Wage slavery refers to a situation where a person’s livelihood depends on wages or a salary, especially when the dependence is total and immediate.It is a pejorative term used to draw an analogy between slavery and wage labor by focusing on similarities between owning and renting a person.
The term wage slavery has been used to criticize exploitation of labour and social stratification, with the former seen primarily as unequal bargaining power between labor and capital (particularly when workers are paid comparatively low wages, e.g. in sweatshops),and the latter as a lack of workers’ self-management, fulfilling job choices, and leisure in an economy.The criticism of social stratification covers a wider range of employment choices bound by the pressures of a hierarchical society to perform otherwise unfulfilling work that deprives humans of their “species character” not only under threat of starvation or poverty, but also of social stigma and status diminution.
Similarities between wage labor and slavery were noted as early as Cicero in Ancient Rome. With the advent of the industrial revolution, thinkers such as Proudhon and Marx elaborated the comparison between wage labor and slavery, while Luddites emphasized the dehumanization brought about by machines. Before the American Civil War, Southern defenders of African American slavery invoked the concept of wage slavery to favorably compare the condition of their slaves to workers in the North. The United States abolished slavery after the Civil War, but labor union activists found the metaphor useful. According to Lawrence Glickman, in the Gilded Age, “References abounded in the labor press, and it is hard to find a speech by a labor leader without the phrase.”
The introduction of wage labor in 18th century Britain was met with resistance, giving rise to the principles of syndicalism.Historically, some labor organizations and individual social activists have espoused workers’ self-management or worker cooperatives as possible alternatives to wage labor.
Are You a Wage Slave?
Surely having to work for a wage or a salary is a modern form of slavery?
We socialists like to refer to wage labour as “wage slavery” and call workers “wage-slaves”. Non-socialists may assume that we use these expressions as figures of speech, for rhetorical effect. No, we use them literally. They reflect our view of capitalist society.
Socialists use the word “slavery” in a broad sense, to encompass both chattel slavery and wage slavery as alternative ways of exploiting labour. We are aware of the differences between them, but we also want to draw attention to their common purpose. Capitalist language conceals this common purpose by equating chattel slavery with slavery as such and by conflating wage labour with free labour. Socialists regard labour as free only where the labourers themselves individually or collectively own and control the means by which they labour (land, tools, machinery, etc.).
Why chattel slavery was abandoned
The connection between chattel slavery and wage slavery as alternative modes of exploitation is visible in the debates within the British and American ruling class that led up to the abolition of chattel slavery. While religious abolitionists condemned slave-holding as a moral sin, the clinching argument against chattel slavery was that it was no longer the most effective way of exploiting the labouring population. It was abandoned because it was impeding economic and especially industrial development – that is, the accumulation of capital.
The legal, social and political status of wage-slaves is superior to that of chattel slaves. However, when we compare their position in the labour process itself, we see that here the difference between them is not a fundamental one. They are all compelled to obey the orders of the “boss” who owns the instruments of production with which they work or who represents those who own them. In a small enterprise the boss may convey his orders directly, while in a large enterprise orders are passed down through a managerial hierarchy. But in all cases it is ultimately the boss who decides what to produce and how to produce it. The products of the labour of the (chattel or wage) slaves do not belong to them. Nor, indeed, does their own activity.
The secret abode
An obvious difference between chattel slavery and wage slavery is that as a chattel slave you are enslaved – totally subjected to another’s will – at every moment from birth to death, in every aspect of your life. As a wage-slave, you are enslaved only at those times when your labour power is at the disposal of your employer. At other times, in other aspects of your life – as a consumer, a voter, a family member, a gardener perhaps – you enjoy a certain measure of freedom, respect and social equality.
Thus, the wage-slave has some scope for self-development and self-realisation that is denied the chattel slave. Limited scope, to be sure, for the wage-slave must regularly return to the cramped world of wage labour, which spread its influence over the rest of life like a pestilential mist.
As a result of this split, capital confronts the worker in schizophrenic style, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The same person whom capital sedulously flatters and courts as a consumer and voter is helplessly exposed to harassment, bullying, yells and insults at the place of employment.
Capitalist ideologists focus on the “public” spheres of life in which people are relative social equals and do their best to ignore what happens inside the “private” sphere of wage slavery. Thus, economists analyse the exchange of resources among “market actors”, while political scientists talk about relations between the state and an imaginary classless community of citizens that they call “civil society”. Even children’s television programmes display the same bias. For instance, most of the human characters in Sesame Street earn their living through small individual and family businesses (a corner store, a fix-it shop, a dance studio, a veterinarian clinic, etc.).
So there is a wide gap between superficial appearances and deep reality. The servitude of the wage worker is not visible on the surface of capitalist society; to witness it the investigator must enter “the secret abode of production, on the threshold of which stands: ‘no admittance except on business’” (Marx, Capital).
Who is the master?
It may be objected that wage workers are not slaves because they have the legal right to leave a particular employer, even if in practice they may be reluctant to use that right out of fear of not finding another job.
All that this proves, however, is that the wage worker is not the slave of any particular employer. According to Marx, the owner of the wage-slave is not the individual capitalist but the capitalist class – “capital as a whole”. Yes, you can leave one employer, but only in order to look for a new one. What you cannot do, lacking as you do all other access to the means of life, is escape from the thrall of employers as a class – that is, cease to be a wage-slave.
Is wage slavery worse?
Some have argued that – at least in the absence of an effective social security “safety net” – wage slavery is even worse than chattel slavery. As the chattel slave is valuable property his master has an interest in preserving his life and strength, while the wage-slave is always at risk of being thrown out of employment and left to starve.
Actually, the severity with which the chattel slave is treated depends on just how valuable he is. Where chattel slaves were in abundant supply and therefore quite cheap – as in San Domingo, where a slave rebellion in 1791 led to the abolition of chattel slavery and the establishment of the state of Haiti (C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins) – they were commonly worked, whipped, or otherwise tortured to death. How the wage-slave is treated similarly depends on the availability of replacements. For instance, capitalists in China see no reason why they should protect young peasant workers in shoe factories from exposure to toxic chemicals in the glue, because plenty of teenage girls are constantly arriving from the countryside to replace those who fall too sick to work (Anita Chan, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, M.E. Sharpe 2001).
As alternative modes of exploitation, chattel slavery and wage slavery are not separated by a Chinese Wall. Under conditions unfavourable for the working class, wage slavery can easily degenerate into an intermediate form that more closely resembles chattel slavery.
It is common for desperately poor people in underdeveloped countries to be induced to sign a labour contract (which, being illiterate, they cannot read) by lies about the atrocious conditions that await them. By the time they discover the truth it is too late: they are forcibly prevented from running away. Such, for example, is the plight of the half million or more Haitian migrants who toil on plantations in the Dominican Republic (see http://www.batayouvriye.org/English/Positions1/dr.html).
Comparable but more formalized was the system of indentured labour that prevailed in colonial America in the 17th and 18th centuries and was gradually displaced by black chattel slavery. In exchange for passage across the Atlantic, poor Europeans undertook to serve a master for a set number of years (typically seven). Some survived their temporary servitude, others did not.
Slavery and violence
The word “slavery” conjures up the image of the cruel overseer on a plantation in the Caribbean or the old American South, wielding a whip over the heads of his helpless victims. The lash is rightly regarded as a symbol of chattel slavery.
Yet here again no Chinese Wall separates one mode of exploitation from another. The lash has also been widely used against indentured labourers and certain categories of wage-slaves. Only in 1915, for instance, was a law passed in the United States (the La Follette Act) to prohibit the whipping of seamen. Even after that a sailor could still be placed in irons or put on reduced rations for disobeying orders.
Children in the textile mills of 19th-century Britain were hit with leather straps for not working hard enough. In China, abolition of corporal punishment was one of the demands made by Anyuan coal miners in the strike of 1923. As Anita Chan shows in her book, it is in widespread use again today in factories owned by Taiwanese and Korean capitalists.
Even in the developed countries, many people are bullied and tormented at work, usually by a person standing above them in the hierarchy. Some are driven to suicide. Many suffer serious physical or sexual assault. On one of many websites devoted to this problem (www.worktrauma.org) we find the story of a bookkeeper at a power tool company whom a manager kicked in the buttocks with such force that she was lifted off her heels, causing severe back injury as well as shock. While I was at Brown University, a laboratory assistant was raped in the lab by her supervisor.
Such acts of violence against employees are no longer sanctioned by law, but they happen all the time. The victim is sometimes able to win some compensation, but criminal charges are rarely made against the perpetrator.
In the words of Norman Cousins:
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
“The debt and work cycle is an ingenious tool of subjugation. Make people think they need all these things, then they must have a job, and they give up control of their lives. It’s as simple as that. We live in one of the most free countries in the world, but we fix it so we are not free at all. ”
– Larry Roth
“Capitalism only supports certain kinds of groups, the nuclear family for example, or ‘the people I know at my job’, because such groups are already self-alienated & hooked into the Work/Consume/Die structure.”
– Hakim Bey
“Supposing we suddenly imagine a world in which nearly everybody is doing what they want. Then we don’t need to be paid in order to work and the whole issue of how money circulates, how we get things done, suddenly alters.”
George Orwell on wage slavery workers
Slavery existed long before capitalism. As primitive tribes, which once roamed the earth, grew larger they developed a social division of labor. Some of the tribal members became rulers and priests and others became full-time hunters and/or fighters. When members of competing tribes were captured, they often became slaves.
What we call the â€œancientâ€ civilizations – Egypt, Greece, Persia, India, China, Rome, etc. – used slaves to a greater or lesser degree. Slaves were captured in wars, bought from other countries, and citizens were sentenced to slavery for crimes or bankruptcy. Many of these slaves enjoyed a relatively good life working for individual families. Others were cruelly worked to death in mines and galleys. Slavery also existed in most feudal countries, but did not play the dominate economic role.
With their discovery of the Western Hemisphere, Europeans tried to enslave the indigenous population, but were largely unsuccessful. Then began the massive uprooting of Africans, who were deprived of their names, families, cultures and religions. Slavery and racism joined hand-in-hand to perpetuate a system that was more inhumane than any that had gone before it. In the U.S., it took a bloody war to root out chattel slavery. In many other countries, it was made illegal by more peaceful means. Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery only in 1953. However, in many parts of the world, slavery, particulary of children and women, continues to exist on the fringes of the global economy.
Wage slavery is the predominate form of oppression today. Workers are forced to sell themselves (actually, their labor power) in order to survive. Instead of being owned, and provided for in some fashion, they are â€œfreeâ€ for the remainder of the day. However, economic necessity prevents the overwhelming mass of humanity from being truly free. Survival is linked to becoming a wage slave for another. In most cases, the â€œotherâ€ is a giant corporation.
The system we live in today is called the capitalist mode of production. Past modes include primitive communism, slavery and feudalism. We can project future modes as socialism and advanced communism.
Classes have existed since the earliest days of the social division of labor. A class is determined by how its members relate to the means of production (including distribution and service industries). Are they owners, workers, slaves? In capitalism there are two main classes: capitalists and workers (or wage slave, which is used in this article interchangeably with worker). These two classes are not equal in either power or numbers. Capitalists constitute a tiny fraction of the population but are extremely powerful because they control so much of societyâ€™s wealth, as well as the state and its repressive forces, including the military and police.
Not everyone belongs to these major classes. There is also an intellectual strata, which is constantly shrinking as more and more intellectuals become wage earners at universities and other institutions. There is also a sub-class of small entrepreneurs, also called the petty bourgeoisie. They are the shop keepers and individual, small capitalists who are caught between the two major classes. They are constantly in danger of being crushed by big corporations but they fear the wage demands of workers. Small farmers constitute another class in the U.S. that has been shrinking for more than 100 years. Every passing year makes it harder to compete with large scale corporate farms. Most flee to the city and become workers.
A class analysis is perhaps the most powerful tool for understanding what is going on in the world around us. We can predict how, and why, certain people will behave if we know their class position. It is a testable hypothesis in contrast to other views of the world. Without a class analysis, we might think that events are just too bizarre to understand. The world is just insane. Or we might believe that things happen because some people are â€œgoodâ€ and some people are â€œbad.â€ Or we might believe that everything happens because of a conspiracy. Yes, conspiracies happen every day, but they happen within the context of furthering the goals of individuals within a particular class context.
We can divide the capitalist system into two parts – economic base, and social and cultural superstructure. The economic base is where classes and class influence are most apparent. Everyone acts out of economic necessity. The social and cultural superstructure, on the other hand, is a reflection of the economic base. Art, literature, music, social interaction, family structure, the layout of cities, transportation, health care, war or peace, sports and nearly every other facet of our lives, except our class status, is part of the superstructure. Human behavior is often linked quite transparently to the economic base. At other times, it is mystified. Personality quirks often impel people to act in a certain way. Yet, even this behavior is restrained by class position.
Within capitalism, no one is free, not the capitalist, and certainly not the worker. The capitalist is constrained to accumulate more and more capital. If he (the overwhelming percentage of capitalists are men) does not, he will be gobbled up by a bigger capitalist. This process of concentration and centralization of capital is reported on nearly every day in the business section of newspapers. Likewise, the worker is a victim of economic necessity and has no freedom to quit his or her job to concentrate on art, music, or tending a garden.
A typical wage slaveâ€™s day is 8-8-8. Eight hours of wage slavery, eight hours of free time to eat, relax and watch TV, and eight hours for sleep, in order to regenerate for the next day of wage slavery. Many workers enjoy a weekend without wage slavery, but hundreds of millions do not. In the past few years in the U.S., the length of the working day has been growing as more workers find themselves without unions, or classified as â€œprofessionalsâ€ who have unlimited work days.
No one likes being in a condition of slavery. Itâ€™s understandable that slaves either identify with their master or deny that they are slaves. Many wage slaves come to identify with the corporation for whom they toil, that is, until they are fired or laid off. Big corporations encourage an atmosphere of â€œpartnership,â€ via slick ads, caps, t-shirts and slogans: â€œThings (what things) go better with Coke,â€ and â€œAt Ford, customer satisfaction is job #1.â€ Wage slaves, who are â€œprofessionals,â€ or â€œindependent contractorsâ€ often donate much of their work without compensation. Because wage slaves are only enslaved for part of each day, ideological confusion is more rampant than if they were slaves all day, every day. Corporate and academic studies focus on â€œjob satisfaction,â€ rather than slave dissatisfaction. Wage slaves can even buy a tiny share of ownership in their corporation through employee stock ownership programs. However, when a wage slave happens to win the lottery, the job is the first thing to be abandoned.
Another way of dealing with unacceptable conditions is to fight back. If individuals do this on their own it may take the form of lawlessness or terrorism. Often people strike out at the nearest target, their fellow slaves or neighbors. Terrorism, as well, is a non-class response to oppression. It can involve small groups who take it upon themselves to liberate the masses, or punish the oppressors. Often, the response from the ruling class is state terrorism.
By using a class analysis, we can understand that a class, not an individual or small group, struggle will be the most effective. Workers often involve themselves in class struggles, even when they dimly perceive the source or nature of their oppression. Assisting in the development of class consciousness among many millions of wage slaves is a necessary precondition to replacing a system that is based on exploitation and oppression with one in which freedom and the full potential of all people can be realized.
The two main forms of organization created by workers are labor unions and political parties. Labor unions can be very class conscious and revolutionary or they can be focused only on protecting the interests of workers in a particular company, craft or industry. In either case, they are valuable institutions. Unfortunately, under capitalism their leaders often succumb to corruption or to adopting the ideology of the oppressor. In almost all unions, class conscious workers are involved in continual efforts to make the organization more active, progressive and to push it to act in the interests of the working class as a whole.
Political parties dedicated to the working class have been part of the class struggle for 150 years. Some have come to power either by elections or revolution. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia is the best known. In the last few years, leftists have been gaining power in a number of South American countries. Even without wining state power, working class parties can have a huge influence. The Left Party in Germany (formerly called the Party of Democratic Socialism) led a massive movement against German involvement in a war in Iraq. The largest party there, the Social Democrats, were forced to adopt this position in order to win the election. In every case, whether working class parties come to power or not, they have been surrounded by a world system of capitalism. This has dramatically affected their ability to function. Even so, by challenging the capitalist parties, workers parties play an essential offensive role in the class struggle that unions, which are mainly defensive organizations, are unable to play. In the best case, a working class party will unify community, labor, peace, environmental, justice and anti-globalization struggles that would otherwise be separate and less effective.
Capitalism furthers the illusion of freedom and equality between master and wage slave with the pretense of a free labor market where a worker can choose his or her employment. As Karl Marx noted in Capital (Vol. 1, p. 176, Intâ€™l Pub.), in the marketplace the capitalist and worker approach each other as equals. The capitalist has money to buy and the worker has something to sell, his labor-power. This sphere, says Marx, â€œis the very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality…â€
However, after the deal is struck, they go to the
â€œhidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face â€˜No admittance except on business.â€™ …He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but â€“ a hiding.â€
â€“ Capital, Vol. 1, p. 176
What happens in this â€œhidden abode?â€ For one thing, all rights evaporate. There is no free speech, no freedom or equality. The worker, who may live in a â€œfree countryâ€ has entered the realm of fascism, where everything is dictated to him or her.
It is also in this hidden abode that the secret of capitalist exploitation is revealed. Back in the marketplace, the worker agreed to sell his labor-power to the capitalist for an agreed upon wage. The worker agreed to do the bidding of the capitalist for a set number of hours for which he/she would be paid a certain sum.
Letâ€™s say, by way of example, that a worker is to be paid $10 per hour for a period of eight hours. For this eight hour period, the capitalist orders the worker to assembly TV sets. The worker puts together TV cabinets, circuit boards, knobs, power units, etc. that end up as working TV sets. Before the worker started, the TV components had a total value of $4,190. After they are assembled, there are 24 TV sets that have a value of $200 each, or a total value of $4,800. During the production process, $640 in new value has been created. Yet the worker was not paid $640, he was paid only $80. The remaining $610 is called surplus value. It can only be created by workers. In Marxist theory, this is called the â€œLabor Theory of Value.â€
The worker did not receive the full $640 that he created because of an important distinction. Back in the marketplace, the worker did not sell his labor. If he/she had, the fair price would have been $640. Instead the worker sold his/her labor-power, that is, the ability to work. This labor-power brought a poor price – only $10 an hour.
If we wanted to, we could trace the process backwards and watch the workers who assembled the TV components from transistors, screens and other smaller objects. Then we could look at the molding of the steel and ingredients. Finally, we could look at the creation of the machine tools and the mining of the raw materials, all done by workers.