Questions On Wage Slavery, Via Email

The following is part of an email from a friend, which was one in a long and fruitful exchange about class conflict, slavery, and empire:

Do the well-educated, internet-savvy leftists to whom you allude constitute a “class”? How does this crosscut with the “underclass” or “overclass”? Does this term deal primarily with income, access, or social position? Honestly curious, because it all seems very fluid to me, but it’s usually pitched in terms that make one’s “class” sound immutable.

On the other hand, the term “wage slave” is pretty silly; all of we employed folks sell or “rent” our labor in exchange for pay. And we do so voluntarily, in a profession of our choosing. Indeed, this is what distinguishes employment from slavery. Of course we can nitpick about what (lack of) choices are afforded to what people, and we can bemoan the (real and significant) frictions in the job market, but this doesn’t change the fact that everything costs some amount more than zero. If we lived in an cooperative agrarian society, where we all raised our own food in our own inefficient ways, would we then call ourselves “land slaves” or “food slaves”?

I responded and the email exchange went on, with more questions being asked than answered (in the good way), but looking back on the conversation now, this little bit makes me think of Ivan Illich, who wrote on the “shadow work” that one must do “off the clock” as a requisite to selling labor: “Then, as subsistence activities become more rare, all unpaid activities assume a structure analogous to housework.”

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