Wage Slavery - History

History

The view that working for wages is akin to slavery was already present in the ancient world, beginning with the notion of prostitution as temporary slavery. At a time when self-sale contracts were one of the most direct ways to become a citizen in ancient Rome, Cicero wrote in his De Officiis that

whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves.

The first articulate description of wage slavery was made by Simon Linguet in 1763:

The slave was precious to his master because of the money he had cost him… They were worth at least as much as they could be sold for in the market… It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live… It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him… what effective gain the suppression of slavery brought He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune… These men… the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is, need. … They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?

The view that wage work has substantial similarities with chattel slavery was actively put forward in the late 18th and 19th centuries by defenders of chattel slavery (most notably in the Southern states of the US), and by opponents of capitalism (who were also critics of chattel slavery). Some defenders of slavery, mainly from the Southern slave states argued that Northern workers were "free but in name – the slaves of endless toil," and that their slaves were better off. This contention has been partly corroborated by some modern studies that indicate slaves' material conditions in the 19th century were "better than what was typically available to free urban laborers at the time." The Height of American Slaves: New Evidence of Slave Nutrition and Health In this period, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “t is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.”

The description of wage workers as wage slaves was not without controversy. Many abolitionists in the United States regarded the analogy as spurious. They believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed". The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass declared "Now I am my own master" when he took a paying job. Abraham Lincoln and the republicans "did not challenge the notion that those who spend their entire lives as wage laborers were comparable to slaves", though they argued that the condition was different, as laborers were likely to have the opportunity to work for themselves in the future, achieving self-employment.

However, self-employment became less common as the artisan tradition slowly disappeared in the later part of the 19th century. In 1869 The New York Times described the system of wage labor as "a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed at the South". E. P. Thompson notes that for British workers at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, the "gap in status between a 'servant,' a hired wage-laborer subject to the orders and discipline of the master, and an artisan, who might 'come and go' as he pleased, was wide enough for men to shed blood rather than allow themselves to be pushed from one side to the other. And, in the value system of the community, those who resisted degradation were in the right." A "Member of the Builders' Union" in the 1830s argued that the trade unions "will not only strike for less work, and more wages, but will ultimately abolish wages, become their own masters and work for each other; labor and capital will no longer be separate but will be indissolubly joined together in the hands of workmen and work-women." This perspective inspired the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of 1834 which had the "two-fold purpose of syndicalist unions – the protection of the workers under the existing system and the formation of the nuclei of the future society" when the unions "take over the whole industry of the country." "Research has shown", summarises William Lazonick, "that the 'free-born Englishman' of the eighteenth century – even those who, by force of circumstance, had to submit to agricultural wage labour – tenaciously resisted entry into the capitalist workshop."

The use of the term wage slave by labor organizations may originate from the labor protests of the Lowell Mill Girls in 1836. The imagery of wage slavery was widely used by labor organizations during the mid-19th century to object to the lack of workers' self-management. However, it was gradually replaced by the more neutral term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century, as labor organizations shifted their focus to raising wages.

Karl Marx described Capitalist society as infringing on individual autonomy, by basing it on a materialistic and commodified concept of the body and its liberty (i.e. as something that is sold, rented or alienated in a class society). According to Friedrich Engels:

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.

Criticisms of wage work in the literature draw several similarities with slavery:

  1. Since the chattel slave is property, his value to an owner is in some ways higher than that of a worker who may quit, be fired or replaced. The chattel slave's owner has made a greater investment in terms of the money he paid for the slave. For this reason, in times of recession, chattel slaves could not be fired like wage laborers. A "wage slave" could also be harmed at no (or less) cost. American chattel slaves in the 19th century had improved their standard of living from the 18th century and, according to historians Fogel and Engerman plantation records show that slaves worked less, were better fed and whipped only occasionally – their material conditions in the 19th century being "better than what was typically available to free urban laborers at the time". This was partially due to slave psychological strategies under an economic system different from capitalist wage slavery. According to Mark Michael Smith of the Economic History Society: "although intrusive and oppressive, paternalism, the way masters employed it, and the methods slaves used to manipulate it, rendered slaveholders' attempts to institute capitalistic work regimens on their plantation ineffective and so allowed slaves to carve out a degree of autonomy." Similarly, various strategies and struggles adopted by wage laborers contributed to the creation of labor unions and welfare institutions, etc. that helped improve standards of living since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, worldwide, work-related injuries and illnesses still kill at least 2.3 million workers per year with "between 184 and 208 million workers suffer from work-related diseases" and about "270 million" non-lethal injuries of varying severity "caused by preventable factors at the workplace".—a number that may or may not compare favorably with chattel slavery's.
  2. Unlike a chattel slave, a wage laborer can (barring unemployment or lack of job offers) choose between employers, but they usually constitute a minority of owners in the population for which the wage laborer must work, while attempts to implement workers' control on employers' businesses may be met with violence or other unpleasant consequences. The wage laborer's starkest choice is to work for an employer or face poverty or starvation. If a chattel slave refuses to work, a number of punishments are also available; from beatings to food deprivation – although economically rational slave owners practiced positive reinforcement to achieve best results and before losing their investment (or even friendship) by killing an expensive slave.
  3. Historically, the range of occupations and status positions held by chattel slaves has been nearly as broad as that held by free persons, indicating some similarities between chattel slavery and wage slavery as well.
  4. Arguably, wage slavery, like chattel slavery, does not stem from some immutable "human nature," but represents a "specific response to material and historical conditions" that "reproduce the inhabitants, the social relations… the ideas… the social form of daily life."
  5. Similarities were blurred by the fact that proponents of wage labor won the American Civil War, in which they competed for legitimacy with defenders of chattel slavery. Both presented an over-positive assessment of their system, while denigrating the opponent.

The similarities between chattel and wage slavery were noticed by the workers themselves. For example, the 19th century Lowell Mill Girls, who, without any reported knowledge of European marxism or anarchism, condemned the "degradation and subordination" of the newly emerging industrial system, and the "new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self", maintaining that "those who work in the mills should own them." They expressed their concerns in a protest song during their 1836 strike:

Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.

Defenses of wage labor and chattel slavery in the literature have linked the subjection of man to man with the subjection of man to nature; arguing that hierarchy and a social system's particular relations of production represent human nature and are no more coercive than the reality of life itself. According to this narrative, any well-intentioned attempt to fundamentally change the status quo is naively utopian and will result in more oppressive conditions. Bosses in both of these long-lasting systems argued that their system created a lot of wealth and prosperity. Both did, in some sense create jobs and their investment entailed risk. For example, slave owners might have risked losing money by buying expensive slaves who later became ill or died; or might have used those slaves to make products that didn't sell well on the market. Marginally, both chattel and wage slaves may become bosses; sometimes by working hard. It may be the "rags to riches" story which occasionally occurs in capitalism, or the "slave to master" story that occurred in places like colonial Brazil, where slaves could buy their own freedom and become business owners, self-employed, or slave owners themselves. Social mobility, or the hard work and risk that it may entail, are thus not considered to be a redeeming factor by critics of the concept of wage slavery.

Anthropologist David Graeber has noted that, historically, the first wage labor contracts we know about – whether in ancient Greece or Rome, or in the Malay or Swahili city states in the Indian ocean – were in fact contracts for the rental of chattel slaves (usually the owner would receive a share of the money, and the slave, another, with which to maintain his or her living expenses.) Such arrangements, according to Graeber, were quite common in New World slavery as well, whether in the United States or Brazil. C. L. R. James argued that most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.

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