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Issue #1784      July 5, 2017

For capitalism, see slavery

The family of mining magnate Andrew Forrest recently donated $400 million for cancer research, early childhood development and “social cohesion”. Forrest’s own involvement in charity stems from a 2009 visit to an African orphanage where he met a girl who had been left terribly psychologically damaged after having been subjected to sex slavery. Shocked, he mounted a campaign against slavery and organised a joint pledge by leaders of the Muslim, Catholic and Anglican faiths against the practice.

Concerning religion, Forrest observed: “Wherever we’ve gone around the world we’ve found quite significant gaps: the holy texts, no matter which one you turn to, has ambiguity around slavery. That, we knew, was being used as justification by slavers all over the world.”

Getting religious leaders to jointly condemn slavery is an important contribution to the campaign against slavery, because of its potential to enlist public support. But suppressing slavery necessitates dealing with its root cause, which lies in the profit motive, not religion.

Rulers of all exploitative economies aim to extract from working people the maximum possible surplus value, i.e. the difference between the commodity value they create in their work, and the value of the commodities workers need to ensure they’re at their workplace each day.

Slaves don’t have the right to sell their labour or own the means of producing goods or services. They can’t freely move between places of employment, and must accept their given working and living conditions. They are, in effect, the property of others, and in many cases are traded as a commodity. Marriages and sexual activity that are enforced are now universally recognised as forms of slavery.

Slavery, which underpinned the economies of ancient Greece and Rome, was inherently unstable because of the continuing struggle of slaves to overcome their masters. It was eventually replaced by feudalism and later by capitalism.

Slavery is not suitable for permanent application in developed industries, which require relatively high levels of worker education and motivation. However, it can re-appear in basic agricultural production or as a separate industrial economy within a developed capitalist state.

In Nazi Germany, for example, those classified as sub-human or enemies of the state were forced to work in secondary industries or agriculture, often to death, with some women used as sex slaves. The least productive or “useful” were executed.

Charity didn’t begin at home

Forrest gained public credit for extending financial help to Aboriginal people, but fought a bitter battle with the Yindjibarndi people over land rights in mining areas. In 2014 he wrote the “Creating Parity” report for the Abbott government. It reviewed Indigenous jobs and training, but also recommended changing the entire welfare system for the corporate benefit.

In essence, it assumed that welfare recipients were to blame for their own predicament because they did not want to work and were financially irresponsible. It proposed replacing income support for working age Australians with a welfare card which would enable them to purchase certain necessities of life, but would in effect strip them of the ability to make major financial decisions.

The review recommended replacement of the Technical and Further Education system, which equips students with the skills they need to move from one place of employment to another, with privately-run courses that would train students to work for particular employers.

It contained important recommendations regarding prenatal care and early child development, but advocated Aboriginal assimilation, declaring that Native Title land “generates very little economic wealth or independence for traditional land owners”.

It rejected job creation programs, and concluded that Aboriginal people should migrate to cities and towns, an initiative that would invalidate Native Title claims to the land. Those who relocated would receive help regarding health and education, and private rental relief – but not to the point where they could afford to live in the major cities. Public housing built for Aboriginal people in remote areas would be under freehold title, able to be sold or used for investment.

The Guardian commented: “Native title is a barrier to ... mining expansion and maximising profits. ... [“Creating Parity”] is nothing more than a recipe to dispossess Indigenous Australians, an attempt to extinguish Native Title and wipe out their culture.”

Forest’s anti-slavery campaign

In 2009, Forrest commented: “You see the complete hopelessness in the eyes [of enslaved people]. ... Then you know that you can’t rest until you free them.” In 2014 he founded the Walk Free Foundation, which publishes the Global Slavery index, a list of countries most identified with slavery.

His approach was, however, contradictory. Regarding the Foundation and related institutions he declared: “This is set up like a high-achieving, measurement-driven, totally target-oriented company. It’s like a hard-edged business. We are out to defeat slavery, we are not out to feel good.”

But why not? As a human being he undoubtedly experiences compassion and anger concerning the plight of slaves, yet he sees the characteristics of capitalism, an unfeeling, profit-oriented, “hard-edged”, “measurement- driven” economic system, as the only hope for freeing the enslaved.

And slavery simply carries to its logical extreme the profit motive that underlies capitalism, the very system under which Forrest himself has accumulated his great wealth. Forrest’s anti-slavery campaign will undoubtedly achieve far better outcomes than his “Creating Parity” recommendations, because he has no vested interest in the outcome, but his contribution will be determined by his social consciousness.

In mining negotiations, his profit-driven approach was incompatible with the culture of Aboriginal people, which derives from a non-exploitive form of economy.

That fundamental difference blocked a happy outcome for the Aboriginal people involved. Forrest could persuade some of them to accept his financial inducements, but no amount of money could compensate them for the loss of their culture, sovereignty over land which included their sacred sites, and autonomy over their communities.

Forrest’s campaign to eliminate slavery, the most brutally exploitive economic system, is highly commendable. But in order to achieve that objective, slavery must be replaced with a system that aims to eliminate exploitation itself. Frederich Engels, whose family derived vast profits from capital investments, came to that conclusion.

But it’s highly unlikely that Forest will follow in his footsteps.

Next article – Nurse-patient ratios

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