What is slavery? The easy answer is that it’s making one person do something against their will. But that is not complete, as this would describe every prisoner as well. Perhaps we could say that it’s the commodification of human beings, the act of regarding people as property. That is a much more accurate term. But take the Serfs of feudal Europe for example. They could not be bought and sold like chattel, and even had certain rights. Nobles couldn’t simply punish or kill them with impunity. Yet that practice is universally regarded as a type of slavery. Perhaps, then, we could agree that slavery is the practice of making a person work for you, and taking all that they produce with that work? Personally, I think that is much more accurate. It effectively describes every form of slavery, and also brings me to my point: wage labor is a form of slavery.
Wage labor is the practice of an owner hiring a worker to work for them, as we have already discussed. The owner, once again, takes all that the worker produces, and then gives back a small portion of that produce in the form of wages, almost universally in the form of a State-sanctioned currency. “Ah ha!” The Capitalist will say. “That shows that it’s not slavery! A slave receives nothing for their work!” But don’t they?
Slaves are always given shelter and food. In some cases, like the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, they even received pay. So, if slaves receive a wage, even if that wage is in the form of food and shelter, then the only difference between a wage worker and a slave is that the wage worker usually receives a bit more back than a slave. But if that’s the only difference, then there is no difference. There have always been slaves throughout history that were treated better than wage workers, and had access to luxuries that wage workers do not. Meaning that those slaves were paid more than most wage workers, but they were still slaves. “Then that’s not the difference!” A Capitalist might say: “Slaves cannot go where they want, they can only ever do what they’re told and work for who they’re told. They have no agency over their lives!” But, do wage workers have such agency?
They might have some choice in who they work for, but the system is still the same. They still are subjected to wage work. If a prisoner is given the opportunity to choose their prison, they’re still a prisoner. And even then, this choice is usually in-name-only for wage workers. Because in truth it is not them that chooses where to work, but the owner that chooses what workers to hire. A wage worker is usually too poor, and must accept the first job they are offered. Since it is illegal to harvest your own timber to build your own house, and you cannot build such a house on open land, but must purchase it, nor grow your own food on open land and also must purchase either the land or food. No one can choose to simply live by the fruits of their own labor, and must choose to submit themselves to wage work. The choice between hunger and homelessness, and wage work, is not a choice at all. Slaves have the same kind of choice: work for their master, or be punished and killed. “But, wage workers can save their money, or invest it, and eventually become owners! Then they aren’t wage workers anymore!” This is the next argument the Capitalist will make.
Not only are most wage workers not able to do those things, as the amount they receive back from the owner is so meager that it’s barely enough to provide for their food and shelter, but also: there were slaves subjected to this very system. Both “indentured servants” and the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were only subjected to slavery for a period of time, after which they were freed. And there are many cases of slaves in the United States eventually earning enough money to buy themselves and earn their freedom. Slavery that you legally can work your way out of is still slavery, and for most such slaves they are never able to earn enough to purchase their freedom.
Friedrich Engels also touched on this entire subject in his essay “Principles of Communism,” where he answers the question “how is the proletarian different than a slave” in this way:
“The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labor only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence. This existence is assured only to the class as a whole. The slave is outside competition; the proletarian is in it and experiences all its vagaries. The slave counts as a thing, not as a member of society. Thus, the slave can have a better existence than the proletarian, while the proletarian belongs to a higher stage of social development and, himself, stands on a higher social level than the slave. The slave frees himself when, of all the relations of private property, he abolishes only the relation of slavery and thereby becomes a proletarian; the proletarian can free himself only by abolishing private property in general.”
Here Engels draws a similar comparison between the slave and the wage-worker. Both are regarded only as a means to wealth, nothing more. They have no value outside the value they produce for an owner. However, he also points out how a slave in many ways can be in better condition than a wage-worker. If a wage-worker is worse off than a slave, then they are no better off than a slave. They are a slave.
Yet still there is still another defense of wage labor, but from an unlikely source: the Socialists and even some Communists who wish to preserve wage-labor in the form of “labor notes” or some similar system that pays workers in vouchers they can use to buy things. These vouchers are not traditional money, as they have no more value, nor even exist, after being spent. The argument from such Socialists, is that wage-labor without private owners or traditional money is not exploitation, and in that regard they are correct. Wage-labor in a democratically managed workplace, and even “labor-notes,” is far superior to Capitalist wage-labor. Yet, there is still no proper material basis to support the arguments these Socialists use to defend the continued existence of wage-labor. They often use the very same arguments as Capitalists, arguments like: “we must regulate the distribution of goods,” or “those who work harder should be given a greater reward.” But there are other ways of regulating the distribution of goods, ways which don’t allow for the development of economic inequality. And how can we gauge who’s work is more valuable? We cannot. I will reference the great writings of Peter Kropotkin in his seminal work “The Conquest of Bread.” For no one else could put it so succinctly and eloquently:
“If you enter a coal-mine you will see a man in charge of a huge machine that raises and lowers a cage. In his hand he holds a lever that stops and reverses the course of the machine; he lowers it and the cage turns back in the twinkling of an eye; he raises it, he lowers it again with a giddy swiftness. All attention, he follows with his eyes fixed on the wall an indicator that shows him on a small scale, at which point of the shaft the cage is at each second of its progress; as soon as the indicator has reached a certain level he suddenly stops the course of the cage, not a yard higher nor lower than the required spot. And no sooner have the colliers unloaded their coal-wagons, and pushed empty ones instead, then he reverses the lever and again sends the cage back into space. During eight or ten consecutive hours he must pay the closest attention. Should his brain relax for a moment, the cage would inevitably strike against the gear, break its wheels, snap the rope, crush men, and obstruct work in the mine. Should he waste three seconds at each touch of the lever, in our modern perfected mines, the extraction would be reduced from twenty to fifty tons a day.
Is it he who is of greatest use in the mine? Or, is it perhaps the boy who signals to him from below to raise the cage? Is it the miner at the bottom of the shaft, who risks his life every instant, and who will someday be killed by fire-damp? Or is it the engineer, who would lose the layer of coal, and would cause the miners to dig on rock by a simple mistake in his calculations? And lastly, is it the mine owner who has put all his capital into the mine, and who has perhaps, contrary to expert advice asserted that excellent coal would be found there? All the miners engaged in this mine contribute to the extraction of coal in proportion to their strength, their energy, their knowledge, their intelligence, and their skill. And we may say that all have the right to live, to satisfy their needs, and even their whims, when the necessaries of life have been secured for all. But how can we appraise their work? And, moreover, Is the coal they have extracted their work? Is it not also the work of men who have built the railway leading to the mine and the roads that radiate from all its stations? Is it not also the work of those that have tilled and sown the fields, extracted iron, cut wood in the forests, built the machines that burn coal, and so on?
No distinction can be drawn between the work of each man. Measuring the work by its results leads us to absurdity; dividing and measuring them by hours spent on the work also leads us to absurdity. One thing remains: put the needs above the works, and first of all recognize the right to live, and later on, to the comforts of life, for all those who take their share in production. But take any other branch of human activity — take the manifestations of life as a whole. Which one of us can claim the higher remuneration for his work? Is it the doctor who has found out the illness, or the nurse who has brought about recovery by her hygienic care? Is it the inventor of the first steam-engine, or the boy, who, one day getting tired of pulling the rope that formerly opened the valve to let steam enter under the piston, tied the rope to the lever of the machine, without suspecting that he had invented the essential mechanical part of all modern machinery —the automatic valve.
Is it the inventor of the locomotive, or the workman of Newcastle, who suggested replacing the stones formerly laid under the rails by wooden sleepers, as the stones, for want of elasticity, caused the trains to derail? Is it the engineer on the locomotive? The signalman who can stop trains? The switchman who transfers a train from one line to another? — To whom do we owe the transatlantic cable? Is it to the engineer who obstinately affirmed that the cable would transmit messages when learned electricians declared it to be impossible? Is it to Maury, the scientist, who advised that thick cables should be set aside for others as thin as canes? Or else to those volunteers, come from nobody knows where, who spent their days and nights on deck minutely examining every yard of the cable, and removed the nails that the stockholders of steamship companies stupidly caused to be driven into the non-conducting wrapper of the cable, so as to make it unserviceable.
And in a wider sphere, the true sphere of life, with its joys, its sufferings, and its accidents, can not each one of us recall some one who has rendered him so great a service that we should be indignant if its equivalent in coin were mentioned? The service may have been but a word, nothing but a word spoken at the right time, or else it may have been months and years of devotion, and are we going to appraise these ‘incalculable’ services in ‘labour-notes?’
But human society would not exist for more than two consecutive generations if everyone did not give infinitely more than that for which he is paid in coin, in ‘cheques,’ or in civic rewards. The race would soon become extinct if mothers did not sacrifice their lives to take care of their children, if men did not give all the time, without demanding an equivalent, if men did not give just to those from whom they expect no reward.
If middle-class society is decaying, if we have got into a blind alley from which we cannot emerge without attacking past institutions with torch and hatchet, it is precisely because we have calculated too much. It is because we have let ourselves be influenced into giving only to receive. It is because we have aimed at turning society into a commercial company based on debit and credit.”
After all this, the only defenses of wage labor left are ones appealing to culture. “It builds character!” and the like. These arguments have no material basis, and are nothing more than the same tired defenses of slavery that people have been spouting since time immemorial. The only true option is an end to wage slavery, of every type. We must liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the work-clock. Stop forcing ourselves and our fellow citizens to work for a set period of time just to gain what they need to survive, regardless of whether or not that work actually needs done. For that, as I will discuss next, is actually a carry-over from Feudal theocratic oppression. It is called “The Puritan Work Ethic.”