Disposable People

by Kevin Bales


This is an important book. Despite its defects I can highly recommend it to pretty much everyone because the entire world would benefit from its being read. I greatly admire Bales for his part in spreading the word on modern-day slavery, and I plan on doing my part by telling people and passing the book on to others.

The most interesting chapters are the first two on prostitution in Thailand and “old slavery” in Mauritania. The shock value probably has a lot to do with it, as well as the dumbfounding surprise of learning about the vestiges of ancient slavery still alive and well in West Africa. Before reading this book or talking to someone who had, how many people would imagine that houseslaves still exist as a matter of course throughout an entire country?

The subsequent chapters (Brazil, Pakistan and India) lose some of their power, probably as a result of following these first two. The information and Bales’ discourse gets a little repetitive. Also, his writing style is a little irritating. I would have preferred a more rigorous and academic style. As it is, Bales writes a little too informally and emotionally, which sacrifices some of his argument’s strength. The facts are compelling enough to support his case without resorting to sentimentality.

Additionally, there are some holes that he touches upon but leaves largely unexplored, mostly in relation to Mauritania. He mentions the extremely entrenched nature of slavery in the country and the huge obstacles abolitionists face not only in providing incentives for slaveholders to give up their slaves, but also in convincing the slaves that freedom is preferable to slavery. It is the ultimate case where the slaves actually want to remain enslaved. To me, this is a jumping off point for an incredibly fascinating moral and philosophical discussion, although I’ll admit that it’s probably outside the scope of Bales’ work. The same mentality is present to a lesser degree in every single country he discusses.

More relevant to this book (and a less forgivable omission) is the fact that virtually none of the solutions he mentions in the last chapter would be feasible in Mauritania. None of the economic incentives to end slavery could be brought to bear since the country itself is so poor and barely affects the global economy in the first place. Likewise, the government could not be pressured because they are owned by the slaveholders, and they would simply align themselves further with other hardline Muslim nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in response to international pressure. If Bales sincerely could not think of any solutions to that specific case, he should have at least mentioned it.

Also, in discussing debt bondage in Brazil, Pakistan and India, it struck me that he somewhat arbitrarily separates “slaves” from the rest of the oppressed wage laborers and sweatshop workers. To me it seems very much a sliding scale, especially when he’s emphasizing the subtlety of modern-day slavery. He doesn’t fully convince on why battling slavery is so much more important than the battle against all unfair working/sweatshop conditions. They seem too similar to me to really be able to separate the way he does. For that reason as well the chapters on Thailand and Mauritania really stand out.

Overall it is a good and informative read. It is perhaps not as shocking to me because I’ve already read most of Derrick Jensen‘s stuff, and he is harsher in his analysis of modern-day civilization.


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