Was Your iPhone Produced by Slaves? Has It Made You One, As Well?

by Hans Rollman

30 November 2016

Media scholar Jack Linchuan Qiu argues that slavery-like conditions, which define digital media workers, mirror the slavery-like obsessions of consumers.
cover art

Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition

Jack Linchuan Qiu

(University of Illinois Press)
US: Nov 2016

Are we slaves to our iPhones?

More importantly, are the iPhones to which we are enslaved produced by slaves?

There’s been a lot of talk, popular and scholarly alike, about the problematic conditions under which modern technology is produced. Apple in particular, and the firms on which it relies—Foxconn, for instance—have come under especial scrutiny. There’s little doubt that the conditions under which digital media technology such as iPhones are produced constitute some of the harsher labour conditions experienced by the world’s workers, but is it fair to call this slavery? Media scholar Jack Linchuan Qiu—and the consortium of universities and researchers he works with—believes that it is.

Modern slavery, from the 17th century to the present day, has been characterized by a need to shape and reshape people’s desires, particularly around consumption.

In some ways, the slavery-like conditions that he argues define digital media workers mirror the slavery-like obsessions of their consumers. Nor is this a new phenomenon; it’s one reflected in slave labour throughout history.

Both slaves and those who consume slave-produced goods are characterized by a shared quality, notes Qiu: desocialization. Those who are profiting off slaves rely on desocialization to prevent uprisings and rebellions: the more atomized and fragmented the slaves, the less likely they will join together to resist or overthrow the system. Thus, slave profiteers over the centuries have developed complex approaches to managing slave labour designed to prevent social unity: drawing from disparate geographic and linguistic regions and keeping slaves divided; using fear and rewards to pit slaves against each other; etc.

At the other end of the relationship, though, lies another version of desocialization. It’s not enough to use slavery to produce massive quantities of cheap goods: if no one wants the cheap goods, the whole endeavor is pointless and (from the perspective of the slave profiteer) unprofitable. The key to profiting off slaves lies in offering a previously unobtainable good to a mass public for cheap; but why would the mass public want something it was getting along without? Thus, modern slavery, from the 17th century to the present day, has been characterized by a need to shape and reshape people’s desires, particularly around consumption, and this has been largely accomplished through desocialization; disrupting existing social and collective relationships between people in order to refashion them as individualist consumers with individual, personalized wants.

In early modern Europe, the success of slave-produced sugar plantations relied on reshaping consumption patterns. People had to be induced to adopt new wants: putting sugar in their tea; eating sweet desserts after a meal; desiring a particular food item and then purchasing and consuming it individually instead of working with others to coordinate a group meal, as had hitherto been common practice.

In a similar fashion, the desirability of modern cell phones and portable devices had to be generated; the need for the latest up-to-date model in order to access the newest, most trending apps is a modern analogue to the historical process of shaping consumer desires to rely on slave-produced goods. The iPhone is the new sugar.

What unites both slave and consumer of slave-produced goods is the social atomization—the desocialization—that is used to prevent slaves from organizing resistance to the system and is used to keep consumers glued into the system to make it profitable for the slave profiteers.

This is why, notes Qiu, one of the most effective tools in organizing abolition movements against slavery in modern history has been consumer-oriented campaigns. If the profitability of slavery relies on shaping particular desires for consumption, abolitionists can also work to disrupt those desires and consumption patterns in order to make slavery unprofitable and unviable. By appealing to consumers’ values and morals—exposing the brutal conditions under which goods were produced and urging consumers not to purchase those goods—abolitionists have sought to undermine the profitability of slave-produced goods.

Slavery and its Deep-Rooted Historical Legacy

Qiu, in his most recent study Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition, draws several other observations from the historical analysis of slavery. First, he says, “definitions of slavery are often fluid, contingent upon contexts and norms that are subject to change.” When we think of slavery, most of us think of the model whereby Africans were forcibly transported to America and forced to work on sugar plantations and other types of forced labour, or perhaps of the more distant model of slaves in Imperial Rome. But these are only a few examples of a very adaptable practice, notes Qiu, and it’s important to recognize that slavery has existed in many other forms, times and places, as well.

Second, slavery “imposes a system of inequality upon those who were either born or made to be on the margins of society.” This has manifested in slavery predominantly targeting women, and those with darker skin. Other vulnerable groups in specific times and places have also been targeted, the key being that the most marginalized in society are often the most vulnerable to, and exploited by, slavery.

Thirdly, resistance against slavery “is often understated, sometimes deliberately forgotten, or carelessly buried in oblivion.” History is full of examples of the struggle against slavery, from cultural practices (song, dance) to armed rebellion. One scholar estimates that up to one million Africans either escaped or died through acts of rebellion while being transported from Africa to the Americas.

Fourthly is a historical pattern: slavery tends to expand with the rise of empires or new geopolitical powers, and then as the expansion of those powers slows down, they’re forced to reduce or outright abolish the practice of slavery in order to avoid social disintegration, armed uprisings or civil wars. While this model reflects historical cases—the rise of Rome, Islamic empires, colonial European empires, the United States—it also applies aptly to the rise of new powers such as China, which relies on the labour of what Qiu describes as iSlaves.

As earlier noted, Qiu argues that while slavery exists for other purposes, predominantly its use has been “so that the labor of the enslaved can be extracted at minimum cost.” It’s practiced for profit, and its role in modern capitalism therefore exists in an intimate relationship to consumer demand—from sugar to iPhones.

Qiu makes three final observations about historical patterns in slavery. First, there are some slaves who have exercised immense power—eunuchs in imperial Rome and China are examples—yet who remain slaves because their power is extremely precarious and exists solely at someone else’s whim. Second, slavery has played an essential role in the creation of modernity. Here Qiu takes issue with Marx’s analysis of modern capitalism as comprising a relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx assumed slavery was historical or on the way out, says Qiu, and this reflects Marx’s Eurocentric analysis. In actual fact, “Marx underestimated the power and persistence of slavery”, as did other key thinkers from Adam Smith to Max Weber. They considered slavery something primitive and inconsequential to modern capitalism, yet Qiu argues it remains a key component of modernity.

Finally, Qiu draws on the work of other scholars to argue that slaves were among “the world’s first ‘modern’ people’”, in the sense that they were removed from their culture and family, and instead existed in an identity defined by industrialisation and consumerist modernity. What’s more, modern societies—again the post-revolutionary United States offers a clear example—in many ways relied on slavery and slave labour in order to make possible the modern freedoms and liberties they have praised themselves over (yet which have historically only been enjoyed by a privileged portion of the population). Similarly, when we think of contemporary freedoms afforded by mobile digital technology, we often fail to consider that these items we enjoy, and which we consider to endow us with greater freedom, are produced by slave labour.

Defining Slavery

Defining slavery under modern law traces its roots to the 1926 ‘Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery’, produced by the League of Nations. This was reaffirmed and updated by the United Nations in 1956, particularly with a view toward addressing forms of slavery experienced during the Second World War—concentration camps, forced labour—and amid arguments that Soviet gulags, South African apartheid practices, and colonization also comprised forms of modern slavery.

The Cold War led to a hiatus in international efforts to define and combat slavery, but conditions at the end of the 20th century brought the issue back to the fore. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a surge in human trafficking from former Soviet republics to Europe; at the same time, a growth in sex worker trafficking and forced labour by warlords and militias in Eastern Europe and Africa (from rape camps to child soldiers) drew the attention and alarm of international jurists and scholars. For the first time in 1998, a former Bosnian Serb militia commander was sentenced to prison by an international tribunal for the crime of sexual slavery.

This confluence of conditions led to a recognition that slavery conventions needed to be updated for the 21st century. One product of this has been the 2012 Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery, which is generally considered to reflect the legal and scholarly consensus on what constitutes slavery. It makes several important points, four of which Qiu draws on in his argument that workers in digital media industry such as FoxConn employees producing Apple products, and others, are experiencing modern forms of slavery.

First, under the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines slavery is no longer merely considered a legal category, but a reflection of a person’s “status or condition”. You do not need to be legally considered a slave in order to be considered a slave under international law. If the status or conditions under which you exist constitute “practices similar to slavery”, the offense of slavery is considered to be present. What this means is that slavery can exist anywhere: “the substance and not simply [the] form of the relationship” is what matters.

Second, slavery happens when people exercise “powers attaching to ownership”, not actual or legal ownership. Nor does it require a strict definition of ownership, which has proven difficult to agree upon. Instead, slavery is considered to exist when one enacts any of a variety of powers of ownership over another person, for example: “significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty”; “intent of exploitation through the use, management, profit, transfer or disposal of that person”; and the exercise of such powers through varied means including “violent force, deception and/or coercion.” The definition is deliberately broad, and does not even require that the person committing the offense of slavery be doing so intentionally. By making it difficult for people—including student interns at Foxconn—to quit their “employment”, companies are engaging in slavery-like practices, argues Qiu.

Thirdly, in order for slavery to be present, it only requires one of the “powers of ownership” listed in the Guidelines to be present, not all of them. Any single one is sufficient to qualify a condition as slavery.

The fourth point Qiu draws upon, which is referenced in the Guidelines as an issue but which the Guidelines do not specifically adopt a position on—is the issue of whether the ‘slave trade’ includes the trade in slave-produced goods. Historically, the ‘slave trade’ referred exclusively to the trade in human slaves. Some jurists and scholars, including Qiu, argue for the definition to be broadened to include as an offense the trade in slave-produced goods. This includes, says Qiu, both human organ trafficking as well as products such as tomatoes, minerals, or iPhones.

Most broadly, the Guidelines reflect a shifting emphasis from strictly defined legal conditions to more flexible, broadly defined practices. This reflects an understanding that new forms of slavery continue to evolve, and that definitions ought to be broad and flexible to encompass those forms that either do not yet exist or are not yet widely understood to constitute slavery. It also reflects a shift from recognizing “de jure slavery [legally defined slavery] towards recognitions of de facto slavery [slavery in reality].”

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