As even Aristotle acknowledged, natural slavery—the bondage of people who are born to be slaves—is different from other varieties of servitude which Aristotle admitted might sometimes be unjust, such as slavery forced upon the conquered by the conqueror. Yet the condition of slavery itself has not always been the most abject form of servitude, and is not necessarily so today. Some contract labor, though technically free, is more oppressive than many types of conventional bondage. One thinks, for example, of the Chinese “coolies” who were transported in the mid-nineteenth century across the Pacific to the coast of Peru, where they died in appalling numbers from the lethal effects of shoveling sea-bird excrement for the world’s fertilizer market.
The same point applies to much convict labor, which as “involuntary servitude” is specifically made legitimate by the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution as an exception to its national abolition of slavery. While the twentieth century witnessed the slow eradication of most chattel slavery in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it also set wholly new records for cruelty and atrocity to the tens of millions of men, women, and children who were subjected to state servitude by Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Communist China, and smaller totalitarian nations. Even in the southern United States, for instance at the notorious Parchman Farm in Mississippi, those sentenced to prison—most of them African American, and many of them convicted unjustly or for very minor crimes—were subjected to chain gangs and other forms of penal servitude that approximated the Soviet and Chinese gulags.
In contrast to traditional chattel slaves, who usually represented a valuable investment, these political or ethnic prisoners were by definition expendable. As late as the 1990s, testimony from former political prisoners in China has proved once again how torture, constant surveillance, and a near-starvation diet can transform human behavior. Students of slavery should at least be aware that strong-minded men and women admit that in the Chinese camps they fawningly tried to ingratiate themselves with guards, stole food from one another, informed on friends, and finally became convinced that it was their own fault that they were dying from starvation.
More than thirteen hundred years before Aristotle, the Hammurabi Code in Babylonia defined a concept of chattel slavery that served as a way of classifying the lowliest and most dependent workers in society. Among the salient features of this legal status were that once they were owned slaves could be sold or inherited; the same features would reappear through the ages in scores of cultures. Yet in the ancient Near East, as in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the pre-conquest Americas, slavery almost certainly existed long before it was systematized by legal codes. Their effect was to encourage the holders of power to make servitude conform as much as possible to a debased condition of hereditary dishonor and powerlessness that existed before legal codes had been elaborated—much as the holders of power promoted, for themselves, the opposite …