On modern-day slavery

According to the website slaveryfootprint.org, my lifestyle requires twenty full-time slaves to support it. These are not imaginary slaves but actual persons who work in other countries to produce the conditions of affluence under which I live.

Twenty is actually a low number as far as slaves go. According to slaveryfootprint, I’m a pretty minor slave owner, by Western standards. That’s not due to any altruism on my part, but apparently because I don’t own a smartphone (slaveryfootprint classifies me as a technophobe) or have a cupboard full of cosmetics. I imagine that living off-grid counts for something, too. But that wasn’t a decision made to reduce my number of slaves. I got off the grid because it’s cheaper and, of course, more environmentally sensitive. At least, that’s what I tell myself, good bourgeois greenie that I am. I never even thought of the slaves. That’s the function of slaves: they do all the work and you don’t think about them.

Twenty is a cosy number. Perhaps I should give all my slaves names so that I feel closer to them, to humanise them a bit. Or maybe I could do a painting of me at supper with my twenty slaves. I’d be the only one eating, though.

Most of the slaves I own are working to keep my car on the road. It’s a slave-powered car. But you can’t see them. You can only see me hurtling along country roads like Toad in The Wind in the Willows.

Owning slaves like this is a bit like living in a Georgian mansion, one in which the walls conceal corridors used only by the servants so their menial tasks don’t disturb the masters. Except that the Georgians at least saw their servants from time to time. Our slaves are invisible – or so we tell ourselves.

In January, Apple revealed that it had ‘uncovered’ many instances of child labour in the factories manufacturing its products in China. This was news to no-one but Apple.

Not that it made a lot of difference. Last year Apple saw a slight drop in its profit forecasts, not because everyone is getting jack of iPads, but because Apple can’t make them fast enough to meet demand. That’s the problem with children. They get tired quickly.

Most of us feel guilty about owning slaves, but if we freed them we’d have to change the way we live to a great extent. In the end, the seductive qualities of capitalist production make it very difficult to hold even the idea of slaves in our mind while we use our slave-powered products. The guilt, a phenomenon of western progressive liberalism, sends us looking for organic chocolate and sustainably produced toilet paper. We seem to think we have so little power to change the way things work.

There have been some reports that the US-based operators of Predator drones have shown symptoms of traumatic stress. Contrary to the notion that killing by distance via a computer desensitises people to violence, the drone operators report that it’s precisely the distance that is the problem: they go to the office, sit in front of a computer screen, kill people, go home.

Even when violent events are hidden or masked in some fashion, they still tend to make themselves felt. The repressed always returns – usually to be nailed quickly as a symptom of illness. Just as the US military has tended to wildly underestimate the incidence of traumatic symptoms in its combat vets (and may even demean or ridicule soldiers who report symptoms), so signs of social discontent and suffering are minimised, pathologised and ridiculed.

In his book Chavs, Owen Jones glosses the term in his title as referring to ‘those ghastly lower classes’. He points to whole systems of ridicule of the working class embodied in TV shows like Little Britain. In Australia, we might see Kath & Kim as fulfilling a similar function.

Some years back I saw part of an Australian film, whose name I can’t recall, but that was, I think, supposed to realistically depict family violence. Anyway, it featured David Wenham. Naturally, the family depicted was lower class, and one explosive incident revolved around Wenham’s partner bringing home Edam cheese (as opposed to something homebrand – the phenomenon of cheese-choosing, of course, being a well-known indicator of one’s sophisticated, middle-class status).

The hiding away or pathologising of social violence – whether it’s wars, domestic violence, abattoirs or even ordinary death – has become one of capitalism’s central functions, one that has proved highly profitable but that tends to encourage an unbearable tension. It is a tension we can often resolve by looking at suffering but disconnecting ourselves from it, as though it happened somewhere else to someone we vaguely recognise but have no obligation to help or acknowledge.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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