Human Bondage

October 21, 2012

Not a good thing, or so we tend to think. We are shocked to read about an association between farm workers and human trafficking or about the ways in which the people who tend our fruit and vegetable crops are held in what amounts to forced labor.

Bonds and bonding, on the other hand, that seems all good. I had three kids (19-22 look like kids to me) in my class this week that are enrolled in Michigan State’s agro-technology program. They were there to tell the other kids what it’s like to be a farmer. Not that they needed to be in East Lansing to learn how to farm. All of them come from multi-generation farms from across the southern tier of our fair state. All of them had been farming whatever it is that they’re farming this year (livestock in one case, corn and soybeans for the other two) for three generations, but in fact their family roots in farming went back as far as any of them could tell. They were bonded to their family and its family tradition, and that’s what tied them to farming. They are only here on campus to learn about new technology that may be coming down the pike.

In some theoretical sense, they could do something else, of course. They could go to law school or work at Home Depot. They want to stay on those farms, and they seemingly want their children (when they have some) to be bonded in much the same way that they are. This makes for a pretty big difference between these kids and the fieldworkers harvesting vegetables in Florida or Texas. You didn’t need a philosopher to tell you that, of course. You were perfectly capable of being shocked by learning about present-day slavery in our agricultural fields while at the same time retaining warm feelings about nth generation farm kids from southern Michigan whose upbringing, family ties and love of farming prevent them from even considering the possibility, much less the desirability, of doing something else.

As both my regular readers know, I’m not generally about denying the obvious point here in the Thornapple blog, so don’t take it wrong when I find myself puzzled by something that couldn’t be more obvious to the average person.

Farming has often been connected with one form of unfree labor or another. There are things in that have to be done and they have to be done at one particular time, or else there won’t be any point in doing them at all. Even more, the point of other things done in the past will be for nothing after all if more things aren’t done at those specific times. You just can’t rely on people simply feeling like this is a great day to go do some farm work. This kind of necessity has made men desperate. They tie other men and their families down with all manner of violence, both bonding and bondage, and they also find ways to conceal the fact that they are doing this from themselves. I’m thinking of something I read by Victor Davis Hanson once about his admiration for the bosses who organize migrant labor crews to show up on farms in California.

Maybe there’s another way to farm, and maybe the women have figured out what it is. On the other hand, maybe Victor’s right, and maybe some (it can’t be all) of these crew bosses are both making a way of farming in the Imperial Valley possible at the same time that they are making a way of life somewhere else possible, too. It also seems that bondage shows up at those junctures when human beings have traversed long distances to find themselves in places where bonding hasn’t had a chance to happen. On those occasions there’s a kind of tying that seems imperative if not justified to the men who have to get something done right at a particular moment in time.

I’m not saying that there’s not a better way, but I’m not sure the better way is simply a matter of leaning back in the easy chair and insisting that everyone has a right to be a lawyer or work at Home Depot, either. Maybe we shouldn’t be quite so surprised to find out there’s some unfreedom hidden behind the food we take for granted. Maybe. I’m not saying one way or another here in the Thornapple blog.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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