What Slaveholders Think: How Contemporary Perpetrators Rationalize What They Do
By Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick
Review by David Wineberg
We rarely hear from the police in the aftermath of protests and riots. We rarely hear from slave owners about the system. What Slaveholders Think addresses this lack and reveals a lot of very ordinary people, who believe they’re just following custom, and actually helping people. The fact they would talk freely about it all speaks volumes. Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick interviewed workers and holders in India, where slavery is out in the open, common, and entrenched.
The basic argument is that holders are doing their bonded labor a favor, making them like family, caring for their needs, lending them money when no else will and providing work and shelter in a cruel world where caste condemns millions to a zero quality future. In exchange, they ask for hard work, lots of it, with an at-best subsistence living as reward. And it’s not as if the holders are the cotton barons we knew in the USA. It reveals that average trafficker is married, illiterate, just as likely to be a woman as a man, and earning about 4000 dollars a year.
But it’s not quite true. Slaveholders tend to be class/caste snobs. They are incensed that their charges are beginning to understand human rights (“They behave as if we are equals”). Among their fears are mobile phones which workers suddenly seem to have. The tricks of the trade are no different today, either. Owners meet to set wages so there is no advantage to moving. They keep work units small so no union organizing takes place. The company store is outrageously priced, keeping workers in debt. If a worker does well and has saved money, they encourage him to blow it on finer food and drink. Guilt and repression are always available. Beating a slave to death goes unmentioned.
The book is structured backwards. It is not until chapter 6 that we get an overview of why Choi-Fitzpatrick chose India, and the details and history of slavery and bonded servitude there. When the British banned slavery 200 years ago, they exempted the colonies, so the profits could continue streaming in. Today, India has more slaves than any other country – 10-20 million. The biggest part of the problem is that outside the central government, India does not see it as a problem. This chapter 6 is by far the most dynamic, dramatic, fact-filled and readable, and it is bizarre that it occurs so late. As the overview and foundation for the entire book, it is crazily misplaced. All that precedes it is dry and flat. Choi-Fitzpatrick spends the first three quarters of the book trying to put traits into buckets to help characterize who exactly is a slaveholder. It was the purpose of his study, but it should not be the purpose of the book, especially when we discover it only applies to India. He ends by explaining how to combat slavery, which is way out of scope. All this confusion could have been avoided by reordering the chapters.
The study he did is worthwhile, adding new dimensions to the Indian flavor of slavery. It is revealing, disappointing and helpful, all at once. There could be a lot of similar research into other facets of society that seem to have gone terribly wrong. It’s a great idea.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.