According to Miers (2003), slavery is “arguably the most misused word in the English language” (p. 1). Despite its many uses and abuses, however, Allain (2009) contends that in international law, “slavery” has had a settled meaning since 1926: it is “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised” (p. 273). Allain (p. 241) emphasizes that this does not require de jure legal ownership; it merely requires the exercise of de facto ownership power.
In a work that Brown (2010) describes as “monumental” (p. 225) and as a leading source for scholars, Patterson (1982) similarly characterizes slavery as “one of the most extreme forms of the relation of domination, approaching the limits of total power from the viewpoint of the master, and of total powerlessness from the viewpoint of the slave” (p. 1). Patterson cites three features that distinguish slavery from other relations of inequality or domination. First is the use or threat of “naked force” (p. 3). Second is “the definition of the slave . . . as a socially dead person” (p. 5) – as, that is, one whose most intimate relationships (with e.g., parents, spouses, and children) lack the rights normally found in such relationships (e.g., to stay together, to inherit, to be safe from the master’s wishes) (p. 6). Third is the disparity in what Patterson calls “honor” – perhaps more lucidly characterized as “pride” – in which masters gain a sense of stature while slaves become servile, accept blame, and develop self-loathing (p. 12). Slavery, here, is thus used to mean what Allain says, where the exercise of the powers of ownership entails the three features Patterson identifies. An arrangement lacking one or more of those three features may ominously verge upon slavery, but is not slavery per se.
At the opposite extreme from slavery stands “liberty.” According to Carter (2007), liberty comes in two forms, negative and positive. Negative liberty is the absence of constraints like those found in slavery: it is “the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men,” while positive liberty is “the freedom which consists in being one’s own master” (Berlin, 1958/1975, p. 149). The latter, Berlin says, may seem logically identical to the former, but historical development of concepts has given positive freedom a more inward orientation, involving the “higher nature” by which a person is supposedly liberated from his/her own “lower nature” or “uncontrolled desires” (p. 149). While liberty in that sense probably has implications for leisure, negative liberty (essentially, freedom to act) seems more relevant to leisure. As discussed here, then, liberty means the sense that one “is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons” (Berlin, p. 141).
It could be that people tend to gravitate toward somewhat free and somewhat equal social status. Most, that is, lack the extraordinary privileges of the elite, and in most societies, most of the time, most of the people (or at least most of the survivors) manage to avoid the abysmal sufferings of those who are most terribly deprived. It is rare, in other words, that masters utterly dominate slaves in all regards, and it is also rare that everyone is completely shielded from all possible interference by others.
These summary remarks call for a more detailed and cautious exploration of actual situations that seem to exhibit traits of slavery or liberty. Subsequent posts in this blog will undertake that exploration.