Guest Post: On Wage Slavery, a Double Response

In response to my recent discussion with Bryce at Amtheomusings, regarding “wage-slavery,” a friend offered this “double response” to both myself and Bryce.

Original post (Bryce): Here
My First Response: Here
Bryce’s Response: Here
My Second Response: Here

Without further Adieu….

I certainly cannot (and do not want to) disagree with B. about
the ideologically charged expression ‘wage slavery’: not only it is
outrageously soaked in moral connotations (to the point that, as B.
points out, no one could namely be in its support) but it creates an
imaginative confusion of terms, if we consider that slavery, while
changed and mutated since the 16th century, is well alive in certain
areas of the world (and even in certain grey zones of our Western
society, cf. as an example
local/la-me-1216-shyima-hall-20111216) and that there is certainly
a difference between a salaried worker in an US factory or a child
forced to sew shoes in some remote town of South East Asia, with
no salary and possibly with menacing guards preventing him/her to
go elsewhere or live differently.

However, I do disagree with the concept that, all in all, there is
nothing, in the hypothetical range of possible society, between the
two extremes of

a) today’s system and

b) a reality in which physical providers of food and shelter should
work in an unrewarded fashion to provide sustenance for the lazy

The problem addressed by the proposers of the (admittedly
unfortunate) expression ‘wage slavery’ is, more often than not, the
reason because of which salaried workers are completely bound
to their jobs: with the constant shift of economic power from
productive forces to productive resources, i.e. from the worker to
the capitalist (inevitable in a capitalist system, as Marx has shown
and very few have tried to contrast) the labourer is forced into a
complete submission of her life to her job. Simply put, the problem
is that to enjoy a normal life (with shelter, food, hygiene and the
like) the worker herself needs to participate in the production of
goods whose market value far exceeds the value of the money
the worker and her colleagues are paid. It is of course Proudhon’s
theory of survaleur, which only the great improvements in people’s
wealth occurred in the 20th century had allowed us to forget. Recent
years, however, have witnessed a return to a model of subsistence
for most untrained workers, who sometimes are not able to
maintain themselves and their family even when working a fulltime

All this said, I disagree with J. when he equates (or seems to me
to do so) wage-slavery with wage-work in a wage-society. The first
paragraph of his first response (partially corrected in the following
one) implies that a wage-based economic system cannot coexist

with a fair system: the problem in ‘wage-slavery’ is not the wage,
but the slavery! If wage has to be a compensation, a fair one it
must be. I found the artisan model (that I’ve heard proposed over
and over again) an oversimplification: the artisan could be alienated
as well if she was forced to receive anything less than the value of
what she produces.

Again, the response of B. is in my opinion flawed by a
misrepresented concept of ‘agreement’: he states that (and I
quote) “the laborer agrees to be provided with a wage by using the
property of their employer at a work that is in place because others
have chosen to value the product”. But it is exactly this agreement
that is devalued by proposers of a non-wage-driven economy:
the labourer, being deprived of capital (which is limited and
comparatively constantly devaluating itself) and in possession only
of working-force (which is ever-growing and largely over-present)
cannot freely choose but is force to agree. And that’s exactly where
the equation to slavery comes into play.

The almost ‘utilitarian’ justification of capitalism provided (if it is
enacted it must be what makes us all richer) appears to be more
a rhetorical device than a real evidence of virtue; following such a
claim it could be objected that if capitalism was in place because it
represented the best economic system, overthrowing it would be
self-justified, since whatever came after that would be “better” by
providing more economic wealth than capitalism (that would have

At the end of this long (and hopefully friendly) rant, I confess
that I find puzzling the final remarks by J.: while it is a certainly
acceptable moral stance that production should not produce wealth
(even in its broadest sense) I am curious to understand what other
non-economic system you had in mind when addressing such
issues. Co-op and artisanal systems both involve wealth, wealth
production and wealth-distribution.

In fide et amicabiliter

Giacomo ‘Geki’ Leoni


About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on September 7, 2012, in Guest-Post, Thoughts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. There is this insistence on coming back to the fact that the worker produces a product of whose value they are not the complete recipients thereof, but I have seen no reason that we should suppose they have a right to it. We can consider that, after all, the capital they have utilized in order to produce is not their own, and their use of it is stipulated in an agreement. (Let us leave aside the claim that the worker must “submit their whole life to their work” for now. I’m already planning on writing a substantive post in response to that point.) This capital was provided by the capitalist, who gave up the present use of that capital in the service of consumption in order to turn it towards further production. The worker brings only work, and the increased value of their work is only possible because of the productive capital provided by the capitalist; the increased value of the worker’s work is essentially apart from the worker, as it is a function of the capital they use in production. The increased production of a farmer with a diesel powered tractor compared to a farmer using a donkey and wooden plow resides primarily in the differences of productive capital.

    As such, if the increase of value produced has primarily to do with the use of some given capital, then the reception of that value in the one who has provided that capital (in other words, the one who has provided the function of increasing the productivity of the worker’s labor, to which we may note that the worker-qua-worker has not, is thus quite rightly the recipient of increased profit. Now, the worker is quite free to turn around with their wages and turn that into productive capital of their own, perhaps even to become “self-capitalized” as it were, but if they choose instead to pursue plain consumption with their given wages, I see no reason to consider them somehow worthier of increased wages, when they haven’t done anything themselves to increase the value of their labor. This is obviously quite relevant for first world societies, where your poor worker is still able to afford a decent standard of living compared to the rest of the world and human history, implying he has the ability to engage in the provision of productive capital for themselves by some means, but chooses not to.

    In short, that there is surplus value at all is due to the provision of the capitalists who choose to turn available resources into productive capital, increasing the productivity of labor. It only follows, then, that they will also be the first recipients of such activity, since the presence of heightened labor value occurs once these capitalists are in competition with each other to buy labor, and that is how workers come to have their wealth increased even though they do not themselves contribute to the provision of increasing the value of their labor, at least qua-labor. The increase of wealth in society is primarily due to the activity of capitalists, who provide the capital for increased productivity.

    As to my supposition that capitalism represents the system in which wealth is produced in the greatest amounts and most widely distributed, I do not mean merely that “it is the latest, therefore it is the best.” Perhaps those with the Hegelian streak are projecting onto, of all people, those whom they distinguish themselves from on account of their belief in the historical synthesis? Capitalism, a good name for the description of a society in which production occurs freely under the assumption of respect for private property (whether “personal” or “productive” in nature), I submit is best because it is simply the case that the introduction of coercion at any time and place decreases wealth. There is an inverse relationship between wealth and coercion. I think it is clear why I would oppose revolutions of a coercive, or transgressive and forcibly expropriating, sort, at least on that account (if not just because it is wrong to steal).

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