Slavery, A Special Case Of Patronage

We have been accustomed to think of slavery as a unique and special institution, quite distinct from free labour. The moment that clientship to a patron is recognised as a human universal, however, we may begin to wonder whether what we call slavery is not better described as a special case.

We all know that “robot” comes, via Karel Capek’s pioneering novel of manufactured androids, from the Slavic roboti, workers. I was startled to discover, however, the old Russian word rab meant slave. So which, I wondered, was the basic meaning? Perhaps it is the same in all languages: workers are slaves to whom one has had to make concessions.

In any large and complicated civilisation, the great majority of the population are going to be some kind of bondsman, the only questions are what kind and on what terms. The devil, as always, is in the details. What is not in the least helpful to our understanding of this truth are the wildly different terminologies applied to this phenomenon for different times and places – just as for patronage, but even worse. Sometimes it even depended on skin colour: Africans were “slaves” while Moll Flanders was bought and sold as a “servant”. Some have endeavoured to combat this fragmentation by coinage of such terms as “wage-slave” to use on people who imagine themselves free men. Perhaps we should instead invent a new, neutral, hitherto unused word, devoid of any connotations, to denote the situation when one man has rights of property in another man’s person, his labour or his actions. Rather than regarding chattel slavery, clientship, domestic slavery, homage, indenture, mortgage, peonage, corvée, serfdom, sharecropping, tenancy, vassalage and salaried employment as 13 different things, therefore, we should regard them as 13 points on a spectrum; the basic principle, that one man has a right to control the behaviour of another, can be taken for granted as a human universal, giving us only two words, one for either side of the relationship.

We might then use various sets of adjectives to indicate what the party of the second part is obliged to give the party of the first part and what he is entitled to receive in return; how the party of the first part may dispose of the kinsfolk and assets left behind by a decedent party of the second part; how the relationship is entered into and terminated; whether and in what circumstances the party of the first part is entitled to buy, sell, fuck, castrate, chastise and execute the party of the second part; and what, if any, dispute resolution procedure is to apply. Such an approach would unify things formerly held to be disparate, such as for instance the Old Testament’s regulation of sex with war captives and the provisions of the shari’a regarding concubinage, on the one hand, and the modern American law of sexual harassment at work on the other.

I am given to understand that West African slavery was a form of debt-servitude in which it never occurred to anyone to treat the slaves as they were treated after they had been sold to the white man.

Posted on May 10, 2012 at 10:34 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Universal Template

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