Toward the close of the nineteenth century, the new kind of economic life that had arisen and the new developments of industry had gone to the point … that human society was clearly becoming divided more and more into two classes. One class, very small in number, was enjoying almost all the advantages which modern inventions so abundantly provided; the other, embracing the huge multitude of working people, oppressed by wretched poverty, was vainly seeking escape from the straits wherein it stood. Quite agreeable, of course, was this state of things to those who thought it in their abundant riches the result of inevitable economic laws and accordingly, as if it were for charity to veil the violation of justice which lawmakers not only tolerated but at times sanctioned, wanted the whole care of supporting the poor committed to charity alone. The workers, on the other hand, crushed by their hard lot, were barely enduring it … and some of them, carried away by the heat of evil counsel, were seeking the overturn of everything …
—Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno §§3-4
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I’ve been thinking about slavery lately. Maybe it’s because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial questions that have been flying around; maybe it’s because a lot of arguments for the progressivist view of homosexuality use slavery as an example of a moral stand the Church took a very long time to formulate. Regardless, I’ve been thinking about it.
We all accept that slavery is both wrong and a thing of the past. In America, anyway; I mean, we had a war about it and everything. I doubt we really examine those ideas, though—and not only because slavery is not just a thing of the past, even in this country. Sex slavery is probably the most horrible example; but I dare say there are much less dramatic, salacious instances of human trafficking going on more or less under our noses, too. But, though we’ve been taught from childhood (quite rightly) that slavery is wrong, I don’t know how well we understand that belief.
To begin with, what do we mean by the term slavery? Owning another human being, of course; but what do we mean even by that definition? After all, part of the idea that slavery is wrong is, usually, that you can’t actually own another person, because people aren’t things. Yet we still mean something by the word, if only legally, and it’s worth figuring out what. When we say that one person is, or was, a master and this other person their slave—what are we in fact saying?
Let’s start with a textbook sort of definition: slavery is a state where one person (the slave) is considered by law to be the property of another (the master), and to owe the master his work with or without wages, and without the possibility of leaving this state by choice.
A portrait of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, where a slave revolt in 1839 culminated in
an internationally acclaimed US court case that judged the enslaved Africans to be rightly free.
So what is it we find awful about that? The possibility of mistreatment from the master? But slavery would hardly be okay if we just instituted laws regulating how slaves can be treated; it wouldn’t even be okay if all masters treated all their slaves kindly. So is it the idea that person can be property? Well, yes, but we have to unpack what we mean by that. What we’re talking about is not just a legal title, but one person controlling another, in a way the latter has no say in and can’t escape from.1 I think we see intuitively that that, even when it’s occasionally necessary (as with those too debilitated by illness to make their own informed decisions), can never justly be more than a temporary ‘patch’ on a bad situation, and for someone who is capable of governing their own affairs, it’s horrific arrogance and injustice. And that is something we definitely have not eliminated from modern, cosmopolitan America.
What I’m talking about is wage slavery. Once upon a time, opposition to wage slavery was one of the rallying causes of the Left; but with the red scare of the ‘50s and the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, class conflict was largely swept out of the arenas of public discussion, and such a Left as we still have (within the American mainstream) does little more than push for socialized healthcare and unemployment benefits—programs which, however worthy in themselves, address only symptoms of social inequality and do nothing to relieve the causes.
The idea of wage slavery is actually an ancient one: sages as far back as Aristotle and Cicero considered working for a wage, even as a legally free person, to be closely akin to slavery, and the comparison has been discussed often since then, both before the post-Revolutionary Left was formed and since its inception.2 Frederick Douglass, who knew something about being a slave, remarked that ‘experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.’ And while the condition of the wage worker, at any rate in our own time and place, is a reasonably comfortable one, not to be compared with the historical slave or the Third World sweatshop laborer, and while that does matter, two facts still hold: first, the outstanding conditions we enjoy (I don’t know how securely) were won for us primarily by the Old Left3; and second, if slavery is objectionable in itself and not because of its attendant conditions, then wage slavery is still wrong no matter how comfortable we are as wage slaves.
There is no more glaring example of the analogy between chattel and wage slavery than that of illegal immigrants (particularly but not only from Latin America) in the contemporary US, especially those who take work harvesting crops. They come here because they have nothing in their own countries—because it was taken from them, by the tax collector or the cartel or whatever you please; I mean, people don’t make the difficult, dangerous, exhausting, and illegal journey up here for fun. They often take agricultural work, not because they’re unfit for anything else, but because the masters of the fields will let just about anybody do it, it doesn’t matter if they haven’t mastered English, and it does technically pay. The masters, for their part, know very well that they can pay these men, women, and children less than minimum wage with no benefits and work them an illegal number of hours; because, since their presence is technically unlawful, everything is happening under the table, and if the workers complain—fine, report them to INS and get a new batch of wets. It’s not like there won’t be more.
But none of this is slavery because … we don’t call it that. I mean, they could stay in their own countries (and rot). Or they could get another under-the-table job (that will not be substantively different in any way). Or they could become citizens (which generally takes a bare minimum of a year in paperwork and several thousand dollars they don’t have in processing fees).
It’s a small thing (given that the Church’s clergy have done things that in my view are far worse than permitting her children to own slaves), but I suspect that one reason the Church did take such a long time to say, in so many words, that slavery is wrong4 is that she expected it to be impossible to eliminate. I mean, can you imagine a world without wage slavery—that is, a world where everyone works coöperatively and shares what they have, without needing wages (or even perhaps money) to keep things equitable? A world where things like applying for a job or getting fired or getting a performance review just … didn’t exist?
The alternative to chattel slavery is universal freedom; the alternative to wage slavery is universal autarky,5 i.e., individual ownership of the means of one’s livelihood. The smallest of small businesses are modern examples of this kind of autarky, as are most freelancers in whatever field, from journalism to landscaping. The corporate masters who set and pay the wages are cut out, and the people who actually do the work make an agreement with the people who actually need the work done. It’s quite deliciously simple; and if it seems pie-in-the-sky, well, so did Abolitionism.
So, what now? Take up the banner against wage slavery? Absolutely, yes. But also, before doing that, take a few moments to reflect. The existence of wage slavery is more than just another example of society needing reform. I think it’s a symptom of the fact that, whatever we do, ye have the poor always with you, and—this part of the verse generally gets forgotten—whensoever ye will ye may do them good. The opportunity to do good is open to the individual, and it’s continuous; waiting for an institution to do it is a waste of time; there is no program, no theory, and no age that will bring about utopia on earth. The only power that can do that is God’s; which also means that any sincerely pursued utopia will become a god to its pursuer. That is why attempts to summon utopia are generally founded on infallible dogma—and human sacrifice.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgment triptych, 1505.
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1I.e., legally and/or socially can’t escape from. Runaway slaves have doubtless existed as long as slavery has, or as near as makes no difference.
2Though American politics has had its own enclave within Western politics more generally, nearly all modern political ideas and trends can be regarded as descending from the Enlightenment as it expressed itself in the French Revolution. Both those who supported it (in their varying ways) and those who opposed it (also in varying ways) were all but defined by it: Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, Pope Leo XIII, Emma Goldman, Mary Harris Jones, Charles Maurras, Ludwig von Mises, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, and Dorothy Day all swim in its current, in whatever direction. American uniqueness has lain largely in how narrow our own range of normal political parties is. European political parties, by contrast, are far more numerous and differ more meaningfully.
3The Old Left, primarily a workers’ movement, roughly equates with the socialist and anarchist strains of thought; taking a further step from the classically Liberal tradition of thinkers like Locke, sought to effect—rather than merely make room for—liberty and equality among men, in the political and economic spheres. This is in contrast to the New Left, which tends to be more of a students’ movement, whose emphasis in liberty and equality tends to be on cultural matters (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia). The two strands of thought are not mutually exclusive, though historically, each group has often ignored or sneered at the other.
4I say the Catholic Church took a long time over this, and she did. But it’s worth noting that some of her prominent members said so far earlier on. St Patrick practically abolished the slave trade in Ireland in the fifth century, and St Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth was openly opposed to any form of slavery, right in the heart of the Byzantine Empire.
5From the Greek αὐτάρκεια, meaning self-sufficiency, self-rule. The term is used in a few different senses, and my use isn’t philosophically rigorous.