Pointing out the Obvious: That Wage Slavery and Actual “Chattel” Slavery are Different, but Both are Awful
Wage slavery (where an entity’s livelihood depends on wages or a salary) and actual “chattel” slavery (where an entity is enslaved by another entity) are very different.
You might think, “did that need to be said?” But to that, I would say, “you must have missed the arguments for slavery and against the welfare state.” In short, “yes, it does need to be said” both from a historical perspective discussing slavery and economic inequality, and from a modern perspective when people make “neo” or “alt” arguments for or against specific social and economic policies.
- Wage slavery (or more broadly, if we are talking about entities like nations, economic slavery) is when one entity has dominion over another due to economic dependency (this can be an employer/employee relationship or a relationship between other entities like companies or states). It is what the lower-paid workers feel in a capitalist society without a safety net where there is limited access to jobs that pay a decent wage. When things get bad and when the wealth gap hurts, life becomes bleak enough to ferment the secret sauce of Marx’s revolution. As we can see in any era of economic inequality, people may be rallied to questionable causes of fascism or communism after becoming alienated by constant social, economic, and political inequality.
- Meanwhile, Actual “Chattel” slavery is when one another person takes another person as property, depriving them of their life and liberty, and thus breaking the natural law and the social contract. This may have a similar effect, that is one class having power over the other, but the mechanics are very different.
Both types of slavery lead to the inequality of social classes, but wage slavery is born from unbalanced economic policy and classist prejudice against the economic have-nots, where actual slavery is born from unbalanced social policy and socially conservative prejudice against “others.”
A good example of the fine line between the two is indentured servitude. Indentured servitude is temporary slavery to pay off debts. It used to be popular globally, and notably, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great grandfather and many other American families of the 1600’s came to America as this type of slave. This type of slavery is illegal; today we agree that no one can own another. We have workers, and we have debt, but we don’t have a debtors prison, and a man can walk off the job site if he wishes (in America at least).
Another good example of a fine line is Communism and the Welfare State. Here, very generally speaking, people are given what they need by the state, becoming supplicant to the state. This, of course, isn’t akin to actual slavery, as it is economically minded and not based on social factors like race or nationality, but we can see how this conversation comes up. Let’s address it. Someone who would go hungry without welfare will appreciate the food stamps, but where they could work toward earning more income in a free state, the literal slave in a slave state has no such privilege as their “owner” controls such things. They are deprived not only of their natural equality, but their natural liberty as well, and not only of their civic equality but their civil liberty as well. So, while Communism is closer to actual slavery than the moderate Welfare State social safety nets, neither is akin or directly comparable to slavery. In fact, it is rather insulting to compare any economic slavery to actual slavery.
Another Example of a fine line is the For-Profit Prison System and Mass Incarceration. Here, if and when one breaks the law, they then become both an economic slave and an indentured servant. They don’t become actual slaves in all respects because they still have basic theoretical rights. Still, that is way too close for comfort. Learn more about mass incarceration.
So why are we talking about this? Well, mostly because I keep hearing these alternative facts about how the modern welfare state is like the slavery of the pre-Civil War American Deep South (AKA the idea that a modern Democrat is like an 1860’s Democrat). At first, I scoffed, then I realized that people were confusing economic inequality, its response, and its effects on Northern cities with Southern Slavery’s effects and its response.
The problem here is that as far back as the 1820’s, and 1850’s the main argument figures like Calhoun and his less savory and more radical cousins gave in support of slavery was [paraphrasing], “The slave system of the South is superior to the ‘wage slavery’ of the North. By slavery intertwining the economic interests of master and slave, it eliminates the unavoidable conflict that existed between labor and capital under the wage system. The amount of money a master invested in his slaves made it economically unfeasible to mistreat them or ignore their working and living conditions.
In other words, actual slavery and wage slavery have been issues for a very long time. They didn’t start in Civil War, or in the American South, or during the Global Slave Trade, or in Rome, or in Greece, or in Egypt. Slavery existed until western liberal democracies freed most of us from one type of slavery.
People today push for nativist segregation and fight to slash the safety net. We pass policies (well-intentioned or not) that might move certain subsets of a country’s population toward wage slavery. We grapple with balancing the ills of globalization and the welfare state with our desire to lift up the bottom and provide a safety net with our desire for economic liberty. We balance our desires of liberty and equality, but we have outlawed the immoral act of actual slavery in the West.
Has any westerner since the fascists crossed the line and enslaved people? Arguably we have. We have created internment camps and prisons and know of human rights violations. Slavery still exists as illegal human trafficking. We will be fighting off-the-record slavery like that for a very long time.
Is every push back toward the old ways a step toward slavery? Probably not. Is every step toward a welfare state or globalism about economic slavery? Not that either.
Let us take a city in a purple state like Ohio for example rather than Solid Conservative South Georgia or Solid Liberal San Francisco. Here we can expect that the economic inequality is a product of both left-wing and right-wing policy, and indeed this is what we find. We find segregated areas where the poor are suffering and imprisoned, and the poor are also black or immigrant, and we find welfare programs that both help these people and keep them dependent on the state and in poverty. Now, Cleveland is a great city, but I chose it because it is purple (equally Democrat and Republican). See Segregation, inequality reflected in Ohio’s poor county health rankings.
The truth is, all of America’s cities have ghettos, not “because of America” but because the nature of classism is paired with economic policy, paired with social policy, paired with the human condition, paired with the nature of the right and left. A person may be oppressed without creating a Deep South slave state condition. Even in the 1850’s at the height of slavery, a time when the North had outlawed slavery, we had right-wing anti-immigrant factions fighting globalist factions in poor urban ghettoes where everyone concerned was lucky to have a job, even with wage slavery.
In fact, it is what the movie Gangs of New York is about.
“Gangs Of New York” Best Scene HDGangs of New York | ‘Fear‘ (HD) – Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis | MIRAMAX. The “others” (those whom we fear in the political sense) used to be the Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants. They were the hated “others” of the Nativist Northerners, competing for the same factory jobs, competing for the same warm meals or roofs, pulled to the left and right over their vote, just like the Southern Conservative had his “other” or outcast, the northerner had his. Today, the two factions form a “conservative coalition” and are on a team called Republican. We turn on “illegal” Muslims and Mexicans for a modern “other,” a modern boogeyman who makes us feel “not safe” and “takes our jobs.” Some will say, “but you focus on skin color or religion when the real divide is by economic class,” but this view discounts the very real and natural left-right split that seems to be more powerful than the class divide. Maybe Marx missed something with his theory?
TIP: Democrats were historically Free Trade Nativists and Progressive Populists. Lincoln was a protectionist socially liberal neoliberal who was conservative on some issues of trade. Today people are either neoliberal globalists or nativists populists. In other words, everyone’s positions on trade, economics, and immigration didn’t “switch.” They twisted and turned as America progressed and factions changed parties. The best way to understand this is 1. Calhoun says Northern Wage slavery is worse than slavocracy 2. Clay and Lincoln and McKinley say Free-Trade (not protectionism) hurts the working man and slavery is also an atrocity, 3. Neoliberals say global trade brings the bottom up and Free Trade and Protectionism should be mixed, 4. National Populists like Bannon want an anti-neoliberal protectionist economy that lifts up the native worker. McCain takes a traditional Republican stance, Ron Paul Takes a traditional Democrat stance, the Nativist Protectionists like Trump and Neoliberal Globalists like Obama are both taking a “mixed” stance. The history of trade policy is confusing despite the fact that one party always favored centralized state affected government (Conservative Republicans always, and Liberal and Progressive Democrats since Wilson and FDR). In other words, trying to conflate the Confederate chattel slavery with the many forms of wage slavery in the U.S. is an uphill battle. Meanwhile, comparing types of wage-slavery found in different types of conservative and progressive ideologies is, terminology aside, an interesting and long conversation that should be had elsewhere.
The Pros and Cons of Using Slavery as a Metaphor
Bringing up slavery to describe forms of oppression is a little like dropping the terms Hitler and fascism to describe any right-wing policy, or bringing up Stalin and Communism to describe any left-wing one (learn more about fascism and communism).
This is to say, “boy who cried wolf” aspects aside, using powerful terms to denote frustrating policies and politics it isn’t without merit, but if we are going to drop those terms, we should speak accurately.
Correctness is found in the center, not in extremes; the social contract is clear and well worn. We know what we are fighting for, and that is a balance of liberty and equality in a moral and civil state where people are not enslaved in any way to another entity.
We pursue liberty, justice, equal rights for all, special privileges for none, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, for the Republic for which it stands.
BOTTOM LINE: Economic and Actual slavery from the times of Solon and Aristotle, to the times of Marx and Lincoln, to today is an ongoing problem. We should, however, take care to differentiate between the two types, less we fill our head with unfortunate alternative facts. If you care about either type, consider speaking up about non-divisive major pressing issues like human sex trafficking.
TIP: Thomas Jefferson and I both see the political left and right as naturally occurring social systems. Our politics are as diverse as our beliefs which the first Amendment protects. The cultures of people and nations are just as diverse. The answer is found in a balance of socio-political factors, and both parties hold keys.
FACT: Many of the old city-states and nations had class systems and most had both wage slavery and actual slavery. The idea was always that if one class could best the other, then this was just the way it was. Likewise, if one race could conquer another race, and that race didn’t speak the same language, then they became slaves.
How did Plato and Aristotle justify slavery?
FACT: Although the staunch American abolitionists were Northerners like the leader of the Federalists Alexander Hamilton, many of America’s founders fought against slavery. The idea that the founders supported slavery is a myth, but that truth needs to be augmented by the fact that many (not all) owned slaves despite this. Learn more about the founders and slavery.
The Atlantic Slave Trade: Crash Course World History #24.
FACT: According to the ACLU, “The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labor at any given time, 2.4 million of whom toil in forced labor as a result of trafficking. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. However, these numbers do not include the many individuals trafficked within U.S. borders.” Likewise, 3,287 people are sold or kidnapped and forced into slavery every day, the U.S. has more incarcerated citizens than any nation on earth, and some argue a debt-based society lends itself to a form of indentured servitude (which our country is meant to have abolished). We can look to the past to strengthen or resolve, but if we don’t look back with understanding, we may very well miss what is right under our noses. Both actual and economic slavery is still a problem.