powerfully-placed business and business-related interests work to divert public attention away from capitalism’s failings by focussing that attention instead on the much less systemically challenging “moral outrage” of individual criminal slavers, human traffickers or forced labourers. They do this by controlling the public representation of everyday capitalist labour exploitation as something outside of the capitalist system – as forced labour, slavery or trafficking.

This dovetails effectively and a-politically with the basic emotive response of ordinary people towards severe labour exploitation. Although they experience genuine moral outrage at the suffering of exploited workers, most people’s outrage is diverted away from sustained political action in favour of those workers, and toward the futile, feel-good consumer abolitionist responses that represent an accommodation both to the system and to the lifestyle it affords. This offers psychological succour to the concerned consumer-citizen, but it does so at the expense of meaningful political mobilisation. This is precisely what those controlling the system require to perpetuate their injustices.

Devastating Strategy

For the past nine years, I have worked and researched with the international agencies, government departments, NGOs and charities that can be described as the “modern abolitionist field”. These agencies are full of good, well-meaning people who genuinely wish to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable and exploited workers. Yet in my assessment, although they can do much good, their ability to effect real change is severely circumscribed by the funding they receive and the rules attaching to it.

As I have argued. it is a threat to the moral legitimacy of the capitalist system to have exposed the fact that it incorporates brutal labour exploitation and offers many people life choices so poor that they must choose that exploitation for want of a better alternative. The system’s first response consists in a devastatingly simple strategy – to pretend, by representing that labour exploitation as outside of capitalism, and those choices as non-choices.

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Well, it is not mere speculation to suggest that this pretence constitutes a genuine hegemonic response. My data show that abolitionists are both actively and passively constrained by those who pull their purse-strings to engage in precisely that pretending. They are either explicitly required by their superiors to massage the truth such that it fits the contours of the required representation, or the requirement-to-pretend has been so internalised that they police themselves into doing so.

When faced with data clearly demonstrating that Beninese teenagers widely reported as “trafficked” were in fact consenting labour migrants encouraged to move for work illegally because US cotton subsidies had destroyed the livelihoods they could otherwise have earned at home, one senior abolitionist bluntly told me: “No way could I mention this! We’re constrained by US interests and that means we’re restricted to corridor discussions…”

A further added simply: “The trouble is, stories about poor kids migrating because of political-economic injustice simply don’t sell. It’s suffering that sells. You have to be sexy to raise money, and trafficking is sexy.”

This should not be read as implying that the abolitionist field is one of corruption; rather, it demonstrates that the rules which govern it maintain formal discussion of the structural, capitalist forces which create poverty and exploitation entirely off limits. Abolitionist agencies must therefore eschew the messy reality that under capitalism the vulnerable sometimes have to accept that exploitation for want of better alternatives, and instead they must promote simplistic stories of enslaved, trafficked or forced innocents whose experiences lie outside of capitalism, because that is what fits the narrative according to which their funding is secured.

This, of course, has huge consequences for abolitionist projects and policy. Many abolitionists ultimately find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. If they tell the truth about capitalism and thus mobilise around creating a genuine political-economic alternative to it, they risk losing the funding which enables them to do anything at all, jeopardising both the small-scale worker protection projects they already run and their very own livelihoods. As one colleague explained to me: “We have to be careful of scaring the donors, because if we don’t have money then we can’t do anything at all.”

Although outrageous, this should be understood as entirely normal in a context where those who pay the piper and call his tune are precisely those who run the part-privatised, neoliberal, capital-subservient states or mega-corporations quixotically donating to the “good causes” that they themselves have created. For these figures, politics and structural change are exactly what must be avoided – and thus their answer lies in paying to promote the protection of workers from within the capitalist system, through “business self-regulation”, targeted policing or the promotion of “fair trade”.

Concerned consumer-citizen response

And it is here that these “acceptable” forms of a-political abolitionism dovetail so effectively with grass-roots moral outrage at the existence of the severe labour exploitation that embodies capitalism’s failings. There is no doubt that people across the globe are genuinely angered that so many of their fellow humans live in squalor, have to accept awful working conditions, and are exploited horribly in the pursuit of their survival for another’s profit. The outpouring of feeling after the Rana Plaza disaster, the steady rise in donations to abolitionist organisations, and the increasing popularity of “fair” and “ethical” trade all show this clearly to be the case.

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Yet the opportunity for angry citizens to channel their outrage into structured demands for real reform are largely unavailable, because what abolitionist and related agencies have to “sell” them are precisely those diffuse, individualising, consumerist strategies that actually do most to buttress the system itself.

As such, instead of organising mass marches or political campaigns calling for an alternative to capitalism, “Free the Slaves” encourages concerned consumer-citizens to “give the gift of freedom” by “buying a slave from bondage”. Likewise, fair trade cocoa or coffee tells consumers that with every purchase made, they are “saving the world’, even as the profits from their purchase go predominantly to the multinationals whose behaviour is at the root of the labour exploitation which engenders fair trade campaigns in the first place.

This corporatised co-optation of dissent thus channels legitimate moral outrage at capitalism’s failings away from any collective, politicised resistance to them. In our hyper-consumerist world, it sees consumer-citizens told that they can buy their way to a better future, and that it is their individual responsibility to do so. The result is as tragic as it is ironic, for just as abolitionist organisations find themselves caught in their honey-trap Catch-22, so ordinary people now know that they must do something, even as the something that is available to them is little more than futile.

Under these circumstances, the rise of a political, consumer-centred, modern-day abolitionism can be understood as a perfect hegemonic coup by the forces of the established order. They offer us all the chance of individual and collective pyschological redemption, while preventing any political alternative from being born of our rage.

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