Human Trafficking As A (Non-) Metaphor For Our Times

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Human Trafficking As A (Non-) Metaphor For Our Times

Next to genocide and war, human trafficking is about the most disgusting thing I can think of.

For those unfamiliar with the term, human trafficking refers to what is essentially slavery (and I think those who oppose such atrocities would be smart, from a marketing perspective, just to call it that), whether that refers to people trafficked as sexual objects, unpaid labor, or whatever other form of exploitation is involved.

Here we are in the twenty-first century, and this is what Wikipedia says about the extent of the problem: "Trafficking is a lucrative industry. It is now the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Globally, it is tied with the illegal arms trade, as the second largest criminal activity, following the drug trade. Human trafficking usually affects women and children. The total annual revenue for trafficking in persons is estimated to be between USD$5 billion and $9 billion. The Council of Europe states, ‘People trafficking has reached epidemic proportions over the past decade, with a global annual market of about $42.5 billion.' The United Nations estimates nearly 2.5 million people from 127 different countries are being trafficked around the world."

How grim is that?

I'd be happy to write a column opposing the evils of human trafficking, except that it would be an awfully short piece. It's like arguing against, well, war or genocide. Who in their right mind hasn't already figured out the horrors of slavery? And for those who have not (and it's sickening to contemplate the number of people who must be involved - both as buyers and sellers - in order to support a $5-9 billion ‘industry' in slavery), what could one possibly say to change their minds (that is, to make them human), anyhow?

I trust everyone reading this has already figured out that slavery is not okay. But what most Americans do not understand today is the extent to which human trafficking is a metaphor for the American system of political economy these last decades.

And, worse, the degree to which the concept is becoming less metaphorical every day, and more directly representative of our current condition.

Exploitation is what is at the core of slavery. It is an economic relationship that represents the very height of twisted human relations conducted by predatory sociopaths, in which an arrogant few see the rest of us as mere tools for their enrichment and gratification. In their minds, we exist to be exploited no less than does the oil in the ground or the rivers into which they dump pollutants. All of us are there to serve, and we are theirs to serve. Our function is their benefit and their pleasure. Such psychologically unwell individuals find it unfathomable that others might want a life for their own purposes rather to fulfill someone else's extravagant cravings, and find it maximally irritating when any of the rest of us are rude enough to demand being treated accordingly. Free and independent human beings seeking their own modest happiness in life? What an annoyance.

Such people have always existed, of course, but the last two centuries or so have witnessed remarkable changes in human consciousness on this question. Once fixed relationships of exploitation that had lasted for millennia have yielded to historically astonishing claims of equality and to equally unprecedented demands for respect and dignity. In the nineteenth century, slaves and non-slaves alike rose up and demanded an end to that most abhorrent practice. Over the subsequent century, industrial workers forced plutocrats to carve off enough of their riches so that the masses could work reasonable hours, under reasonable conditions, for reasonable amounts of pay. In our time, women and gays and various minority ethnic groups have forced society to treat them with far a greater respect and equality than was ever the case before.

As basic as these notions seem to the conscience of any moderately progressive (or even moderately moderate) soul today, it is well worth remembering how historically unique they are. We live in a moment unlike 99 percent of human history with regard to these concepts of equality and human rights.

But it is slipping away now, and fast.

I find it telling that over the course of the last generation ‘personnel' departments of corporations have instead been relabeled ‘human resources'. I doubt that's an accident. It speaks to a changed relationship between haves and have-nots. We are resources in their minds, commodities, production inputs, expense lines. The only difference between us and a bundle of ball-bearings or a bag of bauxite is that we resources that are human sometimes get a bit pesky. We require so much more handling and care than non-human resources.

But why dwell on nomenclature and symbolism, though, when we can point directly to statistical evidence, to policies and to outcomes?

It's easily done (for now), and yet the most astonishing and frustrating thing about our time in history is that the most significant political development of the era has been completely hidden in plain sight.

What is it? The most salient political fact about the present moment is that a massive transfer of wealth is well under way, undoubtedly the greatest in all of human history. Middle class - or, increasingly now, formerly middle class - working class and poor Americans are being savaged by oligarchs and their hired-hand kleptocrats running the government on their behalf. The wealthy are vastly richer today than they were thirty years ago, and the rest of us are lucky just to have held our ground, not having improved our condition one bit from what it was in 1980. Actually, those really are the fortunate ones. Many are less lucky, and have been losing jobs and houses - and, what usually follows: marriages and health and life itself - because of this plundering.

Bill Quigley recently summarized the damage: "We now have the highest number of poor people in 51 years. One in five children in the US is poor; one in ten senior citizens is poor. Fifty million people in the US lack health insurance. Women in the US have a greater lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy-related conditions than women in 40 other countries. About 3.5 million people, about one-third of which are children, are homeless at some point in the year in the US. There are 49 million people in the US who live in households which eat only because they receive food stamps, visit food pantries or soup kitchens for help. Sixteen million are so poor they have skipped meals or foregone food at some point in the last year. This is the highest level since statistics have been kept. Wages have not kept up with inflation; adjusted for inflation they have lost ground over the past ten years. The cost of housing, education and health care have all increased at a much higher rate than wages and salaries. In 1967, the middle 60 percent of households received over 52% of all income. In 1998, it was down to 47%. The share going to the poor has also fallen, with the top 20% seeing their share rise. A record 2.8 million homes received a foreclosure notice in 2009, higher than both 2008 and 2007. In 2010, the rate is expected to be rise to 3 million homes. For the first time since the 1940s, the real incomes of middle-class families are lower at the end of the business cycle of the 2000s than they were at the beginning. Despite the fact that the American workforce is working harder and smarter than ever, they are sharing less and less in the benefits they are creating. The wealth of the richest 400 people in the US grew by 8% in the last year to $1.37 trillion. Income disparity in the US is now as bad as it was right before the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. From 1979 to 2006, the richest 1% more than doubled their share of the total US income, from 10% to 23%. For the last 25 years, over 90% of the total growth in income in the US went to the top 10% earners - leaving 9% of all income to be shared by the bottom 90%. In 1973, the average US CEO was paid $27 for every dollar paid to a typical worker; by 2007 that ratio had grown to $275 to $1. Since 1992, the average tax rate on the richest 400 taxpayers in the US dropped from 26.8% to 16.62%. The US has the greatest inequality between rich and poor among all Western industrialized nations and it has been getting worse for 40 years. The US ranking of 45 in 2007 is the same as Argentina, Cameroon, and Cote d'Ivoire."

And so on. The disparities are so bad that "Rich people live an average of about five years longer than poor people in the US." Meanwhile, Time Magazine is publishing a story on massively declining marriage rates in America, and one of their conclusions is that only the well-off can afford to get married anymore. How ‘bout them conservative family values in action, eh buddy?

It's said that the perfect crime is one that is never even noticed. Well, that's certainly the case here. This economic rape of 300 million people and the consequences it is having for their increasingly short, nasty and brutish lives is about as big a political phenomenon as they come, and yet hardly anyone is talking about it. But I think we can go even one better than perfect in this case. If the perfect crime is one that isn't noticed, then the perfecter crime is one in which the victim begs for more.

Look at us. Most of us are either broken or breaking under the weight of the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Both of these disasters were brought to us by the very same people, doing the very same things, for the very same motivations. It's bad enough that we're such fools that we've condemned ourselves to repeat Gilded Age history (this time as farce) during these last thirty years of Reaganism/Bushism. But three weeks ago we came back for a third helping, electing the exact same people we had just got done throwing out of office for felonious economic depredation only two years ago. How sick is that?

Admittedly, the fact that the pathetic excuse of an alternative to the Grand Old (Bend Over ‘Cause We're Gonna Use You For A) Party is so absolutely anemic and determinedly ineffectual didn't help in this election. Nor did the fact that you effectively only get two choices in American politics. But, I mean, come on, man! Can American voters really be so certifiably certifiable as to have returned the Corporate Cons back to power in 2010? Already? Promising to do the very same things they did before, only more so?

Evidently they can. As we speak, the right in Washington (meaning all Republicans and nearly all Democrats, including the president and his team of Goldman Sachs scam artists running an economy of the rich, by the rich, and mos def for the rich - who pretend opposition even while already staging their cave-in) is now fulminating about the absolute necessity of maintaining full Bush era tax ‘cuts' to the income of people after their first quarter million bucks, while demanding that the pathetic pittance of unemployment insurance payments be shut off in the middle of the economic holocaust these people created, to make sure we don't encourage laziness amongst the indolent worker bees, doncha know. Never mind that the latter is an excellent economic stimulus and the former is lousy. Never mind that the right is supposedly outraged by deficits and their tax plan would blow another $700 billion dollar hole in the national debt. And never mind that when you are borrowing money to finance tax ‘cuts', they aren't tax cuts at all - they are tax burden transfers, from the rich to the rest of us, and from the old to the young. With added interest, of course.

But these are not only the policies of the old American government, they are the policies of the existing American government, and they are especially the policies of the new American government (where's Pete Townshend when you need him?). If the perfect crime is the one that is unnoticed, and the perfecter crime is the one where victims ask for more, I guess then that the perfectest crime is one in which the victims cannot even recognize the perpetrators for what they are - enemies seeking to do them harm. If you think about it, we live in a truly breathtaking moment in American history. People have lost even the capacity to recognize friend from foe. Rapacious corporate bloodsuckers impoverish us at every turn, and we don't even seem to notice, let alone act in our defense. Yet we increasingly hate our government, the only actor out there - short of our own revolution - that can protect us from this enemy. It is as if, on December 8, 1941, we declared war on the United States Navy rather than the Empire of Japan. Brilliant.

The story of the last three decades in America is the story of predation. It is the tale of wealthy people who demanded to be made super-wealthy instead, and decided that it was a crime against nature for nine-tenths of the population to have anything at all. It is a true crime yarn in which these aristocrats hired first Republicans and then Democrats to do their bidding in Washington, with predictable results.

And its been a huge success. On every key economic front, regressives have won the policy battles of these last thirty years.

They said tax cuts for the wealthy would bring the government increased revenues and would produce jobs for the rest of us. Progressives called these trickle-down lies nonsense, but lost the fight. Now look at our surpluses. Look at our prosperity.

They said that ‘free-trade' treaties would be good for America and make us better off. Progressives said that NAFTA, WTO and the rest would lead to American jobs being exported abroad. Now, when an American president goes to India and China, late-night comics tell jokes about how he's over there visiting our jobs.

They said that the economy was being hamstrung by excessive governmental regulation. Progressives tried to remind people of what had happened last time the country lacked legislation like Glass-Steagall and lacked regulation of dangerous industry. You know, stuff like Wall Street going crazy in a fit of greed, knowing that the government would back their bad bets, and crashing the global economy in the process. Stuff like BP recklessly and repeatedly endangering our lives and livelihoods in order to squeeze every penny of profit they could out of dangerous oil drilling projects.

They said that we had to slash government spending on real people because we couldn't afford it anymore. Progressives argued that this would result in folks being thrown into abject poverty with no social safety net even to keep them barely alive. Now Bill Clinton admits that killing welfare in order to buy himself a second term as president (which he used to do precisely nothing whatsoever, above his desk or under it) may not have been the best idea, after all, whilst the country today competes with the likes of Argentina, Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire to see who can produce the ugliest wealth inequalities.

They said that labor unions were hampering American competitiveness, even though the US had absolutely dominated the global economy for decades. Progressives responded that the existing laws governing labor relations were fair to both sides, and gave working people a chance for the first time ever to secure a moderate slice of economic justice. But they lost, and unions have been clobbered ever since. The share of the US workforce protected by organized labor has shrunk from about one-third to less than ten percent, and people's incomes not surprisingly reflect that. This week, the New York Times reports that it is getting worse still: "Organized labor appears to be losing an important battle in the Great Recession. Even at manufacturing companies that are profitable, union workers are reluctantly agreeing to tiered contracts that create two levels of pay. In years past, two-tiered systems were used to drive down costs in hard times, but mainly at companies already in trouble. And those arrangements, at the insistence of the unions, were designed, in most cases, to expire in a few years. Now, the managers of some marquee companies are aiming to make this concession permanent. If they are successful, their contracts could become blueprints for other companies in other cities, extending a wage system that would be a startling retreat for labor."

Jesus Christ, we have to stop kidding ourselves about what we're looking at here. Just as traffickers see their slaves as pure commodities that just happen to have attached arms and legs and tongues and brains, so too do the wealthy in America see the rest of us.

And, increasingly, this is no metaphor. The grand political story of our time is the story of legalized robbery, human exploitation and economic injustice. The rest of it - the Overseas Wars for Dummies, the electorally convenient coded racism, the homophobia manufactured by closeted gay GOP operatives, the whole culture wars shtick - all of it is total bullshit, intended to keep people from noticing the exquisitely manicured fingers inserting industrial grade vacuum cleaners into their every pocket.

I don't have too much doubt that people are going to figure this out eventually and demand some meaningful change in an attempt to redress these crimes, although of course nobody ever went broke betting against the intelligence of the American public. Moreover, regressives have become so expert at framing conventional wisdom, at fear-mongering, history-erasing, outright lying and dumbing down the public that I wonder if people will be able to even imagine an alternative vision for our society. Despite the fact that they actually don't have to imagine it at all. Not so many years ago, we lived it.

In any case, what concerns me more than the question of whether this happens is when it happens, and at what cost it comes to reclaim a stolen country.

Greedy thieves and their political puppets are unlikely to give up their booty lightly, especially when they may have to give up more than that, as did, in the end, Mussolini and Ceausescu.

What's truly distressing, however, is the degree to which we're not even talking about this most significant of political phenomena, even as its vortex sucks us down and drowns us dead.

It's as if the slaves of the pre-Civil War South were actually as happy as their white masters liked to claim they were.

Or perhaps as if they were genuinely unhappy, but blamed their problems on the weather, instead of on slavery, and on those who exploited them so completely and so ruthlessly.

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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