Today's Slavery

The People
Feb. 11, 1995
Vol. 104 No. 9

Today's Slavery

In this issue we publish an article on how African-Americans helped to free themselves from chattel slavery. It is an article about labor history. However, it also brings into focus an important and timely lesson about the world of today and of the place most of us occupy in modern capitalist society. Indeed, that lesson is one of the most important that Socialists have to offer; yet, it has also proven to be one of the most difficult to get across.

There are many who will readily share in our admiration of how slaves resisted their bondage and struggled against the slave holders of the old South, but who will bristle over our insistence that most of them also are slaves -- WAGE SLAVES. Why is this?

The obvious answer is that the vast majority of workers today do not see themselves as slaves. Regardless of how chattel slaves responded to their slavery -- as quiescent "Uncle Toms," or with the indignant determination of a Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman -- slaves never doubted that they were slaves. While chattel slavery was obvious to its victims, and to all others with eyes to see, wage slavery is obscured by many illusions that African- American slaves did not have to overcome.

No matter what the slave-holding class and its apologists said or did to justify slavery, the fact remained that slaves -- human beings -- were held as property. They had no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, and could not acquire personal property. They were owned body and soul, and spent their lives laboring for the benefit of their master-owners. Worse, they could be callously torn from their families, placed on the slave market and "sold down the river" at any time.

There obviously are many differences between chattel slavery and wage slavery, but there are also many similarities. One similarity is that the modern system of slavery also is one in which people are put to work for the benefit of a small owning class. One difference is that wage slaves are not bought and sold by individual masters. Today, human beings are subjected to an even greater indignity -- they are forced to sell THEMSELVES piecemeal on the labor market. Ironically, this indignity helps to create an illusion of freedom. What this "freedom" amounts to is that workers may leave the master who employs them whenever they like. However, when they do quit they must immediately seek out a new master. This compulsion to seek a new master exposes their essential servitude. It also shows that wage slavery is really the enslavement of one class by another, of the workers AS A CLASS by the capitalists AS A CLASS. As Karl Marx expressed it in his WAGE-LABOR AND CAPITAL:

"The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him. But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor power, cannot leave THE WHOLE CLASS OF BUYERS, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or to that capitalist, but to the CAPITALIST CLASS; and it is for him to find his man, i.e., to find a buyer in this capitalist class."

Another difference is that today's wage slaves often accumulate some personal property, such as a car or a house. This contributes to the illusion that workers have a stake in the capitalist system. What workers do not own, however, are the tools they need access to in order to live. Therefore, they must sell the one real commodity they do own -- their power or ability to labor -- to the capitalist master who owns the tools. This fact exerts a silent, unremitting pressure on the worker to follow a life pattern of economic dependence essential to capitalist production. Today's wage slave may never be "sold down the river," away from spouse and children. However, by wage cuts, layoffs, shutdowns and other decisions over which workers have no say, the capitalist master class destroys more families than the slave holders of the old South ever ripped apart.

Economic dependence always subverts the spirit of indignation and resistance against economic oppression. Chattel slaves feared to speak out openly because their masters might retaliate by selling them or their families away. Wage slaves who quietly accept capitalist decisions that affect their livelihoods and threaten the economic security of their families are doing essentially the same thing, even though they may never be consciously aware of it.

Only when all this is understood can the indignity and inhumanity wage slavery imposes on the working class be grasped -- and that indignity and inhumanity are not lessened by capitalist hypocrisy and pretenses of freedom.

If Socialists sometimes fret over the difficulty of clarifying the issue, they may take some consolation in the fact that, as obvious as chattel slavery was, those who struggled against it -- slaves and Abolitionists -- were still forced to argue hotly and tirelessly against those who condoned it. In the end, historic forces did much to arouse millions to a consciousness of the evil, and eventually brought them to aid the slaves who struggled against it. Many who fought the war that brought chattel slavery to an end may not have cared much for the slaves, and viewed themselves as superior to them. In spite of that, however, the growth of capitalism as a SUPERIOR SOCIAL SYSTEM was the historical force that forced the destruction of chattel slavery.

The modern slave class of wage workers cannot look to any outside Abolitionists for help. They cannot look to any "superior" class to assist them. They are on their own. In the end, however, historic forces, economic crises and intensified class antagonisms will arouse today's enslaved class to a consciousness of THIS evil, and they will resist and overcome it. Meanwhile, it is the duty of all Socialists to denounce with unremitting zeal the disguised slavery under which the mass of useful producers are the slaves of the few who perform no useful labor whatever but merely own.