Chattel Slavery v. Wage Slavery in a Technological Society

Wages is a cunning device of the devil, for the benefit of tender consciences who would retain all the advantage of the slave system without the expense, trouble, and odium of being slaveholders. Orestes Brownson, Chattel Slavery vs. Wage Slavery, Boston Quarterly Review 3 (1840).

Ignorance of history is one of the defining characteristics of our modern technological society. In a way, this ignorance is a good thing because when modern pundits do bother to argue from history, they do so only pragmatically, using the technique of the Ministry of Truth from 1984: to take something out of context or simply to fabricate a historical fact in order to argue a pre-determined opinion. One bad side effect of this ignorance, however, is that most of modern American society believes that our ancestors especially ancient ones were immoral, unethical idiots. If fact, on any given subject of pure rational thought such as morality and ethics, ancient societies were often much more sophisticated, disciplined, and logical in their thoughts than modern ethics and morality that is simply a regurgitation of economic necessity. An example of this is slavery. Ancient societies were well aware of the nature of slavery and contemplated and argued whether it was ethical to have it. The minority of philosophers concluded slavery to be unethical and should be eliminated. The majority, including such supposed greats as Aristotle and Cicero, concluded that it was ethical.


What is still interesting about their contemplation is that they saw and made distinctions that we still do not make today and most likely will never make unless there is a radical change in the nature of our modern technological society. For one, they made a distinction between chattel slavery and wage slavery. Just as ancient Greek philosophers invented the first steam engine during their search for knowledge (the aeolipile also known as a Hero’s engine) but apparently choose or the times were not right to use it to start an industrial revolution, they also seem to have developed a basic concept of capitalism but it went no further. One reason it went no further is that either out of selfishness or from a perverted version of pre-Christian altruism, they saw wage slavery as the greater evil.


According to the ancients, and continuing forward even to some 19th Century supposed moralists, chattel slavery was more ethical than wage slavery because it created a social bond of dependence between slave and master that contributed to maintaining an orderly and strong society. The slave was valuable to the master, valuable as property but valuable no less. There was an economic dependence between the two that created a social bond contributing to social cohesion. Such is not true of the person working solely for wages paid by the master. At any point, the master can decide to stop paying the wages and the workers would be out in the cold with no means to support themselves or their families. Whatever economic bond existed, it was a temporary one. The only social bond created between the wage earner and the master or even between wage earners was one of competition that contributed only to social disorder.


Unfortunately, from a purely cold-blooded economic perspective, this analysis was true. In every economic comparison analysis even from non-American scholars that I have ever seen, the material (clothing, shoes, housing, etc.), physical health, life stability, family stability (either nuclear or extended families), and even education opportunities of chattel slaves when compared to that of urban or rural wage workers was usually better but rarely worse for the chattel slaves than the wage workers. The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglas after several years of experience as a “free man” concluded: “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery.”


Obviously, what this pure economic analysis misses is chattel slavery’s effect upon the human soul. At least in their misery, the “free” could create independently of any family relationships social bonds among themselves — almost always illegal because the law always acts to protect masters and not either their wage or chattel slaves — that through threat of unified social rebellion would serve to improve their lot in life. Through the ages these social bonds varied from the Roman plebeians’ successful demands for the appointment of “tribunes” (“tribuni plebis”) to control the power of the patrician consuls to medieval and our modern labor unions. Except for possibly the Haitian Revolution whose success can be disputed given its present lot, I know of no similar success by slaves to organize and improve their lot in life either outside of the law or within it. From the slave revolution of Spartacus to our own Civil War, in the absence of assistance from the powers that be, successful social bonding outside of their family was not able to occur.


Is such distinction or benefit to being a wage slave still true in modern technological society?  No. Thanks to technological progress, one can have material wealth as a wage slave in the modern world that was unimaginable to either the chattel or wage slaves of the past but one is less free now to engage in any social bonding to improve the soul of society — or even for personal spiritual worth. The concept of either an extended or nuclear family is rapidly disappearing. At present, the majority of Americans have never been married and 40% of children are born to unwed mothers. It is only a matter of time before the concept of family is reserved as a hobby for the rich. Western religion has surrendered to the secular religion of law — serving only the master — as the standard for love, empathy, and mercy in life. Workers’ unions have disappeared for all practical purposes from the private economy — only the master’s servant government employees least in need of unions given their almost lifetime guarantee of income, job security, and pension benefits have effective unions. The wage worker has no job security nor any place to call “home.” It is only a matter of time before every wage worker is essentially a temporary service employee that randomly and arbitrarily can be hired, fired, transferred, and traded by the corporations paying them wages; who has neither the time, resources, nor social or physical and thus not the mental stability to create with other wage slaves social bonds strong enough to be a threat or to create a threat of a revolt against our modern masters.


So now what? Nothing one can do. As George Orwell in 1984 so accurately described, this is simply our unavoidable future. For the powers that be, power is an end in itself. Unless you become religious believing in a god other than power, the only option is to sit back and enjoy the material wealth that modern technological society provides even to wage slaves. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all boats. Though relatively speaking in terms of economic wealth, personal self-worth, and freedom, the modern wage slave is probably no better off and may be worse off than our ancestors, we are much better off in personal material wealth. That may be the only progress that life allows for those of us not among the powers that be. The wage slave with the most toys wins!

4 thoughts on “Chattel Slavery v. Wage Slavery in a Technological Society

  1. For those interested in some degree of hope, my magnum opus, “Popular Capitalism”, shows a civic republic built on a foundation of colleges of extended families, albeit once the present, official, political economy finally pays the cost of its own sovereignty, through the provision of the necessities to all, without condition or requirement. Of course, failure to pay that cost will lead to the destruction of “civilized” countries by corruption within and marauders without.


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