Wage slavery

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Comrades: be careful with the use of this term because it can be dismissive of the actual experience of slaves.

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African American wage workers picking cotton on a plantation in the South.

Wage slavery refers to a situation where a person's livelihood depends on wages, especially when the dependence is total and immediate.[1] The term draws an analogy between wage labor and slavery. At least two claims may be involved. One, that the degree of exploitation or mistreatment in some jobs is comparable to that under slavery.[2] Two, that the freedom of the worker in wage labor is largely fictional. The second claim has several aspects. One is that the wage laborer may not really be free to leave her job because the consequences of doing so would be too dire. Another is that although the worker may be able to leave the employ of the particular capitalist she is working for and go to work for a different capitalist, she does not have the option of not working for some capitalist. If the conditions offered her by all capitalists are about the same, her freedom to move from one to the other is an empty freedom. Another aspect of worker unfreedom in capitalism is that the worker has little or no control over the conditions and character of the work; these are dictated by the capitalist — a situation in sharp contrast with the ideals of worker cooperatives and worker self-management.[3][4][5][6]

Similarities between wage labor and slavery were noted at least as early as Cicero Wp→ and Aristotle Wp→. With the advent of the industrial revolution, thinkers such as Proudhon and Marx elaborated these comparisons as part of their critique of capitalism.[7][8]

The use of the term wage slave by labor organizations may originate from the labor protests of the Lowell Mill Girls in 1836.[9] 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 weaker term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century, as labor organizations shifted their focus to merely raising wages.[10][11]

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.[12][13] It is odd that the people concerned, Southern Blacks, were willing to risk death on the underground railway to escape that blissful condition. Northern abolitionists also considered the rhetoric to be spurious.

Some writers have applied the term to working for a wage not only under threat of starvation or poverty, but also of social stigma or status diminution under the presently existing hierarchical social conditions.[14][15][16]


Aristotle made the statement, "All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind".[17] 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."[18]

The French monarchist Simon Linguet Wp→ wrote in 1763:[19]

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… 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 [has] the suppression of slavery brought [him ?] He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune… These men… [have] 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?

E. P. Thompson Wp→ 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." [20]The Making of the English Working Class, p. 912]</ref> 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."[21] 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." [3] "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."[22]

In the 1830s, women working in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachussetts, USA, 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."[23] 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.[24]

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Emma Goldman famously denounced wage slavery by saying: "The only difference is that you are hired slaves instead of block slaves"[25]

The 19th century economist Henry George argued that the market economy could be reformed by making land common property. In his view, people should own the productive results of their efforts, but that everything found in nature, most importantly land, should belong equally to everyone in society.[26]

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".

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American financier Jay Gould Wp→. After hiring strikebreakers, he said "I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half."[27]

The term 'wage slavery' became less used by labor organizations toward the end of the 19th century because the structural changes associated with the later stages of industrial capitalism, including "increased centralization of production... declining wages... [an] expanding... labor pool... intensifying competition, and... [t]he loss of competence and independence experienced by skilled labor" meant that "a critique that referred to all [wage] work as slavery and avoided demands for wage concessions in favor of supporting the creation of the producerist republic (by diverting strike funds towards funding... co-operatives, for example) was far less compelling than one that identified the specific conditions of slavery as low wages..." Thus, "wage slavery" was gradually replaced by the bland expression "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century.[10]

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. See Chattel slavery, below, for more information.

In this period, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “[i]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.” [28]

Some supporters of wage and chattel slavery have linked the subjection of man to man with the subjection of man to nature; arguing that hierarchy and their preferred 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.[29][30][31] 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.[32][33] 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.[34]

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 were quite common in New World slavery as well, whether in the United States or Brazil. C. L. R. James made a famous argument that most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.[35]

Labor under capitalism

A key dynamic in capitalism that has affected wage labor has been the removal of the tools and raw materials required for work – Marx called them the means of production – from the legal possession of the workers. In agriculture, this occurred as a result of the transfer of collectively held tracts of land to large private ownership during the enclosure movement. In industry, from the replacement of independent artisanal production (where eg., the weaver owns her own loom) by factory production (large expensive power loom owned by capitalist). The fact that the laborer does not own means of production means that if she is to work — which she must in order to survive — she has no option but to hire herself to a capitalist, who owns means of production. This is the mechanism of labor compulsion inherent in capitalist society. Being based on a combination of deprivation and need, it differs from the compulsion in slave society, which is based on direct physical coercion applied by an identifiable individual; nevertheless it is compulsion, and both societies share the characteristics that the worker is a) a non-owner of means of production, and b) compelled to work for a powerful other.

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A difference in the systems is that while the slave has a single master, the wage laborer has a collective master: she must work for a capitalist but has some options to switch between them. Whether this matters depends on the degree to which the capitalists are offering her non-identical deals. Factors militating against there being much scope in this regard are:

Adam Smith, though often associated with the defence of market economics, also spoke in The Wealth of Nations (1776) on the manner in which capital confronts labor: [36][37]

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.

Karl Marx was perhaps the first to clearly enunciate the mechanism of coercion that we are describing here. His statements also tend to mention that the compulsion in capitalist societies can appear mysterious or non-obvious because it is applied by market and property relations (which rest on a combination of personal need and widely distributed state power), rather than by an easily identifiable single oppressor-owner.

In reality, the labourer belongs to capital before he has sold himself to capital. His economic bondage is brought about and concealed by the periodic sale of himself, by his change of masters, and by the oscillations in the market price of labour-power. (Capital, v 1, c xxiii.)

The Roman slave was held by fetters: the wage -labourer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is kept up by a constant change of employers, and by the ficto juris of a contract. (Capital, v 1, c xxiii.)

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.[38]

In Marx's analysis, capitalism infringes on individual autonomy by basing it on a materialistic and commodified concept of the body and its liberty and by constructing it as something that is sold, rented or alienated in a class society.

Marx and anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Kropotkin also identified some secondary factors in class exploitation:

  1. the waste of workers' efforts and resources on producing useless luxuries;
  2. the waste of goods so that their price may remain high; and
  3. the waste of all those who sit between the producer and consumer, taking their own shares at each stage without actually contributing to the production of goods.

The Historical materialist view is that 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[s] the inhabitants, the social relations… the ideas… [and] the social form of daily life."[39]

Labor in three systems
slaverycapitalist wage laborcommunism
LABOR ISSUEreason for workingphysical coercion: shackles, flogging, bloodhounds, slave-catchersneed for physical sustenance
(and social status?)
desire to be productive,
desire for esteem?
masterindividual slave-ownercapitalists as a groupnone
means of organising the economyvarioiuscombination of market forces (essentially anarchic) and collusion among capitalists (dictatorship of the bourgeoisie)rational organization via democratic processes
ontological realmneccessity ¹necessity ¹collective free will
alienation issuesrelation of worker to her productworker has no right to her product ²worker has no right to her product ³worker has right to share collective product
relation of worker to work processworker has no say in production methodworker has no say in production methodproduction decisions are result of collective choice by workers

Table notes

  1. Corresponds to facticity in the marxist writings of Sartre.
  2. Product is property of the slave's master.
  3. Product is property of the worker's employer

The finite nature of the earth imposes moral restrictions on the right to acquire unlimited property.

Worldwide, work-related injuries and illnesses kill at least 2.2 million workers per year with "between 184 and 208 million workers suffer[ing] from work-related diseases" and about "270 million" non-lethal injuries of varying severity "caused by preventable factors at the workplace".[40]--a number that may or may not compare favorably with chattel slavery's.

Opinions on psychological effects

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."[41]

Investigative journalist Robert Kuttner in Everything for Sale, analyzes 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."[42]

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."[43] 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."[44]

Erich Fromm noted 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, ego or loss of ego, 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.[45]

Due to this lack of control, the exploited worker, according to Marx, "puts his life into the object... [and thus] the greater his activity...the less he possesses...[H]is labour becomes an object...[and] the life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force"[46] And since the worker could be working for wages or saving money instead of enjoying life or having fun, (which in a capitalist society often costs money), "all passions and all activity is submerged in avarice...[and] the less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life."[47]

Both the Milgram and Stanford experiments have been found useful in the psychological study of wage-based workplace relations.[48]

Methods of control in wage systems

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.[39][49] These include efforts at Manufacturing Consent and eliciting false consciousness.

They believe that capitalists maintain wage slavery and a divided working class through their influence over the media and entertainment industry,[50][51] educational institutions, unjust laws, nationalist and corporate propaganda, pressures and incentives to internalize values serviceable to the power structure, state violence, fear of unemployment[52] and a historical legacy of exploitation and profit accumulation/transfer under prior systems, which shaped the development of economic theory:

In the 21st century Dubai, employers pay low wages to many workers—often less than £120 ($178.83) a month, for a 60-hour work week. Often 'employment contracts', if they are given, "are not worth the paper they are written on," and collective bargaining and trade unions are illegal in Dubai. It all starts in their home countries, often India or Bangladesh, where local recruitment agents promise them high salaries and generous overtime payments. In these workers' home countries they are charged a "visa" or "transit" fee, averaging 200,000 taka, or £2,000 ($2,980), which in these home countries is supposed to be illegal.

The workers pay the fee because they believe the figures they've been promised of future wages. However in most cases, it will take them the entire two-to-three year contract for them just to pay back that fee and break even.[53]

In another contemporary case unions representing teachers in Louisiana have filed a complaint with state authorities alleging that a Los Angeles recruiting firm broke the law by holding more than 350 Filipino teachers in 'virtual servitude' in order to hold onto their jobs in five Louisiana parish school systems, including New Orleans' Recovery School District.[54]

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.[55]

Labor and government

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.[56]

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has argued that political theory tends to blur the 'elite' function of government:[57]

“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,...[58] ""[In] [r]epresentative 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",[59] 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,[60] to explain the incompatibility of oppression with certain aspects of human nature.[61][62]

Influence on environmental degradation

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,[63] attribute much of the industrial revolution's pollution to the "hierarchical" and "competitive" economic relations accompanying it.[64][65][66][67][68]


According to Eric Foner, most abolitionists in the U.S. regarded the analogy of wage earners to slaves, symbolized by the term "wage slavery," as spurious. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison stated that the use of the term "wage slavery" (in a time when chattel slavery was still common) was an "abuse of language."[69] Most abolitionists believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed".[70] Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass described his elation when he took a paying job, declaring that "Now I am my own master." According to Douglass, wage labor did not represent oppression but fair exchange and former slaves for the first time receiving the fruits of their labor.[71]

Capitalist apologetics

Philosopher Gary Young has argued that the same basic reasoning that considers the individual to be forced to sell his labor to a capitalist in order to survive, also applies to the capitalist in that he is forced to hire a worker to survive otherwise his capital will be exhausted through consumption, leaving him nothing to purchase the necessities of life.[72] In this sense, the capitalists depend on the workers as the workers depend on the capitalists.[73]

Communist response: Nevertheless, in practice capital hires labour, labour does not hire capital, and it is the capitalist who gives the orders, not the laborer: in any but the most abstract sense, the positions of the two classes are obviously very different. And even in the abstract, the capitalist owns means of production, the laborer does not, and the capitalist collects surplus value, the laborer does not. The capitalist, as capitalist, does not work – although she may perform managerial duties instead of hiring a manager, in which case she is part capitalist and part self-employed proprietor.

In capitalist economic philosophy, 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. From this perspective, the problem of poverty comes from an unequal distribution of income and can be addressed by government programs like social security and progressive taxation, and does not reflect a fundamental flaw in the capitalist system.[74]

Wage slavery is also in contradiction to the classical liberal notion of self-ownership. Under this view, a person is not free unless he can sell himself, because if a person does not own themself, they must be owned by either another individual or a group of individuals. The ability for anyone to consent to an activity or action would then be placed in the hands of a third party. Further, the third-party's ownership would also be in the hands of yet another individual or group. This regression of ownership would transfer ad infinitum and leave no one with the ability to coordinate their own actions or those of anyone else. The conclusion is therefore that if under wage slavery, self-ownership is not legitimate, there is no right for anyone then to claim enslavement to wages in the first place.[75] Of course, wage slavery can be seen as a form of duress, in that one must be a wage slave to survive.

Chattel slavery

Historically, the forms of slavery have varied considerably, with the enslavement of Africans by Europeans ca. 1500-1900 being one of the most horrific. In some systems, some slaves could prosper and attain considerable social status..[76]

Economically rational slave owners practiced positive reinforcement Wp→ to achieve best results and before losing their investment (or even friendship) by killing an expensive slave.[77][78][79]

Proponents of the viewpoint that the condition of wage workers has substantial similarities (as well as some advantages and disadvantages) vis a vis chattel slavery, have argued that 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.

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), who stated, for instance, that wage workers were "free but in name – the slaves of endless toil," and that their slaves were better off.[80] American chattel slaves in the 19th century had improved their standard of living from the 18th century[81] 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".[82] 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:[83]

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.

The description of wage workers as wage slaves was not without controversy. Many abolitionists in the U.S. including northern capitalists, regarded the analogy to be spurious.[69] Some claimed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed".[70] The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass declared "Now I am my own master" when he took a paying job.[71] 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.[84] 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".[84]

Some similarities between chattel slavery and wage labor may have been 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 deprecating the opponent.[69][70][85]

Employment contracts

Some criticize the wage labor system 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."[86] 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.[87] 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."[88]

Critics of the employment contract advocate consistently applying "the principle behind every trial," i.e., "legal responsibility should be imputed in accordance with de facto responsibility," implying a workplace run jointly by the people who actually work in the firm.[89] The people who actually work in a firm are de facto responsible for the actions of said firm and thus have a legal claim to its outputs, as the contractarian critics argue. "Responsible human action, net value-adding or net value-subtracting, is not de facto transferable."[90] Suppliers (including shareholders), on the other hand, having no de facto responsibility, have no legal claim to the outputs.

While a person may still voluntarily decide to contractually rent himself, just as today he may voluntarily decide to contractually sell himself, in a society where "the principle behind every trial" is consistently applied, neither contract would be legally enforceable, and the rented/sold individual would maintain at all times de jure responsibility for her/his actions, including legal claim to the fruits of their labor. 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."[91]

Some advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, among them 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."[92]

Others like Murray Rothbard allow for the possibility of debt slavery, asserting that a lifetime labour contract can be broken so long as the slave pays appropriate damages:

"[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."[93]

See also


  1. Wage slave - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Wage slave - Definition from Dictionary.com
  2. Democracy's Discontent By Michael J. Sandel
  3. 3.0 3.1 Geoffrey Ostergaard, The Tradition of Workers' Control, p. 133.
  4. Conversation with Noam Chomsky, p. 2 of 5. Globetrotter.berkeley.edu. URL accessed on 2010-06-28.
  5. From wage slaves to wage workers: cultural opportunity structures and the evolution of the wage demands of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, 1880-1900. - Crime. Socialissues.wiseto.com. URL accessed on 2010-06-28.
  6. [http://www.spunk.org/texts/places/russia/sp001861/bolintro.html
  7. Marx, Ch. 7 of Theories of Surplus Value, a critique of Linguet, Théorie des lois civiles, etc., Londres, 1767.
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114. ^Carrier, Jerry "The Making of the Slave Class" Algora Publishing 2010

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