Still a Slave

“Wage slavery is not the same as slavery, and this diminishes the experience of plantation slaves in the antebellum Southern US states” is a sentiment I’ve heard repeated over the years.

I’ll argue that it is the same. Saying wage slavery is like when the then-president of the United States, Bill Clinton, denied that oral sex was sex despite it being an obvious part of the name. When one says wage slavery is still slavery, s/he is making a commentary on the lack of agency, a lack of personal control. That the worker has a choice over which master to slave under is hardly a consolation. That a plantation slave has a choice of picking cotton or tobacco is of no consequence.

To disqualify wage slavery as slavery is to disqualify a 3-month pregnant woman as being not as pregnant as a 6-month pregnant woman. One might be closer to term, but they are equally pregnant.

That a plantation slave may have had less freedom and run the risk of physical beatings, torture, or even death is a sad commentary. That they may have separated from their families and have no autonomy is a matter of degree.

The slavery connexion occurs where the human needs to comply. Sure, a wage slave can opt out and live as a transient—ostensibly homeless; perhaps s/he can home-surf. Perhaps s/he can beg or live off the land.

Wage slavery is not the same as slavery

To me, the common missing element is to be able to operate as a functioning society, that as communities, we might contribute however we see fit. Of course, that narrative will quickly provoke an appeal to Tragedy of the Commons. People are selfish and act only in their own self-interests. And this is accepted uncritically as fact rather than evaluating whether this worldview is a consequence of Modernity or Capitalism, whichever nomenclature one has opted to adopt.

Wage slavery is slavery. Depending on the information source bout 50 per cent of Americans are a paycheque away from needing to deplete savings to survive; some have assessed a single paycheque from homelessness without intervention. One paycheque from poverty. Over two-thirds of Americans have been living paycheque-to-paycheque since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. If this describes you, it likely provides little solace that you are not alone. Who on the Titanic was relieved to know that other people shared their plight? Is there a silver lining for those who are paid fortnightly or monthly? And God forbid the ones whose paycheque arrive daily—perhaps in cash from the till.

Research from the Federal Reserve found that 4 in 10 Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency, and 22 per cent say they expect to forgo payments on some of their bills. It’s not much better in the UK, where the runway appears to end at 2.5 months rather than 1, although about two-thirds of renters would expect to make it more than a month.

Slavery, like turtles, all the way down. Just be thankful the worst that can happen is that one starves to death or pursues the life of Valjean. Dissociating wage slavery from plantation slavery is like separating the abbatoire from the butcher’s shop. When you’re the chattel it makes little difference.

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