Wage Slavery Is Real and Appropriately Named

“Wage slavery” is a controversial concept. As with “patriarchy”, plenty deny its existence. I will argue that it is quite real and that the “slavery” in the phrase is not misleading or inappropriate.

The two questions are distinct. I’ll tackle the existence question first, then argue that it is appropriately named.

Is it real?

A “wage slave” is a wage laborer who

a) depends on her wages to survive;

b) must work under subpar conditions to earn those wages; and

c) has no reasonably accessible alternatives that are significantly better.

(c) is crucial. Someone who depends on wages to survive but could switch to a different and cushier line of work if she wanted to would not be a wage slave. Someone who, on the other hand, could only switch to other jobs with similar conditions, would be a wage slave.

So defined, it should be obvious that wage slavery exists. Most people reading this depend on wages to survive. If you’ve ever been to a hotel or restaurant, chances are that you’ve been invisibly served by people who work under subpar conditions (to say nothing of sweatshops in China, etc.). Finally, given that these people are working in subpar conditions, they’d probably take a significantly better alternative if it were reasonably accessible to them. That they don’t is a strong indication that those alternatives aren’t, in fact, reasonably accessible.

There are two ways I can see of challenging the existence claim. The first is by asking: what standards are we using to judge “subpar conditions”? After all, the majority of wage slaves enjoy standards of living vastly superior to even the relatively wealthy of two hundred years ago. Can we really call that “subpar conditions”?

This is a fair point. Many wage slaves do live comfortable lives by historical standards. We should remember this and be grateful for the progress we’ve made to get here. What’s more, we should protect the institutions that made it possible and which – presumably – may continue the trend. But none of this requires a regressive attitude about our standards. If our general standard of living has massively increased, that should inform how we judge what counts as “subpar”. This is a privilege afforded us by our progress and there is no reason not to take it. What counts as relatively “subpar” becomes much better in absolute terms as society progresses. This is a good thing.

The other challenge: what exactly counts as “reasonably accessible”? For any given wage slave, there is some course of action he can take to work toward a better alternative. How easy does it have to be to count as “reasonably accessible”?

Like “subpar”, “reasonably accessible” suffers from vagueness. But try this as a test. Agent X is stuck in extremely undesirable situation Y. Given years, despite how undesirable Y is, X has still not taken any course of action that has gotten him out of Y. Now suppose there is some action Z that would get X out of situation Y and into a significantly better situation. Why hasn’t X done Z? Given how undesirable Y is, if X could do Z, he would. If he hasn’t, it must be because Z is not reasonably accessible to X.

Maybe it sounds like I’ve cheated. Is it really a tautology that there are no reasonably accessible alternatives for people who work in very undesirable conditions for long periods of time? Well, yes. If we assume that these people are rational agents, that’s what we should expect. Rational agents, given enough time, find available alternatives, especially when those alternatives are much better and the starting conditions are awful. If they don’t, then those alternatives aren’t actually “available”, broadly speaking (ie, not “reasonably accessible”).

Needless to say, “reasonably accessible” is relative to the person in question. Maybe agent X can’t take action Z, but someone smarter, more creative, more socially outgoing, or with fewer family commitments than X could do Z. This is beside the point. After all, X can’t just choose to become smarter, more creative, etc. Again, assuming he’s a rational agent and given enough time, X would do just that if that’s really what it would take for him to get out of Y. That he doesn’t shows that he can’t.

In sum: what a person actually does, especially in response to highly undesirable circumstances, tells you almost all you need to know about what they’re capable of doing.

Is it slavery? Tom and John

Most people will agree the above is true but insist that it’s misleading or inappropriate to call it slavery: Not all unfortunate situations are “slavery”. Calling a wage laborer’s situation “slavery” is disrespectful to the history of actual slavery, condescending to the wage laborer who is doing her best and working hard to provide for her family, and unfair to the employer who is providing an opportunity for the wage laborer that she clearly prefers to her other available options. Most fundamentally, the so-called wage slave is not actually forced by anyone to work, so is not a slave at all.

In a word, the heart of the objection: wage labor is voluntary, chattel slavery is not; they should therefore not go by the same name. To counter this, I present the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1

John works as a cook. He works about 80 hours a week. His weekly pay allows him to (barely) pay rent and feed his wife and kids. His wife is disabled and unable to work. Though he tries to save what little he can, he finds it almost impossible to do so: some unexpected expenses always come up (clothes for the kids, a repair at home). At work, John is often told to do more than his job nominally calls for by Lisa, his temperamental boss. He works extra hours, covers others’ shifts, comes in early and stays late to set up and clean the kitchen. He’s not paid extra for this. But John feels that he cannot protest. He doesn’t think he’s difficult to replace and so worries that he could be fired if he demanded better treatment. And, while he could probably find a similar job if he were fired, that would involve at least a week or two of lost pay while looking. That he simply cannot afford.

Scenario 2

Meanwhile, in a society that still permits chattel slavery, Tom is a slave. By law, he is the property of his slavemaster, Don. Don treats his slaves reasonably well. He has found that reward motivates better than punishment and treats his slaves accordingly. Of course, he expects them to do their work. But he also gives them leisure time and some limited amount of freedom to choose what type of work to do and when to do it.

In this society, fugitive slave laws are poorly enforced. Tom has heard that the chances of being found and returned to your slavemaster are less than a third. While many slavemasters, as a result, keep a close eye on their slaves, Don doesn’t. He treats his slaves well enough that they, for the most part, choose not to escape. Besides: Don would prefer the loss of the occasional slave over the cost of having to run a draconian operation, which he finds both ethically and practically undesirable. So Tom thinks he has a decent chance of escape. But even if he successfully escapes, he’s not sure it’s worth the risk. What kind of work is he qualified to do? He’s been a slave all his life. Will he successfully adapt to a free life? Will he manage to attain the standard of living he’s become accustomed to as Don’s property?

I should say, right off the bat, that both John and Tom are in fairly awful situations and both have very limited options. But it’s fair to ask: who is more free?

Before attempting an answer, it’s worth addressing the plausibility of the scenarios. I see no reason to question scenario 1 at all. Undoubtedly, many Johns exist. Scenario 2 I’m less confident about. Perhaps it was a very rare situation even back when chattel slavery was a norm. Even so, I find it difficult to believe it was unheard of. I’m open to being challenged on this, but I see no reason to doubt that some Toms existed, even if maybe not many.

One tempting answer: the details don’t matter. By law, Tom is someone else’s property. If Tom tries to escape, agents of the state have the legal right to physically force Tom to return to Don. John, on the other hand, isn’t forced by anyone to do anything. He can quit his job tomorrow and no one has the right to stop him. The only thing that would stop him is his own weighing of what would be most prudent for him given his situation. There is nothing unfree about this. We must all choose given our options. Coercion from outside is the only matter that’s relevant to freedom.

This answer intentionally ignores the stipulated poor enforcement in Tom’s scenario. Though agents of the state have the legal right to force Tom to return to Don, the fact is that they don’t often exercise that right. To ignore this is to implicitly claim that law books are more relevant to freedom than the facts of what the available options are. This is, of course, absurd. To see why, simply compare Tom to Eve, who is literally imprisoned in a cage by a kidnapper with no legal legitimacy. Eve is obviously less free than Tom, though legally no one is permitted to do what is being done to her.

It’s also worth pointing out: yes, of course, John must choose based on his options, like all of us must. So, yes, he could kill himself, or let himself and his (adult) family starve, rather than work for Lisa. But this is irrelevant. After all, Tom also could kill himself rather than be Don’s slave, and could practice passive resistance instead of following Don’s commands (and take whatever consequences come). To whatever extent these are really options (ie, only in a technical sense), they are options for both.

Once we accept that freedom is a function of actually available options – not nominal ones – it’s clear that Tom is somewhat more free than John. If we grant this, and we agree that to be a slave is to have little control over one’s own life (ie, have very limited options), then it follows that John is more a slave than Tom.

Someone might push back: the fact that Tom is legally a slave means he must always live in fear. What if the society starts enforcing its laws more effectively?

Sure, this could happen. It could also be the case that John lives in a terrible neighborhood and, aside from everything he must put up with at work, he must also live in fear of theft and assault. We can stipulate any number of awful parameters to Tom and John’s respective situations. The fact remains that whether they’re legally sanctioned or not doesn’t necessarily make any difference to how restrictive they are to their respective available options.

One could, of course, simply stipulate that “slavery” shall refer only to legal ownership of another person. This resolves the debate by linguistic fiat. But the very fact that the term “wage slave” is in use shows that the meaning of “slavery” is not, in practice, so narrow. It is more faithful to actual use to describe slavery as, roughly, a situation in which someone has no control over his own life, usually because someone else has it.

Control and Blame: Don and Lisa

Another possible objection: slavery doesn’t just mean having no options. It means having no options because someone else has control over you. This fits Tom/Don, but not John/Lisa.

It’s unclear by what standards this is supposed to be the case. Don gives Tom a reasonable amount of leisure time and freedom with work. Lisa, on the other hand, micromanages John and makes specific and unpleasant demands. Given the number of hours that Tom works, it’s quite possible that he’s under Lisa’s direct control as long or longer than Don spends controlling Tom’s direct actions. On the other hand, Don tells Tom where to sleep and live and what to wear; Lisa does none of these, other than require a uniform in the kitchen. Even so, given his wage and the little time off Lisa allows him, John is severely limited in his options of where he may live and has no time to consider alternatives. In terms of control over their lives, there are some differences between Tom/Don and John/Lisa, but it’s reasonable to say they’re roughly comparable.

Of course, Don could be much more draconian if he chose to be. He has the power to restrict Tom’s options much more than he does – maybe that power is the source of the difference. But, upon reflection, Lisa has the same power. She could also become even more draconian.

A plausible retort: if Lisa became much more draconian, John would eventually take the risk of quitting to find a less abusive boss. But this applies to Tom/Don as well. If Don became a much stricter slavemaster, Tom would be much more likely to escape. If Don became much stricter and more vigilant, Tom would be more likely to attempt a risky and potentially violent escape. Given that the society doesn’t enforce fugitive slave laws well (which Don has no control over), even a very risky escape attempt might be worth it if Don were cruel enough. In other words, both Don and Lisa could choose to be crueler and more controlling, though both of them are limited from doing so by structural incentives.

Maybe the difference is blame. Don is to blame for Tom’s situation because he could set him free but doesn’t, whereas Lisa wouldn’t be doing John any favors by letting him go. After all, John works for Lisa voluntarily.

It’s true that Don could set Tom free. That he doesn’t perhaps constitutes blame. But then, Lisa could give John a raise. She could give him a week off to create a plan to better his situation. Why doesn’t this equally constitute blame? Just as with Don/Tom, Lisa could make John freer but doesn’t.

Maybe Lisa’s not a bad person but just constrained by economic imperatives. She can’t turn a profit if she gives John a raise and time off. But this could apply equally to Don. He could set Tom free. But if he starts setting every slave free, he won’t have the labor to compete with other slaveholding businesses.

Where’s the blame then? If neither Tom or Lisa is being any crueler than they need to be to compete, then either they both have blame (because it is their responsibility to refrain from controlling the lives of others, even at personal economic cost), or neither has blame. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be any relevant difference.

It won’t help to say that Don is holding Tom against his will, whereas John works for Lisa voluntarily. We’ve covered that ground. Tom has more choices in this situation than John does, so it is Tom who is in his situation more “voluntarily” than John is in his.


By way of a conclusion, I’ll address two more objections. Here’s one: it is condescending to John to call him a slave. I’m friends with a John. He’s not a slave, he’s doing his best in a really terrible situation.

It is not an insult to call someone a slave (in the sense I’m discussing here). Tom, for all we know, was born a slave. It is not his fault that he is one and we shouldn’t hold it against him. Similarly, John may have found himself in his situation through no fault of his own. By calling him a slave, I would not mean to discourage John from doing everything within his power, despite the very limited options, to rise out of slavery. Much as I would not discourage Tom from doing everything within his power to do the same.

And finally: most bosses aren’t as bad as Lisa. Most slavemasters weren’t as nice as Don. Most societies that permitted chattel slavery didn’t have such lax enforcement. These scenarios don’t reflect the facts.

Certainly, most bosses aren’t as bad as Lisa. But there are certainly many bosses around the world who are even much worse. But let’s put that aside. I do not deny that most wage slaves are in a better situation than most chattel slaves were. My claim here is not that wage slaves are in just as bad a situation as chattel slaves. My claim is, rather, that the important differences are of degree, not of kind.

There is one difference of kind – the legal difference. But it is a superficial and technical one. It does not tell us anything about what’s really relevant: availability of options. With regard to availability of options, the difference is of degree, not of kind. And that is, ultimately, why it is not misleading to call wage slavery “slavery”.

What do we do with this? That’s another, more complicated matter. What I wish to end on here is this: this is not merely an exercise in semantics. If I’m right, we should be as or nearly as concerned by the prevalence of wage slavery as we would be if there were a resurgence of legally sanctioned chattel slavery.

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