Fraying at the edges

Defining "slavery"

Before exploring what he means, let’s define slavery itself. What makes a slave different from a serf, a peon, captive or inmate is their lack of social ties. In legal terms, at least, a slave has no family, no kin, no community; they can make no promises and forge no ongoing connections with other human beings. This is why the English word ‘free’ is actually derived from a root meaning ‘friend’. Slaves could not have friends because they could not make commitments to others, since they were entirely under someone else’s power and their only obligation was to do exactly what their master said. If a Roman legionary was captured in battle and enslaved, then managed to escape and return home, he had to go through an elaborate process of restoring all his social relationships, including remarrying his wife, since the act of enslaving him was considered to have severed all previous relationships. The West Indian sociologist Orlando Patterson has referred to this as a condition of ‘social death’.35

Unsurprisingly, the archetypical slaves are usually war captives, who are typically far from home amid people who owe them nothing. There is another practical reason for turning war captives into slaves. A slave’s master has a responsibility to keep them alive in a fit state to work. Most human beings need a good deal of care and resources, and can usually be considered a net economic loss until they are twelve or sometimes fifteen years old. It rarely makes economic sense to breed slaves – which is why, globally, slaves have so often been the product of military aggression (though many were also products of debt traps, punitive judicial decisions or banditry). Seen one way, a slave-raider is stealing the years of caring labour another society invested to create a work-capable human being.36

dawn-of-everythingch. 5

Compare: atomisation of "slaves" and atomisation of the modern "individual" (esp. wrt migration)

Kings have no kin

This makes sense because kings, as the Malagasy proverb puts it, ‘have no relatives’ – or they shouldn’t, since they are rulers equally of all their subjects. Slaves too have no kin; they are severed from all prior attachments. In either case, the only recognized social relationships such individuals possess are those based on power and domination. In structural terms, and as against almost everyone else in society, kings and slaves effectively inhabit the same ground. The difference lies in which end of the power spectrum they happen to occupy.

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There is a great tapestry coming apart at the edges, resplendent but threadbare at the very top, and just a great mass of strings at the very bottom.


dawn-of-everything Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Signal. ↩︎ 1 2