Karl Marx sought to reform what he viewed as the most serious problem of his era: the poverty and exploitation of the working class. Through his efforts to understand the causes underlying these societal ills, Marx developed a theory of history known as economic determinism: that contemporary societies take their shape, or are determined, by their predecessors’ economic structures and systems.
Marx became convinced that economic systems designed to benefit only a privileged few, such as feudalism and slavery, perpetuated the impoverishment and exploitation of workers around the world. However, he also believed that individuals possessed the power necessary to dismantle these historically oppressive systems. Marx asserted that, through collective action, workers and their allies could one day succeed in alleviating poverty and exploitation for future generations.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx captured his view of history as a struggle between the inexorability of economic forces and the power of the individual. Indeed, Marx stated,
“[m]en make their own history, but they do not make just as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given, and transmitted from the past.”
However, by recounting French Revolutionaries’ success in abolishing feudalism, Marx sought to illustrate the un-sustainability of unjust economic systems.
It is therefore no surprise that Marx proved to be a dynamic ally to his contemporary in the United States, President Abraham Lincoln. Marx saw the U.S. Civil War as a manifestation of the global struggle to liberate disenfranchised workers from oppression. In his “Address” to Lincoln on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association, Marx praised Lincoln for his leadership in repudiating legal slavery and ushering into the U.S. a more just economic model. By the same token, Lincoln saw the Association as fulfilling an important role in opposing European recognition of the Confederacy.
History is a study of conjuncture—virtually all major changes in the global political economy can be attributed to the persistence of actors and reformists from societies past. Just as Marx’s contemporaries struggled to dismantle traditions of labor exploitation left over from feudalism, so too must we eradicate the remnants of legal slavery from the global economy today. Indeed—from brick makers struggling to pay off inherited debts under systems of bonded labor to fishermen forced to work for years without pay through the use of extreme violence—slave-like conditions continue to persist for an estimated 20.1 million people.
However, just as Marx developed new theories to dismantle unjust economic systems, so too have anti-human trafficking advocates innovated new ways of rooting out human trafficking from our global economy. In this sense, the passage of Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act’s (TVPRA) “benefitting provision,” 18 U.S.C. § 1589(b), is nothing short of revolutionary. Under this provision, legal advocates can hold any person or entity, including corporations, accountable for “knowingly benefitting” from the use of forced labor in their supply chains—even when the unlawful conduct occurs overseas. While the statute remains woefully underutilized, the few cases brought forth under this statute carry with them the potential of using our current legal system to collectively repudiate the historically oppressive economic systems that we have inherited.
While advocates must continue to reckon with the global economic structures that perpetuate human trafficking, Marx understood that positive developments are not achieved solely by internationally-recognized political leaders. The types of societal reform Marx valued are achieved by ordinary people every day. Undoubtedly, our society becomes more effective in eradicating human trafficking every time a lawyer refuses to give up on a case despite a lack of legal precedent; a judge considers new types of evidence that bridge victims’ lived experiences with the law; and a survivor shares his or her story. The perseverance of individuals such as these is how today’s anti-trafficking movement will eventually, hopefully, overcome conditions of exploitation inherited from societies past.