The Fictive Coherence of Global Struggle: Combating ‘Modern-Day Slavery’ in Rhetoric and Practice

Joel Quirk, “The Fictive Coherence of Global Struggle: Combating ‘Modern-Day Slavery’ in Rhetoric and Practice” 

Monday, 28th September, 2015
Burnside Hall, Room 107 (via video-conference)
12:30-2:00 p.m. 

Abstract : Combating human trafficking has been widely presented as a cohesive and singular global cause, which builds upon the noble work of ‘modern-day abolitionists’ seeking to finally end slavery once and for all.  The main argument of this paper is that this  popular rhetoric of shared global struggle is both highly misleading and politically problematic. In its current incarnation, ‘the cause’ of ending human trafficking and ‘modern-day slavery’ brings together two major elements: i) an increasingly dense regime of law and policy which is universal in scope yet shallow and selective when it comes to effective application, and ii) a diverse portfolio of more substantive political interventions which tend to heavily concentrate upon specific locations and industries. These case-specific interventions often have little or no direct connection to parallel interventions taking place in other parts of the world. There may well be broad  similarities in the types of abuses which occur in different contexts and countries, but a great deal of a creative aggregation and extrapolation is required in order to translate broad similarities into the language of a singular and cohesive global cause.  Once we puncture this fictive coherence, it quickly becomes clear that there is not one global anti-trafficking or anti-slavery movement, but many different movements and actors with different agendas and interests, most of which primarily focus upon specific issues and/or localised concerns.  In stark contrast to historical campaigns to end legal slavery, which were firmly aimed at the profits and privileges of the rich and powerful, most of these interventions only rarely pose a direct threat to major political and economic interests, which is ultimately a key source of their appeal.  

Joel Quirk is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. His research focuses on slavery and abolition, human mobility and human rights, repairing historical wrongs, and history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Recent works include The Anti-Slavery Project (Penn, 2011), International Orders in the Early Modern World  (Routledge, 2014, co-edited), Mobility Makes States (Penn, 2015, co-edited), and The Invention of Contemporary Slavery  (UBC, in press, co-edited). He has also recently co-edited special issues/sections on Repairing Historical Wrongs ( Social & Legal Studies, 2012),  Sampling Techniques in Johannesburg ( Journal of Refugee Studies, 2012) and the Politics of Numbers ( Review of International Studies,  2015).  Joel is a current member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur, and is also an editor for openDemocracy’s ‘Beyond Trafficking and Slavery’ (  

Slavery Old and New is a joint research initiative which examines the legal conceptualization of labour exploitation. Through an interdisciplinary, transnational and historical methodology, this project draws on a variety of disciplines, spaces in time, and places around the world, to explore law’s understanding of “labour exploitation” and its relationship to society and practices.

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