A Brief Primer On What "Wage Slavery" Means
Capitalism, slavery, and racism in the United States
The concept of work has been challenged since its inception. For Aristotle, the end goal for humans was supposed to be leisure. This is a sentiment that has continued to the modern day. Contemporary philosopher John Danaher wrote: "Work, suitably-defined, is a bad thing and we should try to create a society in which it is no longer necessary." A statement that somewhat controversially opposes the well-ingrained idea that work gives us meaning.
Some take this sentiment of anti-work even further and argue that work is not just wrong but a form of slavery. In the words of academic Nir Eyal: "In 100 years, some things we consider normal today will make people say, 'Wow, how barbaric — I can't believe people did that! How were they okay with that?' Wage slavery, I hope, will be one of those things. Being a wage slave means you are stuck doing a job solely for the money. You can't quit, because leaving would have terrible consequences for you and your family."
Wage slavery is a term that has become increasingly popular online, and it's this framing that I want to talk about today. We are going to review the arguments, criticisms, and history around the phrase "wage slave" and how they are relevant to our everyday life.
What the term means
If you are anything like me, your first reaction to hearing the term "wage slave" might have been to do a double take as you parce what exactly the hell that means. It's not like most workers are constrained to a plantation — though because of our system of incarceration, that more direct form of slavery is not as uncommon as you might believe. How can a job be compared to slavery: the worst thing that humans have pretty much ever done?
It's important to note that we are not simply talking about labor: a thing that far predates capitalism and will probably exist until the end of humanity, even if that just involves us scribbling poems as our robots feed us grapes. We are talking instead about wage labor. In capitalism, wage labor is an exchange between a worker (i.e., those who don't own the means of production) and a capitalist (i.e., those who do) — the latter paying the former for some good or service.
"Wage slavery" is a pejorative term for this relationship because some believe there is an inherent power imbalance between the capitalist class that sets the terms for contracts and the workers who must take them. Wages are needed for most workers to survive. While the rhetoric of contracts may be used to absolve capitalists of that inherent tension, those using the term "wage slavery" argue that there is not as much freedom and autonomy in this interaction as some claim. If one party suffers starvation and death due to their interaction going poorly, then it's not a contract being made freely but rather one rooted in coercion.
As a result, the logic goes, most workers are constrained by what types of behavior they can do. Proponents would encourage you to test this theory out if you don't believe them. Try to be genuinely honest with your bosses at all times — something you should be able to do with a contract between equals — and see what happens to your quality of life.
Wage Slavery is not a new term. Going back over a century, many white male workers in the states often labored as tradesmen, which allowed them to dictate their own hours and contracts. Early labor organizations were very unsettled by the widespread shift to wage labor. Knights of Labor founder Uriah Stephens lamented in 1881 that the solution to this trend was: "the complete emancipation of wealth producers from the thralldom and loss of wage slavery."
We may be well-removed from the 1800s, but with the rise of the gig economy, many Americans have gone through a similar market shift. Our wages have stagnated, and our contracts are more precarious than ever. Numerous workers in the US labor "at will," which means they can be fired at any time, often with very little recourse.
Does it surprise you then that the term "wage slave" has reentered the public consciousness?
The pros and cons
Now some disagree with this terminology because they find it demeaning to the concept of chattel slavery in the Americas, where millions of human beings were brutally denied their humanity over the course of generations. As the producer Joan Walsh tweeted in response to the question on why the term was and continues to be offensive: "Historically, [it offends] a whole lot of enslaved people and their families. It's an invidious notion."
While the term has a long history in labor movements, it's likewise essential to recognize that many of these labor organizations were actively discriminatory, denying membership to people of color and women. The use of the term wage slave was consequently often not done empathetically but derogatorily. While the Knights of Labor was one of the few organizations at the time to include women and Black workers in its organizing, most unions were conservative, contrasting their lot with slavery to inspire sympathy, not to challenge white supremacist capitalism.
And so, "wage slavery" past usage should not automatically make it acceptable. To this day, plenty of wealthy wage workers make light of "master" and "slave" terminology, and it does feel a bit disrespectful. "I'm a full-time employee, not a full-time slave," laments one tech worker on LinkedIn. "I am not obligated to be checking emails at dinner with my family or sending spreadsheets while on vacation or on my day off." Upon reading that, you are not alone if a shiver went up your spine.
We could also look at how many white feminists have historically appropriated the term slave in a tone-deaf way, evoking sympathy for their plight, not empathy for Black people. As bell hooks writes in ain't i a woman about white feminists comparing themselves to slaves: "When white reformers made synonymous the impact of sexism on their lives, they were not revealing an awareness of or sensitivity to the slave's lot; they were simply appropriating the horror of the slave experience to enhance their own cause."
These above examples do reek of appropriation and insensitivity, and you could argue, from a particular perspective, that is what many people are doing whenever they bring up the specter of slavery. They are not trying to deconstruct systems as much as they want sympathy and pity. A person who makes $200,000 a year may have less bargaining power under capitalism than their employer, but should they throw the word slave around to describe their cushy tech job?
Yet wage slavery, some proponents would counter, is trying to describe a separate thing from chattel slavery— hence the word "wage" being affixed to it in the first place. And rather than race being ancillary to this argument, a few would add that its front and center to this discussion. Many have put forth that the brutality of modern-day capitalism is intimately linked to chattel slavery, not separate from it. As Matthew Desmond writes in the New York Times in a fantastic article titled In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation:
“Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations.”
Desmond goes on to describe how the hierarchy of oversight so prevalent in the workplace can be traced to the plantation system's overseeing of enslaved people. The same can be said of modern accounting, where close watch was paid to the inputs and outputs of slaves: something you maybe want to remember the next time you clock in or have to file an expense report.
From this perspective, wage slavery is a sobering reflection of the racist history (and present) of American capitalism. After all, a lot of the people that do the most grueling, demeaning work in this society — in some cases literally imprisoned while doing it — are people of color. Proponents of the term would say that we are papering over this reality by trying to remove the discussion of racist exploitation still very much rampant in our society.
For if we don't have to acknowledge the existence of this problem, then we can live in the illusion that slavery, in all of its forms, has been abolished.
Regardless of whether you come out in favor of this term or not, its polarizing nature does point to an inherent truth: the nature of work does seem to be innately exploitative. Modern-day contracts are not built on an equitable exchange. You do face starvation and death for not complying with current norms of productivity, something that disproportionately impacts poor working-class people of color, and from the perspective of this writer, that state of affairs is morally wrong.
Language is imperfect, and those fighting for justice might not use the best terminology to get there. It's important for us to have conversations like this so that we can evolve and improve. Maybe the term is outdated, and now is the time to push for a more inclusive one — history will be the ultimate judge of that, not me.
Yet, at the same time, I would be wary of those who use the arguments I have brought up here to shut down conversations about capitalist exploitation. We can call ourselves out for the racism of the past while also taking the elements that do work from those movements. The sentiment behind what wage slavery describes is real, and we need a word to describe it, or we are not going to be able to move past this terrible system.
For if we continue to get stuck in this capitalist hellscape, we will not have to worry about this term being inaccurate at all.
About the author
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.