Wage Slavery Without The Wages
It is often said by those in the business of making dire predictions about our current political system that the goal of the current generation of Republican radicals is the reduction of the American working population to the status of serfs. With all due respect to the thinkers who have given us the splendid notion of neo-feudalism, this is not quite right. Serfs and vassals were, after all, at least allowed to produce for themselves a subsistence living, with any excess production going to the local lord who was, at least in principle, obligated to protect them from predation. If the nobility was under no obligation to answer to them, it at least afforded them the illusion that their lives had some value; even the meanest peasant, for example, was not likely to be turned out onto the road unless it was through some great upheaval like a war or a natural disaster. He was unlikely to become homeless just because the closest baron decided to move all the farming jobs to Taiwan.
No, what the fringe right – that portion of the party which now holds the entire government hostage to its petulant defiance of imaginary socialism, that group of self-identified patriots who identify the greatest good by its ability to fatten the pockets of billionaires and who owe their strongest allegiance to a Russian-born novelist and not to Washington or Lincoln – wants is not the return of serfdom, but of slavery. In their every action – from their economic views to their perception of society to the complete lack of compatibility of their political standards with the concept of democracy – they clearly yearn not for the Gilded Age (for that goal has already been achieved), nor even for the days of a foreign extrusion like the Czar, but for those golden years of the Antebellum South. Regardless of whether they are themselves Northern or Southern, in origin or in temperament, they clearly believe that when it comes to labor relations, America got it right only below the Mason-Dixon Line, and only before 1850.
The struggle between capital and labor has rarely been a pretty one, nor an equally contested one. But in the short-lived days of the liberal consensus, it was at least understood, even by what are now quaintly referred to as ‘traditional’ conservatives, that it was not a total war: the left would fight for shorter hours, higher wages, more security, and greater workplace safety, and the right would fight for longer hours, lower wages, more flexibility, and less regulation, but neither side would achieve, or even seek, total victory. It would be a push and pull that attenuated itself around a set of common interests that formed the spine of the post-war world: national prosperity, widespread consumerism, and a shared goal of higher standards of living for everybody. If people spoke of a global marketplace, it was in terms finding new buyers for new products, not in terms of a perpetual reduction in the options of the labor classes. We even had a name for it: the American Dream.
That dream is now as dead as Eisenhower, and the struggle has shifted: labor is now essentially dead as a class element, and the battle is over how far to the right the country will go. The faction now known as liberals (who, properly understood, would be called conservative technocrats) have almost entirely accepted the notion of transnational corporatism as the default means of governance, and restrict their efforts largely to minor social issues; their interest in economic issues is generally confined to making sure the pie has at least two slices, no matter how tiny the second one is. Conservatives (or, rather, radical reactionaries), on the other hand, fight for a total annihilation of the social contract, a self-serving plutocracy in which the sole functions of government are the direction of public resources into private hands and the protection by force of the material gains generated by that redirection. Their view of labor is not that of a wily foe with which to contend; it is not even that of a machine, for machines must be maintained, operated skillfully, and tended to with respect. It is that of a man towards a toiling beast, a thing to be literally worked to death and then disposed of, whose only real value is its ability to reproduce its own replacement: a slave.
A laborer, be he a union man or a serf, must at least be kept from predation and disease. He must be fed, clothed, and given a modicum of protection from ill health, if only to keep him capable of further labor. He must have some sense that he is a member of his clan, tribe, or nation, with a place in society, even if that place is at the bottom; and there must be a sense of value and of continuity to the work that he does. And if he happens to live in anything approaching a reasonable capitalist economy, he ought to make enough money to spend, because you can’t have industrial consumerism without industry and consumption.
A slave, on the other hand, being no more human than a cow or a mule, needs none of these things, and every recent movement by the radical right seems less a recognition of their always-present social Darwinism than it does a tacit admittance that the rich never had it so good as when they sat in the big chair on the largest plantations. Security? Let it protect those who can afford it. Disease? Not the problem of society; those with money may purchase a cure, and those without may die and be easily replaced. Knowing one’s place is only useful during brief interactions with one’s superiors; otherwise, one’s place is nowhere. Skill, craft and pride are things of the past, easily got on a truly free market now that the dragon of unionism has been slain; every new child born under the sun must start afresh, unless his parents are rich enough. And, while the money owed by the wealthy to the state approaches 0%, the money owed by the poor to business interests approaches 100%. Why let them spend their meager wages on what they will, when you can charge them every penny they make just to stay alive on the face of the world?
Seen through this lens, virtually every decision made by the radical right makes perfect sense. Of course, unions needed to be eliminated because they allowed the working class the kind of collusive power enjoyed by their corporate masters in perpetuity; but once pensions and retirements were eliminated as a possibility for the future, it became time to seize the ones already earned and guaranteed, for who puts money on the well-being of a slave who can no longer work? Restrictions on women’s reproductive rights ensures a large and desperate population, laden with unplanned and unwanted children, who will do anything to support their kids and make sure that there’s always more workers than needed so they need never answer with decent wages the problems of scarcity. Religion and culture are used, now as then, as a means of social control, tamping down unrest by promising a cheap bauble or a glorious reward in the world to come. Keep health insurance tied to employment, and make it ruinously expensive, for a healthy slave will run if he can stay healthy. Make education equally costly, for an educated woman is one who is less likely to accept the life of a slave.
The use of prison labor drawn from a system designed to make almost everything a poor minority might do illegal; the allergy to land reform and debt relief; the introduction of arcane financial instruments and punitive debt structures that snare working people in a lifetime of money owed from the time they can even be called adult: it is all part of a plan, intended or happily accidental, to reintroduce slavery under another name. Every restraint by government on the rights of labor (ironically done in the name of smaller government) is designed to restrict the freedom of the worker (ironically done in the name of preserving freedom), so that he is reduced to taking whatever job is offered, at whatever pay is available, under whatever conditions that exist. This is slavery, for at least the serf would inherit his father’s trade. And not only is the idea of a cheap, labor-intensive economy powerfully attractive to the boss class, but it’s one far more easily transferred to the post-industrial world than you might imagine; the link has been there since the beginning.
Slavery is hardly an American invention, but the way it manifested here was unique to this country. In a way, our modern plantation bosses and their lickspittles are truly as innovative and revolutionary as they claim; for while they embrace the colors of the Old South and forever defend its reputation, cheering the Lost Cause while ignoring the horrors of chattel slavery, they also seek to remove its one sole unique quality in the American Experiment: that the slave was once only permitted to be black. In the America envisioned by the Tea Partiers and the Shruggalos, there is no more white man’s burden; there are only fat masters and contented slaves.