Slavery and Social Death – Orlando Patterson

Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative StudySlavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study by Orlando Patterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whilst I realise the book has a morbid title, it’s still incredible. The empirical evidence and anecdotes span all known human history and societies, and serve to show not only how shitty humans can be, but also how well Patterson’s thesis fits the facts. The most enjoyable part for me has been his analysis of these facts, especially with regard to power, domination, and exploitation. He ultimately finishes the book with an elegant dialectic, exposing slavery as human parasitism. I probably only caught the significance of about 70% of Patterson’s intended messages but here’s what I got:

Power consists of three facets: social (threat + violence), psychological (persuasion), and institutional (authority + culture).

Patterson’s main thesis is that slavery is not satisfactorily defined as a relation of property, but rather by the concept of social death. Tied up with this is the observation that slaves were often an economic burden, and were not always held purely for profit. Slavery is defined as social death, social death roughly defined as follows: “slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons”. It is a “relation of domination”, and as such is composed of the three facets of power.

The social component is obvious, slaves were violently treated and often their servitude was a substitution for death, as a criminal or as a conquered enemy. They had no power and what power they had was surrogate through their master.

The institutional aspect is that of natal alienation, the slave was a “genealogical isolate”, “denied all claims on…his living blood relations…remote ancestors…and on his descendants.” “the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations”. He had a past, but no social heritage. Note that he had social ties, but rather that these were not seen as legitimate, and were denied by the ‘living’ society of the master. The denial was in the form of the power, or rather the threat, the master had to remove slaves from their family and surrounding ties at a whim. This, unsurprisingly, has an permanent impact on the slaves. If a slave was taken away form his society/city/culture and into that of the master, this (intrusive) alienation also resulted in the “loss of native status.” They existed socially only through their master, and so existed liminally.

The final sociopsychological aspect is dishonor. Slaves were not dishonorable, they were dis-honored. “He could have no honor because he had no power and no independent social existence, hence no public worth. He had no name of his own to defend.” Honor or dignity is a primary human value “the idea that a person’s honor is more valuable than his life, and that to prefer life to honor betrays a degraded mind, comes close to being a genuinely universal belief”. The slave’s loss of honor was matched by the masters enhancement of his own honor with his new show of power. “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang instead from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being”. This experience is not completely internalised by the slave, indeed “dignity, like love, is one of those human qualities that are most intensely felt and understood when they are absent – or unrequited.” This dignity, profound in personal accounts of slaves, played part in a struggle between master and slave to deny them this, and it was the promise of potential manumission that was used as “an essential precondition” for slavery.

Evidence for these elements is plentiful, for example the ritual of enslavement often included renaming, and a symbolic rejection of past ties. When slaves were manumitted (freed) postmortem in some tribes they were seen as having been touched by death, as “the master’s spirit resurrected in the living person of his favourite surrogate.” Possible only as the slave lacked a symbolic life of his own.

Why were slaves manumitted postmortem and not passed on? It allowed the master to leave with a good conscience and provided good-will in the afterlife.

Symbolically slaves served a purpose in society to delineate boundaries “the master, in his turn, learned from the role reversal not compassion for his slave, but the bliss it was to be free and Greek”.

He talks about Christianity having been most popular among slaves of the Roman Empire due to its promise of redemption. Symbolically Christ’s crucifixion had two interpretations, it promised spiritual freedom which was really re-enslavement to a new master (God), so one was not truly free. The more liberating interpretation is that Christ’s death represented the physical death of the slave (slavery often being the alternative for death) and so removed the initial cause of enslavement, and as such the slave was free. The slave then gets a family as well, in God. Most interestingly, it is this dual nature of Christianity, “Christ the Messiah King and Jesus as comforting savior” which allowed christianity to prevail and simultaneously sustain both the master and slave in the American South. As Patterson says: “The religion that had begun in and was fashioned by the Roman slave order was to play the identical role eighteen hundred years later in the slave system that was to be Rome’s closest cultural counterpart in the modern world. History did not repeat itself; it merely lingered”.

Kidnapping (incursions with the sole purpose of gathering slaves, not war), and birth were the two most common forms of enslavement.


Women were more likely to be manumitted because they spent more time in the household than out working, and because they had less economic independence and so were more likely to stay as workers once freed.

Manumission was often symbolically a rebirth (following a social death), heads were shaven for example. The manumitted symbolically also often received weapons to represent gaining power. “The acquisition of the capacity to compete for honor (represented in the German case in the passing of the individual from one freeman to another or in the ritual of stepping in the same shoes), the attainment of will and autonomy (represented by the crossroad)”.
Manumission was perceived as a gift, one for which the slave must be grateful. The debt generated by the gift was paid off by a continued repayment in the form of service (but not servitude).

The factors impacting manumission had relatively little to do with race or religion, however how the freedmen were treated did depend on it.

Manumission occurred more often in urban society, as slaves who had desirable unique skills had more control over the relationship and could potentially collect more earnings (peculium) “Masters were so eager to motivate their slaves that they entered into a semicontractual obligation in which manumission was guaranteed after the completion of a defined amount of production”. Control over earnings and independence were also crucial factors.

“Where there is a relative scarcity of capital, the master finds it more profitable to permit his slave to buy his freedom earlier in return for more intensive and productive work during his period of slavery; where capital is abundant, there is no such incentive to the master.”

“The greater the frequency of such shocks, the higher the rate of manumission” both economic and military shocks.

The following quote is a rough summary of the whole book:
“Enslavement was separation (or symbolic execution), slavery was a liminal state of social death, and manumission was symbolic rebirth. Accompanying this cultural process in the internal relations of slavery is an ideological dialectic. The master gives the slave physical life either directly (if he was the original enslaver) or indirectly (if he purchased or inherited hum, in return for which the slave under obligation to reciprocate with total obedience and service. In the act of repaying his debt, the slave loses social life. This loss, however, is not part of the repayment to the master, it is rather one of the terms of the transaction-the exchange of physical life for total obedience. With manumission the master makes another gift to the slave, this time the gift of social life, which is ideologically interpreted as a repayment for faithful service…the ex-slave now comes under another obligation….which he repays by faithful dependence…meant as a signal of gratitude to the master for the gift of freedom. As such, it is the initiation of a new dialectic of domination and dependence”


Why was the U.S. South particularly cruel to the freedmen? Partly because there was no “cultural disdain for skilled labor” and the working-class immigrants did not appreciate the lowering of status of their crafts by “their association with slaves or freed blacks”. Additionally, it was “the absence of a formal wala (post manumission patron) relationship”. This was partly due to manumission not being a mode of motivation in the slaveholding South, rather punishment. However, it was also due to the master’s unwillingness to accept any infringements on their “purity” (particularly strong in the South due to the fundamentalist religious values) as a result of previous or continued interactions with the slaves.

Ultimate Slaves

Could elite slaves truly be considered slaves? The familiar Caesaris, or palatine eunuchs etc? Yes, they acted as surrogates of the emperor himself, they lacked honor and so could perform both important and ‘dirty’ jobs without complaint. Why eunuchs? Because they were ultimately liminal. They were true genealogical isolates as they could have no children. Rulers seek three things: to prevent alliances against them “such as the major bureaucratic and the aristocratic groups, second is to “develop an efficient bureaucracy” and the third to prevent the “growth of an autonomous, self-perpetuating bureaucracy.” Eunuchs serve to solve all three problems, they were permanently excluded from other alliances, they had strong group moral, and could not become self-perpetuating. Eunuchs served to mediate dual roles as messengers from the holy or divine emperor, being seen as pure of body, to dirty Earthly subjects (they were despised and seen as dirty). “The eunuch in his ambiguity both affirmed and displaced the mortal reality of the emperor and his ruthlessness. He provided a way of acknowledging and overcoming the opposition between life and death, sacred and profane, good and evil”

Human Parasitism

What about the dilemma that in enhancing one’s power through slaves, one becomes dependent on them and thus loses power? Here we come to slavery as human parasitism. Parasitism exists on a continuum, “ranging from minor dependence or exploitation to major “Hegelian” dependence on the part of the dominator and grave survival risks for the dominated.” “The systemic parasitism of the slaveholder’s culture and society naturally reinforces the direct personal parasitism of the slaveholder on his slave. In this sense the slave may be said to suffer both personal and institutional parasitism.” “To all members of the community the slave existed only through the parasite holder, who was called the master. On this intersubjective level the slaveholder fed on the slave to gain the very direct satisfactions of power over another, honor enhancement, and authority. The slave, losing in the process all claim to autonomous power, was degraded and reduced to a state of liminality.”

The second edition has a preface in which Patterson addresses several criticisms (which mostly seem to be a result of people not having read his book.) Most interestingly to me was the comparison of social death with the “five core social motives that are essential for psychological and social functioning” as outlined by Susan Fiske. These are roughly: belonging; a need to understand the environment to help predict; a need to have a sense of control over outcomes; a need to view oneselves “as worthy or improvable”; and finally the “need to trust”. As Patterson shows “the social death of slavery was a prolonged assault on every one of these elementary human needs”. Effects which continue on to today.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *