In Howard Winant, The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Babylon System: The Continuity of Slavery

Howard Winant

From the very day we left the shores
Of our father's land
We've been trampled on. Oh now,
Now we know everything. We got to rebel.
Somebody got to pay for the work
We've done. Rebel!

--Bob Marley


It's all there in "Babylon System" by Bob Marley. The song condemns the uncompensated labor that was slavery. It demands repayment or reparations. It includes the metaphor of the "winepress" drawn from the Book of Revelations: "We've been trodding on/the winepress much too long," Marley sings. But where the "winepress" in the Bible is place where souls are refined, presumably by the treading of God, in "Babylon System" it is the slaves who both labor and are themselves trampled. It is not God but the system that presses upon them, that oppresses them, squeezing out of them the wine of freedom. They must rebel to regain it: "Got to rebel, got to rebel now," Marley sings. Babylon is a system built upon slavery.

In this paper I examine slavery as a continuing problem. I understand slavery in a broad sense, as the archetype of unfreedom. Although slavery has always existed, predating all other forms of coerced labor, I focus here on modern slavery, the system of Atlantic slavery -- racial slavery -- that came into being with the European conquest of the Americas and the subjugation of Africa.

This is obviously only a very partial treatment of the problem of slavery. Not only was slavery an Atlantic system, but it was and is a worldwide phenomenon. Not only is it ancient, but is is contemporary. Beyond ancient Greece and Rome, Africa and the Middle East, China and India, the Turkic lands and the Balkans, beyond the trans Saharan slave trade (which continued well into the 20th century), enslavement continues today in numerous forms that I don't consider here: traditional chattel slavery in Mauretania and Sudan, sexual slavery and trafficking in women and girls across much of the world, enslavement of child labor and child soldiers in Asia and Africa. No list could ever be complete.

My principal concern here, though, is the legacy and lessons of the Atlantic slave system. This was a system of racial slavery on an enormous scale, perhaps the largest and longest sustained coercive displacement of human beings in history (although one must say "perhaps" because there are a lot of contenders for this title). The paper proceeds as follows: navigating through the main controversies, I define slavery as a paradigmatic combination of exploitation and oppression, the very archetype of human unfreedom. Next I consider the racialization of slavery, a pattern of slavery both characteristic and constitutive of the modern era. I then discuss abolitionism, the pattern of opposition and resistance to slavery. Abolitionism was an extremely broad social movement, a model from which we can still learn.

The paper's attention then turns to the continuity of slavery after the gradual triumph (obviously not total) of abolition across the length of the 19th century. Since I see the legacy of slavery in the ongoing unfreedom that suffuses the entire planet, it is obviously impossible to present a detailed discussion of all these continuities here. I am content to offer two exemplary cases, one transnational and one domestic: The first of these is the global crisis of debt peonage, which I argue amounts to a form of contemporary racial slavery in the sense of exploitation/domination, enforced unfreedom, directed at peoples "of color," that is, the inhabitants of the world's "South." The second case considered here is the prison-industrial complex. In the brief discussion I can manage here I add my voice to the radical criminology tradition going back at least to Rusche and Kirchheimer (1939) and continuing in the work of Christian Parenti (1999), Angela Davis (1998), and many others.

A final comment addresses the the ongoing problem of unfree labor. Here I point out the tenacity of "wage slavery", the disguised but still dominant system of slavery, the "Babylon System."


Slavery is the paradigmatic combination of exploitation and oppression. It is the foundational moment of unfreedom, and thus the reference-point for all freedom struggles, all opposition to greed and cruelty.

Slavery cannot be effectively theorized either as ownership/chattelization of human beings, or as alienation/theft of identity. Much as we tend to think about it as possession of a property interest in another person, slavery cannot be reduced to this concept. From the huge literature on this, I will offer only a few reasons why this is true. First, as even slaveowners know, there is no way completely to control another human being. People determinedly resist full objectification as property; even "contented" slaves do so. Property interests in humans are always more contingent than they are even in animals, not to mention inanimate objects. The mere ability to kill an enslaved person says nothing about one's ability to control her/him, for "free" persons can also be killed. Most centrally, the slaveowner relies on the capability of the slave, her understanding, as well her capacity to labor. Hence the very value of the slave depends on her non-reducibility to a complete object; a part of her identity escapes chattel status (Hegel 1967 [1807]).

Further evidence of this is visible in the coercion that accompanies enslavement: some form of capture of persons is required to set up a slave system, and some form of imprisonment is needed to maintain it. Even if the slave comes to see himself as "naturally" a slave and is loyal and obedient, even if the slave is born into slavery and has never known any other status, even if the slave is "naturally" construed (and "naturally" understands himself) as the property of his master (Aristotle 1959), the coercive component of the system is still not obviated: the slave still must be induced to work, must be restricted to certain activities, etc.

A final note on non-reducibility concerns the commodification, not of the person, but of labor. In The Great Transformation (2001 [1944]), his trenchant analysis of capitalism's origins, Karl Polanyi included labor on a short list of what he called "fictitious commodities": items that could not be included in market exchange because they could not be produced on market demand. This point has relevance beyond chattel slavery; indeed Polanyi intended it to apply most pointedly to what we would now call "free labor" -- that is, "wage slavery." But incidentally it demonstrates the limits of all claimed property rights in other persons, since it is almost always the slave's ability to labor that constitutes her value for the master.

Just as slavery cannot be understood as chattelized humanity, neither can it be grasped as "natal alienation," which is the account that Orlando Patterson (Patterson 1982; see also Patterson 1998), drawing on Max Weber, offered of the phenomenon. The idea that a person can be entirely deprived of her identity and continue to exist in a state of pure alienation -- Patterson's "social death" concept -- runs into some of the same contradictions that overtake the chattel concept. Total alienation entails total inertness, rendering the slave useless. In order to function as a slave and thus to have value for the master, the slave's alienation cannot be more than partial. The various rituals Patterson details -- the renaming, the stripping off hair and clothes, the maimings and brandings -- are all evidence of barbaric efforts to deprive the slave of identity. But they can never fully transcend the symbolic.

Of course, the concepts of chattelization and "natal alienation," though limited and partial, have immense value as well, for they demarcate the parameters of slavery. Though they are counterposed to one other -- Patterson's account is at pains to reject the chattel concept, for example -- if we take the two prototypes of objectification and identity-deficit together as a sort of contradictory and dualistic model of enslavement, then we get the beginning of a workable concept of the meaning of slavery: it becomes the archetype of unfreedom. Remembering at the same time that humans tend to resist both the degradation of being "owned" by another and of being stripped of their "true identity" by another (Butler 1997; Sartre 1965) provides at least the bare outlines of a more complex model of slavery. We may not know what freedom is, but at least we can know that slavery is the absence of freedom.


Slavery has always existed and maybe always will exist, but my principal concern here is with racial slavery. What is the relationship between slavery and race? How was slavery racialized?

From a host of scholars, such as C.L.R. James (1989 [1938]), Eric Williams (1994 [1944]), and W.E.B. Du Bois (1977 [1935]), from the work of modern historians of Africa and the Americas such as Walter Rodney (1981), John Thornton (1998), Paul Lovejoy (1983), and Emilia Viotti da Costa (1982), we know that racism did not create slavery, but that slavery created racism. Ancient slavery was not racial (racism did not really exist before the dawn of the modern epoch) and was not necessarily even ethnic.

The slavery that interests me here evolved in the Atlantic system, following the path of European conquest down the west coast of Africa and across the ocean, and moving from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic islands (the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries) to the Caribbean and Brazil. As an enterprise, slavery developed (generally speaking) from plunder to plantation agriculture, from mining to farming. In this process the demand of conquerors and settlers for mass labor steadily increased as European dominance expanded: natives were wiped out in the Antilles and vastly reduced in the mainland by brutal labor practices and disease. Impoverished Europeans were enslaved by indenture, but could not meet the labor demand; their subjugation proved politically and physically impractical. Thus the turn to Africa.

Even before the African slave trade was well-established, proto-racial discourse was routinely employed to explain relations with the indigenous peoples of America and Africa. The racial ideology that developed over the period from, say, Henry the Navigator (mid-15th century) to Shakespeare's Caliban (early 17th century) was hardly consistent or coherent. It was more a congeries of elements -- religious, customary, practical -- than a formal set of ideas. It was greatly shaped by earlier European experiences with such "others" as Jews and Muslims, and by the experiences of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Reconquista. It was marked by debates everywhere, but notably under the imperia of Spain and Portugal, about the religious propriety of enslavement (Todorov1984; Cohen 1998). But whatever coherence it had (or lacked), the crude distinction between Europeans and others served its preeminent purposes: to manage empire, to extract labor, to subordinate the "others."

Slavery, then, was racialized as a practical matter, consistent with the requisites of European domination in Africa and the Americas (and to some extent in Asia too, but once again we can't go there now).

Slavery was only racialized over some time and with difficulty: early practices of indentured labor overlapped with it; many early crews of ships, many armies of conquistadores, many expeditionary forces sent against maroon and quilombo communities, many slavecatchers and pombeiros in Africa and bandeirantes in Brazil, were themselves black.

Then there was the whole issue of miscegenation, which is to say racially transgressive sex, rape, family life, gender dynamics etc. This certainly made racial classification problematic (Stoler 1991; Hodes, ed. 1999). Combined with these developments, practices of manumission and patterns of creolization blurred the lines between slave and "free," and between white and "other." Revolutionary wars freed many black people, beginning with the North American revolution and culminating in the US Civil War (which DuBois saw as an attempt to complete the American revolution). The massive upheaval of the Haitian revolution threatened the Atlantic system profoundly, and was also deeply linked to the French revolution and the rise to hemispheric dominance of the US. Anticolonial struggles in most of the Spanish colonies touched off significant abolitionist and anti-racist impulses as well. So while slavery and racialization largely reinforced each other, they also sometimes came into conflict with each other too.

A parenthetical note here: Slavery did not only create racism; it also created capitalism. Not from scratch, of course, because early forms of capitalism had existed in the medieval Italian city-states, and indeed in the ancient world. But the world bestriding system that has dominated the last half-millennium could scarcely have come into being without the massive infusions of resources plundered from around the Atlantic basin. Without the new forms of trade and commodities in trade that slavery provided, the greatest of which was the slaves themselves ("fictitious commodity" or no), without the silver and the gold mined by slaves in Potosi and the Gold Coast and hundreds of other sites (Ladurie 1990; Cole 1985), without the sugar of Brazil and then Haiti and Jamaica and Barbados (Mintz 1995), the economic ascent of Europe would not have been possible. And if we are to believe James and Williams, the very labor-processes that would ultimately spark the industrial revolution were pioneered in the engenhos of Brazil and the sugar mills of Caribbean (see also Moreno Fraginals 1976). This is what Marx, that old abolitionist, called "the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins." This topic -- the contributions of racism to capitalism -- is unfortunately beyond the scope of the present paper (but see Winant 2001).


By giving rise to opposition and resistance, slavery also made possible modern democracy and modern culture. Before slavery was seriously challenged in the range of movements and discourses that were to culminate in the abolitionist movement, even bourgeois democracy was largely restricted to the propertied classes. Not the idea of the rights of man, not the idea that governments "derived their just powers from the consent of the governed," but the practical implementation of such ideas, or at least the beginning incursions of the popular strata into the process of self government, can all be traced to the struggles against slavery.

Opposition to slavery was also crucial to the gradual diffusion of modern culture, to the onset of the "dialectic of enlightenment" (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972). The early theorists of the Enlightenment, hearty participants in the ascendance of Europe, viewed their continent as the homeland of reason, and troubled themselves very little with the problem of slavery. To Hegel, Africa was without history and therefore largely outside the zone of the spirit; Locke was an investor in a British slave-trading firm; from Kant and Jefferson came the view that the Negroes' inferiority justified their subjection (Eze, ed. 1997; Count, ed. 1950).

The irony of this is that black people and abolitionism in general brought reason to those who arrogantly claimed to be its sole practitioners. Of course, abolitionism was a broad coalition, a social movement ample enough to include opponents ranging all the way from armed revolutionary, anti-colonialist, and nationalist movements (often revolutionary as well); through religiously-based antagonists (for example, many Quakers and Methodists); to democratically-oriented political groups (like trade unionists and socialists, though by no means all of them); and even including some modernizing capitalist reformers.

Black people participated as political actors in the abolitionist movement; they could acquire "voice" and indeed took leadership in some (certainly not all) varieties of anti slavery agitation and organization (Goodman 1998; Anstey 1975; Toplin 1972; Peabody 1996). Abolitionism was thus an effort not only to fulfill the political promise of democracy, but also to extend the cultural logic of Enlightenment.

Both as a political and cultural movement, then, abolitionism played a central role in opening up society. Opposing the injustice of slavery was connected in various ways to challenging racial hierarchy, although many of course did not make that connection. Neverthless abolition fomented such democratic concepts as popular rule and popular sovereignty, which we now take for granted (even if we honor them only in the breach). It fostered notions of equality ("Am I not a man and a brother?"), even if they still remain unfulfilled.

The breakdown of slavery was the incomplete result of the actions of this very diverse coalition of opponents. These ranged from armed rebels who saw themselves as Africans in captivity (Thornton 1993), through escaping slaves and free black abolitionists, to white sympathizers who opposed slavery on religious grounds, to modernizing capitalists who preferred to rent their labor than to own it. Just as the Atlantic slave trade was the first truly multinational capitalist enterprise, just as the sugar mill or ingenio/engenho was the first capitalist industry, so too was abolition the first multinational social movement (Keck and Sikkink 1998).

It would be hard to explain the appearance of the popular movements that shaped us (as well as our parents and grandparents), hard to explain the rise of freedom struggles of all kinds -- anti-colonial and national liberation struggles, women's movements, even workers' movements -- without taking into account the influence of abolitionism. So what is striking about all this is the continuity between the present and this past.

How far are we from slavery today? How much of a connection is there between the African slave trade and the peonage, indebtedness, and coerced and sweated labor imposed today on the world's "South"? How closely do the plantation system of the antebellum and Jim Crow period, the pattyrollers (Hadden 2001; Williamson 1986), the lynch law of the 1890s, the convict-leasing and chain-gangs of pre-WWII Dixie, resemble present-day patterns of social control deployed in ghettos, barrios, reservations, and prisons? These questions demand answers. Such contemporary movements as the anti-WTO initiative (of Seattle, Genoa, and elsewhere) and the call for reparations for the injustices and crimes of slavery and the slave trade (articulated at the Durban UN World Conference Against Racism and elsewhere) are the driving forces raising these issues; it is their militance, their critique, that obliges us to develop a deeper understanding of the problem of slavery.

From the rise of Europe to the present, the pattern of northern racialized rule has continued unbroken, though of course subject to many variations and regroovings; it has culminated today in what Samir Amin (2001) has called "global apartheid." From the dawn of the African slave trade to Brazil, from the enactment of the "codes noirs" in French St. Domingue, from the Virginia Assemby's passage of its first Slave Code in 1705, the surveillance and enforcement of racial boundaries has been of primary importance throughout the Americas. By means both formal and informal, labor processes and the price of labor must be regulated, and discipline be maintained among the subordinate.


The Global Crisis of Debt Peonage: Such themes as plunder, sweated or superexploited labor, and the transition from chattelized mass labor to debt peonage, have to be considered at both the micro- and macro-social levels.

At the micro-level, whether they were previously subject to enslavement or merely "captured" by repressive systems of indebtedness and peonage, most of the world's peasants, natives, sharecroppers, and agricultural workers fell under (or remained under) super-exploitative agrarian economic regimes from the time that chattel slavery was abolished. These systems continue even today in much of the planet's rural South, although widespread migration, both from the countryside to the city and from the world's South to its North, has advanced so significantly (especially since the end of WWII) that rural super-exploitation and peonage has been widely transformed into urban super-exploitation and sub-employment. Yet in the city too, both in the world's impoverished "South" and its ruling "North," survival in the informal economy is often a form of peonage (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000; Edin and Lein 1997; Portes et al 1989.

At the macro-level, large-scale and endemic indebtedness is pervasive throughout the global South. Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia have experienced significant debt crises at several moments in the post-WWII era, notably in the 1980s. But the present regime is particularly onerous, especially in its impact on the poorest nations, and most especially in Africa. Mean annual African debt/annual GNP ratios have reached the obscene level of 125%. The corresponding figures for Latin America are 42% and for Asia 28%, considerably less, but hardly trivial. These are 1998 figures; i.e., at the height of the recent economic expansion which, despite some bubbles bursting (especially in Asia) still had "trickle-down" effects for HIPCs [Heavily Indebted Poor Countries] that rely on export earnings to pay their international debt.

Indeed the form taken by international indebtedness resembles nothing so much as sharecropping or equivalent forms of post-abolition debt peonage, reimagined on a global scale. If we consider the trajectory of debt from the onset of the post "oil shock"/Eurodollar debt crisis of 1982 to the present, we see that the debtor nations of the South repaid their original principal many times over, and yet simultaneously incurred roughly the same amount of new debt. Indeed for some countries the combined amounts of old and new loans exceed by tenfold the quantity originally borrowed (Toussaint 1999). According to Saskia Sassen:

African debt service payments reached $5 billion in 1998, which means that for every 1$ in aid, African countries paid 1.4$ in debt service.... [T]hese ratios are far more extreme than what were considered unmanageable levels in the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s. The IMF asks HIPCs to pay 20 to 25% of their export earnings toward debt service. In contrast, in 1953 the Allies cancelled 80% of Germany's war debt and only insisted on 3 to 5% of export earnings debt service. These are also the terms asked from Central Europe after Communism (Sassen 2001).

The racial dimensions of this question must be recognized with particular seriousness, since as Sassen notes European countries, even the defeated WWII enemy Germany, were not confronted with terms nearly so exiguous. When does this start to count as a new form of slavery?

Assaults on the world's poor via the global financial system can readily be understood in terms of racism: the world's poor are largely peasants and super-exploited workers, dark-skinned sharecroppers and peons of a global corporate plantation. Transnational Simon Legrees now seek to sell their Southern darkies the water they drink, the crops they have traditionally planted and harvested, and the weapons their corrupt governments will use to kill the peons of bordering countries, or to kill those of the "wrong" ethnicity within their own borders. The debt and its policing by the IMF through "structural adjustment policies" results in the deaths of millions every year. Not only the debt, but every form of development, indeed every economic relationship, are deleteriously affected: international aid programs, investment both foreign and domestic, migration patterns, social programs, education, health, etc. Health care or AIDS medicines for these subhumans? Not unless they can pay our fees at the country club!

The Prison-Industrial Complex: In considering the perpetuation of slavery, I now turn from the global to the US domestic scenario. Not entirely coincidentally, the term "big house" has two meanings. All through the Americas in slavery days it meant the master's house. Gilberto Freyre, for example, titled his best-known book on the Brazilian racial system Casa Grande e Senzala ("The Big House and the Slave Quarters" -- in the book's English translation the title is rendered as The Masters and the Slaves [Freyre 1933]). But of course there is in the US another usage for the term "big house": it means the prison.

The 13th amendment to the Constitution ended slavery "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." This loophole effectively preserved slavery within the US as the preferred mode of punishment. It gave rise to all sorts of cruel and exploitative practices in the past: notably convict leasing (Lichtenstein 1996; Mancini 1996) and chain-gang labor (Colvin 1997).

Contrary to popular belief these types of punishment remain in use today, notably in private, corporate-run prisons; and in the use of prison-based, quasi-enslaved labor: in manufacturing, service-provision, and administrative work, for example. Microsoft, Boeing, TWA, Victoria's Secret, and CMT Blues (which makes blue jeans for Lee Jeans and numerous other companies) are some of the companies using low-cost prison labor for everything from manufacturing aircraft components and lingerie to booking travel reservations.

Even the university is involved. For example, my institution, Temple University (and many others as well), uses the Sodexho-Marriott company for food-service provision. Sodexho owns the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of 18 major private prison corporations in the US. University purchases of prison-produced services have drawn numerous student protests. (Note: CCA is going transnational, with prisons in the UK, Australia, and South Africa).

The overall system, the prison-industrial complex, offers a whole series of supports both for inequality in the system of income and wealth distribution, and for the coercion of subaltern groups. Economically, imprisonment is an alternative to unemployment; or rather (given the increasing use of quasi-enslavement -- extremely low-waged work -- in prison), a way of keeping wages low. Politically, the threat of prison, the threat of reduction to slavery, helps maintain the system's capacity for subjection and exploitation. The rate of black male involvement with the prison industrial complex (that is, the proportion of black males currently in prison, on probation, or otherwise sub judice) has steadily climbed to its now astounding level of one in three (Mauer 1999). Just as slavery was in the past, so incarceration (that is, consitutionally-sanctioned slavery) remains in the present ,an everyday demonstration of the cruelty, greed, and unfreedom that are basic to capitalism's ability to function. As Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America, writes:

"The repression of the criminal justice system... is about two things: creating political obedience and regulating the price of labor. That is what the repression of the capitalist state has always been about, from the enclosures and the Atlantic slave trade, to the many bloody wars against organized labor, to the militarized ghetto of 2001. Capitalism was born of state violence and repression will always be part of its genetic code."
Unfree Labor: Parenti's comment serves to remind us that capital has learned that in the main it is more profitable to rent labor than it is to own it. But only "in the main"; there are other indispensable forms by which to coerce labor that resemble slavery more closely. And the "learning process" continues: as a number of social and economic historians have illustrated, the transition from enslaved to waged labor was extremely difficult and indeed is still in progress (Engerman ed., 1999; Goldfield 1999; Roediger and Foner 1989).

The development of a system of "free" labor, and the fully capitalist class relations it characterized, evolved in good measure from the slavery-based systems of coerced mass labor that preceded it. Marx certainly demonstrated that the "freedom" of the waged worker is only the freedom to sell her labor -- which is to say her time, which is to say half her waking life -- herself, rather than for it to be sold by someone else. Since freedom does not extend to the working day, the term "wage slavery" is not a neologism, but a relatively accurate characterization of everyday labor relations, especially where work is less skilled and more akin to the mass labor of early and industrial capitalism.

Early "free" workers on both sides of the Atlantic strenuously sought to distinguish themselves from the "unfree" workers who supplied their workplaces in Bristol, Manchester, Lyons, Amsterdam, Boston, or Lisbon with primary materials like tobacco, cotton, or sugar. Since the days of chattel slavery ended, "free" workers have struggled to protect themselves from the competition of workers whose unfreedom is more explicit, but not entirely different, from theirs. This is the premise of "split labor market" interpretations of racism (Bonacich 1972; Bonacich 1976).

But in the world of the WTO and NAFTA, of increasingly globalized systems of exploitation and domination, it may be more necessary than ever to counter those "splits" with new recognitions of unity. It may be particularly useful to realize that the exploitation and domination experienced around the world today was forged in the system of slavery. Slavery was after all the first transnational capitalist enterprise.

Think of the "Joe Sixpack" type who goes off to work each morning with a bumpersticker on his car that reads (in bitter jibe at Disney's seven dwarves) "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go." He is expressing in these few words, however unconsciously, his ongoing vulnerability, his identity with maquiladoras in GM plants in Ciudad Juarez, sweatshop workers at sewing machines in New York's Chinatown, and makers of computer chips in Saigon. They are all wage-slaves.

Of course to say this is to run the risk of ignoring the very serious distinctions in status between the situations of "northern" workers -- often white, male, unionized, citizens, protected by some form of labor regulation, etc. -- and those of "southern" workers who are nonwhite, undocumented, or perhaps chained to a carpet loom somewhere. Yet in ending this paper I would prefer to stress the commonalities that extend across all these conditions. Chief among these is the legacy, indeed the continuity, of slavery, the "Babylon system."

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