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  The institution of slavery, in which some people are legally recognized to be the property of other persons or institutions, pre-dates the development of the Western liberal canon of human rights, in which the right of ‘self-ownership’ is considered central and inalienable. Slavery used to be considered part of the natural order, or at least was defended as such by thinkers like Aristotle. The argument for slavery was that slaves somehow deserved to be slaves either because they were either naturally inferior to free people or they had lost the right to be free through defeat in war.

Slavery is now supposed to be illegal throughout the world, although whether its global abolition owes more to its alleged economic inefficiency or to the success of the egalitarian and humanitarian arguments of abolitionists is still a moot point among historians. Moreover, many liberals would argue that state slavery exists in totalitarian régimes where states compel people to work (forced-labour camps are, after all, slave labour camps); and many feminists would argue that the institution of marriage, especially when it confers property rights for husbands or patriarchs over wives (and sons and daughters) is the most enduring and ubiquitous form of household slavery; and anti-slavery societies argue that what is conventionally understood by slavery exists in some Islamic societies and they argue that many forms of prostitution rackets amount to informal slavery.

We can distinguish crudely between three types and uses of slavery: household slavery, clerical or administrative slavery and slave labour for production (or extraction). The use of slaves, whether in households, administration or production, was characteristic of régimes and empires built by conquest, as in ancient Athens, Rome, and some modern European empires. Slavery appears to have been historically ubiquitous, although its scale and significance in given societies varied: it has been argued that Australia is the only large land mass of the world in which conventional slavery never occurred. The use of some kind of non-economic compulsion to force people to work for others was characteristic of most precapitalist societies, but not everybody agrees that serfdom and corvée labour should be classified as forms of slave labour, and many have observed that capitalism and slavery have co-existed in many parts of the world (for example in the deep South of the US). Slaveholding economic systems, that is, societies in which slave labour played a major role in production, existed in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, colonial and independent America and the Caribbean.

The institutions of slavery, and the extent to which slaves were mere (rightless) chattels of their owners, have varied considerably across slave-holding societies. For example, slaves in the Iberian colonies of America and in ancient Rome had more opportunities to achieve freedom (manumission), than in some states of the US where laws prevented this possibility. BO\'L

Further reading D.B. Davis, Slavery and Human Progress; , G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World; , M. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology; , J. Walvin, Black Ivory: a History of British Slavery.



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