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The slavery the headlines ignore

“But who, if it comes to that, has fully realised that history is not contained in thick books, but lives in our very blood?” 

Carl Jung's words, written in a different context, are a useful lens for the current debate on the legacy of slavery. That debate is dogged by a persistent error: that the abolition of slavery happened once and for all in the first half of the 19th century. The anti-statue movement, for instance, is demolishing the effigies of long-dead perpetrators of slavery while practically ignoring its contemporary manifestations. These questions aren’t academic. The blunt reality is that more people are enslaved than ever before. Over 40 million, if the estimates are anything like correct. That amounts to one in every 200 people in the world. This is a major human rights crisis, but one which struggles to make headlines. Some retort that the transatlantic slave trade should be treated as a discrete historical category - so severe and dehumanising that it should not be conflated with modern forms of exploitation. And it's true that the inhumanities of today should never be used to whitewash the past. But they would have more force if the very smartphones being used to tweet denunciations of centuries-dead figures weren’t powered by batteries produced by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They would have more force if the statue-destroying-minority were taking to the streets to protest companies implicated in the mass incarceration and state-imposed forced labour of Uyghur Muslims in China. They would have more force if the generation most outraged weren’t the very people driving and increasingly inhuman global economy with its consumer practices and addiction to ever cheaper goods. The current furore shouldn’t surprise us. Britain has had various flirtations with iconoclasm in the past. We attach great weight and power to images and have often made the mistake of assuming that destroying the image will destroy the idea. Of course, we must reckon with our past, and if that means withdrawing the prestige of public display from certain figures, so be it. But history ought to have taught us that it would be a hollow reckoning indeed if such actions fails to affect our behaviour in the present. 

As things stand there are very few products we consume that we can say with a high degree of confidence are slavery-free. The UK’s much vaunted anti-slavery laws have improved things in the past five years, but they have not been strong enough to incentivise companies to pursue a zero-tolerance approach. While our clothes, food, electronics, and even telecommunications providers stand accused of profiting from modern slavery, we are not in a great position to throw stones at anyone, let alone the dead. Modern slavery is a systemic problem which is not going to be solved by one-time protesting, outraged tweeting, or spray-painting public monuments. Slavery lives on, and it lives in our blood, as Jung might have said. If we develop the courage to turn the modern appetite for reckoning upon ourselves, we will discover that we aren’t as removed from these horrifying realities as we think. 


Luke de Pulford

Director of Arise

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