Monopoly on Reparations

Many places have histories of exploiting a group or groups to the advantage of others. Although this scenario applies to these people in a similar manner, I am thinking specifically of the exploitation and reparations due to the black and indigenous people of colour, BIPOC, in the United States.

I believe that many people are familiar with Monopoly, the board game where, among other things, one accumulates properties and extracts rents from the other players. My intent is to illustrate with Monopoly the need for reparations, to illustrate why reparations are necessary to restore justice. This is a twist on John Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment.

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I have heard some people say that the past is the past, or if there were injustices in the past, that was ages ago, and now everyone has an equal chance. No special accommodations or affirmative actions are necessary. I don’t agree that this is true, but let’s just say for the sake of this exposition that opportunities are equal for everyone in a given society.

There are parallels between a game of Monopoly and the way we are thrown into this world. No one differs in this regard. We are all subject to a loin lottery.

Imagine that I already own all of the properties. You own none. Irrespective of how the game came to this condition, your chances of winning are nil to none. Now imagine that the reason for the disparate ownership was the result of a system of injustice perpetrated by the player I inherited my position from on the player you inherited yours.

No matter how fairly the game is from now until the end, if your starting place leaves me with all of the property and you without, your chances of winning are slim to none. Favouring tradition and inheritance already benefits some people over others, but when the benefit is the result of a pattern of injustices, it feels more egregious. Worse yet, even if I ‘give’ you Whitechapel Road, Baltic Avenue, or Rue Lecourbe and keep the rest, your chances have only slightly improved.

With the end of US Civil War and the emancipation proclamation, affected blacks were promised 40 acres and a mule. For most, this never happened. This remains an outstanding debt. And whilst 40 acres in some places would be a boon, not many today really need a mule, so descendants of slaves need to be made whole. Reparations are a way to accomplish this.

Reparations are payments in arrears to attempt to compensate for the centuries of an unbalanced playing field. And reparations should allow you to recover more than Whitechapel, Baltic, or Rue Lecourbe properties. At least get Bond Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, or Boulevard des Capucines. If you’ve played Monopoly, you’ll understand that this is still not enough.

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.