BUDDHISTS HAVE A PRAYER, spoken at mealtimes, that begins, “Innumerable labors have brought us this food; we should know how it comes to us.” Sadly, knowing the innumerable labors that bring us our food, as John Bowe elucidates in the first third of Nobodies, is enough to make you lose your appetite. In the muckraking tradition of Upton Sinclair, and following a slew of books like Fast Food Nation and Diet for a Dead Planet that deconstruct our national food economy, Bowe takes aim at forced labor as it plays out in three industrial sectors in three parts of the U.S.: farm workers in Florida, metal workers in Oklahoma, and garment workers in Saipan, capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

One’s initial reaction to the book might be to question what the author means by “slavery.” In the U.S. we tend to think of slavery as specific to Africans brought in bondage to work the cotton and cane fields — and rightly so. Yet Bowe reminds us that slavery has existed at all times and in many nations, with slaves playing various roles, not always strictly economic. By any definition, there are more slaves today than ever before, and in the U.S. their bondage is protected by the dearly held belief that slavery was abolished well over a century ago.

Beyond simply narrating both the grisly and the banal details of what forced labor looks like — which Nobodies does with great reportorial detail and clarity — the book offers as well a clear analysis of the structural factors that allow slavery to persist, demonstrating how our global economic system both depends on and perpetuates it. While our “Enlightened Republic” may have an admirable regulatory system to prevent extreme exploitation, at the same time, global capital and a growth-oriented national economy demand maximum exploitation to maximize profits. As Laura Germino, an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (a heroically successful organizing effort among migrant farm workers) explains: “Modern-day slavery cases don’t happen in a vacuum. They only occur in degraded labor environments . . . where the labor force is contingent, day-haul, with subpoverty wages, no benefits, no right to overtime, no right to organize.”

If that litany of labor abuses sounds familiar, it’s because the burgeoning immigrant-rights movement has likely brought it to your attention. While the companies Bowe examines are often licensed in the U.S., the laborers themselves are almost exclusively undocumented aliens who exist outside of the regulatory system, but well within the food chain of the U.S. economy.

In several well-considered interludes on the psychology of forced labor, Bowe asserts that slavery is not merely about economic exploitation but about power. Yes, our economic system needs drastic reform, but to make any headway toward abolishing modern slavery, everywhere from third-world sweatshops to our own agricultural heartland, requires addressing a mass psychology that gives some more power and others less — the very basis of the free market, and even
of the great American notion of “freedom” itself.