Basic Income, ‘Modern Slavery’ and Modern Abolition

By Neil Howard - 05 November 2021
Basic Income, ‘Modern Slavery’ and Modern Abolition

This is part of a forthcoming Global Policy e-book on modern slavery. Contributions from leading experts highlighting practical and theoretical issues surrounding the persistence of slavery, human trafficking and forced labour are being serialised here over the coming months.

‘Slavery’, ‘trafficking’ and ‘forced labour’ are crimes that sit at the far end of the labour exploitation spectrum. As Bridget Anderson observes, they are to ‘badness’ what Apple Pie and Motherhood are to ‘goodness’. And by most accounts, they’re getting worse. Barely a day passes without stories of trafficked women here or child slaves there. Governments everywhere are passing anti-slavery laws, modern abolitionist NGOs are mushrooming, and millions of consumers now demand products that are ‘slavery-free’.

Yet this trend poses major problems. For although exploitation merits our attention, the focus on its extreme forms obscures more than it reveals. Concentrating on extremes seen to lie outside of capitalism hides the fact that this ‘outside’ is actually part of capitalism, and represents nothing other than its worst excesses.

In this essay, I make three main arguments. The first expands on the above point. I suggest that we need to understand ‘outside-the-system’ extremes as helpful for maintaining the system itself. This is because the discursive-ideological work that the idea of them does sustains both the fictitious binaries and the foundational principle upon which the system rests. It also shields the system from legitimate critique.

The second draws on detailed research with modern abolitionists to argue that these figures unwittingly play an important role in defending the status quo. Although choosing to ally with the exploited, they end up serving the interests of exploiters, largely because the latter pay their wages and place limits on what they can say and do. Abolitionists are central to advancing the notion that severe exploitation exists only outside the system, and that it can be overcome without systemic changes.

Finally, I present an alternative. If exploitation under capitalism is necessarily contingent on the economic vulnerability deriving from propertylessness, then abolitionists must strive to eliminate this vulnerability. I argue that in practice this means Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Should they come on board with this idea, abolitionists are well placed to play a revolutionary role in the advancement of global social justice instead of merely reinforcing the status quo.

Capitalism and Coercion

There are two core dualisms at the heart of capitalist mythology, between consent and coercion, and freedom and force. Each derives from capitalism’s foundational principle — private property.

For capitalist theory, property is a sacrosanct extension of the self, to be disposed of only according to personal preference. In Locke’s famous phrase, it is ‘natural law’ that man be entitled to ‘life, liberty and estate’. On his understanding, no one can take another’s life, freedom or property, and that property can only be legitimately exchanged if bought or sold consensually.

This notion extends also to labour-power, which is viewed under capitalism as a property-like commodity akin to any other. Provided a worker can consent to the sale of their labour, a legitimate labour-capital exchange can be formalized in contract — just as one does with the sale of a house.

Those practices not conforming to this model of consensual, contractual exchange are seen to lie outside of capitalism. With goods, this includes theft or forceful appropriation, while with labour, it includes ‘trafficking’, ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’, since each boils definitionally down to the presence or absence of consent or coercion in the exchange.

Definitional Discontents

Yet there are two major problems with these dualistic criteria. The first is that they don’t apply to the messy cases we find in real life. Second, they singularly fail to account for the pre-existing, property-based inequalities that structure this messiness.

To give a concrete example, take the mother that is so poor that she has to accept the proposal of the ‘trafficker’ who promises to feed her children if she’ll commit to a period of sexual servitude. Who is guilty of coercion here? And where is the line between freedom and force? Or what of the Indian farmer, so indebted that he agrees to sell himself into slavery-like debt-bondage in order to pay off what he owes? Is his contract illegitimate simply because we find it unpleasant, and even though he consents to his coercion?

It is crucial to recognise that these are not mere philosophical questions. A wealth of academic research now shows that people on the margins of the global economy routinely choose to submit themselves to this kind of exploitation because it represents their least worst option. This includes a great many of those subsequently labelled as victims of trafficking, slavery or forced labour.


So what does this mean? It means that in practice it’s impossible to sustain the fictitious binaries between consent and coercion/ freedom and force that structure the idealised notion of capitalist exchange. It’s also impossible to defend the moral legitimacy of the Lockean ideology of unfettered private property that underlies them.

These workers both consent to their treatment and are simultaneously coerced. The fact that their coercion isn’t of the individual, criminal, contract-violating type, doesn’t make it any less real or any less brutal. It’s a necessary consequence of the fact that propertylessness is dangerous in a world of private property.

In very simple terms, for consent to be meaningful you need to be able to withhold it. Saying yes means being able to say no. But in order to say no, you have to have property to sustain yourself when you do. And if you don’t, your formal freedom is hollow, because you’re compelled by the force of circumstance to say yes.

Capitalism is premised on this exploitative reality. Although most capitalists don’t take advantage of their workers in the way the trafficker does with their victims, their very existence as capitalists depends on the fact that most workers cannot really say no to a job.

It is precisely this, the free market’s foundational hypocrisy, that the idea of ‘slavery’, ‘trafficking’ and ‘forced labour’ serves to hide. It takes those labour experiences which express both capitalism’s moral failings and its theoretical conundrum, and positions them outside of capitalism. It thus obscures the constitutive role played by property-based inequalities in securing the coerced consent that is exploitation. In doing so, it protects the system from the moral outrage that might otherwise challenge its hegemony.

The Hegemonic Function of Modern-Day Abolitionism

What role do modern abolitionists play in this process? Unfortunately, research suggests that in many cases it is a problematic one. Because while they stand for the exploited, they often promote the story that everyday exploitation under capitalism actually lies outside of it. Thus, they argue that it can be prevented using market-friendly strategies. Over the second part of this essay, I will delve inside the abolitionist field to show how this happens.

Inside the Abolitionist Field

The modern abolitionist field is comprised of international agencies, government departments, NGOs and charities. It is full of well-meaning people who genuinely wish to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable and exploited workers. Many of them are my friends. Yet although their hearts are in the right place, their ability to effect real change is frequently conscribed by the ideological constraints limiting what they say and do.

These constraints manifest in three distinct ways. The first is an ideologically conditioned lack of understanding. Many abolitionist staff simply do not have much grasp of how capitalism works or of the economic vulnerability that is central to it. Although outraged by suffering and injustice, few have ever actually met a ‘forced labourer’, and most see exploitation through the reductive binary prism of consent or coercion.

As a result, when confronted with data showing that the coerced consent to their coercion, a common response is one of baffled silence. That silence continues when asked why they think people have to make this choice. While some abolitionists will quickly identify ‘poverty’ as the reason, far fewer are able to historicise poverty by explaining what poverty is, what causes it, or what relation it has to property.

This reflects the sheer hegemony of capitalist ideology over their thinking. For certain abolitionists, it is literally inconceivable that severe labour exploitation could be part of, or caused by, capitalist social relations. The silence is a real expression of the fact that their mental framework cannot account for such disturbing realities. It visibly breaks down when confronted with its own contradictions. Although some seek a cause in ‘poverty’, poverty is a description of what is, not an account of why.

But there is more to it than this. Some abolitionists do have a sense of what is going on. Yet despite their understanding, they are prevented from speaking truth-to-power. This is the second and third manifestation of ideological constraint within the abolitionist field — what I call the politics of silence and the politics of representation. In brief, this works as follows. Either 1) abolitionist staff are forbidden by their donors from identifying the political-structural forces that sustain the poverty (propertylessness) that underpins exploitation, or 2) they self-censor in the knowledge that the truth does not sell, whereas sensationalist stories of suffering do.

On the first point, I am not suggesting that abolitionists are corrupt. Rather, the problem is that those who pay their wages and fund their work are the very same governments or corporations with the greatest stake in the status quo. These figures are major capitalist ideologues. For them, inequality is off the table. Wealth is solely a result of endeavour and its legitimacy cannot be challenged by the admission that it relies on profiting from some people not being able to say no to bad work.

What is on the table, by contrast, is the sensationalist narrative depicting trafficking, slavery or forced labour as existing outside of capitalism. In other words, that exploitation is the simple consequence of bad men choosing to abuse innocent victims. As one senior abolitionist told me: ‘this story is “sexy”, it raises money, and it mobilises support’.

Many abolitionists are thus in a catch-22 situation. Squeezed on one side by their donors and on the other by the rigours of fundraising, they are often reduced to peddling a story that protects the very injustices responsible for what they stand against. If they tell the truth and mobilise around alternatives that challenge foundational inequalities, they risk losing the money that enables them to do anything at all.

And this tragic farce is echoed in the policies they advocate. For those policies frequently consist of a-political, technical, market-friendly strategies that leave the market and its unequal property relations entirely unchallenged. They include persuading consumers to ‘shop more responsibly’, encouraging businesses to behave better, or pushing governments to better police the baddies.

This corporatized co-optation channels outrage at systemic injustices away from collective, politicised resistance to them. Abolitionist representatives of the dispossessed tell consumer-citizens that they can buy their way to a better future and that it is their individual responsibility to do so. They thus offer consumers the chance of individual psychological redemption while preventing any political alternative from being born of their rage.

Basic Income as a Way Forward?

So what, then, is to be done? If the modern abolitionist movement wants to be more than a mere fig-leaf for injustice and wishes to achieve more than simply making consumers and activists ‘feel better about feeling bad’, what options does it have? One potentially transformative option would be to rally behind the policy of Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) because of its signal intent to end the economic vulnerability pertaining to propertylessness.

UBI in Theory

UBI has a long and respected pedigree. Tom Paine advocated a version of it as Western capitalism began to take off at the dawn of the American Revolution. It has had modern supporters including various Nobel Laureates and ranging from Bertrand Russell to John Rawls. And now even progressive political parties are taking it up.

The idea is as simple as it is compelling: give everyone a regular stipend sufficient to guarantee their survival, with no strings attached. The money is not designed to make you rich, but to prevent you from going hungry or having to sell yourself into slavery-like labour for want of a better alternative.

In a world where money/property is necessary for survival, the idea is simply to give everyone the necessary minimum. As one of its most celebrated contemporary advocates, Philippe Van Parijs, suggests, it replaces the patchy social safety-nets ‘in which the weakest and the unlucky get trapped, with an unconditional floor on which they can stand’.

‘Is it feasible?’, people ask. Technically-speaking, there are reasons to suggest that it is. The economic viability of large-scale redistribution has already been proved in principle, with welfare states operating on the same basis of progressive tax-and-spend. Likewise, over the course of the pandemic, we have seen states all over the globe find funds to offer unconditional cash to literally billions of the world’s people.

Beyond feasibility, there are arguments that as a policy it could be cheaper and more efficient than other existing systems of social protection. This is because governments everywhere currently spend billions on policies that fail to reach the most vulnerable. In the West, expensive means-testing excludes many of those most in need, while governments subsidise poverty wages and give tax breaks to corporations. In the South, fuel and agriculture subsidies often fail to reach their intended targets as bureaucrats siphon off money to buy political influence. The costs of directly distributing UBI could therefore arguably be offset by reducing other, less efficient programmes and by cutting out the dead weight of political middlemen.

Will people work if they receive it? Very few individuals are satisfied with simple subsistence; almost everyone wants to improve at least the lives of their children. And no advocate wants UBI set high enough to discourage work. Instead, the goal is to give people the ‘real freedom’ to say No! to bad jobs and Yes! to good ones. It is to make consent meaningful by giving people the ability to withhold it. To emancipate them from the economic compulsion that ties them to bad labour, stifles creative energies, and allows the most unscrupulous employers to exploit those most in need.

UBI in Practice

UBI has recently moved from the realm of theory to that of empirics, with data from a range of recent and ongoing trials now widely available. What that data shows is unambiguously positive. To highlight one particularly powerful example, UNICEF recently completed a pilot project with the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India to trial UBI among thousands of villagers in the state of Madhya Pradesh. It was game-changing, in a whole host of ways:

First, it engendered an increase in economic activity, with new small-scale businesses springing up, more work being performed, and more equipment and livestock purchased for the local economy. This is a crucial counterweight to those who argue that giving the poor money renders them feckless or lazy.

Second, those receiving UBI registered improvements in child nutrition, school attendance, school performance, health, healthcare, sanitation and housing. In other words, it ameliorated many of the elements that comprise poverty’s multi-dimensionality, along with those that facilitate its inter-generational transfer.

Third, it had egalitarian outcomes — with greater benefits for women than for men (as women’s relative financial and social autonomy increased), for the disabled than for others, and for the poorest vis-à-vis the wealthy.

Fourth, and most importantly, it had radically emancipatory effects. On the one hand, the increased economic security allowed for greater political participation among the poor. On the other, it freed the poor from the dangers attached to economic vulnerability.

The importance of this simply cannot be overstated. As I have argued throughout this essay, severe labour exploitation results when the poor have to choose this exploitation as the best of their limited set of options. In India, this manifests especially in the phenomenon of debt bondage, which affects millions of people across the country, including in UNICEF’s pilot villages.

Debt bondage functions because money is scarce in some rural areas. This means that predatory money lenders can charge exorbitantly high rates of interest and demand exploitative forms of repayment, which desperate debtors have little choice but to accept. Unless, of course, they benefit from a guaranteed stream of income.

UBI thus represents an incredibly efficient form of social protection. In a world of private property, it gives everyone a minimum stake, in the process ending the economic vulnerability that lies at the very root of exploitation. Although it will not necessarily prevent inequality or lead to a communist utopia, it could change the economic game entirely because it gives everybody the economic security necessary to refuse exploitative terms of exchange. In doing this, it could make the promise of the free market more real. Because only when people are no longer compelled to consent to their coercion may capitalism be said to have transcended its foundational hypocrisy.

Conclusion — A Historic Opportunity

The argument I have made in this essay turns on a very simple premise — that real freedom requires every ‘yes’ to be backed by a potential ‘no’. Despite professing adherence to this principle, contemporary capitalism denies it to most people.

This is why the arbitrary division between ‘free’ and ‘forced’ labour is so patently dishonest. In reality, many people have no alternative to the exploitation offered by their employers. This is capitalism’s original sin. And although it is re-enacted every day on the body of the exploited worker, that re-enactment is hidden precisely by the idea contained in the terms ‘slavery’, ‘trafficking’ and ‘forced labour’.

The modern abolitionist movement has arisen in response to the labour exploitation denoted by such terminology. Yet its current response hinders more than it helps. By positioning this exploitation as an anomaly lying outside the system, abolitionists stifle any possible conversation about how we might organise things differently.

It does not have to be this way. If abolitionists were to be brave, to cast off their honey-trap political constraints, and to unite in speaking truth-to-power, then they have the potential to contribute powerfully to a worldwide movement in the direction of social justice. Indeed, they are arguably uniquely positioned to do so, since they possess extraordinary discursive power. Nobody that has a place at the table is for what we understand as slavery; everybody is against it. This is why the call to end slavery within a generation goes entirely unopposed. It garners allies ranging from the global political and business elite to the Pope himself, with masses of ordinary people regularly signing up to efforts like Walk Free’s Global Movement.

The context of the Covid pandemic and accompanying economic (not to mention climate) crisis affords abolitionists a rare opportunity to push for radical reforms that address the underlying injustices facilitating labour exploitation. They therefore face a choice. Either they can dance to the tune of their funders, play it safe, and advocate the market-friendly policies that will in all likelihood simply stabilise the system just as it has begun to wobble. Or they can be bold and put their weight behind UBI campaigns that aim to end all economic vulnerability.

For let us be clear: although technically and politically challenging, a global basic income is far from beyond human ingenuity. And as a policy proposal, it is rare in being able to unite both left and right. Because what genuine capitalist could possibly object to something that enhances free labour, liberates the entrepreneurial spirit, and makes consent real by giving people the chance to withhold it?

If modern abolitionists have a historic mission, then, it is this: to complete the task of their predecessors, by making freedom not just legal, but economic. If they fail to do so, they risk being judged by history as the unwitting servants of injustices they claimed to challenge.



Dr. Neil Howard, University of Bath. Neil’s research focusses on the governance of exploitative and so-called "unfree" labour and in particular the various forms of it targeted for eradication by the Sustainable Development Goals. He currently leads a pilot in India trialling UBI and participatory as potential policy responses to indecent or exploitative work in Hyderabad, India. Neil is also a founder and editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery (BTS).

Certain portions of this essay were previously published online as commentaries on Al Jazeera English. They are reprinted with permission. A first version of this longer-form essay on the open access blog platform, Medium.

Photo by Anugrah Lohiya from Pexels

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