Wage slavery

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Cotton Slaves-South

African American wage workers picking cotton on a plantation in the South.

Wage slavery refers to a situation where a person's livelihood depends on wages, especially when the dependence is total and immediate.[1][2] The term draws an analogy between slavery and wage labor, and may refer to an "[un]equal bargaining situation between labor and capital", particularly where workers are paid comparatively low wages (e.g. sweatshops),[3] or it may draw similarities between owning and employing a person, which equates the term with a lack of workers' self-management.[4][5][6] The latter covers a wider range of employment choices bound by the pressures of a hierarchical social environment e.g. working for a wage not only under threat of starvation or poverty, but also of social stigma or status diminution.[7][8][9]

Similarities between wage labor and slavery were noted at least as early as Cicero [10] and Aristotle.[11] With the advent of the industrial revolution, thinkers such as Proudhon and Marx elaborated these comparisons in the context of a critique of property not intended for active personal use.[12][13] Before the American Civil War, Southern defenders of African American slavery also invoked the concept of wage slavery to favorably compare the condition of their slaves to workers in the North.[14][15] The introduction of wage labor in 18th century Britain was met with resistance – giving rise to the principles of syndicalism.[16][17][18][19]

The use of the term wage slave by labor organizations may originate from the labor protests of the Lowell Mill Girls in 1836.[20] The imagery of wage slavery was widely used by labor organizations during the mid-19th century to object to the lack of workers' self-management. However, it was gradually replaced by the more pragmatic term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century, as labor organizations shifted their focus to raising wages.[21][22]

Historically, some labor organizations and individual social activists, have espoused workers' self-management or worker cooperatives as possible alternatives to wage labor.[5][18]


The view that wage work has substantial similarities with chattel slavery was actively put forward in the late 18th and 19th centuries by defenders of chattel slavery (most notably in the Southern states of the US), and by opponents of capitalism (who were also critics of chattel slavery).[8][23]

The first articulate description of wage slavery was perhaps made by Simon Linguet in 1763:[24]

The slave was precious to his master because of the money he had cost him… They were worth at least as much as they could be sold for in the market… It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat… It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him… what effective gain [has] the suppression of slavery brought [him ?] He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune… These men… [have] the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is, need. … They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?

Some defenders of slavery, mainly from the Southern slave states argued that workers were "free but in name – the slaves of endless toil," and that their slaves were better off.[25] This contention has been partly corroborated by some modern studies that indicate slaves' material conditions in the 19th century were "better than what was typically available to free urban laborers at the time."[26][27]

In this period, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “[i]t is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” [28]

The description of wage workers as wage slaves was not without controversy. Many abolitionists in the U.S. including northern capitalists, regarded the analogy to be spurious.[29] They believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed".[30] The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass declared "Now I am my own master" when he took a paying job.[31] Abraham Lincoln and the republicans "did not challenge the notion that those who spend their entire lives as wage laborers were comparable to slaves", though they argued that the condition was different, as laborers were likely to have the opportunity to work for themselves in the future, achieving self-employment.[32]

However, self-employment became less common as the artisan tradition slowly disappeared in the later part of the 19th century. In 1869 The New York Times described the system of wage labor as "a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed at the South".[32] E. P. Thompson notes that for British workers at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, the "gap in status between a 'servant,' a hired wage-laborer subject to the orders and discipline of the master, and an artisan, who might 'come and go' as he pleased, was wide enough for men to shed blood rather than allow themselves to be pushed from one side to the other. And, in the value system of the community, those who resisted degradation were in the right." [16] A "Member of the Builders' Union" in the 1830s argued that the trade unions "will not only strike for less work, and more wages, but will ultimately abolish wages, become their own masters and work for each other; labor and capital will no longer be separate but will be indissolubly joined together in the hands of workmen and work-women."[17] This perspective inspired the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of 1834 which had the "two-fold purpose of syndicalist unions – the protection of the workers under the existing system and the formation of the nuclei of the future society" when the unions "take over the whole industry of the country." [18] "Research has shown", summarises William Lazonick, "that the 'free-born Englishman' of the eighteenth century – even those who, by force of circumstance, had to submit to agricultural wage labour – tenaciously resisted entry into the capitalist workshop."[19]

Karl Marx described Capitalist society as infringing on individual autonomy, by basing it on a materialistic and commodified concept of the body and its liberty (i.e. as something that is sold, rented or alienated in a class society). According to Marx:[33] The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master's interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labor only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.

File:Jay Gould 1911.jpg

Proponents of the viewpoint that the condition of wage workers has substantial similarities (as well as some advantages and disadvantages) vis a vis chattel slavery, argued that:

1. Since the chattel slave is property, his value to an owner is in some ways higher than that of a worker who may quit, be fired or replaced. The chattel slave's owner has made a greater investment in terms of the money he paid for the slave. For this reason, in times of recession, chattel slaves could not be fired like wage laborers. A "wage slave" could also be harmed at no (or less) cost. American chattel slaves in the 19th century had improved their standard of living from the 18th century[26] and, according to historians Fogel and Engerman plantation records show that slaves worked less, were better fed and whipped only occasionally—their material conditions in the 19th century being "better than what was typically available to free urban laborers at the time".[27] This was partially due to slave psychological strategies under an economic system different from capitalist wage slavery. According to Mark Michael Smith of the Economic History Society:[35]

Although intrusive and oppressive, paternalism, the way masters employed it, and the methods slaves used to manipulate it, rendered slaveholders' attempts to institute capitalistic work regimens on their plantation ineffective and so allowed slaves to carve out a degree of autonomy.

Similarly, various strategies and struggles adopted by wage laborers contributed to the creation of labor unions and welfare institutions, etc. that helped improve standards of living since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, worldwide, work-related injuries and illnesses still kill at least 2.2 million workers per year with "between 184 and 208 million workers suffer[ing] from work-related diseases" and about "270 million" non-lethal injuries of varying severity "caused by preventable factors at the workplace".[36]--a number that may or may not compare favorably with chattel slavery's.

2. Unlike a chattel slave, a wage laborer can choose an employer, but he cannot choose not to have one, while attempts to implement workers' control on employers' businesses may be met with violence or other unpleasant consequences. The wage laborer's starkest choice is to work for an employer or face poverty or starvation. If a chattel slave refuses to work, a number of punishments are also available; from beatings to food deprivation—although economically rational slave owners practiced positive reinforcement to achieve best results and before losing their investment (or even friendship) by killing an expensive slave.[37][38][39]

3. Historically, the range of occupations and status positions held by chattel slaves has been nearly as broad as that held by free persons, indicating some similarities between chattel slavery and wage slavery as well.[40]

4. Arguably, wage slavery, like chattel slavery, does not stem from some immutable "human nature," but represents a "specific response to material and historical conditions" that "reproduce[s] the inhabitants, the social relations… the ideas… [and] the social form of daily life."[41]

5. Similarities were blurred by the fact that proponents of wage labor won the American Civil War, in which they competed for legitimacy with defenders of chattel slavery. Both presented an over-positive assessment of their system, while denigrating the opponent.[29][30][42]

The similarities between chattel and wage slavery were noticed by the workers themselves. For example, the 19th century Lowell Mill Girls, who, without any knowledge of European radicalism, condemned the "degradation and subordination" of the newly emerging industrial system, and the "new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self", maintaining that "those who work in the mills should own them."[43][44] They expressed their concerns in a protest song during their 1836 strike:

Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.[45]
File:Portrait Emma Goldman.jpg

The term 'wage slavery' was widely used by labor organizations during the mid-19th century, but the structural changes associated with the later stages of industrial capitalism, including "increased centralization of production... declining wages... [an] expanding... labor pool... intensifying competition, and... [t]he loss of competence and independence experienced by skilled labor" meant that "a critique that referred to all [wage] work as slavery and avoided demands for wage concessions in favor of supporting the creation of the producerist republic (by diverting strike funds towards funding... co-operatives, for example) was far less compelling than one that identified the specific conditions of slavery as low wages..." Thus, "wage slavery" was gradually replaced by the more pragmatic term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century.[21]

Some supporters of wage and chattel slavery have linked the subjection of man to man with the subjection of man to nature; arguing that hierarchy and their preferred system's particular relations of production represent human nature and are no more coercive than the reality of life itself. According to this narrative, any well-intentioned attempt to fundamentally change the status quo is naively utopian and will result in more oppressive conditions.[47][48][49] Bosses in both of these long-lasting systems argued that their system created a lot of wealth and prosperity. Both did, in some sense create jobs and their investment entailed risk. For example, slave owners might have risked losing money by buying expensive slaves who later became ill or died; or might have used those slaves to make products that didn't sell well on the market. Marginally, both chattel and wage slaves may become bosses; sometimes by working hard. It may be the "rags to riches" story which occasionally occurs in capitalism, or the "slave to master" story that occurred in places like colonial Brazil, where slaves could buy their own freedom and become business owners, self-employed, or slave owners themselves.[50][51] Social mobility, or the hard work and risk that it may entail, are thus not considered to be a redeeming factor by critics of the concept of wage slavery.[52]

Anthropologist David Graeber has noted that, historically, the first wage labor contracts we know about—whether in ancient Greece or Rome, or in the Malay or Swahili city states in the Indian ocean—were in fact contracts for the rental of chattel slaves (usually the owner would receive a share of the money, and the slave, another, with which to maintain his or her living expenses.) Such arrangements were quite common in New World slavery as well, whether in the United States or Brazil. C. L. R. James made a famous argument that most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the industrial revolution were first developed on slave plantations.[53]

Treatment in various economic systems

The term 'wage slavery' or 'wage slave' has been used to describe the condition of workers in various economic systems, but given the prevalence of modern capitalism, it is sometimes described as a lack of rights in the market system; especially in the absence of non-market structures stemming from some degree of democratic input (welfare system, retirement income, health insurance, etc.). The concept seeks to point out how the only rights workers have are those they gain in the labor market. Workers face starvation when unable or unwilling to rent themselves to those who own the capital and means of production. Capitalists, landowners, or sometimes a state elite, own the means of production (land, industry etc.) and gain profit or power simply from granting permission to use them. This they do in exchange for wages. The 19th century economist Henry George argued that the market economy could be reformed by making land common property. In his view, people should own the productive results of their efforts, but that everything found in nature, most importantly land, should belong equally to everyone in society.[54]

Though most opponents of wage slavery favor possessions for active personal use, they oppose the "freedom" to use property for the exploitation of others (non-labor income e.g. rent, interest etc.); claiming that private ownership of the means of production is theft, and that the finite nature of the earth imposes moral restrictions on the right to acquire unlimited property.[55] Given that workers are the majority, they believe that the elite maintain wage slavery and a divided working class through their influence over the media and entertainment industry,[56][57] educational institutions, unjust laws, nationalist and corporate propaganda, pressures and incentives to internalize values serviceable to the power structure, state violence, fear of unemployment[58] and a historical legacy of exploitation and profit accumulation/transfer under prior systems, which shaped the development of economic theory:

The notion that "[b]asic supply and demand theory would indicate that those economic theories which have utility to others would be provided by economists," entails that "[i]n a system with inequalities of wealth, effective demand is skewed in favor of the wealthy." Therefore, wage slavery-apologetics and omissions are the main motor behind the "unscientific" nature and "unrealistic assumptions" of modern economic theory, and many of the "irrelevant...mathematical models" which attempt to legitimize it, particularly by ignoring "power disparities" in the market and workplace, while "concentrating upon the 'subjective' evaluations of individuals...[who] are abstracted away from real economic activity (i.e. production) so the source of profits and power... [namely] exploitation of labour...interest and rent can be ignored...[in favor of] exchanges in the market...[and concepts such as] abstinence or waiting by the capitalist, the productivity of capital, 'time-preference,' entrepreneurialism and so forth." Allegedly, "[t]hese rationales have developed over time, usually in response to socialist and anarchist criticism of capitalism and its economics (starting in response to the so-called Ricardian Socialists who predated Proudhon and Marx and who first made such an analysis commonplace)."[59]


Preceding these thinkers, however, was Adam Smith, who while offering an argument for markets based on the notion that under conditions of perfect liberty markets would lead to perfect equality, stated that the value created by workers in production must exceed the wages paid,[60] and articulated in The Wealth of Nations some factors in the development of wage slavery:[61][62] The interest of the dealers... in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… [They] have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public… We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate… It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms.


Wage slavery as a concept can be a general criticism of capitalism, defined as a condition in which a capitalist class (a minority of the population) controls all of the necessary non-human components of production (capital, land, industry, etc.) that workers use to produce goods. This sort of criticism is generally associated with socialist and anarchist criticisms of capitalism, and could conceivably be traced back to pre-capitalist figures like Gerrard Winstanley from the radical Christian Diggers movement in England, who wrote in his 1649 pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness, that there "shall be no buying or selling, no fairs nor markets, but the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man," and "there shall be none Lord over others, but every one shall be a Lord of himself."[63]

Aristotle made the statement "[a]ll paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind".[11] Cicero wrote in 44 BC that "…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery."[64] Somewhat similar criticisms have also been expressed by some proponents of liberalism, like Henry George,[8] Silvio Gesell and Thomas Paine,[65] as well as the Distributist school of thought within the Roman Catholic Church. Criticism of capitalism on these grounds, however, might not always be connected to the belief that one should have freedom to work without a boss.

To Marx and anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Kropotkin their concept of wage slavery was as a class condition in place due to the existence of private property and the state. This class situation rested primarily on:

  1. the existence of property not intended for active use,
  2. the concentration of ownership in few hands,
  3. the lack of direct access by workers to the means of production and consumption goods
  4. the perpetuation of a reserve army of unemployed workers.

and secondarily on:

  1. the waste of workers' efforts and resources on producing useless luxuries;
  2. the waste of goods so that their price may remain high; and
  3. the waste of all those who sit between the producer and consumer, taking their own shares at each stage without actually contributing to the production of goods.

Though stock ownership remains highly concentrated in capitalist societies, some workers complement their wage earnings with stock market investments. This can create a conflict of interest when stock profits require outsourcing of jobs or lowering of wages and other benefits.[66]


Fascism was more discriminating of trade unions than modern economies like Spain or the United States. Fascist economic policies were widely accepted in the 1920s and 30s and foreign (especially US) corporate investment in Italy and Germany increased after the fascist take over.[67][68] In Germany, this foreign investment, in conjunction with Hitler's economic policies, led to economic growth and an increase in the standard of living of some Germans,[69] though critics do not believe that such improvements justify fascism nor wage slavery.[70] Focusing largely on US support for the Latin American "National Security States," Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argue that U.S. corporations support (and in many instances create) fascist (or "sub" and "neo"-fascist) terror states in order to create a favorable investment climate.

Fascism has been perceived by some notable critics, like Buenaventura Durruti, to be a last resort weapon of the privileged to ensure the maintenance of wage slavery:

No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.[71]

Opinions on psychological effects


Analysis of the psychological implications of wage slavery goes back to the Enlightenment era. In his 1791 book On the Limits of State Action, classical liberal thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt explained how "whatever does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness"— and so when the laborer works under external control, "we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is."[72]

Investigative journalist Robert Kuttner in Everything for Sale, analyzes the work of public-Health scholars Jeffrey Johnson and Ellen Hall about modern conditions of work, and concludes that "to be in a life situation where one experiences relentless demands by others, over which one has relatively little control, is to be at risk of poor health, physically as well as mentally." Under wage labor, "a relatively small elite demands and gets empowerment, self-actualization, autonomy, and other work satisfaction that partially compensate for long hours" while "epidemiological data confirm that lower-paid, lower-status workers are more likely to experience the most clinically damaging forms of stress, in part because they have less control over their work."[73]

Wage slavery, and the educational system that precedes it "implies power held by the leader. Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption… in spite of… good intentions … [Leadership means] power of initiative, this sense of responsibility, the self-respect which comes from expressed manhood, is taken from the men, and consolidated in the leader. The sum of their initiative, their responsibility, their self-respect becomes his … [and the] order and system he maintains is based upon the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being 'the men' … In a word, he is compelled to become an autocrat and a foe to democracy." For the "leader", such marginalisation can be beneficial, for a leader "sees no need for any high level of intelligence in the rank and file, except to applaud his actions. Indeed such intelligence from his point of view, by breeding criticism and opposition, is an obstacle and causes confusion."[74] Wage slavery "implies erosion of the human personality… [because] some men submit to the will of others, arousing in these instincts which predispose them to cruelty and indifference in the face of the suffering of their fellows."[75]

Erich Fromm noted that if a person perceives himself as being what he owns, then when that person loses (or even thinks of losing) what he "owns" (e.g. the good looks or sharp mind that allow him to sell his labor for high wages), then, a fear of loss may create anxiety and authoritarian tendencies because that person's sense of identity is threatened. In contrast, when a person's sense of self is based on what he experiences in a state of being (creativity, ego or loss of ego, love, sadness, taste, sight etc.) with a less materialistic regard for what he once had and lost, or may lose, then less authoritarian tendencies prevail. The state of being, in his view, flourishes under a worker-managed workplace and economy, whereas self-ownership entails a materialistic notion of self, created to rationalize the lack of worker control that would allow for a state of being.[76]

Due to this lack of control, the exploited worker, according to Marx, "puts his life into the object... [and thus] the greater his activity...the less he possesses...[H]is labour becomes an object...[and] the life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force"[77] And since the worker could be working for wages or saving money instead of enjoying life or having fun, (which in a capitalist society often costs money), "all passions and all activity is submerged in avarice...[and] the less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life."[78]

Both the Milgram and Stanford experiments have been found useful in the psychological study of wage-based workplace relations.[79]

Methods of control in wage systems

In 19th century discussions of labor relations, it was normally assumed that the threat of starvation forced those without property to work for wages. Proponents of the view that modern forms of employment constitute wage slavery, even when workers appear to have a range of available alternatives, have attributed its perpetuation to a variety of social factors that maintain the hegemony of the employer class.[41][80] These include efforts at Manufacturing Consent and eliciting false consciousness.

In the 21st century Dubai, employers pay low wages to many workers—often less than £120 ($178.83) a month, for a 60-hour work week. Often 'employment contracts', if they are given, "are not worth the paper they are written on," and collective bargaining and trade unions are illegal in Dubai. It all starts in their home countries, often India or Bangladesh, where local recruitment agents promise them high salaries and generous overtime payments. In these workers' home countries they are charged a "visa" or "transit" fee, averaging 200,000 taka, or £2,000 ($2,980), which in these home countries is supposed to be illegal.

The workers pay the fee because they believe the figures they've been promised of future wages. However in most cases, it will take them the entire two-to-three year contract for them just to pay back that fee and break even.[81]

In another contemporary case unions representing teachers in Louisiana have filed a complaint with state authorities alleging that a Los Angeles recruiting firm broke the law by holding more than 350 Filipino teachers in 'virtual servitude' in order to hold onto their jobs in five Louisiana parish school systems, including New Orleans' Recovery School District.[82]

In his book, Disciplined Minds, Jeff Schmidt points out that professionals are trusted to run organizations in the interests of their employers. Because employers cannot be on hand to manage every decision, professionals are trained to “ensure that each and every detail of their work favors the right interests–or skewers the disfavored ones” in the absence of overt control:

The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorize, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology.[83]

Worker cooperatives, syndicalism and self-management

Some social activists objecting to the market system or price system of wage working, historically have considered syndicalism, worker cooperatives, workers' self-management and workers' control as possible alternatives to the current wage system.[4][5][6][18]

Labor and government

The American philosopher John Dewey believed that until "industrial feudalism" is replaced by "industrial democracy," politics will be "the shadow cast on society by big business". Thomas Ferguson has postulated in his investment theory of party competition that the undemocratic nature of economic institutions under capitalism causes elections to become occasions when blocs of investors coalesce and compete to control the state.[84]

File:Noam chomsky cropped.jpg

Noam Chomsky has argued that political theory tends to blur the 'elite' function of government:[85]

“Modern political theory stresses Madison's belief that "in a just and a free government the rights both of property and of persons ought to be effectually guarded." But in this case too it is useful to look at the doctrine more carefully. There are no rights of property, only rights to property that is, rights of persons with property,...[86] ""[In] [r]epresentative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain… there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and secondly– and critically– […] the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere... 'That is, as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful…”

In this regard Chomsky has used Bakunin's theories about an "instinct for freedom",[87] the militant history of labor movements, Kropotkin's mutual aid evolutionary principle of survival and Marc Hauser's theories supporting an innate and universal moral faculty,[88] to explain the incompatibility of oppression with certain aspects of human nature.[89][90]

Influence on environmental degradation

Loyola University philosophy professor John Clark and libertarian socialist philosopher Murray Bookchin have criticized the system of wage labor for encouraging environmental destruction, arguing that a self-managed industrial society would better manage the environment. They, like other anarchists,[91] attribute much of the industrial revolution's pollution to the "hierarchical" and "competitive" economic relations accompanying it.[92][93][94][95][96]


According to Eric Foner, most abolitionists in the U.S. regarded the analogy of wage earners to slaves, symbolized by the term "wage slavery," as spurious. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison stated that the use of the term "wage slavery" (in a time when chattel slavery was still common) was an "abuse of language."[29] Most abolitionists believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed".[30] Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass described his elation when he took a paying job, declaring that "Now I am my own master." According to Douglass, wage labor did not represent oppression but fair exchange and former slaves for the first time receiving the fruits of their labor.[31]

Philosopher Gary Young has argued that the same basic reasoning that considers the individual to be forced to sell his labor to a capitalist in order to survive, also applies to the capitalist in that he is forced to hire a worker to survive otherwise his capital will be exhausted through consumption, leaving him nothing to purchase the necessities of life.[97] In this sense, the capitalists depend on the workers as the workers depend on the capitalists.[98]

In mainstream economic philosophy, wage labor is seen as the voluntary sale of one's own time and efforts, just like a carpenter would sell a chair, or a farmer would sell wheat. It is considered neither an antagonistic nor abusive relationship, and carries no particular moral implications. From this perspective, the problem of poverty comes from an unequal distribution of income and can be addressed by government programs like social security and progressive taxation, and does not reflect a fundamental flaw in the capitalist system.[99]

Wage slavery is also in contradiction to the classical liberal notion of self-ownership. Under this view, a person is not free unless he can sell himself, because if a person does not own themself, they must be owned by either another individual or a group of individuals. The ability for anyone to consent to an activity or action would then be placed in the hands of a third party. Further, the third-party's ownership would also be in the hands of yet another individual or group. This regression of ownership would transfer ad infinitum and leave no one with the ability to coordinate their own actions or those of anyone else. The conclusion is therefore that if under wage slavery, self-ownership is not legitimate, there is no right for anyone then to claim enslavement to wages in the first place.[100] Of course, wage slavery can be seen as a form of duress, in that one must be a wage slave to survive.

Employment contracts

Some criticize wage slavery on strictly contractual grounds, e.g. David Ellerman and Carole Pateman, arguing that the employment contract is a legal fiction in that it treats human beings juridically as mere tools or inputs by abdicating responsibility and self-determination, which the critics argue are inalienable. As Ellerman points out, "[t]he employee is legally transformed from being a co-responsible partner to being only an input supplier sharing no legal responsibility for either the input liabilities [costs] or the produced outputs [revenue, profits] of the employer’s business."[101] Such contracts are inherently invalid "since the person remain[s] a de facto fully capacitated adult person with only the contractual role of a non-person . . ." as it is impossible to physically transfer self-determination.[102] As Pateman argues:

"The contractarian argument is unassailable all the time it is accepted that abilities can ‘acquire’ an external relation to an individual, and can be treated as if they were property. To treat abilities in this manner is also implicitly to accept that the ‘exchange’ between employer and worker is like any other exchange of material property . . . The answer to the question of how property in the person can be contracted out is that no such procedure is possible. Labour power, capacities or services, cannot be separated from the person of the worker like pieces of property."[103]

Critics of the employment contract advocate consistently applying "the principle behind every trial," i.e., "legal responsibility should be imputed in accordance with de facto responsibility," implying a workplace run jointly by the people who actually work in the firm.[104] The people who actually work in a firm are de facto responsible for the actions of said firm and thus have a legal claim to its outputs, as the contractarian critics argue. "Responsible human action, net value-adding or net value-subtracting, is not de facto transferable."[105] Suppliers (including shareholders), on the other hand, having no de facto responsibility, have no legal claim to the outputs.

While a person may still voluntarily decide to contractually rent himself, just as today he may voluntarily decide to contractually sell himself, in a society where "the principle behind every trial" is consistently applied, neither contract would be legally enforceable, and the rented/sold individual would maintain at all times de jure responsibility for her/his actions, including legal claim to the fruits of their labor. In a modern liberal-capitalist society, the employment contract is enforced while the enslavement contract is not; the former being considered valid because of its consensual/non-coercive nature, and the later being considered inherently invalid, consensual or not. The noted economist Paul Samuelson described this discrepancy.

"Since slavery was abolished, human earning power is forbidden by law to be capitalized. A man is not even free to sell himself; he must rent himself at a wage."[106]

Some advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, among them Robert Nozick, address this inconsistency in modern societies, arguing that a consistently libertarian society would allow and regard as valid consensual/non-coercive enslavement contracts, rejecting the notion of inalienable rights.

"The comparable question about an individual is whether a free system will allow him to sell himself into slavery. I believe that it would."[107]

Others like Murray Rothbard allow for the possibility of debt slavery, asserting that a lifetime labour contract can be broken so long as the slave pays appropriate damages:

"[I]f A has agreed to work for life for B in exchange for 10,000 grams of gold, he will have to return the proportionate amount of property if he terminates the arrangement and ceases to work."[108]

See also


  1. wage slave - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  2. wage slave - Definitions from
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