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Effects of slavery
December 19, 2005 8:24 AM   Subscribe

What would the world be like if there never was slavery?

I mean, what would the economic, political, cultural, etc. landscape look like today if several nations did not engage in slavery for so many years?

I imagine some countries would be poorer than others, but beyond that, what would things look like?

Thanks!
posted by eas98 to Society & Culture (39 answers total)
 
Do you mean no American slavery of Africans, or no slavery at all at any point in history?
posted by COBRA! at 8:26 AM on December 19, 2005


No Pyramids.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 8:32 AM on December 19, 2005


A history professor of mine said that the industrial revolution would have happened 2,000 years ago if it wasn't for slavery. The fact that labor was cheap or free meant there was no need to build time-saving devices to make it easier to produce work.
posted by knave at 8:34 AM on December 19, 2005


No Rome.
posted by contessa at 8:34 AM on December 19, 2005


theinsectsarewaiting, current opinion holds that the Egyptian pyramids were built by paid craftsmen and laborers, not slaves.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:35 AM on December 19, 2005


No Great Wall.
posted by Brittanie at 8:37 AM on December 19, 2005


Also, many of the stories in the first half (i.e. the "old" half) of the Bible would not exist.
posted by Brittanie at 8:39 AM on December 19, 2005


America would be a lot less wealthy then it is. I have a (unproven) theory that capitalism requires some amount of unpaid, or underpaid, labor in order to function. Slavery is/was just an iteration of that.
posted by edgeways at 8:43 AM on December 19, 2005


edgeways writes "I have a (unproven) theory that capitalism requires some amount of unpaid, or underpaid, labor in order to function. "

Yeah, that's basically Marx in a tiny nutshell. (Literal Marx, but still...)
posted by fionab at 8:48 AM on December 19, 2005


How do you define slavery?

1. Most people agree that a person who is captured against their will and forced to do some task is effectively a slave.

2. Some people argue that people who feel obliged by circumstances to do work they would prefer not to do are also slaves. Illegal immigrants doing below-minimum wage work usually qualify for this definition. A smaller number of people are comfortable calling well-off middle class workers who are drowning in debt from their mortgage, car payments, and kids' college funds are effectively slaves as well.

3. A very small number of people reference ancient Roman and Greek thought on freedom and claim that anyone obliged to pay a gross tax (such as the US income tax) is not truely free, and therefore a slave.

Once you have a definition of who is and who isn't a slave, it is still hard to find a large social set that hasn't included slaves in its number for a significant period of time. Until the last 200-500 years, almost every nation across the world had a large slave population. Today nations depend on a large body of people who are effectively obliged to do work, but largely consider themselves "free."


I agree that the industrial revolution would have happened 2000 years ago, if the Romans dropped slaves then. I'm not sure if the Romans would have developed pre-industrial technology without access to slaves.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:51 AM on December 19, 2005


The process of primitive capital accumulation would have taken much, much longer to play out... if at all.
posted by onshi at 8:52 AM on December 19, 2005


Before anyone thinks I am defending slavery, please don't, thanks. Not advocating slavery or genocide or war or anything like that, just giving my opinion of history.

OK, disclaimer done, slavery in ancient warfare held a practical purpose. Occupying armies upon capturing a new land would have to deal with the occupied population. What do you do with the residents of a city once you capture it? You could kill everyone, but then who is going to work the mines or fields or manufactories that make the city worth taking in the fist place? Sometimes famine or war or simple underpopulation in another part of your territories leaves you without workers in your own mines or fields or whatever, what to do? The answer, for these ancient despots was slavery. Round up the people and force them to work for their new overlords. Serfdom, well that's just a localized version of slavery.

So anyway, in ancient times, slavery was vital to providing a labor base to support those great leaps in thinking and technology that were made. Archemedes wouldn't have had much time to develop his screw had there not been slaves enough to grow the food he was going to eat. Ovid couldn't have waxed poetic all night, had he not had an army of slaves in Apamea squishing out olive oil for his lamp. Julius would have never made it to Gaul if slaves weren't clinking away in the iron mines to make his swords and shields.

By the renaissance, technology and population changes made slavery fairly unnecessary to support the people in the old world of Europe, but with the new world opening up, there was a massive labor shortage again. What to do? The locals in America all get sick and die when we make them live in cities and tend fields for some reason, well, time to go get some cheap labor. This time slavery takes a different form. Rather than enslaving the neighbors, with the birth of global commerce, we can trade slaves like a commodity. We'll go pick them up like we would ingots of copper or jugs of wine and ship them in to change the face of the new world.

So what would have happened? Well, in those ancient times where the best technology was the sweat of a person's brow, not much. The concept of a nation hadn't been born yet so, you couldn't get people to just work for the good of the land and their fellow ___-ians. In post renaissance days, not much would have happened in the new world either. I would say that Americans would all be speaking Nahuatl, but even the Aztecs and friends would have been nowhere without slave labor.

Now, I'm not saying that nothing could have happened with a more egalitarian system, but it sure did make things easier for the ruling class to have ready labor.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:55 AM on December 19, 2005


There'd be a big shortfall in not just wealth, but also knowledge, e.g. medicine and surgery and other "scientific research" (inc. weapons and negative effects of things).

Also, mining wouldn't be as well developed (perhaps a good thing); the British road system (developed by the Romans) wouldn't be as good; many aqueducts would not have been built, and thus the growth of cities would have been stunted due to the lack of irrigation.

Child slave labour was pretty common during the boom of the industrial revolution, without which lots of common things would never have appeared...
... and also, just think how many more chimney fires there would have been if there were so many little children-slaves being sent up to sweep the chimneys!
posted by Chunder at 9:01 AM on December 19, 2005


Carribean countries wouldn't have tasty curries.
posted by furtive at 9:10 AM on December 19, 2005


No Walmart.
posted by meehawl at 9:13 AM on December 19, 2005


No Nike

etc
posted by meehawl at 9:13 AM on December 19, 2005


Some of our wars would have ended sooner.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:25 AM on December 19, 2005


Without today's slavery, chocolate would be much more expensive.

There isn't a lot of written material in English available about the protest of Dutch journalist Teun van der Keuken that the labour of child slaves is used on the cocao plantations, but there's a video with English subtitles [RealMedia], and the BBC Radio interviewed him [WMA].
posted by ijsbrand at 9:33 AM on December 19, 2005


The book Pastwatch, the Redemption of Christopher Columbus is a scifi fantasy book about this very premise. Some historians of the future decide that a key ingredient in the dire state of the planet was because of the institution of slavery, and they decide that Columbus is a key figure they need to influence to change that. I hate Orson Scott Card's politics, but he sure can write.
posted by jasper411 at 10:00 AM on December 19, 2005


No Great Wall.
posted by Brittanie at 8:37 AM PST on December 19 [!]


Huh!? I don't recall ever hearing about slavery in China, and I took a few Chinese history courses.
posted by delmoi at 10:36 AM on December 19, 2005


America would be a lot less wealthy then it is. I have a (unproven) theory that capitalism requires some amount of unpaid, or underpaid, labor in order to function. Slavery is/was just an iteration of that.

Actually, most of the wealth in antebellum* America was created in the north. Pure slavery is a type of communism if you think about it (since the slaves arn't paid). Sort of. maybe not. Either way, the slave free North was creating most of the wealth and the south was mostly an agrarian society producing little, which is why we pwnd them in the civil war.

*I can't tell you how long I've been waiting to use that word in context :P
posted by delmoi at 10:39 AM on December 19, 2005


Chunder -

There'd be a big shortfall in not just wealth [...]


There's a couple of responses like this one above. I think it should be pointed out that the orthodox economic opinion would be just the opposite. Slavery is a textbook example of "rent", a market distortion that reduces the overall productive capacity of the economy. A functioning labor market should do a better job of directing labor to where it is most productive than guys with whips and dogs.
posted by bonecrusher at 10:39 AM on December 19, 2005


I second jasper411's recommendation of Pastwatch.
posted by Plutor at 10:48 AM on December 19, 2005


I should have qualified it and limited the discussion to the period of slavery of a couple hundred years ago. Further back is interesting, but it is too difficult to speculate on such a large time period.

So, let's talk about African slavery, and not just by the US.
posted by eas98 at 11:08 AM on December 19, 2005


I disagree that slavery was strictly required at any point in human history, not that I'd expect ancient tyrants not to be disagreeable, but I think we could have gotten along just fine without it.
posted by delmoi at 11:09 AM on December 19, 2005


eas98: I think it's pretty clear that the south's dependence on slavery crippled it economically in the long run.
posted by delmoi at 11:12 AM on December 19, 2005


the slave free North was creating most of the wealth and the south was mostly an agrarian society producing little

Please note that North was not slave-free.

posted by nobody at 11:13 AM on December 19, 2005


I think it should be pointed out that the orthodox economic opinion would be just the opposite. Slavery is a textbook example of "rent", a market distortion that reduces the overall productive capacity of the economy.

That may be true, but remember that slave labor could still be bought and sold by the owners. Rather then individuals deciding to work in the zinc mine rather then the iron mine, for more money, owners could decide to send their slaves to the zinc mine themselves.
posted by delmoi at 11:14 AM on December 19, 2005


nobody: well, the northern economy was not slave-driven, is what I mean.
posted by delmoi at 11:17 AM on December 19, 2005


The industrial revolution, if it happened at all in the US, would have looked very different. A whole lot of the industries participating in this revolution were dedicated to producing textiles Textiles came from cotton. And we all know where cotton came from.
posted by Clay201 at 12:41 PM on December 19, 2005


No Passover!
posted by Asparagirl at 1:20 PM on December 19, 2005


Delmoi, the Northern economy WAS slave-driven: before they turned to whaling after the British outlawed the slave trade and began policing the Atlantic, the ports of the Northeast were preoccupied with the "Triangle trade." See also here and the links from there on. Basically, the merchant families of New England accumulated the capital to build mills to process cotton by selling slaves and killing whales. (Then when the cotton mills became unprofitable they became venture capitalsts, etc. etc.) One good reference is Hugh Thomas' book The Slave Trade.

Anyway, without African slavery in "the New World" there would have been no United States, at least not one that reached far below the Mason-Dixon line. Growing tobacco, rice and cotton in the hot sun are the kinds of jobs white people are just not going to do, which is why America needs "illegal immigrants." Thanks to that category of "non-white employments" (and Mr. Lincoln), here in Kentucky there are now more Aztecs and Maya than Cherokee or Shawnee. (I think it's obvious why more American blacks don't do those jobs anymore.)
posted by davy at 2:28 PM on December 19, 2005


I wonder whether we'd still have jazz or the blues.
posted by emelenjr at 2:31 PM on December 19, 2005


"I wonder whether we'd still have jazz or the blues."

I think not. No rock-&-roll either, including no Rolling Stones. Those are based on African-American patterns: no slavery, no African-Americans.
posted by davy at 2:39 PM on December 19, 2005


I think a big part of why the industrialised nations began deprecating slavery during the early part of the 19th century was that the industrial revolution really got going and began to utilise fossil fuels (coal) in serious quantity. And then cue the canals to ferry said coal to factories.

I think it's no coincidence that one of the first nations to abolish slavery was the United Kingdom, which at the time enjoyed a significant advantage in terms of industrialisation and access to fossil fuels. And also that it was the northeast part of the US, with plentiful hydro, wind, and fossil fuel alternatives to human labour sources, that deprecated slavery ahead of other, less industrialised regions.

Makes you wonder how fashionable slavery might get upon the exhaustion of fossil fuels...
posted by meehawl at 3:14 PM on December 19, 2005


what would the ... landscape look like today if several nations did not engage in slavery for so many years?

Seems like a question that's open to extreme interpretation (several nations ... so many years). Does this mean "no slavery, ever" or "What if the American Civil War started in 1780 instead of 1860?"

There were already African slaves in the Americas, dating back to the 1600s (or even earlier, perhaps). Unless you're writing a specific alt-history fiction with a specific backstory that makes specific assumptions, there's no real way to paint a good picture.

No rock-&-roll either, including no Rolling Stones.

Prediction: Mick Jagger is hands-down the coolest economics professor at Cambridge.
posted by frogan at 4:12 PM on December 19, 2005


delmoi -

Most of the laborers on the Wall were foriegn slaves (much like the Romans used) and poor villagers who were kidnapped by soldiers and forced to labor.

According to www.sevenwondersworld.com/ (among other sources), the wall was built by more than "3,000,000 slaves. More than 90% of the slaves who built the Great Wall were brought from Macao, a tiny peninsula in southeast China that was a Portuguese colony at that time. It was returned back to China in 1999. It was a famous tourist center at that time and cheap labor was available there."

Also, one of China's most beloved fables is the story of Meng Jiangnu, a bride whose husband was kidnapped on their wedding night and forced to become a wall laborer. Jiangnu travelled in ice and snow for a week to find her husband, but arrived too late, as he had already died from malnutrition and exhaustion.

Her resulting wails of sadness were so forceful that they caused an entire section of the wall to collapse.
posted by Brittanie at 4:45 PM on December 19, 2005


The idea that the industrial revolution would have happened sooner sounds like horse pucky to me. Yes, that steam-powered Greek statue etc. etc.

The things that cost money to laborers: food, shelter, clothing, health upkeep, would still cost money to the people that owned them as slaves. By force of jackboot you can make the workers accept a lower level of these things than they like, and it's certainly easier in a temperate climate. But I don't think the difference in labor real costs between 200BC and those pampered fat-ass laborers of 1800 was very important.

I bet transportation technology played a much bigger role, and speaking further out of my ass, suppose that the economies to be gained from slavery increased the desire for faster and farther transportation innovations which increased effective demand which prompted great desire for centralization and automation and hence the industrial revolution itself. So there.

It's about the ability of technology to surpass the limits of labor efficiency, not merely be more efficient at the same level of output. Railroads move things around better than armies of coolies, but there was still ultra-cheap labor (and coolie-work) around to build the railroads themselves.
posted by fleacircus at 8:53 PM on December 19, 2005


Slavery still exists. And slaves are cheaper than ever.
posted by matkline at 11:03 PM on December 19, 2005


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