Saturday, June 18, 2011

On Domestication and Slavery

I was wondering today where the idea of slavery comes from. There is little research on the matter, not anything with hard evidence, though. Slavery predates writing, and it is an established institution in the oldest extant written document of significant length (the Code of Hammurabi, circa 1700 BCE).

I have my own opinions on how it came about, namely, as a sub-development of animal domestication.

Slavery is indeed a development. For its time, it was even considered a mercy. Imagine, if you will, early human civilizations. These first communities built cities and concentrated thousands of people into a relatively small area. Agriculture likely preceded slavery, and animal domestication certainly did. It is no big leap to go from taming an animal and training it to doing the same for humans.

But what of slavery as mercy? Early humans fought, probably even more than they fight today. Sure, they didn’t have guns and atoms bombs, but it is clear that we have engaged in whole-sale slaughter of fellow human beings for as long as we have been a species.

With the advent of cities and the abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, civilized societies had something worth losing, something to defend for the first time. We see the construction of walls and weapons meant for warfare as cities build up. Some outright killed all outsiders, while others were more defensive and only eradicated only those who presented more than merely a possible threat.

But at some point, someone came up with another idea. Rather than kill everybody you opposed, maybe they could be put to use. It is almost certain that enemies before this were put to death, and early codes of law support this notion of an unforgiving attitude. Rather than kill everyone, however, someone must have come up with the idea that maybe, just maybe, these people could be made to work for the victors.

It created a cheap source of public and private labor within the community. It also brought primitive people into contact with advancements they never would have been exposed to had they not been enslaved. In many ways, slavery raised some people into the civilized age.

It seems callous, really. The idea reminds me of listening to a couple racists in Indiana once discuss how black people in America should be thanking white people for enslaving them and bringing them to America, because black people in America have it better than black people in Africa. That is a rather trite way of putting it, but the fact remains…

Once slavery was demonstrated to be a boon for the city (and I’m fairly sure little consideration was given to any possible improvement among slaves), the institution of slavery expanded. Slavery was likely a result of early wars, but it also became an economic entity apart from a military one.

Besides the production potential of slaves, there was an economic issue that probably arose around the time of slavery that needed to be considered: debt. As the first monetary systems rose, money lending became a profession unto itself. Suddenly, there was a dilemma that was never an issue before: what do you do about someone who has not the money to repay a debt?

You can’t very well extort it from him, because if he had it, he could be forced to pay it. If the debtor lacked the funds, what could be done? Corporal punishment may be a deterrent, but it would do the lender no good; you can’t get blood from a turnip.

At some point, someone realized that you could force a debtor to work off their debt to the lender. It may not have been slavery at first, but we know that the Greeks practiced a form of slavery where anyone, Greek or otherwise, could sell not only themselves, but their own family into slavery (in addition to slaves taken in war). There is evidence that this was a fairly common practice around the world at various times.

In my opinion, it’s important to consider these things. Slavery does not just spontaneously appear out of thin air; there are tangible causes and influences that result in the emergence of slavery. True slavery still exists, and it probably will always exist, so long as there are people willing to exploit another person for financial gain.

Today, different forms of slavery exist. There are those who believe in “wage-slavery,” the idea that people today are trapped in their jobs by bills and debt. I find this to be rather childish hyperbole, but I understand the plight of the modern worker.

The slave and the modern worker simply face different problems. Even those who are trapped in a paycheck-to-paycheck situation face far less abuse than any slave could expect. Your boss never stripped you down and flogged you, nor has he called you into his office to get literally fucked by him. These are actual daily concerns for slaves.

But there are other problems slaves don’t face that the modern worker must contend with. The slave never had to worry about being thrown out of his home. Slaves are generally fed and clothed free of charge, and they never have to wear a tie or name-tag. Oh the humanity…

While I may make jokes at the expense of this comparison, there is plenty for the modern worker to worry about. Perhaps the greatest problem facing most workers is the threat of coercion.

The average person will do something they regret if they are ordered to by authority. The Milgram experiment and a new study involving offers of cash to shock anonymous people shown on video (though not really) are proof that people will, by and large, do awful things if ordered or offered money.

Sometimes, atheists engage in the oft repeated claim that religion is the cause of most of humanity’s woes. The truth is, disease trumps human action many times over as the root of most suffering. Even among human actions, religion is not really the root. No, the root of most human caused suffering is obedience. Nearly every atrocity is the result of people just following orders.

In many ways, the human race has managed to domesticate itself. Slavery as an institution didn’t disappear, we just don’t need the chains anymore.

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