Saturday, July 14, 2012

What is wage slavery?

“At one time in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred and fifty years ago, working for wage labor was considered not very different from chattel slavery,” so said Noam Chomsky. In the decade between 1846 and 1855, more than three million immigrants came to the United States, with a vast majority of them settling in the free states of the North. By 1855, foreign-born residents were becoming a majority group; immigrants approached or exceeeded half the total population of several Northern cities.The growing industrial economy of the North swallowed these new workers into its factories, employing them for long hours at low wages. These manufacturing jobs were repetitious and sometimes hazardous. And from their meager earnings, Northern labourers had to pay for every one of life's necessities. For some Southerners of the period, the situation of Northern workers looked a lot worse than slavery. In fact, they argued, unlike the "wage slavery" of the North, the slavery system in the South provided food, clothing, medical care, and leisure to slaves, caring for them throughout their lives.

When you sell your labour, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions their right to enslave and oppress. The invisible hand of the market clamps on to workers invisible hand-cuffs. Capitalism cannot function unless it subordinates workers, so the employers close ranks and built their class domination backed by the power of the State. But workers are not commodities; they are human beings.

Class inequality increases over time because employers pay workers less than the value of what they produce. However, this exploitative relationship is hidden by the lies that a) employers create jobs and b) workers are lucky to have them. In fact, labour creates all wealth, and capitalists are lucky that workers keep producing it for them.

We are taught that workers who are better off have achieved this position at the expense of workers who are worse off — that men benefit from the oppression of women, that whites benefit from the oppression of blacks, that workers in richer nations benefit from the exploitation of workers in poorer nations, and so on. If this were true, then class solidarity would be impossible. Fortunately, it’s not true at all. There is no middle class. There are only workers with "half-decent" jobs, and workers who don’t have decent jobs. The purpose of pitting workers against one another is to prevent unity. Accepting the lie that some workers benefit from the oppression of others does not serve the need of the oppressed to end their oppression, nor does it serve the need of the working class to unite. On the contrary, it feeds the employers’ strategy of divide and rule. The presumed beneficiaries of oppression feel guilty around their oppressed co-workers who, in turn, feel resentful toward their more ‘privileged’ brothers and sisters. Only employers benefit when workers are divided. The differences in wages and benefits between various sections of the working class go to the employers.  When workers unite, they raise the living standards of all workers.

Capitalism is not a system of fair exchange as argued by free-marketeer propertarians. The interests of employees and employers are sharply at odds.This creates conditions of conflict and employers have to take ever-stronger measures to exert and maintain control. Hostility and resentment among workers thrives. When workers challenge the employers’ right to dictate what happens in the workplace, they challenge capitalism itself. The word of the manager is the law, and endless time and energy is expended rationalising its essential goodness. But where is a person less free than in the typical workplace? Workers are denied bathroom breaks. They cannot leave to care for a sick child. Some workers have been reduced to little better than slave-like conditions. In the current climate of unemployment, the worker has little choice but to submit. And pretend to like it. A medieval peasant had plenty of things to worry about, but the year-round control of daily life was not one of them. Historians points out that in pre-capitalist societies, people toiled relatively few hours over the course of a year compared to what we work now. They toiled and sweated during harvest-time when there was an urgency, true, but there was ample free time during the off-seasons. Holidays were abundant through fairs and holy days – as many as 200 per year. Marx saw that modern industrial production under capitalist conditions would rob workers of control of their lives as they lost control of their work. Unlike the blacksmith or the shoemaker who owned his shop, decided on his own working conditions, shaped his product, and had a say in how his goods were bartered or sold, the modern worker would have little autonomy. His relationships with the people at work would become impersonal and hollow. Clearly, the technological wonders of our capitalist system have not released human beings from the burden of work. They have brought us more work. They have not brought most of us more freedom, but less.

Many working people have unconsciously accepted the conditions that exist as somehow natural, unaware of how the machine is constructed and manipulated to favor elites. Fear and frustration can even make us crave authority. We collaborate in our own oppression. Workers should not permit themselves to be treated like machines, ruled by despots determined to drive down what few freedoms and rights we possess, and to crush our physical and mental health, all in the interest of wage slavery and accumulation of capital.

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