‘Slavery’ in London: an hysterical morality tale

We denigrate history’s victims of slavery with our misuse of the s-word.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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It was as if British society had lost its moral bearings. Suddenly, a sensational story of the dramatic rescue of three slaves held captive in south London dominated every news channel. There were hints of moral depravity practised on a vast scale, sending the message that even in the most normal and ordinary of communities there can be households containing victims of slavery. We were told that the rescue of the three slaves was part of a complex police operation involving 30 officers working in close collaboration with groups of ‘slavery experts’.

Since the discovery of the ‘slave house’ was announced, this sordid story has been dramatised more and more. Almost immediately we were told that this was not a rare, unusual instance of human misery and degradation, but rather a widespread phenomenon. Soon, there was an estimate of 4,000 other cases of slavery circulating through the media. The Sun raised the stakes and ran with the frontpage headline, ‘Britain’s “5,000” slaves’. It reported that the ‘three women enslaved for 30 years were last night among the more than 5,000 captives in the UK’. After a couple of days of non-stop reports about thousands of people being literally enslaved in modern-day Britain, these made-up numbers acquired the status of truth.

We expect tabloid newspaper reports to be misleading – but what was truly disturbing was the speed with which leading politicians started fanning the flames of slavery hysteria. The usually cool-headed home secretary, Theresa May, led the way. ‘It is all round us, hidden in plain sight’, she wrote in the Telegraph. The chilling claim that we are all surrounded by an invisible peril was the prelude to evoking an evil that we had long thought was behind us, with May declaring: ‘It is walking our streets, supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind the curtains in an ordinary street: slavery.’

The idea of slavery as a hidden or invisible threat was echoed by the Labour MP Frank Field. He said the discovery of the three ‘slave’ women was the ‘tip of the iceberg’. That phrase evokes a terrible problem which we can only imagine but cannot accurately visualise. What we saw was merely the tiny tip of an unbounded peril of gigantic proportions. Presumably, this is why Field went on to recommend that the British state establish the post of ‘anti-slavery commissioner’, someone who could become the ‘focal point’ in the campaign against slavery.

What is this iceberg?

Whatever one thinks of the seemingly appalling human misery that existed in a house in south London, it is important to recognise that the current use of the term slavery by the media and headline-desiring politicians has little in common with the way it was conventionally used.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a slave as ‘one who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights’. Slavery is not synonymous with physical or mental domination, with exploitation or psychological manipulation. Those various forms of subjugation are demeaning and dehumanising, of course, but slavery is something different – it is a regime of oppression where an individual is unambiguously the property of another.

When Frank Field says that criminal gangs are making ‘huge sums of money’ from bringing people to England to ‘work for almost nothing’, he is describing the predicament of exploited migrants, not slavery. People who ‘work for almost nothing’ are usually described as ‘low paid’ or ‘cheap labour’. In the nineteenth century, anti-capitalist critics such as Proudhon and Marx used the term ‘wage-slaves’ to gain attention for the plight of the economically exploited. But they made a very clear distinction between real slavery and wage slavery – the latter involves an element of voluntary acquiescence to the demands of the employer; the former does not.

The narrative that has been used by officialdom and the media to describe the events in south London is disturbingly incoherent. After initial claims of physical imprisonment, the police then started to use the phrase ‘invisible handcuffs’. It was suggested that the south London victims were held for 30 years with these invisible handcuffs. Suddenly, the question of physical force and abuse was relegated to the background and the case was casually redefined as one of ‘brainwashing’. Soon it was suggested that the slave house was run by a cult, allowing the issue of religious and psychological manipulation to emerge as the dominant theme in this ever-mutating tale of evil. It is now claimed that the victims met their abusers through a ‘shared political ideology’ in the 1960s and were members of a Marxist political ‘collective’.

It was at this point that attempts were made to provide the narrative of slavery with the legitimacy of science. So-called ‘cult experts’ were quoted as saying that political ideologies, like religious ones, can brainwash their adherents. Dr Suzanne Newcombe, a research officer at Inform, an organisation based at the London School of Economics that specialises in cults and New Religious Movements, said she was ‘not surprised by the suggestion that the 30-year incarceration may have its roots in a cult-like organisation’. She said ‘ideological beliefs of any sort can have an incredibly powerful effect on how people behave’, adding: ‘I remember speaking to a man who had stayed in a room without leaving it for several years, even though he knew that the door was not locked and he was physically able to leave. He saw it as half punishment and half spiritual test.’

By this time, any sense of conceptual distinction between the terms ‘slavery’, ‘cult behaviour’ and ‘psychological manipulation’ was completely lost; it was as if any form of controlling behaviour could be recast as the equivalent of a plantation owner whipping his physically chained slaves.

So, we need a reality check. Real slaves on plantations were held in chains made of metal, not invisible handcuffs. They were not just controlled and manipulated; they were forced into a life of servitude. Their masters were not pursuing their interests in secret; rather, slavery was underwritten by society’s institutions and enforced through a brutal system of state coercion. Any comparison of the tragic case in south London with slavery simply trivialises the historic significance of the slave trade.

The numerous conflicting accounts of what happened in that south London dwelling now designated a ‘slave house’ suggest it is unlikely we will ever really know what happened among the five people who lived there. Interpersonal relations that evolve over decades are complex at the best of times. In a case like this, where some of the people appear to have been emotionally manipulated and controlled by a dominant individual, the interpersonal dynamics are going to be very messy, and will not be made any clearer by the melodramatic, historically ignorant rhetoric used in recent days.

Interpersonal domination is sadly an integral part of human relations. That is why there have always been people who feel that they are trapped in a family or a relationship and yet feel helpless to leave and start a new life. Sometimes, sadistic and dominating individuals are aware of the difficulty that their victims have in resisting their control, and so they use their power to degrade and exploit their victims further. The question that confronts us is this: at what point does such behaviour become a problem for society?

In a democratic society that regards its citizens as having the capacity to exercise moral autonomy and to take responsibility for their behaviour, the point at which a dysfunctional regime of control in a certain household becomes a legitimate object for legal intervention is when people are held in circumstances without their consent. When individuals are denied the freedom to participate in social life or to leave their households to start a new life, than it becomes legitimate to criminalise those who are holding people against their will.

Unhelpful rhetoric

The swift escalation of alarmist rhetoric in the discussion of the south London ‘slave house’ is part of a tendency today to interpret conflict and relationships through ideas about human depravity, malevolence and abuse. In recent years, more and more interpersonal problems and issues have been discussed using highly sensationalist analogies with slavery.

Earlier this month, the former American vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed that America borrowing money from China is like slavery, because ‘we are going to be beholden to a foreign master’. This summer, the former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, sought to fire up supporters of an anti-abortion bill in Texas by claiming that abortion is like slavery. Britain’s former most senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has condemned gay marriage as an ‘aberration’ that is akin to slavery and abortion.

Numerous American Republicans have claimed their fight against ‘Obamacare’ is a twenty-first-century version of the nineteenth-century struggle against slavery. Similar claims are frequently made by those who fight climate change: they say that anyone who opposes them is not that different to ‘slave-owners in the nineteenth century who opposed the abolition of slavery’. The inappropriate use of the term slavery is particularly rife in discussions about the plight of migrant workers, particularly women who have been brought into the UK by organised gangs.

Why are campaigners from both the far left and the conservative right preoccupied with slavery? Why do many activists and commentators casually talk about sex workers or migrants or political collective members as ‘slaves’? It seems to me that this misuse of the term slave is symptomatic of the exhaustion of a social and political vocabulary through which modern-day problems might be diagnosed and discussed. Slavery works as a public fantasy through which the real problems of the world can be pushed to one side and replaced with an ideology of evil – meaning we don’t have to come up with practical solutions to issues like low pay or migrant exploitation but instead can rail against the ‘evil slave-owners’ who allegedly lurk behind such phenomena. It’s worth noting that when Theresa May announced that her ‘personal priority’ would be to fight slavery, she stated that ‘while overall crime is falling, figures show the number of victims of slavery has risen 25 per cent over the past year’. So a week after the police crime figures were revealed as fictitious, the home secretary comes along to assert the priority of fighting the alleged scourge of slavery!

No doubt those who are obsessed with the spectre of slavery genuinely believe that Britain faces an epidemic of this historic crime. Likewise, the panic about the white slave trade, which erupted in the UK and the US in the late nineteenth century, also turned into a cultural myth that exercised the public imagination for many decades. But trading on myths is a sad substitute for mature public deliberation. What we ought to be discussing is how to distinguish between controlling behaviour and acts that violate people’s ability to give or withdraw consent.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Authority: A Sociological History, is published by Cambridge University Press. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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