Capitalism and slavery in post-slavery society

Image: Charles Bhebe


Author's introduction to newly published book

The conquest of the Other

The theme of so-called “contemporary slavery” in Brazil does not mean the same thing in different mouths and in different writings. It does not even always properly mean slavery. And it is not always presented from a properly scientific perspective. Even in academic studies, there are many conceptual uncertainties and the temptations of mere denunciation in itself are frequent, without penetrating the causes, factors, social consequences and economic functions of its occurrence and persistence in underdeveloped capitalism.

Contrary to what common sense might presuppose, even from people and institutions committed, out of a sense of justice, to combating it, contemporary slavery is not a casual expression of evil, of the cunning of those who practice it, of a lack of knowledge of what it itself is – a crime.

Despite possible uncertainties and vacillations in its definition, since the 1970s, at least, in different parts of the world humanitarian organizations and States have been committed to combating slavery and punishing its practice. Also here in Brazil. Here the tendency has been strong with the aim of, with justice, increasingly subjecting companies and perpetrators of the crime of slavery to the rigors of the law.

This despite the fact that we still have a widespread and undue certainty of impunity and repeated cases of actions based on the mistake of the perpetrators assuming that the private violence of gunmen and gunmen, recruited as a repressive apparatus in the work situation, is also valid in resistance to agents of the law. Cases of murders of anti-slavery activists and even employees of official agencies repressing forced labor have not been rare. Although Brazil has been a signatory, since the 1920s, to international conventions that oblige national states to prohibit slavery and combat it, because it is a crime, many still believe that the land owner can legitimately also be a people owner.

Even now, in 2023, two farmers from the south of Pará were sentenced to five years in prison for subjecting 85 workers to work similar to slavery. The incident dates back to 2002, but the crime of enslavement is imprescriptible. The process had been dragging on since two minors managed to escape from the farm where they were enslaved and reported the irregularity to the authorities. The process disappeared, but was reconstituted. He has now gone to trial as a result of a sentence condemning the Brazilian State at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The substitute federal judge from the District of Redenção, in the south of Pará, sentenced the farmers on June 27, 2023.[1]

The importance of this conviction is enormous. The slavery practiced in Brazil has peculiarities that differentiate it from other variants of the enslavement of human beings today: that it is, firstly, an expression of the contradictions of the subcapitalism that we have. It is practically inscribed in the logical structure of this capitalism. The rest is a result of it and a component of it, such as the evil necessary for the subjection of a human being, as if it were an animal, an indication of social backwardness and a lack of identification on the part of those who use it with the human condition. But, above all, it is an indication of a complex of social degradations necessary for the naturalization of captivity so that it fulfills the iniquitous function that motivates it.

In the web of their relationships and their causes there is no choice. Economic factors communicate with each other, their costs and gains impose themselves on the entire plot. The victim herself participates not out of connivance and impotence, but as a survival strategy in the name of her social difference, as a social and historical alternative. In the name of a possible that results from the contradiction, that has visibility for it, but not for those who exploit and oppress it. And it is not necessarily for those who presume to defend it and in its name demand justice and rights.

In this sense, this book is not only or mainly a book about the current situation of slavery. This is a study on the way in which capital organizes economic enterprises in areas of social, economic and environmental conditions in which the State is almost absent, in view of which the recruitment of workers has not been uncommon, already foreseen in advance, but not revealed, that they will work as slaves.

In fact, this slavery is the victim's inevitable choice for the degrading and non-capitalist alternative of work. It is to resist the threat and socially corrosive effects of the expansion of capitalism over territories and peasant communities, of original, indigenous, country and country populations.

Work that, even when it does not result in gain, due to the debt of the worker, who ends up working for free, reduces the number of mouths in the family, during the off-season, for insufficient food.[2] And, if there is any gain, even below the value created by captive labor in relation to the balance received, it will be a benefit based on the peasant ideology of survival work against the capitalist ideology of profitable work. This is the contradiction whose cause sociology can decipher.

Slave labor is the painful expression of the true historical conflict between the underprivileged and capital, one of the structural conflicts of Brazilian capitalism in the dispute over the land of work, the land of survival, against the land of business and rentism, of usurpation, of an underdeveloped capitalism. It is the agrarian issue as a labor issue that gives meaning to this conflict and this drama. The authors of digressions on “contemporary slavery” fail to address this sociologically explanatory contradiction. That of capital's indirect assault on the peasant world, assault through the mediation of social concealment to enable the economic results of its expanded reproduction.

The regions and communities of these populations have often been the places where peasants are recruited to work under debt slavery. It is not, therefore, a geographical reference, but a dated, pre-capitalist social mediation, whose historical delay is of interest to capital, but whose resistance and survival is of interest above all to the victim – the peasant and the original populations. This delay is, in fact, their cultural and political capital, which is only wasted because they lack political and partisan mediation. The delay, in fact, is due to the parties' lack of recognition and understanding of the meaning and political function of human groups left on the margins of history due to a mistaken option in favor of a socially exclusionary conception of progress.

The motivations, often extra-scientific, of scholars vary, who, when revealing and denouncing occurrences, disregard, because they are unaware of or minimize, the explanatory and revealing contradictions of the problematic social reality. Those that sociologically understand the visible and the non-visible, the false and the true. The revealed and hidden factors of the historical process. The factors of reiteration and those of transformation of reality, those that socially create the new and, at the same time, recreate what appears to be what already exists, as Henri Lefebvre interprets and explains.[3] Those who are present in the structuring of the social conditions of captivity, that is, in the dispute and domination of capital over community and traditional places and situations of peasant sociability and autonomy and the economy of direct production of means of living, in parallel with that of marketable surpluses . Those of excluded and original populations.

Or, alternatively, those who unveil and expose the invisibilities inherent to capitalism in an underdeveloped country, like ours, and expose the vulnerabilities of the voluntarism of those who dedicate themselves to questioning and combating it, prisoners of the superficial and apparent. Which is so characteristic of today's political fashion, but divorced from the revelations of science and the harsh truths and uncertainties of social contradictions. Marx’s uncomfortable scientific observation that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they want…”.[4] And even less so as others want to do it in the name of everyone without legitimately representing them.

This disagreement is the explanatory core of all Marxian sociology. It is a question that defines the profile of this book in line with the tradition of critical sociological thought, that is, dialectical, that of expanding and deepening knowledge about social reality beyond the mere now. The unveiling and questioning of social alienation, which covers reality, as a false premise of science that exists in uninformed and superficial militancy.

The issue of “contemporary slavery” is, in sociology, a matter of urgency and is also a matter of confronting the increasingly intense power of post-modernity to minimize social problems. This is the society of hiding the deep and causal truths of history and its own historicity.

Many want to altruistically combat the inequity of anti-social and anti-human working relationships. Others want, in a not so altruistic way, to combat interpretations that may be at odds with their common sense opinions, their partisan and ideological interests and conveniences, their political exhibitionism.

A book like this is a proposal to untangle, from the perspective of science, this diversity of opinion, and thus create the conditions for an objective and critical interpretation of the serious issue, in the Marxian sense of explanatory, sociological knowledge, of different modalities of knowledge: “representations, class illusions, ideological instruments”.[5] The only way to place it within the framework of the possibility of overcoming it, and illuminate the path of this solitary, invisible and diffuse being who intuits in the drama of life the challenge of liberating social transformation as a work of correction and overcoming the injustices that deny everyone the right to humanization. If there is a single slave in a society like this, we are all tied to his situation, because society is relational. We are subjects of the same system of relationships and minimization of the human condition.

When talking about current slavery, we are necessarily talking about an anomaly resulting from the social contradictions of a model of society that has a name: the mutilated and insufficiently realized capitalist society, like Brazil, crossed by the primacy of economic interests and consequent irrationalities that deny capitalism and crucify society.

From such an analysis, there is no legitimate recipe for militancy and activism that is indeterminate and disconnected from the deep social structure that gives meaning to social movements. The result is a reference to what Hans Freyer defined and Florestan Fernandes explained: sociology as a scientific awareness of social reality,[6] in which case activism is not and cannot be theater, so that it can be socially transformative praxis.

The chapters of this book were written independently of each other, for topical reasons, at different times, based on the same long-term sociological observation.

The volume has, however, an interpretative unity and critical review of analyzes that lack it because, in my view, they are far from a scientific problematization of investigation of the serious social problem of slave labor, despite the efforts already made by several researchers , duly cited in the appropriate places.

The unity of the book is set out in Chapter I, and is the option for a method of explanation that corresponds to the social nature of the research problem. Which is that of a reality that, because it is social, is changing, which transforms faster than the competence of common sense to understand it.

In relation to the method and the text as a whole, there is understandably some reiteration of references to this explanatory core of the book, in the different chapters. This is due to the requirement for clarity in the text's expository flow, but above all to the need to explore the details of the interpretation corresponding to the respective topic and its connections with the theoretical line of the work.

*José de Souza Martins He is a retired full professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. Author, among other books, of The captivity of the earth (Ed. Context).


José de Souza Martins. Capitalism and slavery in post-slavery society. São Paulo, Editora Unesp, 2023, 270 pages. []


[1] Cf. Federal Court of the 1st Region, Pará, Case Number 0000001-41.2020.4.01.3905. In the first half of 2023 alone, from January 1 to June 14, 2023, the Ministry of Labor rescued 1.443 people from conditions similar to slavery. Nadine Nascimento and Pedro Nascimento, 135 years after the Golden Law, work analogous to slavery reaches its peak in 12 years, in: Novoemfolha, special section of Folha de S.Paulo, year 103, n.34.424, São Paulo, 3 Jul. 2023, p.1. On the oscillatory persistence of slave labor in Brazil, cf. Carolina Motoki, Brígida Rocha dos Santos, Waldeci Campos de Souza, From 1995 to 2022: contemporary slave labor based on data systematized by the Pastoral Land Commission, in: Pastoral Land Commission, Conflitos no Campo Brasil 2022, p.151- 60.

[2] The sociability of this socially, historically and sociologically, peculiar and diverse situation is defined by Antonio Candido in the connection between the economy of the vital minimums and the community of the social minimums of the caipira world. See Antonio Candido, The partners of Rio Bonito.

[3] See Lefebvre, Marx's Sociology, p.17-41; Martins, Sociology as an adventure.

[4] Cf. Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in: Marx; Engels, Selected Works, v. I, p. 203.

[5] See Lefebvre, The violence and the end of history, P. 87. A perspective that is enriched, in a more comprehensive way, by Karl Mannheim's sociology of knowledge (Ideology and Utopia: introduction to the sociology of knowledge) and the sociology of commonsense knowledge of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge).

[6] See Freyer, Sociology is the science of reality, P. 110 and 342; Florestan Fernandes, Sociology in an era of social revolution, P. 95 and 309.

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