Wage slavery

Wage slavery is a term expressing disapproval of a condition where a person feels compelled to work in return for payment of a wage. In colloquial terms, this may refer to people that make a cult of work (the extreme case is dying of karoshi), or those who require one to work in order to be socially acceptable. In terms used by critics of capitalism, wage slavery is the condition where a person must sell his or her labor-power, submitting to the authority of an employer, in order to survive.

Wageslave can also denote a worker who has no choice in who they work for, or in the type of job they can get; either due to economic and geographic circumstances, or due to personal lack of competence or education.


Wage slavery in capitalist society

The critics of capitalism believe that wage slavery exists because a minority of the population (the capitalists) controls the non-human inputs to production (capital and land) that other people (workers) use to produce goods. This sort of criticism is generally encountered in socialist criticisms of capitalism, but is also found in the strain of liberalism represented by Thomas Jefferson [1] (http://www.luc.edu/depts/polisci/research/katz.html), Henry George [2] (http://schalkenbach.org/library/george.henry/sp15.html) and Thomas Paine [3] (http://www.ssa.gov/history/paine4.html), as well as the Distributist school of thought within the Roman Catholic Church. Criticism of capitalism on these grounds is connected to the belief that one should have freedom to work without a boss or obligation.

The use of the term "wage slavery" is a rhetorical device to draw parallels between the status quo and a historical institution that is universally condemned. Wage slavery is compared to slavery, specifically to chattel slavery, the institution where one person owns another person as property. The use of this term suggests that even with the abolition of chattel slavery, many individuals do not experience meaningful freedom and that one class of persons methodically acquires wealth that rightfully belongs to another.

As with any analogy, the equation of wage labor with slavery is imperfect. Unlike chattel slavery, wage slavery is seen as a relationship between entire classes of persons with no clear distinction between the masters and the slaves as individuals. Instead, wage slavery is embodied in the institution of property ownership and the “master/slave” relationship emerges from the concentration of property in the hands of particular individuals. Critics of capitalism view this property system as a matter of convention, not natural law. From this viewpoint, employment agreements are not free of coercion, and any market interaction is artificially biased in favor of those owning productive property.

A key difference between wage slavery and chattel slavery recognized by Karl Marx was that the individual producers can refuse to work for any specific employer and cannot (legally) be subjected to corporal punishment by the employer. To Marx, wage slavery was a class condition, not an individual situation. This class situation rested on (1) the concentration of ownership in few hands; (2) the lack of direct access by workers to the means of production and consumption goods; and (3) the existence of the reserve army of unemployed workers. Furthermore, in Marx's view, this situation was ultimately due to the existence of private property and the state.

Another difference between wage slavery and chattel slavery is that many individuals who might be categorized as “wage slaves” are not impoverished, and they could, in theory, overcome their wage slave status by investing in lucrative property of their own. While advocates of free enterprise capitalism view such individuals as being a natural part of capitalism and proof of the fundamental freedom of the workers, critics of capitalism believe that the existence of these "middle class" workers in capitalist societies is the consequence of temporary market conditions, exploitation of one nation by another, or market regulation and wealth redistribution by a representative state.

Marx recognized that some working people could escape wage slavery and become capitalists, if only small ones. But to him, the profits received by the capitalists were dependent on the work done by the working class, so that too much upward mobility would lead to the downfall of capitalism, unless it was balanced by downward mobility out of the capitalist class. This suggests that even if the faces of the "wage slaves" change, the category remains. A common analogy is that even if some slaves can win their freedom (as it was sometimes possible in ancient societies like Rome, for example), that doesn't justify slavery.

Critics of capitalism may view the working class to be slaves if employers have unrestricted power to fire individual workers; this is especially true if they can blacklist them from other employment. (Such blacklisting of suspected communists was instituted by employers during the McCarthy Era in the United States in Hollywood and other sectors.) The "at will" employment arrangement means that a worker may be fired (or quit) for any reason. If a worker fears losing his job more than the employer fears losing a particular worker, then the employer can govern the personal life of the worker. For example, a worker may be fired based on his sexual orientation, unless protected by an enforceable anti-discrimination law. In an unrestrained form, this power even extends to basic civil liberties, such as the right to worship freely or to express political opinions. (In the United States, employees have no legal right to express political opinions while on the job.) This power could also undermine the right to vote; fear of this factor was a significant motivator for instituting the secret ballot.

Instances of wage slavery that show the most similarity to chattel slavery occur in societies where educational opportunities are limited, unionization is violently suppressed, and property may be arbitrarily confiscated. By connection of global trade networks, these harsh instances of wage slavery are connected to and affect societies with stronger traditions of freedom and few noticeable effects of supposed wage slavery. Extreme critics of capitalism argue that the same basic relationships are present in all capitalist societies, even if their impact is lessened by various traditions such as state accountability to the people and the establishment of a mixed economy. A mixed economy can permit some private control based upon ownership, but also supposedly exerts social control of capital through state ownership of certain industries or regulation of private economic relationships. Some proponents of neoliberalism advocate that the state only own those industries that are truly public goods while at the same allowing the rest of the economy to remain capitalist. Extreme proponents of capitalism advocate that everything, even industries that are essential to life, should be private property, bought and sold on the free market.

Critics of capitalism also assert that capitalist economic systems have a tendency to commodify the very things that should be most freely available in society — especially one that is technologically advanced. A pronounced lack of leisure time is commonly the focal point of such an argument.

Wage slavery in communist states

In theory, under communism labor is supposed to be voluntary: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.". At the same time, communist states, i.e., the ones that declared communism as their goal, employed a wide range of involuntary labor, from slave labor of Gulag camps to obligatory labor of the former Soviet Union, where failure to have a job was a criminal offence, known as "parasitism" (тунеядство, tuneyadlsto). Bearing in mind that most workers' and especially peasants' wages were on the subsistence level, the laborers' condition clearly fitted any definition of "wage slavery". The main argument of communist ideologists was that work in socialist states was for the benefit of the whole society, rather than for the benefit of a few capitalists. History has shown the de facto fallacy of this claim. However it should be noted the term "wage slavery" is normally not used in discussions of the economy of socialist states.

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