Wage slavery is a term used to draw an analogy between slavery and wage labor by focusing on similarities between owning and renting a person. It is usually used to refer to a situation where a person's livelihood depends on wages or a salary, especially when the dependence is total and immediate.
Emma Goldman famously denounced wage slavery by saying: "The only difference is that you are hired slaves instead of block slaves"
The view that working for wages is akin to slavery dates back to the ancient world. In ancient Rome, Cicero wrote that "whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves".
In 1763, the French journalist Simon Linguet published an influential description of wage slavery:
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 and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live ... 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?
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 United States) and by opponents of capitalism (who were also critics of chattel slavery). Some defenders of slavery, mainly from the Southern slave states, argued that Northern workers were "free but in name – the slaves of endless toil" and that their slaves were better off. 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". 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".
Some abolitionists in the United States regarded the analogy as spurious. They believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed".Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans argued that the condition of wage workers was different from slavery as laborers were likely to have the opportunity to work for themselves in the future, achieving self-employment. The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass initially declared "now I am my own master", upon taking a paying job. However, later in life he concluded to the contrary, saying "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". Douglass went on to speak about these conditions as arising from the unequal bargaining power between the ownership/capitalist class and the non-ownership/laborer class within a compulsory monetary market: "No more crafty and effective devise for defrauding the southern laborers could be adopted than the one that substitutes orders upon shopkeepers for currency in payment of wages. It has the merit of a show of honesty, while it puts the laborer completely at the mercy of the land-owner and the shopkeeper".
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".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". 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". 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". "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".
The use of the term "wage slave" by labor organizations may originate from the labor protests of the Lowell mill girls in 1836. 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 neutral term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century as labor organizations shifted their focus to raising wages.
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.
Similarities of wage work with slavery
Critics of wage work have drawn several similarities between wage work and slavery:
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 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 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". 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, "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".
Unlike a chattel slave, a wage laborer can (barring unemployment or lack of job offers) choose between employers, but those employers usually constitute a minority of owners in the population for which the wage laborer must work while attempts to implement workers' control on employers' businesses may be considered[by whom?] an act of theft or insubordination and thus be met with violence, imprisonment or other legal and social measures. The wage laborer's starkest choice is to work for an employer or to 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 by killing an expensive slave.
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.
Like chattel slavery, wage 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".
Similarities became blurred when proponents of wage labor won the American Civil War of 1861-1865, in which they competed for legitimacy with defenders of chattel slavery. Each side presented an over-positive assessment of their own system while denigrating the opponent.
According to American anarcho-syndicalist philosopher Noam Chomsky, workers themselves noticed the similarities between chattel and wage slavery. Chomsky noted that the 19th-century Lowell mill girls, without any reported knowledge of European Marxism or anarchism, 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". 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.
Defenses of both wage labor and chattel slavery in the literature have linked the subjection of man to man with the subjection of man to nature – arguing that hierarchy and a social 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. Bosses in both of these long-lasting systems argued that their respective systems created a lot of wealth and prosperity. In some sense, both did create jobs, and their investment entailed risk. For example, slave-owners risked losing money by buying chattel slaves who later became ill or died; while bosses risked losing money by hiring workers (wage slaves) to make products that did not sell well on the market. Marginally, both chattel and wage slaves may become bosses; sometimes by working hard. The "rags to riches" story occasionally comes to pass in capitalism; the "slave to master" story occurred in places like colonial Brazil, where slaves could buy their own freedom and become business owners, self-employed, or slave-owners themselves. Thus critics of the concept of wage slavery do not regard social mobility, or the hard work and risk that it may entail, as a redeeming factor.
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 slaves another, with which to maintain their living expenses). According to Graeber, such arrangements were quite common in New World slavery as well, whether in the United States or in Brazil. C. L. R. James (1901-1989) argued that most of the techniques of human organization employed on factory workers during the Industrial Revolution first developed on slave plantations.
Subsequent work "traces the innovations of modern management to the slave plantation".
Decline in use of term
By the end of the 19th century, both the use of the term wage slavery and its meaning declined
The usage of the term "wage slavery" shifted to "wage work" at the end of the 19th century as groups like the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor shifted to a more reformist, trade union ideology instead of worker's self-management. Much of the decline was caused by the rapid increase in manufacturing after the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent dominance of wage labor as a result. Another factor was immigration and demographic changes that led to ethnic tension between the workers.
As Hallgrimsdottir and Benoit point out:
[I]ncreased 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.