Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy – BALES (CSS)

BALES, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 289p. Resenha de: LEWIS, Magda. Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.2, 2003.

Reading the book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales is like lifting the covers off what we already know about the seamy side of globalization, but would rather not look at. From his comprehensive introduction to the concluding chapter that calls the reader to action, Bales insists that we look the effects of our western/northern privilege in the eye and hold it in our gaze long enough to be appropriately horrified without being numbed. As we look on, the global economy runs rampant, touching down in the lives of communities and individuals just long enough to grab the efforts of their labour, leaving poverty and human devastation in its wake. Each chapter of Disposable People stops the frame and puts flesh on the bones and runs blood through the veins of the statistics on global poverty and human misery wrought by corporate profits and EuroWestern self-satisfaction with our standard of living.

Bales offers the term new slavery as the conceptual framing for the relationship between power and human indenturement, between profits and poverty, and between violence and economic dependence. In this passionately conceived work, Bales defines new slavery as the lived relationship between big profits and cheap lives (p. 4), in a context where efficiency is allowed to override responsibility and decency on a global scale. And in so doing, Bales invokes an appropriate sense of horror at the uses and abuses of power, wealth and privilege. Indeed, in holding up to view new slavery as the other side of globalization, each chapter in this well written book disabuses the reader from believing that this fresh century’s view of development and progress are as global as the economy that drives it.

The statistics on global poverty, destitution and hunger are not news. For most of the twentieth century it has been evident that the conditions of suffering of the world’s poor are not primarily a function of the lack of capacity of the planet to sustain life, but of the ever-increasing distance between the resources of the rich and of the poor. This is not to say that the world’s resources are limitless and infinitely supportive of an ever-increasing population oblivious to conservation. However, it is the case that inequitable life circumstances and commodity production for profit create and exacerbate the unequal sharing and protecting of what resources there are. These, Bales points out, are not natural conditions of inequality but, rather, constructed relations of power.

I found this book difficult to read, not because it lacks style or grace in its prose, nor because it lacks passion in its intentions. I found this book difficult to read because the descriptions, as Bales provides them, of the daily lives of people in five different countries (Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil, Pakistan and India), enslaved by the circuitous and complex web of the global economy, cannot be read as separate from the commodification of human lives that is the basis of advanced global capitalism. It was also difficult to read because, in exposing the template-magnified so we can see it better-of the workings of power, Disposable People illuminates both how narrow self-interest can turn human beings into fearsome monsters as well as the extent to which the corporate language and ideology of globalization has entered our shared discourse and our collective consciousness inviting us to myopia.

While Bales uses examples of particular places it would be a mistake to exoticize the economic relations he describes as peculiar to those places. He continually reminds us that those enforcing and benefiting from the free and indentured labour of others are not more monstrous than what we collectively are willing to bear. This is a point to which Kevin Bales returns again and again. In this regard, he is not pointing fingers but, rather, imploring all of us in northern and western nations, to take cognizance of the human cost of the consumerism we so often take for granted.

As hard as it is to read, more than anyone, young people, as young as senior high school students, need to read this book with the help of teachers committed to teaching for social justice. There is no question that it is only a change in ideology and practice that will turn cultures and nations toward a commitment to equity and humanity. Kevin Bales’ book gives us good reason to take this commitment seriously.

Magda Lewis, Ph.D. – Queen’s University. Kingston, Ontario.

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