In the 1987 film Someone to Love, Henry Jaglom plays a loose version of himself: a guy directing a play starring his real-life actor friends. In one scene, the house lights come up and reveal a portly figure watching from the back of the theatre.
In response to Jagloms questions, the famed filmmaker Orson Welles launches into a long soliloquy on loneliness, singlehood, gender relations, slavery, and civilization.
Welles cautions his director friend that he is "speaking from the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai," before asserting that society is still coming to terms with "the great revolution of our time, the liberation of women. But by liberating women we are freeing the last of our slaves. And for fifteen, twenty thousand years, there has never been a civilization ever, including the great democracy of Pericles in Athens that has not been maintained by slaves."
Welles adds that it has only been within the past 200 years that anyone thought slavery is wrong. "We have yet to see whether a civilization can be based on equality. Its a brand new idea," he observes, puffing on a cigar.
A left-leaning thinker who rightly regarded womens liberation as advancement, Welles wasnt talking about what should be. He was dispassionately commenting on what was, is, and what might be, given humanitys dark history of exploiting its own kind.
The cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris once observed that the employment of women in the expanding, postwar information and service economy in the United States came at the expense of a prior class of slaves, men who migrated by the millions into cities looking for factory jobs after Americas industrialization had swallowed up many small farms. From the 50s on, employers gave higher priority to white females with college educations over uneducated African-American males, who might prove to be more demanding of rights.
The working parts of Harriss socioeconomic model are complex, but suffice it to say that the corporate world made its peace with feminism once it figured out how to exploit it. "By the early 1960s the baby-boom parents were finding it increasingly difficult to achieve or hold on to middle-class standards of consumption for themselves and their children, and the wifes job had begun to play a crucial role in family finances," Harris wrote in his 1987 book Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Everyday Life. The massive productive forces of corporate capitalism demanded continuous consumption, and the long-term consequences for family life were as predictable as Newtonian ballistics.
Today its virtually impossible for a middle-class couple to raise a family on one wage.
This has meant a Pyrrhic victory for women and couples, especially those with children. But its nothing most of us would want to trade for the human rights deficit suffered by women across the developing world. Had he lived to the present day, Welles might have been surprised to learn there are still an estimated 26 million slaves across the globe, most of them women and children. Even the global trade in sugar, the devils candy that fuelled the African slave trade, still relies on indentured black workers in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.
Yes, the abolition movement ended serfdom, officially, across the industrialized democracies, followed by womens emancipation in the U.S. and Europe. The world has advanced in terms of reducing slave levels relative to global population. Yet new forms of civilizations toxic habit appear to be on the rise. Slavery has an odd resemblance to pornography in that we all think we can recognize it right away when we see it but like pornography, slavery can assume forms that have a veneer of legality if not respectability. Thanks to the "world is flat" ethos of globalization, in which a race to the bottom smacks down on "level playing field" worthy of George Romero, we are starting to see the latest version of labour exploitation arrive on our shores. It is serfdom in all but name, disguised with the euphemism "temporary foreign workers program."
The recent uproar over RBCs employee relations has drawn public attention to Canadas temporary worker permits, which allows tens of thousands of foreign workers to work at wages less than those negotiated for Canadian labourers. This is hardly a progressive trend for women and men, whether foreign and domestic. More on this topic next week.
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