So far we’ve been talking largely about slavery in its strictest sense, i.e. legal frameworks that allow for people to be held as property. But there are other, related institutions that lie just a step or two off that line — situations where what’s owned is not the person per se, but their labor or some other facet of their existence.
One of these already came up in Year Four, in the context of criminal punishment. Penal labor has a long history, one that continues to this very day; the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery, explicitly carved out space for convicted criminals to be required to work. Soviet gulags were infamous for this during the Cold War, and the concentration camps operated by the Nazis often included a component of forced labor.
Another slavery-adjacent institution has fuzzy boundaries and is often misunderstood in popular culture. “Serf” is not merely a word for a medieval peasant; it denotes a specific and inherited legal status, one which often meant the individual was bound to the land they lived on. Ergo, while the lord of that land could not sell a serf the way they could sell a slave, if the estate was transferred to a new owner, that owner got all the serfs along with it.
Serfdom can be subdivided into many fine gradations not just between places and times, but even within a single society. In England, for example, villeins (nowadays we often use the E spelling to distinguish them from villains) were a higher category of serfs. Meanwhile, Russian kholops, though usually referred to as serfs, had almost exactly the status of slaves. Because we’re necessarily working across language boundaries, it’s not uncommon to see disagreements as to how foreign terms should be translated; modern sources sometimes use “serf” to describe Spartan helots, but the evidence of ancient Greek writers strongly argues that “slave” is the more accurate translation.
Part of the logic backing that argument is that ancient Greek had different terms for other kinds of unfree or semi-free labor, describing the upper end where serfdom transitions away from kinship with slavery. Sharecroppers, for example, receive land, housing, and supplies from their landlord, a debt which they pay back in crops each year. A bad harvest means less progress toward paying off that debt, or even an increase in its burden; high interest rates might keep a sharecropper indebted forever, down through the generations. Tenant farmers, like villeins to serfs, occupy a similar but slightly elevated position: they own their own equipment (such as a plow and a draft animal to pull it), and therefore are not as deeply obligated to the landlord.
When the local economy doesn’t operate on a heavily monetized basis, the distinction between a legal claim on your labor and a legal claim on the products of your labor can feel very small indeed. This is especially true when, as in parts of the historical American South, farmers have no choice but to acquire tools and supplies such as fabric for clothing from a store run by their landlord, who is then free to set the price wherever he pleases. (The same dynamic appears in places like coal-mining towns, where virtually everyone is employed by the same company. In the worst-case scenarios, the miners used to be paid in company scrip rather than legal tender, guaranteeing that they had no choice but to buy from their own employer.) There are differences, though: a sharecropper or tenant farmer does have the legal ability to walk away from the agricultural grind. This usually means a life of even worse poverty, but it still puts them one up on serfs, who were absolutely not free to leave at will.
Farming isn’t the only sphere in which someone may own your labor. Like penal labor, debt bondage is a form of quasi-slavery that still exists exists in modern times: you owe someone money or some other obligation, and you have no way to pay them back, so your only recourse is to go to work for the person who owns your debt. Although nowadays such arrangements are usually against the law, they nevertheless persist . . . and if you don’t have a clear-cut contract specifying the amount of the debt and how it is to be paid off — which people frequently don’t, given the illegal status of these arrangements — then it becomes an indefinite system of control for the creditor.
In the past, arrangements of this kind at least tended to be more clearly defined. Many apprenticeship contracts, for example, pledged the apprentice’s labor to the master for a set period of time, in repayment for the instruction and housing they were to receive. While not all masters were good instructors and these relationships could be abused, they at least weren’t leveraged to extend the apprentice’s debt indefinitely and even pass it along to their children.
The term “indentured servitude,” while applying broadly to all these kinds of situations, often refers specifically to the setup used by poor immigrants to the New World — often Europeans, but later also Indian and Chinese workers. Because they could not pay the cost of their journey, upon arrival they sold their indenture to locals, who paid the ship-owners or other middlemen. Like an apprenticeship contract, an indenture usually specified its duration, with the workers becoming free upon its completion. Once again, it was far from an idyllic arrangement; indentured servants could be badly mistreated, and female workers in particular were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. But unlike slaves, they owed only set labor to their masters: they were free to marry and spend time outside work how they pleased, without needing someone else’s approval.
There’s one more type of unfree labor which I’m not going to discuss in detail here, which is often referred to as corvée. This is any system where people of free status are obligated to spend a period of time performing service; for a tenant farmer that might mean working a certain number of days on the landlord’s own fields. The most common and well-known form of corvée, however, is statute labor, where the state itself commandeers the work. I’m leaving it out here because in my opinion it bears more relationship to taxation than to slavery — and indeed, in many cases a person with sufficient means could buy their way out of a corvée requirement. We’ll probably talk about it more someday, because it’s the underpinning of many ancient monuments and public works, but for now I’ll limit myself to nodding at it in passing.
And I’ll take a moment to be glad of the strides we’ve made toward eradicating unfree labor from the world. It isn’t entirely gone — we still have the aforementioned penal labor and illegal debt bondage, human trafficking, and so forth — but when we talk about “wage slavery,” we simply mean situations where people are trapped in low-end jobs that don’t pay enough, with no realistic chance for improvement. As bad as that is (and let’s be clear: it can be very bad), it’s still better than the law allowing one human being to own another.