Slavery was a core part of civilization for most of history

Anarchists are hard to find nowadays, and scholars who advocate anarchy are extremely rare, but James C. Scott is one such scholar and his work is excellent even if I disagree with his anarchist leanings.  Although his work is highly critical of what he calls “states” he defines a state as having a hierarchical power structure that can project power over more than perhaps a couple thousand people and across a sizeable area.  He believes that small-scale societies provide a better way of life than states.

In his book, Against The Grain, Scott follows in Jared Diamond‘s footsteps in studying the rise of early agriculture and then early civilizations. Scott makes a persuasive case that “states” (which I think are more aptly called empires) did not arise until thousands of years after agriculture first developed and he explains the conditions that are conducive to the first empires are relatively rare around the world.

The first empires required high population densities which required highly-productive agriculture. They first arose in the loess soils of the fertile crescent, Nile valley, and Yellow River. Scott claims that flat terrain was important for easy irrigation and farming and that slow rivers were important for transportation of soldiers for policing and for trade. This doesn’t explain other cradles of civilizations like central Mexico or the Incan highlands, but his logic makes sense.

One of the biggest problems with Scott’s analysis is his omission of Malthusian dynamics. Scott (and Jared Diamond) believe that small-scale societies were much better off than imperial societies because there was much more disease and famine in imperial states than in small-scale civilizations. This is well documented, but that doesn’t mean that small-scale civilizations were free of trouble.

Scott recognizes that the population growth rate of small-scale societies was slower than the population growth of civilizations and if people weren’t dying off from disease and famine, what kept the populations so small? Steven Pinker‘s answer is violence. Pinker finds evidence that violence in hunter-gatherer societies and other small-scale groups was much higher than in later empires. Scott argues that fertility was lower in hunter-gatherer societies, but that is not clear and what is clear is that hunter-gatherers were healthier and physically more able to have more children and that they did indeed have high fertility rates. The average fertility could not have been much less than four children per woman and that means that at least half of people born in hunter-gatherer societies would have to die before they could reproduce on average in order to explain approximately zero long-run population growth in small-scale societies for hundreds of thousands of years. The most likely reason for high mortality in small-scale societies was violent death.

Empires do engage in massive warfare, but many hunter-gathers were famously combative and empires at least suppress violence within their boundaries.

Scott also documents that slavery was endemic in all early civilizations in many different forms. He recognizes that it was also common in small-scale societies, but he speculates that it was worse in empires. Here is a quote from V. Gordon Childe’s book, Man Makes Himself:

“men as well as animals can be domesticated. Instead of killing a defeated enemy, he might be enslaved; in return for his life he might be made to work. This discovery has been compared in importance to that of the taming of animals… By early historic times slavery was a foundation of ancient industry and a potent instrument in the accumulation of capital.”

In modern civilizations, the state takes resources via taxation. In early civilizations, taxation was difficult because there was little surplus and money was rarely used by most people. Scott argues that grain production was essential to the rise of taxation because it was a standardized unit of production that was relatively easy to measure. In essence, grain served as a kind of money for the purposes of measuring the value of production that states could tax.

[A] peasantry… will not automatically produce a surplus that elites might appropriate, but must be compelled to produce it. Under the demographic conditions of early state formation, when the means of traditional production were still plentiful and not monopolized, only through one form or another of unfree, coerced labor—corvée labor, forced delivery of grain or other products, debt bondage, serfdom, communal bondage and tribute, and various forms of slavery—was a surplus brought into being.

Each of the earliest states deployed its own unique mix of coerced labor, as we shall see, but it required a delicate balance between maximizing the state surplus on the one hand and the risk of provoking the mass flight of subjects on the other, especially where there was an open frontier.

Only much later, when the world was, as it were, fully occupied and the means of production privately owned or controlled by state elites, could the control of the means of production (land) alone suffice, without institutions of bondage, to call forth a surplus. So long as there are other subsistence options, as Ester Boserup noted in her classic work, “it is impossible to prevent the members of the lower class from finding other means of subsistence unless they are made personally unfree. When population becomes so dense that land can be controlled it becomes unnecessary to keep the lower classes in bondage; it is sufficient to deprive the working class of the right to be independent cultivators”—foragers, hunter-gatherers, swiddeners, pastoralists.

There were various tools used to prevent slaves from escaping when they came from nearby. Male slaves were often chained or imprisoned in a work site at a mine or on a galley of a ship. Slaves were separated from their relatives and mixed with unrelated ethnic groups that had no history of trusting one another. Athens and Rome were seafaring powers who brought slaves from multiple places across the Mediterranean which made escape back to home virtually impossible. For nearby slave raids it was common practice that:

The towns and villages of the defeated peoples were generally destroyed so that there was nothing to go back to. In theory, the plunder belonged to the ruler, but in practice the loot was divided up, with the generals and individual soldiers taking their own livestock and prisoners to keep, ransom, or sell.

For similar reasons, it was hard for European colonists to enslave Native Americans in North America.  They had an easy time slipping away back to native populations (plus, they were susceptible to numerous Old World diseases and kept dying off).  Native Americans were the first slaves but African slaves had a much harder time escaping and finding refuge in native communities and they were already resistant to disease so African slavery displaced Native American slavery in the South although there were still some Native American slaves into the 1800s.  The Spaniards had an easier time taking over the slave traditions of the Aztec and Incan empires where conscripted labor was already a well-established institution of empire.  Egypt had an easier time preventing runaways because it was surrounded by desert.

Scott says that early warfare was more often about capturing slaves than capturing territory. One obvious advantage of capturing slaves was that territory is harder to control than just some of the people of a territory and slaves were easier to transport than physical goods and furthermore, captured slaves were used as beasts of burden to carry goods too.

Warfare in [Mesopotamia] beginning in [3,500] and for the next two millennia was likewise not about the conquest of territory but rather about the assembling of populations…

Oddly, I was never taught in world history class about just how central slavery was to the civilizations we studied. For example, thinkers that we respect like Aristotle and the Apostle Paul thought that slavery was natural and necessary because it was common nearly everywhere.

Slavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement, individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples… [But it] would be almost impossible to exaggerate the centrality of bondage, in one form or another, in the development of the state until very recently. As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.9 In Southeast Asia all early states were slave states and slaving states; the most valuable cargo of Malay traders in insular Southeast Asia were, until the late nineteenth century, slaves…

Moses Finley famously asked, “Was Greek Civilization based on Slave Labour?” and answered with a resounding and well-documented yes.11 Slaves represented a clear majority—perhaps as much as two-thirds—of Athenian society, and the institution was taken completely for granted; the issue of abolition never arose. As Aristotle held, some peoples, owing to a lack of rational faculties, are, by nature, slaves and are best used, as draft animals are, as tools. In Sparta, slaves represented an even larger portion of the population. The difference… was that while most slaves in Athens were war captives from non-Greek-speaking peoples, Sparta’s slaves were largely “helots,” indigenous cultivators conquered in place by Sparta and made to work and produce communally for “free” Spartans…

Imperial Rome… turned much of the Mediterranean basin into a massive slave emporium. Every Roman military campaign was shadowed by slave merchants and ordinary soldiers who expected to become rich by selling or ransoming the captives they had taken personally. By one estimate, the Gallic Wars yielded nearly a million new slaves, while, in Augustinian… Italy, slaves represented from one-quarter to one-third of the population. The ubiquity of slaves as a commodity was reflected in the fact that in the classical world a “standardized” slave became a unit of measurement [of value].

Thus slaves were so common in the Roman marketplace that they served one of the core functions of money for wealthy Romans. Slaves were also a measure of status and wealth.

…If the elite households of Greece or Rome are any indication, a large part of their claim to distinction was the impressive array of servants, cooks, artisans, dancers, musicians, and courtesans on display.

We don’t have many good records about the percent of ancient Mesopotamia that was enslaved partly because slaves were more like domesticated animals than people and there was little effort to record the census of domesticated animals nor slaves. Scott says slaves were, “wholly equivalent to domestic animals in status.” Surviving written documentation is scarce after so many thousands of years, but one of the few records that exists is for the city of Uruk

Slavery [in ancient Mesopotamia], while hardly as massively central as in classical Athens, Sparta, or Rome, was crucial for three reasons: it provided the labor for the most important export trade good, textiles; it supplied a disposable proletariat for the most onerous work (for example, canal digging, wall building); and it was both a token of and a reward for elite status…

The most unambiguous category of slaves was the captured prisoner of war. Given the constant need for labor, most wars were wars of capture, in which success was measured by the number and quality of captives—men, women, and children—taken…

[In Uruk] state-supervised workshops producing textiles that engaged as many as nine thousand women. They are described as slaves in most sources but also may have included debtors, the indigent, foundlings, and widows—perhaps like the workhouses of Victorian England. Several historians of the period claim that both women and juveniles taken as prisoners of war, complemented by the wives and children of debtors, formed the core of the textile workforce. Analysts of this large textile “industry” stress how critical it was to the position of elites, who were dependent for their power on a steady flow of metals (copper in particular) and other raw materials from outside the resource-poor alluvium. This state enterprise provided the key trade good that could be exchanged for these necessities. The workshops represented a sequestered “gulag” of captive labor that supported a new strata of religious, civil, and military elites. Nor was it insignificant demographically. Various estimates put the Uruk population at around forty thousand to forty-five thousand in the year 3,000 BCE. Nine thousand textile workers alone would represent at least 20 percent of Uruk’s inhabitants, not counting the other prisoners of war and slaves in other sectors of the economy…

slaves and prisoners of war… were not well treated. Many are shown in neck fetters or being physically subdued. “On cylinder seals we meet frequent variants of a scene in which the ruler supervises his men as they beat shackled prisoners with clubs.”21 There are many reports of captives being deliberately blinded, but it is impossible to know how common the practice was. Perhaps the strongest evidence of brutal treatment is the general conclusion by scholars that the servile population did. not reproduce itself. In lists of prisoners, it is striking how many are listed as dead—whether from the forced march back or from overwork and malnutrition is not clear.22 Why valuable manpower would be so carelessly destroyed is, I believe, less likely to be owing to a cultural contempt for war captives than to the fact that new prisoners of war were plentiful and relatively easy to acquire…

Plus, brutality was a way to motivate slave labor and a tool of control to prevent slave rebellion.

[The Qin dynasty of China much like the Han dynasty also had] markets for slaves in the same way as it had markets for horses and cattle. In areas outside dynastic control, bandits seized whomever they could and sold them at slave markets or ransomed them. The capital of both dynasties was filled with war captives seized by the state, by generals, and by individual soldiers. As with most early warfare, military campaigns were mixed with “privateering,” in which the most valuable loot comprised the number of captives who could be sold. It seems that much of the cultivation under the Qin was carried out by captive slaves, debt slaves, and “criminals” condemned to penal servitude…

slavery, in the form of war captives that it usually took, had several advantages over other forms of surplus appropriations. The most obvious advantage is that the conquerors take for the most part captives of working age, raised at the expense of another society, and get to exploit their most productive years. In a good many cases the conquerors went out of their way to seize captives with particular skills that might be useful—boat builders, weavers, metal workers, armorers, gold- and silversmiths, not to mention artists, dancers, and musicians…

Women [of reproductive age] and children were particularly prized as slaves. Women were often taken into local households as wives, concubines, or servants, and children were likely to be quickly assimilated, though at an inferior status. Within a generation or two they and their progeny were likely to have been incorporated into the local society—perhaps with a new layer of recently captured slaves beneath them in the social order. If manpower-hungry polities like, say, Native American societies or Malay society historically are any indication, it is common to find pervasive slavery together with rapid cultural assimilation and social mobility. It was not uncommon, for example, for a male captive of the Malays to take a local wife and, in time, organize slave-taking expeditions of his own. Providing that slaves were constantly being acquired, such societies would remain slave societies, but, viewed over several generations, earlier captives would have become nearly indistinguishable from their captors. Women captives were at least as important for their reproductive services as for their labor. Given the problems of infant and maternal mortality in the early state and the need of both the patriarchal family and the state for agrarian labor, women captives were a demographic dividend. Their reproduction may have played a major role in alleviating the otherwise [high mortality rate of Malthusian societies]…

As earlier captives and their progeny were incorporated into the society, the lower ranks were constantly replenished by new captives, further solidifying the line between “free” subjects and those in bondage, despite its permeability over time.

One reason for the fluid nature of class structure in which slaves could become free was the common interbreeding between elite men and their female slaves who sometimes were even elevated to the status of a concubine or wife. Unlike with racial slavery of the American South, in most of the ancient world there was usually little difference in physical appearance between slaves and owners and race was not an important concept. Plus, the elites were always wanting more laborers for manufacturing trade goods, infrastructure, and food and had to constantly replace laborers as they died off from malnutrition, sickness, and abuse.

I cannot resist the obvious parallel with the domestication of livestock, which requires taking control over their reproduction. The domesticated flock of sheep has many ewes and few rams, as that maximizes its reproductive potential. In the same sense, women slaves of reproductive age were prized in large part as breeders…

As for male slaves, they were often separated from the women and children and sent to do other work:

in the Greco-Roman territories they were deployed as a kind of disposable proletariat in the most brutal and dangerous work: silver and copper mining, stone quarrying, timber felling, and pulling oars in galleys. The numbers involved were enormous, but because they worked at the sites of the resources, they were a far less visible presence—and far less a threat to public order—than if they had been near the court center. It would be no exaggeration at all to think of such work as an early gulag, featuring gang labor and high rates of mortality. Two aspects of this sector of slave labor deserve emphasis. First, mining, quarrying, and felling timber were absolutely central to the military and monumental needs of the state elites…

There is a good chance than any time you see a monumental work of architecture or fortification of the ancient world that it was mostly constructed with slave labor.  Remember that the next time you see the Acropolis of Athens, pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or any other tourist attraction that was built in ancient empires.

The luxury of having a disposable and replaceable [workforce] is that it spared one’s own subjects from the most degrading drudgery and thus forestalled the insurrectionary pressures that such labor well might provoke, while satisfying important military and monumental ambitions. In addition to quarrying, mining, and logging, which only desperate or highly paid men will undertake voluntarily, we might include carting, shepherding, brick making, canal digging and dredging, potting, charcoal making, and pulling oars on boats or ships.

Thus, a slave population also secured the ruling elites in their power by simultaneously elevating a class of supporters who owned the slaves and although they might have to pay taxes or tribute to the elites at the top of the hierarchy, at least they were spared the drudgery of producing the tax by having their own slaves.

Max Weber’s concept of “booty capitalism” seems applicable… “Booty capitalism” simply means, in the case of war, a military campaign the purpose of which is profit. In one form, a group of warlords might hatch a plan to invade another small realm, with both eyes fixed on the loot in, say, gold, silver, livestock, and prisoners to be seized. It was a “joint-stock company,” the business of which was plunder. Depending on the soldiers, horses, and arms that each of the conspirators contributes to the enterprise, the prospective proceeds might be divided proportionally to each participant’s investment. The enterprise is, of course, fraught, in as much as the plotters (unless they are merely financial backers) potentially risk their lives… In many cases—in early Southeast Asia and in imperial Rome—war was seen as a route to wealth and comfort. Everyone from the commanders down to the individual soldier expected to be rewarded with his share of the plunder.

In my history classes, slavery was treated as a peculiarly American phenomenon, but as Thomas Sowell and Stanley L. Engerman and many other scholars have pointed out, slavery was practiced on every continent (except Antarctica) throughout history and until a couple centuries ago, most people accepted slavery as natural or inevitable. Jeremy Black agrees with this perspective although he clarifies that slavery takes many different forms in different societies.  Mr. Black argues that totalitarian societies like the USSR and Communist Cambodia made widespread use of state-sponsored slavery through their gulag “work camps” where prisoners were forced to work without pay, often without hope of manumission.  Similarly, the Jim Crow South also re-enslaved a remarkable percentage of their Black community by imprisoning them often on false pretenses and using prisoners for forced labor.

Mr. Black argues that capitalism ultimately led to a dramatic reduction in slavery, but this is misleading because capitalism enthusiastically exploited slavery and made it more entrepreneurial, monetized, and globalized.  Before capitalism, slavery was usually more about one’s place in a social hierarchy.  In tribal-based societies, someone who didn’t have strong connections to a family might need to be a slave just to survive, but slaves could eventually rise in status (like in the Biblical story of Jacob) by proving loyalty and worth to the family.  A slave’s status often functioned on a continuum with roles in a family hierarchy and might not be very different from the status of biologically-related women in some societies.  In some societies, high-status slaves could themselves own other slaves!

So if capitalism did not lead to the global abolition movement, what did?  Ultimately it was the increase in bargaining power of workers to demand greater wages and rights.  The same factors that eliminated slavery also caused rising wages and working conditions for ordinary people.  What increased the bargaining power of workers?

1. Physical capital accumulation.

Mr. Black gets partial credit for naming capitalism because capitalism did help produce capital accumulation, but capitalism also produced the vast international slave trade and massive monocultures of chattel slavery in the production of American cotton, sugar in the Caribbean and Brazil, dates and pearls in the Persian Gulf, and many other examples.

To understand how capital led to the abolition of slavery, we have to define capital in a specific way.  The broadest definition of capital is simply wealth and slaves were the dominant form of wealth in wealthy slave societies, so the accumulation of wealth alone did not cause the abolition movement.  For example, slaves accounted for almost 1/3 of the total wealth of the United States at the time of the American Revolutionary War and approaching half of total wealth in the slave states.


The definition of capital I’m using here is “PHYSICAL capital” (as opposed to human capital or financial capital or natural capital, etc.).  Physical capital is something that is produced at a sacrifice that makes you more productive.  In other words it is our tools, machinery, and infrastructure.   Physical capital is valuable in proportion to the difficulty of producing it and it is always easier to destroy it than to create it (due to the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

That ease of destruction gives workers more bargaining power.  A new bulldozer that costs $200,000 can easily be sabotaged by disgruntled workers with a little sugar in the gas tank or a little sand in the gearbox or a little nick on a radiator hose which can result in tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs and it will be very hard to figure out who caused the problem.  Valuable physical capital gives workers more leverage because owners really don’t want disgruntled workers with nothing to lose.

2. Complex work

The more complex an economic system is, the more decisions each worker must make.  Decisions require autonomy which is the opposite of slavery.  Plus, psychologists have known since 1908 that too much extrinsic pressure leads to worse decisions because people clutch.  The only kind of work that responds well to extrinsic pressure is routine work like digging ditches.  When even rudimentary cognitive skill or creativity is required, extrinsic pressure tends to lead to worse performance.

3. Interdependent work with multiple bottlenecks in a production process

When a cotton-picking slave does poor work, it has little effect on the productivity of anyone else.  But when one assembly-line worker does poor work, it reduces the productivity of all the other workers on the same line by the same amount.  For example, the speed of an entire assembly-line is determined by the slowest worker and if anyone slows down, that slows everyone down.  Similarly, if just one person makes an error which causes the product to be defective, it doesn’t matter if everyone else does perfect work.  The product is still worthless.  Each person whose job is a kind of bottlenecks in a production process has leverage for bargaining for more money.

4. Difficult to measure performance

In many jobs, it is hard to measure whether someone is working hard or not.  When it is impossible to monitor someone’s work, it is impossible to use extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivators become more important.

Scott points out that the difficulty in measuring output was the reason why empires could only begin in places with highly-productive grain agriculture because it was too hard for central management to tax other kinds of production.  Scott says grain production was uniquely easy to tax in the ancient world (although woven textiles were similarly easy to tax) and these activities were also amenable to slave production because output was relatively easy to measure and extract. 

5. Other management methods have become more efficient

Powerful people can use force (slavery), payment or leadership to motivate people below them in a social hierarchy.  In primitive economies with little monetary exchange, payment was difficult to arrange, and leadership persuasion was limited to the number of people who could listen in the same physical space, so force & slavery was relatively more important. Nassim Taleb argues that Roman elites preferred slaves for important tasks like taking care of large estates because slaves could be tortured if the task wasn’t done well and employees literally had less skin in the game. But there are more ways to motivate workers nowadays and it was never clear that torture was ever the best way to motivate workers.  That is why some slave owners didn’t torture their slaves; some even paid their slaves a wage.

But the increasing monetization of economic activity has changed everything.  It made it feasible to tax more and more activities which has facilitated the growth of governments, and in parallel, it has also made it possible to create large hierarchical organizations like corporations that motivate workers through monetary wages.  Money is a better motivator for most modern production than slavery.

The advent of mass communication technologies beginning with the printing press have made it easier to influence and coordinate masses of people through verbal persuasion too. Educational systems create habits of obedience and norms of compliance in workers.  Mass communication technologies and monetization created alternate routes of influence that diminish the utility of using force.   

5. Other factors?

I’m probably missing something.  Send me an email if you think of more.

Today slavery is illegal everywhere for the first time in human history

The last countries to abolish it were Saudi Arabia in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980. This graph by Stephen Pinker shows when it happened:


There have always been some individuals who have had moral qualms about slavery, but it was considered good or at least normal by the most powerful people in nearly every country in the world until a couple centuries ago. 

Although slavery is universally condemned today, it still lives on according to a National Geographic article called “21st Century Slaves“:

There are an estimated 27 million men, women, and children in the world who are enslaved — physically confined or restrained and forced to work, or controlled through violence, or in some way treated as property.

Therefore, there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade [11 million total, and about 450,000, or about 4% of the total, who were brought to the United States]. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives.

In theory slavery should be more profitable today than ever before because wages are MUCH higher than the cost of subsistence whereas for most of history it cost about the same amount to pay for a subsistence wage laborer as to feed a slave (unless the slave was being worked to death which was also common).  The fact that wages in the slave states of the US were among the highest in the world was one of the economic incentives for slavery there.  It saved a lot of money relative to paying a wage.  The fact that slavery is so much higher today than in Malthusian times helps explain why it still exists despite universal approbation. 

When slavery was legal, its profitability (or lack thereof) helped explain why it was more likely to exist in some places and occupations than others.   For example, David Friedman argued (in chapter 15) that slavery wasn’t profitable in Britain and France during the period when it was taking off in the American colonies.  Britain tried using prisoners to do forced labor in maintaining the Thames River, but the value of their labor was less than the cost of maintaining the prisoners.  Similarly, France succeeded in using forced labor as galley rowers, and tried using them in the arsenal at the port of Marseilles but the practice wasn’t profitable enough to spread.  Wages in Europe were lower than in the Americas which meant that slavery was more profitable in the Americas, but slave labor was only profitable if it was cheap to keep slaves from escaping (such as on the galley of a ship) and easy to measure if they are working hard (also simple on a galley).  In most circumstances, it was cheaper to just hire someone for a wage.  Indeed, slave owners have sometimes decided to pay their slaves a wage to incentivize them to work harder in some kinds of jobs. 

In the northern part of the United States, slavery didn’t work as well because there was more physical capital in factories and motivating using force didn’t work as well in northern industries as in the cotton industry in the South.  Even in the South, slavery didn’t take off in some kinds of work like farming tobacco because that kind of work was never complementary with slavery. 

Posted in Development
One comment on “Slavery was a core part of civilization for most of history
  1. […] that what is truly ethical changes (unless you are a hard-core moral relativist).  Just because slavery was accepted by most societies for most of history doesn’t mean that slavery is usually […]

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