….Why? Yes, I know, I know. Labor laws are weak or non-existent. Bureaucracies are understaffed or corrupt. Employers are greedy or opportunistic. Consumers are indifferent or disorganized. And so on.
Yet, do these explanations answer my question? Are they symptoms rather than causes?
Questions like these can be depressing, especially when you’re fighting a cold on a rainy day.
I don’t read the New York Review of Books to cheer me up, but the other day its holiday issue lifted my spirits. I flipped rapidly past essay-packed pages in favor of the many colorful full-page ads picturing fascinating new books.
Then, about two thirds through, an article headed “The Universal Attraction of Slavery” caught my eye – a review of a new book, “Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery,” by a noted historian, Seymour Dresher. I started reading the review by another noted historian, David Brion Davis.
“Since I have been attempting for over 40 years to put slavery in a more global perspective,” Davis wrote, “I could not be more delighted by Seymour Drescher’s magisterial new history of both slavery and anti-slavery from the late middle ages to the end of World War II.”Three paragraphs later, I picked up my pen and marked a passage that impressed me. By the time I finished reading the article’s two-and-a-half pages, I had marked one or more passages in 11 of its paragraphs.
Particularly impressive was the last paragraph of Davis’ review:
“By carrying the story of ‘the perennial institution’ from the late Middle Ages to the millions of slave laborers in the Russian Gulag and Nazi concentration and labor camps, Drescher’s monumental work has shown that while opposition to slavery in its various forms can serve as a model for abolishing evil, slavery also seems to be irrevocable, with an amazing capacity to endure or suddenly become resurrected, even in an apparently progressive and civilized nation like 20th century Germany. If Drescher’s profound history of human nature gives some cause for hope with regard to moral progress, it should also end complacency and put us on continual alert.”
Here are some facts, as relayed by Davis, that may be the basis for insights into the evil of today's sweatshops and the movement to abolish them:
-- The slave trade was very profitable, returning about 10 percent on investment. Its abolition was comparable to committing suicide for a major part of Britain’s economy. Drescher’s earlier book, “Econocide,” “destroyed the belief that the British slave system had declined in value before Parliament outlawed the salve trade.”
-- “In one New World system after another, slavery demonstrated its flexibility and durability until abolished by superior military, civil, or political pressure from within or from without.”
-- “No theme in Drescher’s book is more striking than the extraordinary success of abolitionism in mobilizing public opinion in Britain and then in the northern United States…as well as the failure of such efforts in continental Europe.” Important to this success was the institution of “representative government and the tradition of public petitioning, as well as the fact that newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, voluntary societies and associations, and a common-law tradition created in Anglo-American societies a degree of public participation unmatched in the rest of the world.’
-- “Slave labor could still be efficient, productive, and adaptable to a variety of trades and occupations ranging from mining and factory labor to the technologically modernized, steam-powered Cuban sugar mills.”
-- Women had a prominent role in the movement as writers, public speakers, leaders of campaign to boycott slave-grown sugar, and by the 1820s, in Britain, as signers of petitions and influential advocates of immediate, as opposed to gradual, slave emancipation. “By 1833, when public demands succeeded in achieving the emancipation of 800,000 slaves, the number of petition signers had risen to 1.3 million, about 30 percent of whom were women.”
Highly impressed, I was eager to learn more, so ordered Drescher’s book. Now to read its 462 pages.