Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Other Slavery

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.


  1. I'm a big supporter of Social Credit exactly for the wage slavery reason. A basic income changes the whole dynamic economically. The current situation is unnatural; labor is a resource, yet we speak of "creating jobs" as if jobs are the resource provided and that workers are almost like the "consumers" who "need" them.

    But that's totally backwards. It is labor who is the "seller" in this case and the employers who are in need! But of course, desperation changes everything. Many people take jobs doing menial things they wouldn't otherwise do, or which they would expect MUCH more pay for...merely because you need to have *some* job to get income. This desperation-factor, I'd argue, totally changes the market equilibrium of labor prices. If everyone had basic subsistence met and was negotiating from an equal place of want-but-not-need...this equilibrium would look very different from the "begging for a job" model which depends on a sort of enforced scarcity to, yes, enslave people.

    Detaching basic income from employment would totally change the negotiation, because when labor is in a position to say "What is this work really worth to me?" versus a slavish dependent "Please please please give me some source or income"...the tables are totally turned.

    I suspect the wages on a lot of tasks that are menial-but-unskilled would go way up, because the number of people willing to take them would go down. In other words, with subsistence met, I bet a lot of people would say, "Yeah, for $25,000 I'm not going to be a sewer cleaner. Sure, making a wage-supplemented 45,000 rather than my basic income of 20,000 would be nice...but not cleaning sewers is nice too, and I'd rather a life of less-money than a life of more-money-plus-sewers." (Whereas currently, there is no such choice or trade-off; it's literally "The sewers or you get nothing at all and starve to death!" which is no choice at all.)

  2. At the same time, is it odd to say that in spite of my rather vociferous "relative" opposition to Wage Slavery...I also take the "Cardinal Dulles" position on the morality of historical slavery? Which is to say that exactly for the reasons you discuss, I can't exactly absolutely condemn it in a theoretical way.

    Since as you point out it's actually pretty hard to pin down an argument that's more than just a thought-stopping cliche ("Slavery is evil, duh!"), or a definition that identifies the "absolute" evil in a system of fixed social roles where the fruits of labor accrue to Household or Fief [and so Head of Household or Lord for decision making] rather than to the atomistic Individual...especially since the Church rejects the philosophical premises of modern radical Individualism.

    Assuming no cruelty, I personally can't argue that "social mobility" is a "right", nor even that we have the "right" to the fruits of our own labor, given that such a position sort of eliminates the possibility of the communitarian solution too; if really our production belongs collectively to the community as a whole, it seems that same communal order could delegate some of the distributive decision making there to Lords or Masters or Paterfamiliases or whatever if that's what was best for the common good (and in some historical cases where information was relatively low and slow, I think it probably was.)

    I'm also, some think paradoxically, very much against a minimum wage exactly because it seems to legitimate the idea that *employment* is somehow the privileged means of access to income.

    Just like some of us oppose using employers as the main means of distributing health insurance etc (and would prefer, instead, a single government payer), I oppose a minimum wage mainly because it requires having a wage at all in the first place!

    It seems sort of dumb, as someone who was once unemployed and destitute, to tell me that the minimum wage beyond market forces somehow helps. It only helps those who *already* have a job in the first place! But it doesn't guarantee employment at all, so it is a type of wicked *privilege*, I think, creating a "right" to something for only one class of people (ie, those people who already have a job at all.)

    Mind you, I think a sort of basic income is a right via social credit, but that goes to everyone as a collective dividend outside the wage market, it is NOT something imposed on employers as an artificial price floor.

  3. I've only just (thanks to your prompting!) become acquainted with Social Credit as a theory, and I find it very attractive, but I don't yet understand it well enough to know whether I think that it's true or not. So I'll say no more about that for the present.

    I feel very comfortable condemning chattel slavery as an intrinsic evil, but with the allowance that it can be the best on a list of bad options -- for the prospective slave, I mean; I do think that slavery is spiritually bad for masters too, but I haven't much patience for those who want us to pity the hungry wolves before tending the wounded sheep. I can envisage a society much worse than ours, in which selling oneself into slavery was the most practical, safest option; if I've understood correctly, the origins of serfdom in the breakdown of the Roman Empire in the west are not too different from that very scenario.

    As to having rights to social mobility and the fruit of one's own labor, I incline to support the first and definitely support the second. If you don't have a right to the fruits of *your own* labor, I can't make sense of anybody having a right to them. And the rights to liberty and the pursuit of (Aristotelian) happiness, which I accept, seem to me to be intuitive enough to assert that social mobility is normally a right -- but with this caveat: we do *owe* things to other people, especially our benefactors (of whom parents are the foremost) and those who depend upon us (of whom children are the foremost); and I think that *exercising* social mobility is a just expression of one's rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness if, and only if, we can do so without infringing upon others' rights to our contribution. So, for instance, if we hate farming but it is (for some reason) the only way to take care of our ailing parents, we're morally obliged to go on farming until our parents either improve to the point of independence or pass away.

    Changing the subject a little, I'm inclined to support a cost-of-living minimum wage, partly because people should be paid well enough to survive, but also because I think it's good for employers to have to consider their employees at least that much. But I do regard a minimum wage as a patch on a broken system, and I agree with you in preferring a different system to a minimum wage of whatever kind; I just think it's better, in the meantime, to have the patch rather than not.

  4. It seems you're more an ameliorationist than an accelerationist on income, then. I see the patch argument, but I dislike patches that appease things just enough to keep a bad system running.

    This idea that employers should be concerned with giving their employees a living wage just seems arbitrary; why not obligate them to give the extra money to people who don't have a job at all, etc? I don't see how being someone's employer should create any obligation to give them more than a market price, anymore than I should be obligated to voluntarily pay extra for any product I choose to buy in the store. Labor is the "seller" here, not a charity case.

    The market price/wage should theoretically be the just price (the only way to define it, really). The issue, of course, is if there is something creating a "false vacuum" in the market equilibrium, and in this case I do think there is (namely, the "desperation" factor which artificially disadvantages labor at the negotiating table since you "need" a job for income in our system).

    But I'd rather a basic income to fix the whole system than some false guilting of employers who often have to pay the market wage to be competitive and to honor their definite duty to shareholders to maximize profits. And not just to shareholders, frankly, but to society as a whole; one of the primary points of social credit is that production being maximized raises all ships, so we should never cripple production efficiency merely to serve a distributive goal. Production exists to produce, and to produce as efficiently as possible; its role in *distribution* is a mere side-effect (but this fact has been lost by bootstrapping income to employment; we now hear absurd things about automated labor being "bad" because it "takes away jobs" absurd concept that shows how impoverished and perverse our economic imagination has become under wage slavery).

    As for chattel slavery, I'm not so absolutist. What makes me most uncomfortable is the trade more than the institution itself. A paterfamilias having power over wife and sons or lifelong servants attached to the household doesn't bother people as much because they're organically tied. A Lord ruling serfs is likewise much more palatable since they're tied to the land, to a community, and can't be arbitrarily broken off from social ties. Selling slaves at market away from home and family seems the most objectionable thing to me, not the permanent indenture of the labor of one class to a managerial class, which might just be one way of organizing labor roles in a certain type of "plateaued" society seeking stability. We have obligations to a community, and if in a traditional society the shoemaker's son is bound to become a shoemaker, or the manual laborer's son a manual laborer, etc, such fixed caste roles even across generations doesn't seem absolutely wrong even if they seem grossly *inefficient* in a society that has created better social technologies for sorting people into their best possible roles. But "economic self-determination" is not an absolute value for me or for the Church any more than political. Our true Liberty is and remains moral and spiritual.


  5. As for Social Credit, I'd recommend reading the first 6 of the "Ten Lessons" the Michael Journal people put out (and ignoring everything else they might write; I went to meeting in Toronto once and it was filled with bizarre paranoid people peddling conspiracy theories which dismayed me because that attitude could discredit the kernel of truth that's supposed to be their main focus).

    In summary social credit is ultimately a monetary mechanism only. The economy is entirely market otherwise, but it's the mechanism of money-creation which is changed. It provides a basic income, but adamantly NOT through some "tax and redistribute" scheme which I consider absurd and wicked; we shouldn't be re-distributing money, we need to ask why it isn't being distributed correctly *in the first place.*

    If we're convinced income distribution is unjust, we need to identify the moment at which an unjust action occurs (injustice cannot emerge from the mere sum of otherwise in-themselves morally allowable decisions). Social credit does this by pointing to usury, to the current creation of money-as-debt by private bankers, as the problem.

    Basically, credit is currently treated as a private good, that private financiers with a monopoly on monetizing credit profit off of. Social credit believes, instead, that credit is by nature a social good (the *only* industry that needs to be nationalized/socialized is finance itself!) and that Usury as a sin (it's had several manifestations across history depending on the economic situation) might be defined in essence as "treating credit as a private good when in actuality it is a social good," and claiming the fruits of credit privately rather than having them distributed collectively.

  6. There's a good deal of your argument that I don't think I understand; I'll have to come back to it again. However, I would like to speak to the topic of ameliorationism. I firmly agree with you that a new system is needed—"We must build a world where it is easier for people to be good," and I'm sure Day meant "good" in all its senses. But I don't believe that working toward a new system is incompatible with supporting 'patches' on the old, and indeed, I advocate doing both.

    I have two main reasons for this. One is that the present victims of our system aren't helped by all-or-nothing approaches to change, or not that I can see. Politics is an art of compromise, and when the reformers say 'New system or nothing,' they and the people they're advocating for are going to get nothing ninety-nine times out of ninety.

    The risk of the incremental approach is, as you rightly point out, its tendency to encourage complacency, but I think the risk of sudden, drastic changes in society is far worse, because—as C. S. Lewis pointed out—they only ever take place by a small group of people seizing total power, and the terror and the secret police follow automatically. I'd rather risk stagnation than that kind of tyranny. And really, the track record of gradual change in history is a much better one than is usually realized. The Liberal reforms of the nineteenth century in Britain are an excellent example.