Two images which I think speak volumes on the subject of wage slavery: first the theory, then the practice.
It is a commonly accepted principle that slavery is unacceptable in today’s society, as wholly uncivilized, criminal behaviour. Or at least, that’s what we profess. On the other hand, people waste a lot of time trying to rationalize and even eulogize slavery, albeit in a slightly different form. Why such a paradox?
Consider the War of Northern Aggression, where 600,000 people died. And no, I don’t call it the “Civil War”: a civil war implies that a “country” exists and that the war takes place between two factions of that “country.” The “United States of America” was ostensibly based on the consent of its subjects (dixit the Declaration of Independence), and indeed no legitimate entity can be founded on any other principle. But the War was clearly based on refusing the existence of the Confederacy and forcing a (then) foreign government on non-consenting subjects. Therefore the “United States of America” cannot be said to have existed at that time, and the War could not have been a “civil war.”
The apologists for the War contend that it was designed to end slavery. This, of course, completely omits the issue of whether slavery may not have been ended by other means. We know for a fact that Lincoln, everyone’s favourite fascist dictator, refused to negociate any terms with the Confederacy because he thought that doing so would be to implicitly acknowledge its existence and legitimacy. So one certainly cannot say that slavery could not have been stopped by other means, including diplomacy.
But let’s go along with the statist premise for a bit here, and agree that the War of Northern Aggression was waged in order to stop slavery. This does not explain why the “United States” reclaimed the territory of the Confederacy after the war, since such a conquest had nothing to do with ending slavery. It also does not explain why they did not declare war against all foreign governments that supported slavery instead of just one. But most importantly, one must explain exactly how enforcing general slavery is supposed to be a justifiable means to fight against slavery.
Remember that men were made slaves to fight for this war, on both sides, from the ages of 17 and 50, unless they could bribe their way out (which was called “exemption”) or find someone to go fight for them (“commutation”), which placed the highest burden on “immigrants” and lower class subjects.
Let’s look at the definition of slavery:
Slavery is a social-economic system under which certain persons—known as slaves—are deprived of personal freedom and compelled to perform labour or services… Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation in return for their labour.
Military conscription is clearly shown to be slavery. The State may not claim control over you for that period of time, but it does not matter what they claim, rather what they do. And they certainly do assert total control over you for that period of time. All of the points listed apply to conscription except for compensation.
Certainly the soldier-slaves received monetary compensation, but so did many black slaves, so that part of the definition I think is invalid from a historical context. Either way, the soldier-slaves did not receive adequate compensation. Without a market for soldiering, there is no saying what the fair market price for such brutal work is, but one would wager that it would be far higher than what the soldier-slaves received. As such, we would not claim that a slave is not a slave because his master gave him fifty cents a week: that would be an absurd position.
So the question then arises: how can we justify ending slavery by perpetuating it? A utilitarian might reply that this temporary but exceedingly brutal slavery was necessary in order to prevent decades of ultimately temporary but exceedingly brutal slavery imposed on people of African descent. But utilitarianism is nonsense, as we cannot unjustly inflict suffering on some and call the result just, even if it helps some other people. A grave injustice cannot be magically changed into justice because of some other grave injustice.
We do not recognize any such principle of “two wrongs make a right” in justice, not even in the statist system of “justice.” No principle of justice can possibly justify a situation by which person A kills innocent person B in order to prevent a criminal C from committing further crimes. Calling person A innocent of the murder would be absurdity of the highest order. Yet the statists want us to believe that the State was innocent because its enslavement of more than three million people was committed in order to prevent the further enslavement of three and a half million slaves!
Even a raving utilitarian would have to admit that his argument is highly dubious at best, and inhumanly callous at worst. Utilitarianism, in and of itself, is nothing more than the formalization of bean-counting callousness, and this is a perfect example of such. I have already pointed out another example which, while not about slavery per se, demonstrates the cruelty of utilitarian moral calculation in general.
So far, I have only talked about the facts of slavery itself, but the acceptance of slavery goes much, much further than that. You have probably heard about Nietzsche’s concept of “master morality” and “slave morality,” Christianity being in the latter category. It is true that, despite the complaints of theologians, the Christian worldview turns us into little more than slaves, with God as literal land owner, slave master, etc. The fact that some believers accept this slavery voluntarily instead of involuntarily does not change the facts.
I’ve had an ambiguous relationship with the term “wage slavery.” Many years ago, I stated that it was a co-optation and unnecessary. Now I understand the perspective behind the term. Wage labor, with its delegation of responsibility and its precedence over human rights, is the democratic extension of slavery. In the West, slavery becomes unsustainable as democratic societies tend towards “equal rights,” but the contractual form provides the legal means to implement and support a new way to exploit labor.
It seems mean to compare wage labor as we know it to harsher forms of slavery, but when we look at how it is implemented in the third world, such a comparison doesn’t seem inadequate. We just happen to be the lucky ones who benefit from the enslavement of those less fortunate.
Wage slavery also has an advantage over previous forms of slavery, in that it can use voluntaryism as a powerful argument on its side. People “choose” to sign a work contract, therefore it is to their advantage to do so, and they have no grounds to complain. But even if one accepts the validity of contracts, this does not mean that one accepts the validity of non-egalitarian contracts. To justify any form of slavery and slave moralities requires one to further justify exploitation.
On this point authorities differ. The standard tactic consists of simply refusing to acknowledge the existence of exploitation (basically the intellectual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming “LALALALALA”). Others accept the existence of exploitation but claim that there are good reasons for it to exist. There are whole areas of study dedicated to “proving” that inferiors deserve to be inferior. In recent times, evolutionary psychology (see this article for one list of refutations: there are many, many more out there) has taken a leadership role in this endeavor.
Either way, this is not particularly new grounds for this blog. The slavery mentality is that of treating people as tools, as means to some “productive” end which is determined and guided by someone else. My view is that people are not means to an end, should not be treated as means to an end, that treating people as means to an end is the source of all social evils, and that absolutely no exception can be allowed to this rule in a free society.