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Wage slavery refers to a situation where a person is dependent for a livelihood on the wages earned, especially if the dependency is total and immediate. The term is used to draw an analogy between slavery and wage labor. Some uses of the term may refer only to an "[un]equal bargaining situation between labor and capital," particularly where workers are paid unreasonably low wages (e.g. sweatshops). More controversially, others equate it with a lack of workers' self-management or point to similarities between owning and employing a person, and extend the term to cover a wide range of employment relationships in a hierarchical social environment with limited job-related choices (e.g. working for a wage under threat of starvation, poverty or social stigma).

Similarities between wage labor and slavery were noted at least as early as Cicero and Aristotle. 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 use. 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.

The introduction of wage labor in 18th century Britain was met with resistance – giving rise to the principles of syndicalism. 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 pragmatic term "wage work" towards the end of the 19th century, as labor organizations shifted their focus to raising wages.

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

Historic aspects

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).

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

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. 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."

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. They believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed". The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass declared "Now I am my own master" when he took a paying job. 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.

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". 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."

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:

[[Image:Jay Gould 1911.jpg|200px|thumb|right|American financier Jay Gould. After he hired strikebreakers, he said "I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half."]]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, the chattel slave's 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 and, as historians Fogel and Engerman's reported, slaves' material conditions in the 19th century were "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:

Similarly, various strategies and struggles adopted by wage laborers contributed to the creation of labor unions and welfare institutions, etc. that can constrain the perceived inequity of wage slavery.

2. Unlike a chattel slave, a wage laborer can oftentimes 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.

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.

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."

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."They expressed as such in one of their protest songs in 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.

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.

In the past, some supporters of wage or chattel slavery could be viewed as having linked some features of life in society with seemingly unavoidable conditions of social structures (the subjection of man to man); 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 that way of thinking, 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 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. 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.

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.

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.

In the 21st century Dubaimarker, 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.

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.

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:

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, including communist states, 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.

Though most opponents of wage slavery favor possessions for non-exploitative personal use, they oppose the "freedom" to use property for the exploitation of others (non-labor income); claiming that private ownership of the means of life is theft and that sometimes a person's freedom ends where another person's begins (e.g. my freedom to oppress, kill, steal etc violates yours).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, educational institutions, unjust laws, nationalist and corporate propaganda, pressures and incentives to internalize values serviceable to the power structure, state violence, fear of unemployment and a historical legacy of exploitation and profit accumulation under prior systems:

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 considered, by some radical economists and intellectuals, to be 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)."

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, and articulated in The Wealth of Nations some factors in the development of wage slavery:


Wage slavery as a concept can be a general criticism of capitalism, defined as a condition in which a capitalist class (often 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."

Aristotle made the statement "[a]ll paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind". 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."Somewhat similar criticisms have also been expressed by some proponents of liberalism, like Henry George, Silvio Gesell and Thomas Paine, 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.


While movements labeled as communist (or economically nationalist and socialist) have, partly in reaction to poverty, arisen more pervasively in the 3rd world, there is arguably as much variety (e.g. in economic policies, popular participation, atrocity levels etc) among states termed "communist" as there is among states termed "capitalist"-- in spite of the lack of distinctions (as well as propagandistic labeling) that have been applied due to elite ideological influence in the wage systems of the USmarker and the USSRmarker. These two states preserved and expanded the institutions of wage slavery by simultaneously identifying Soviet state brutality and destruction of workers' councils with socialism and communism in order to either vilify them, or exploit the aura of their ideals (esp. opposition to wage slavery).


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. 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, though critics do not believe that such improvements justify fascism nor wage slavery. Focusing largely on US support for the Latin American "National Security States," Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argue that U.S. corporations purposefully 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.

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."

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." 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."

In Marx's opinion, this "alienation" also arises from the fact that "[t]he [exploited] worker puts his life into the object.. [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."

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

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." 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. 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."

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. 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." 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."

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."

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."

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.

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.

Noam Chomsky has argued that rationalizations for what he describes as an 'elite' government function have been fallacious:

Noam Chomsky

In this regard Chomsky has used Bakunin's theories about an "instinct for freedom", 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, to explain the incompatibility of oppression with certain aspects of human nature.

Environmental destruction

Loyola University professor John Clark and Murray Bookchin have criticized the system of wage labor, arguing that a self-managed industrial society would reduce environmental destruction. They, like other anarchists, attribute much of the industrial revolution's pollution to the "hierarchical" and "competitive" economic relations accompanying it.


According to Eric Foner, 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." The abolitionist believed that wage workers were "neither wronged nor oppressed". 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.

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. In this sense, the capitalists depend on the workers as the workers depend on the capitalists.

In mainstream economic theory, 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.

The Austrian school of economics expresses that what is exchanged between individuals is irrelevant for the result. In the context of Austrian economics, the concept of compensation would extend to cover everything received by workers from employers for their labor. For consistency then compensation in forms other than wages should also be condemned by those who consider capitalist production wage slavery. That is to say, anything other than a revolutionary restructuring of the labor-employer relation leaves the original condition, the one advocated by the school in question, largely untouched. Further, utilizing the Misesian analytics of individual action, human beings must always engage in production in order to consume and survive. Thus, man would be enslaved to nature itself. If man is always enslaved in some form or another, according to this view, the concept of slavery is of little use in order to draw distinctions between what is a coercive interpersonal relationship and what is not, thereby defeating the analytical purpose of "wage slavery theory".

Wage slavery is also in contradiction to the classical liberal and libertarian notion of self-ownership. Under this view, a person is not free unless they 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.

See also


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