The Empire and Slavery

It seems as though the Empire are their own worst enemy, in terms of how they represent themselves on the world stage.

A recent article I read by a Jotun pilot by the name of Andrew Barton described his journey to HD 28185, known in his home system as Corazon.  In his piece he referred to the Empire in the following terms:

“HD 28185 is part of the Empire, the requisite society of neo-Roman assbutts that maintains slavery in the 34th century to remind us that they’re a bunch of jerks.”

As to the matter of being ‘neo-Roman assbutts’, I suppose this is a question of perspective.  It is true that the Empire is organised, quite deliberately, along classical Roman lines.  Yet many previous societies could have said the same thing: the Roman ideal has always been appealing.  Some of those previous societies were unquestionably ‘assbutts’, concentrating on the militancy and inequity of Roman society, whilst others emphasised the great civic sense that characterised the Roman state and culture.  I’d like to think that the modern Empire, while militarily capable, is far more than just the sum of its legions.

On the question of slavery, though, what can be said in the Empire’s defence?  Alone amongst all the nations, the Empire utilise a formal system of slavery.  Unlike the Federation, the Alliance, and countless smaller territories whose slavery is strictly informal and generally referred to as ‘human trafficking’, the Empire is the only state which acknowledges the existence of slavery within its borders, and it earns the rather self-righteous contempt of the other powers because of its honesty.

True, within the Federation and the Alliance, along with the various minor nations, true slavery isn’t endorsed and regulated by the state.  All nations struggle constantly with the persistent, industrial-scale scams that steal people – especially foreigners seeking a means of immigration – into forced servitude. Such operations take advantage of people’s willingness to uproot, and exploit them, tricking them with the promise of a right of residence in exchange for paid work. And what they get, of course, is isolation, effective imprisonment, harsh and abusive conditions and meagre – if any – payment.

But no-one calls this ‘slavery’, though there’s no question that this is what it is, and it’s freely acknowledged as such by those who are perpetrating it.  The public of all nations would surely rally against it if it was given its true name.  As it is, those who fall victim to such exploitation are reviled in the nations that unwittingly host them.  They’re written off, dismissed as ‘scrounging immigrants’: even where their living conditions are squalid, their freedoms restricted, their remuneration pitiful to non-existent, people are eager to believe the tabloid lies that this is all part of some malicious plot by the slaves to hog resources and steal the good life from under the established citizenry.

No, the nations won’t call this ‘slavery’, because to admit that slavery goes on within one’s own country would be shameful.

In addition, there are many corporate states – the Federation towering among them – in which market pressures not only drive corporations to a highly asymmetric relationship with their employers: the companies need to squeeze as much as they can from employees while giving as little as they can in return, in order to minimise the impact to their profits from the burden of paying salaries.  While in most cases this simply means that people are treated as expendable resources – grist to the mill, if you like – it’s still true that such employees are technically paid, and technically free to spend their pay in whatever way they please; so to describe such a system as economic slavery would be to invite robust debate.

Even so, slavery isn’t part of the state structure of these nations, so – reason the people of the Alliance and the Federation, and numerous independent worlds – we’re better than the Empire, where slavery is state-organised.

Except that, in every meaningful respect, the Empire doesn’t practice slavery either.  Except inasmuch as the Empire is also home to similar bands of criminals exploiting the vulnerable for their own gain, and in that no different from any other sizeable state, the Empire has no formal system of slavery.  The Empire is locked in the same internal judicial struggle to capture these slaving gangs and bring them to His Majesty’s Justice.

What the Empire does have is a sort of combined penal, rehabilitative and social security system which for some reason it chooses to present to the world under the banner of ‘slavery’.

It’s widely acknowledged by any reasonably impartial observer that an ‘Imperial slave’ is a rather different thing from a ‘slave’.  Imperial slaves are not taken as the spoils of war.  They are not considered a lesser class of being, much less as property, and Imperial slavery is very rarely a permanent condition.  There are reams of legislation and codes of practice covering the treatment of Imperial slaves; the work they may and may not be assigned to; the means by which ‘ownership’ might be transferred; the benefits and protections they must be afforded in terms of health management, both physical and psychological.  There are even recognised systems of good practice for protecting the spiritual and intellectual health of Imperial slaves.

It’s not uncommon for Imperial slaves to be paid, and in some cases quite well for the work they’re undertaking – though since a slave cannot independently own property their pay is usually placed in a holding account pending their release.  This means that in many cases, a slave can look forward to at least a small lump sum upon manumission.  Of course, those entering slavery as a means of escaping indebtedness cannot benefit from this system.

And why might an Imperial citizen become a slave?

There are many reasons.  Poverty is one: an Imperial slave contract assures a citizen of at least regular food, shelter, serviceable clothing; and indeed many slaves will enjoy far more than just these basic provisions.

One might be sentenced to a period of slavery in penalty for some crime against the Crown.  This is probably the closest to the classical definition of ‘slavery’ – but it’s a system not much different from the prisoner-labour regime practised in many ‘free’ societies such as the Federation.  Prisoners are given work to do in prison, or set to perform a specific period of community service.

A person falling heavily into debt may, in the end, choose to sell themselves into the slave system. Initially, they will generally become the property of their creditor, who may ‘sell’ them to recoup some of the debt.  The slave will then work their contracted period and automatically be freed at the end of it.  Once this happens, the slave is restored to their former social standing with no stain on their character, and free of the original debt.  Indeed, some people treat service of a period of voluntary debt-slavery as a mark of integrity: proof that they will take any steps necessary to ensure their debts are paid off.

And some people simply choose to place themselves into slavery for personal reasons of their own. The legends of pre-Federation Earth tell us of a particular military unit, renowned for operating in desert regions, that recruited openly from other nations, and which people famously joined simply “to forget”.  A bad relationship, a personal tragedy, or some sort of dishonour were all reasons one might flee away and join this unit – and much the same can be said of modern Imperial slavery.

Like everyone else, every Imperial slave has a story to tell, but very few of them, I think, would argue that the system has been unjust.  This should not be taken as an endorsement of even Imperial slavery as an ‘easy option’: State-recognised slaves are looked after in the Empire, but it can still be a hard life for many.  But the system does provide protection and even opportunity for countless people throughout the nation, as a means of forgiving debt or transgression, or as a protection against destitution.

I would argue, then, that the word ‘slavery’ – however freely I’ve used it here – is a misnomer which causes the Empire untold reputational damage for the employment of what seems a rather enlightened social-judicial system.

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