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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 economic exploitation 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 in the context of a critique of societal property not intended for active personal use, 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 during 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.
Some anti-capitalist thinkers claim that the elite maintain wage slavery and a divided working class through their influence over the media and entertainment industry, educational institutions, unjust laws, nationalist and corporate propaganda, pressures and incentives to internalize values serviceable to the power structure, state violence, fear of unemployment and a historical legacy of exploitation and profit accumulation/transfer under prior systems, which shaped the development of economic theory:
The interest of the dealers... in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… [They] have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public… We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate… It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms.
The concept of wage slavery could conceivably be traced back to pre-capitalist figures like Gerrard Winstanley from the radical Christian Diggers movement in England, who wrote in his 1649 pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness, that there "shall be no buying or selling, no fairs nor markets, but the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man," and "there shall be none Lord over others, but every one shall be a Lord of himself."
Aristotle made the statement "...the citizens must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life (for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue), nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil (for leisure is needed both for the development of virtue and for active participation in politics)", often paraphrased as "all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind." Cicero wrote in 44 BC that "…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery." Somewhat similar criticisms have also been expressed by some proponents of liberalism, like Henry George, Silvio Gesell and Thomas Paine, as well as the Distributist school of thought within the Roman Catholic Church.
To Marx and anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Kropotkin, wage slavery was a class condition in place due to the existence of private property and the state. This class situation rested primarily on:
and secondarily on:
Proponents of anarcho-capitalism such as John Frederic Kosanke, in contrast, note that in the absence of restrictive statutory regulations and political cronyism, the natural pursuit of property and capital allows a positive sum enrichment of all actors. Employers and employees, as buyers and sellers of services, become peers on an equal footing.
Both American and Russian media described the USSR as a communist or socialist society. Thus Soviet state brutality and destruction of workers' councils became identified with socialism and communism. This helped to vilify these political movements and portray capitalist wage labor as the only alternative to the soviet model.
Fascism was more hostile against independent trade unions than modern economies in Europe or the United States. Fascist economic policies were widely accepted in the 1920s and 1930s and foreign (especially US) corporate investment in Italy and Germany increased after the fascist take over.
Fascism has been perceived by some notable critics, like Buenaventura Durruti, to be a last resort weapon of the privileged to ensure the maintenance of wage slavery:
According to Noam Chomsky, analysis of the psychological implications of wage slavery goes back to the Enlightenment era. In his 1791 book On the Limits of State Action, classical liberal thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt explained how "whatever does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness" and so when the laborer works under external control, "we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is." Both the Milgram and Stanford experiments have been found useful in the psychological study of wage-based workplace relations.
According to research, modern work provides people with a sense of personal and social identity that is tied to
1) the particular work role, even if unfulfilling; and
2) the social role it entails e.g. family bread-winning, friendship forming etc.
Thus job loss entails the loss of this identity.
Erich Fromm argued that if a person perceives himself as being what he owns, then when that person loses (or even thinks of losing) what he "owns" (e.g. the good looks or sharp mind that allow him to sell his labor for high wages), then, a fear of loss may create anxiety and authoritarian tendencies because that person's sense of identity is threatened. In contrast, when a person's sense of self is based on what he experiences in a state of being (creativity, love, sadness, taste, sight etc.) with a less materialistic regard for what he once had and lost, or may lose, then less authoritarian tendencies prevail. The state of being, in his view, flourishes under a worker-managed workplace and economy, whereas self-ownership entails a materialistic notion of self, created to rationalize the lack of worker control that would allow for a state of being.
Investigative journalist Robert Kuttner analyzed the work of public-health scholars Jeffrey Johnson and Ellen Hall about modern conditions of work, and concludes that "to be in a life situation where one experiences relentless demands by others, over which one has relatively little control, is to be at risk of poor health, physically as well as mentally." Under wage labor, "a relatively small elite demands and gets empowerment, self-actualization, autonomy, and other work satisfaction that partially compensate for long hours" while "epidemiological data confirm that lower-paid, lower-status workers are more likely to experience the most clinically damaging forms of stress, in part because they have less control over their work."
Wage slavery, and the educational system that precedes it "implies power held by the leader. Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption… in spite of… good intentions … [Leadership means] power of initiative, this sense of responsibility, the self-respect which comes from expressed manhood, is taken from the men, and consolidated in the leader. The sum of their initiative, their responsibility, their self-respect becomes his … [and the] order and system he maintains is based upon the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being 'the men' … In a word, he is compelled to become an autocrat and a foe to democracy." For the "leader", such marginalisation can be beneficial, for a leader "sees no need for any high level of intelligence in the rank and file, except to applaud his actions. Indeed such intelligence from his point of view, by breeding criticism and opposition, is an obstacle and causes confusion." Wage slavery "implies erosion of the human personality… [because] some men submit to the will of others, arousing in these instincts which predispose them to cruelty and indifference in the face of the suffering of their fellows."
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In 19th-century discussions of labor relations, it was normally assumed that the threat of starvation forced those without property to work for wages. Proponents of the view that modern forms of employment constitute wage slavery, even when workers appear to have a range of available alternatives, have attributed its perpetuation to a variety of social factors that maintain the hegemony of the employer class.
Harriet Hanson Robinson in an account of the Lowell Mill Girls wrote that generously high wages were offered to overcome the degrading nature of the work:
At the time the Lowell cotton mills were started the caste of the factory girl was the lowest among the employments of women. . . . She was represented as subjected to influences that must destroy her purity and selfrespect. In the eyes of her overseer she was but a brute, a slave, to be beaten, pinched and pushed about. It was to overcome this prejudice that such high wages had been offered to women that they might be induced to become millgirls, in spite of the opprobrium that still clung to this degrading occupation.
In his book Disciplined Minds, Jeff Schmidt points out that professionals are trusted to run organizations in the interests of their employers. Because employers cannot be on hand to manage every decision, professionals are trained to “ensure that each and every detail of their work favors the right interests–or skewers the disfavored ones” in the absence of overt control:
The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorize, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology.
Parecon theory posits a social class "between labor and capital" of higher paid professionals such as "doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers and others" who monopolize empowering labor and constitute a class above wage laborers who do mostly "obedient, rote work".
The terms "employee" or "worker" have often been replaced by "associate". This plays up the allegedly voluntary nature of the interaction, while playing down the subordinate status of the wage laborer, as well as the worker-boss class distinction emphasized by labor movements. Billboards, as well as TV, Internet and newspaper advertisements, consistently show low-wage workers with smiles on their faces, appearing happy.
Job interviews and other data on requirements for lower skilled workers in developed countries – particularly in the growing service sector – indicate that the more workers depend on low wages, and the less skilled or desirable their job is, the more employers screen for workers without better employment options and expect them to feign unremunerative motivation. Such screening and feigning may not only contribute to the positive self-image of the employer as someone granting desirable employment, but also signal wage-dependence by indicating the employee's willingness to feign, which in turn may discourage the dissatisfaction normally associated with job-switching or union activity.
At the same time, employers in the service industry have justified unstable, part-time employment and low wages by playing down the importance of service jobs for the lives of the wage laborers (e.g. just temporary before finding something better, student summer jobs etc.).
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Some social activists objecting to the market system or price system of wage working, historically have considered syndicalism, worker cooperatives, workers' self-management and workers' control as possible alternatives to the current wage system.
The American philosopher John Dewey believed that until "industrial feudalism" is replaced by "industrial democracy," politics will be "the shadow cast on society by big business". Thomas Ferguson has postulated in his investment theory of party competition that the undemocratic nature of economic institutions under capitalism causes elections to become occasions when blocs of investors coalesce and compete to control the state.
Noam Chomsky has argued that political theory tends to blur the 'elite' function of government:
“Modern political theory stresses Madison's belief that "in a just and a free government the rights both of property and of persons ought to be effectually guarded." But in this case too it is useful to look at the doctrine more carefully. There are no rights of property, only rights to property that is, rights of persons with property,..."
"[In] representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain [...] there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and secondly – and critically – [...] the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere [...] That is, as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful."
In this regard Chomsky has used Bakunin's theories about an "instinct for freedom", the militant history of labor movements, Kropotkin's mutual aid evolutionary principle of survival and Marc Hauser's theories supporting an innate and universal moral faculty, to explain the incompatibility of oppression with certain aspects of human nature.
Loyola University philosophy professor John Clark and libertarian socialist philosopher Murray Bookchin have criticized the system of wage labor for encouraging environmental destruction, arguing that a self-managed industrial society would better manage the environment. They, like other anarchists, attribute much of the industrial revolution's pollution to the "hierarchical" and "competitive" economic relations accompanying it.
Some criticize wage slavery on strictly contractual grounds, e.g. David Ellerman and Carole Pateman, arguing that the employment contract is a legal fiction in that it treats human beings juridically as mere tools or inputs by abdicating responsibility and self-determination, which the critics argue are inalienable. As Ellerman points out, "[t]he employee is legally transformed from being a co-responsible partner to being only an input supplier sharing no legal responsibility for either the input liabilities [costs] or the produced outputs [revenue, profits] of the employer's business." Such contracts are inherently invalid "since the person remain[s] a de facto fully capacitated adult person with only the contractual role of a non-person" as it is impossible to physically transfer self-determination. As Pateman argues:
The contractarian argument is unassailable all the time it is accepted that abilities can 'acquire' an external relation to an individual, and can be treated as if they were property. To treat abilities in this manner is also implicitly to accept that the 'exchange' between employer and worker is like any other exchange of material property . . . The answer to the question of how property in the person can be contracted out is that no such procedure is possible. Labour power, capacities or services, cannot be separated from the person of the worker like pieces of property.
In a modern liberal-capitalist society, the employment contract is enforced while the enslavement contract is not; the former being considered valid because of its consensual/non-coercive nature, and the later being considered inherently invalid, consensual or not. The noted economist Paul Samuelson described this discrepancy.
Since slavery was abolished, human earning power is forbidden by law to be capitalized. A man is not even free to sell himself; he must rent himself at a wage.
Some advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, among them philosopher Robert Nozick, address this inconsistency in modern societies, arguing that a consistently libertarian society would allow and regard as valid consensual/non-coercive enslavement contracts, rejecting the notion of inalienable rights.
The comparable question about an individual is whether a free system will allow him to sell himself into slavery. I believe that it would.
[I]f A has agreed to work for life for B in exchange for 10,000 grams of gold, he will have to return the proportionate amount of property if he terminates the arrangement and ceases to work."
In the philosophy of mainstream, neoclassical economics, wage labor is seen as the voluntary sale of one's own time and efforts, just like a carpenter would sell a chair, or a farmer would sell wheat. It is considered neither an antagonistic nor abusive relationship, and carries no particular moral implications.
Post Keynesian economics perceives wage slavery as resulting from inequality of bargaining power between labor and capital, which exists when the economy does not "allow labor to organize and form a strong countervailing force."
The two main forms of Socialist economics perceive wage slavery differently:
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