Saturday, April 10, 2010

Slavery, Serfdom and Wage Work: The Forms of Coercion

I continue this week to encourage radical thinking, and to build on the post from last week. Last week, I explored the origins of capital property ownership, how it separates the right to own wealth from the work to create it, and the consequent nature of profit as a form of theft.

This week, I want to explore the lynchpin of all class privilege throughout the history of civilization: the ability to coerce the labor of others for the elite’s profit and the elite’s ends. Historically, there have been three broad methods by which the labor of the many has been channeled to the ends of the few, declining in brutality and increasing in subtlety from one to another, but all of them coercive in one way or another. These three methods are slavery, serfdom (and variants), and wage-work.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is perfect moral equivalence among the three. To be a wage worker is immeasurably better than to be a slave. The abandonment of slavery, and the near-abandonment of serfdom, really does represent progress in human rights and the human condition. But while working for wages is certainly not slavery, it is no more accurate to call it freedom. The only people who are free are those without masters, without bosses – those who work for themselves.

There was a time, early in the history of civilization, when that was pretty much the case for most people. The normal condition for a person in ancient times was not that of a hireling but that of a small farmer or craftsman, an owner of one’s own business. Working for someone else for pay was thought of as a transitional phase, something one did in order to learn a craft or to acquire the necessary capital to buy one’s own land. And of course, working for someone else was completely unknown in precivilized times. The transition to the current situation, in which the overwhelming majority of people work at jobs serving the profits of others, with no entitlement to the fruits of their own labor, did not develop overnight. The circumstances of servitude have grown less severe with the passage of time, but at the same time the condition of actual freedom has grown rarer and rarer.

One of the earliest forms of working for another, and the first to be employed on a large scale, was slavery. We may consider this the template. Initially, slavery probably arose as a consequence of war. When the victors in a war conquered an enemy, they gained more than the land that the enemy had occupied. They also gained the surviving enemy citizens as captives. Even when the conquest was less complete than that, captives were often taken in the course of the fighting and could be brought to the homeland and forced under threat of punishment to work for the victors. Of course, just as with the enemy’s land, the enemy people became disproportionately the property of the elite, who found themselves the owners of large tracts of land worked by slaves and generating a lot of money without the owner having to work on it at all. (Profit being theft, as noted last week.)

Over time, slaves became property to buy and sell just like land itself, and the pattern emerged of a class of warrior-aristocrats living off the labor of people who had no rights under the law (or few, depending on the society) and whose only purpose in life was to serve the interests of their masters. This became the template for all elite classes from that time forth. Like most prototypes, it was crude and unsubtle compared with the more sophisticated ways of compelling labor that followed. It suffered from numerous disadvantages, including slave revolts and a lack of motivation on the part of the workers. Nevertheless, it sufficed to keep the aristocratic class in wealth and power for thousands of years and in many different civilizations. Even more importantly, the underlying idea that the elite deserved to be served by a class of workers and to become rich from their labor became so entrenched that it survives to this day, many years after slavery itself has been outlawed.

One problem with slavery is that it was universally unappealing to the slave. (Or nearly so. There are instances in ancient times of highly skilled persons selling themselves into slavery, knowing that their skills would earn them favored treatment and a better circumstance than they could achieve in freedom. However, that’s the exception; very few slaves ever became slaves by choice.) People resisted becoming slaves and had to be forced into it when captured in battle or condemned for debt or for some other legal offense for which slavery was the penalty. There was really no way to reduce most of the people to a state of slavery, because the numbers of slaves would have proven impossible to control by the number of free people. In order to increase the number of people who could be reduced to servitude, it was necessary to make the conditions of servitude less drastic than was usually the case with slavery.

Some examples may be found prior to the industrial revolution of a form of coercion gentler than slavery, but still more direct and brutal than wage work. This consisted of a defined set of obligations on the part of a worker, who was forbidden under most conditions to leave his employment, but who also had more rights under the law than a slave. I’m going to call this sort of arrangement “serfdom,” but I should explain that I’m talking about a broader category of social arrangement than serfdom proper. The peasantry of medieval China or Japan, or the sharecropping and tenant farming arrangements in the post-emancipation American South, fit into this general category, as well as the condition of the medieval European serf. Because serfdom was less onerous than slavery, because it entailed some rights on the part of the serf and some obligations to the serf on the part of the master, it was possible to have a larger population of serfs than could be maintained as slaves. Even so, it turned out not to be as perfect a solution as wage work: the industrial-era answer that has turned nearly everyone into a tool of the elite.

Anyone can see how slavery and serfdom are coercive arrangements, because the victim is punished for refusing to work. But in the case of wage work, the coercive nature of the institution is less evident, because a wage worker is not directly punished for refusing to work. The only punishment is to withhold a reward: failure to work means the worker will not be paid. But it is still coercive, and the coercion still takes the form of punishment or threat of punishment. It’s just not applied by his immediate employer, nor directly for refusing to work. The coercion applied to a wage worker is applied before he ever accepts a job. It is built into the system of ownership that concentrates possession of capital property into a few privileged hands. It punishes the wage worker, not for refusing to work, but for attempting to work using capital property that belongs to the elite. Since he cannot obtain capital property of his own, he is unable to produce wealth on his own for his own use or for sale to others. As such, he has no independent way of supporting himself. He must work for the profit of another, in return for the means to support himself and his family. Rewards are sufficient motivators only to the extent that the person receiving the reward suffers from deprivation. If the wage worker can support himself through his own labor on his own behalf, rather than in service to another, then his desire for monetary reward is satiated, and he will have no reason to surrender his liberty. The rat will run the maze in return for food pellets, but only if it is kept hungry.

Because the ability of an employer to apply direct coercion is limited, and because the wage worker is allowed by law to voluntarily leave his employment, refusing to work but giving up his wages, it carries a greater semblance of freedom than either slavery or serfdom. It has been possible to argue that a wage worker “voluntarily” enters into an employment agreement, and so is actually free. The argument is specious, of course, because the only way the agreement could genuinely be voluntary is if the worker had the right and opportunity to support himself without a master. When the alternative is starvation, no real choice exists. It has also been possible to argue, with equal speciousness, that the worker rather than his master owns the fruits of his labors, by confusing the real fruits of his labors – the goods or services that his labor creates – with the reward his employer offers for surrendering them. Let there be no confusion on this point. A wage worker is not a slave, nor is he a serf. But he is most certainly not free.

In addition to keeping capital property concentrated in few hands – actually, in service to that necessity of universal coerced labor – it has also been desirable from the standpoint of the elite to keep the rewards paid for wage labor as low as practical. This was desired partly so as to maximize the share of wealth held by the elite, of course, but also to reduce the chance of a wage worker freeing himself by saving sufficient money to go into business or, through investments, to support himself without working. Even if a worker is unable to completely free himself from servitude, if he is well paid and lives within his means, his options become wider and he is much harder to manipulate. If asked to do something unacceptable, an employee who can survive without work for a year or more is much more likely to quit than one that lives paycheck to paycheck.

In the end, it’s all about power, even more than about money.

And that will be the subject of next week’s post.

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