Slavery, Slavery, and the Political Left

While the word slavery gets used in many ways, its core meaning is that of a personal condition of being property of another person or of a group of persons

However, there are recurring attempts to redefine slavery, insisting that a person who reaped only subsistence from his or her labor were by definition a slave. Now, this proposed definition is really orthogonal to any proper definition.

  • On the one hand, a person only reaps subsistence when living with a minimal technological infrastructure in a world of markèd scarcity. Much of humankind for most of history lived with little or no production above surplus, regardless of whether someone else were making ownership claims against them.
  • In some cases, people have had lives of relative material comfort, and yet would have been tortured or killed by their masters had they sought different employment.

(Compounding the problem with the redefinition, people who are consuming commodities far in excess of their needs for survival like to redefine subsist to include various comforts, such as electronic entertainment.)

Perhaps most of the people who abuse the world slave in this manner do so thoughtlessly; but it ties-together with an aspect of left-wing thought to afford them a significant evasion, deceiving others and deceiving themselves. That aspect is a resistence to acknowledging a relationship between wage-rates and the amount of labor employed in an economy.

One sees this failure in present support for an increase in statutory minimum wages. What these laws really say, to put things quite simply — yet perfectly truthfully — is that if an employer or would-be employer is unwilling or unable to employ a worker at or above the statutory minimum, then the employer must fire the worker, or not hire the worker in the first place. Most advocates presume that the employer will neither fire nor refrain from hiring, as if demand for labor were perfectly inflexible.

A rather pure expression of this dissociation of wage-rates from labor employment is found in the economic model of Piero Sraffa.[1] Sraffa's work is utterly unknown to most lay-people, and unfamiliar to most economists, but to economists on the far left it is an important benchmark, exactly because it claims so much of what they want to claim. However, its persuasive success is largely a matter of subscribers failing to note or to acknowledge a great deal implicit in the model. Perhaps most remarkably, in his model, the very same amount of labor is produced and consumed with absolute disregard for the wage-rate. That is to say that workers deliver the same labor (imagined as a scalar quantity) whether they are offered literally nothing in return (not even subsistence), or all of production is given to them as wages (with the same wage-rate for each worker).

When I look at the Sraffan model, I see workers behaving as if they are slaves. When their wages provide them no more than sustenance, they are as miserable slaves; when their wages provide them less than sustenance, they are as dying slaves; when their wages provide them far more than sustenance, they are as materially comfortable slaves. What makes them seem to be slaves is that they never exercise, and thus appear not to have, any freedom of choice in where they work nor in how hard they work.

(In those states of the United States that allowed private ownership of slaves, slaves were expected to deliver some fixed quota to their owners. They were not typically offered rewards for exceeding these quotas; they were punished, sometimes horrifically, for failing to meet them. I know of no other way, in the real word, to get the sort of labor production that Sraffa describes.)

In Sraffa's model, whatever production does not go to workers, goes to the owners of the other productive resources — essentially to the capitalists.[2] If one embraces Sraffa's model or something very much like it, and if one waves-away the proper meaning of slavery and instead uses it to mean one who is paid no more than sustenance, then it is easy to insist that, in a system that most favors a distinct class of capitalists, workers would be slaves, whereäs alternatives decreasingly favorable to such capitalists move workers ever further away from slavery. And if one imagines the workers getting an ever greater share exactly as production is administrated on behalf of the worker, then the movement away from slavery is a movement towards socialism.

However, if one continues to accept a model along the lines of Sraffa, yet restores the proper meaning of slavery, then one begins to see one why it had been doubly convenient to redefine the term. Because, in imagining a world in which workers never, one way or another, exercise freedom of choice in labor regardless of how production is distributed, the left has come perilously close to suggesting that workers, under socialism, would be slaves.

The underlying truth is that labor is one of the means of production. If an economy is fully socialized, then the potential worker must be employed however and wherever the best interests of the community as a whole are served, and his or her interests count no more in this decision than do those of anyone else.

This grim principle has repeatedly been illustrated in communities that have attempted a very high degree of socialism. Sometimes the attempt has been hijacked by leaders with less that sincere interest in communal well-being, but these leaders were able to make the populace their slaves because socialism required slavery of the populace. Trotsky's observation that

The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.[3]

was true under Stalin because it or something like it would, as a practical matter, have been true under any fully realized socialism.

Meanwhile, as much as many people living in more market-oriented economies like to imagine themselves as slaves to their employers, they're fully aware that these employers cannot send agents to recapture them should they quit their jobs. To the extent that any group of persons other than ourselves exercises such ownership over us, that group is the state — the very institution usually entrusted to effect socialistic measures.

A movement towards socialism is a movement towards slavery, rather than away from it, and if one is going to bring the subject of slavery into an honest defense of socialism against all alternatives, then it is necessary somehow to make a case for slavery.


[1] The Production of Commodities by Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960).

[2] Note how advocates of higher statutory minimum wages point with outrage at those who amass great wealth while paying workers less that some proposed statutory minimum wage, as if there were a zero-sum game being played between employer and employee.

[3] The Revolution Betrayed, ch 11 Whither the Soviet Union? § 2 The Struggle of the Bureaucracy with the Class Enemy.

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6 Responses to Slavery, Slavery, and the Political Left

  • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

    It's "Piero Sraffa", Daniel.
    Don't want to be a nitpicker, but if you use it as a link, maybe it's best to use the exact form.

    • Daniel says:

      I appreciate the correction (and would have appreciated it regardless of whether I expected anyone to use it as a link), and will fix the entry after I save this comment.

  • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

    Very nice article. Food for thoughts, indeed. Took some time to grasp your point, sorry. I know nothing about economy, so forgive my naiveté. I'd like to know what real "freedom of choice" a worker has in an extreme capitalistic society. I include modern China in this definition (and also Stalin's USSR, and modern Russia).

    Another interesting thing is the definition of "Slavery". Historically speaking, I have a feeling that a slave in ancient Rome cannot be compared to a slave in Constantinople or to one in Louisiana before Civil War. Different societies, different concept of "slavery".

    • Daniel says:

      As I explained in an entry a few years ago, the word capitalism is so ill-defined that it has no good use without the speaker or writer explicitly providing his or her own definition. And, as Felix Kaufmann noted, an ostensive definition is not a definition.

      Stalin's USSR offered workers almost no freedom, and that in the present PRC is subject to arbitrary withdrawal; so if these fall in the set that would result from your definition, then you have a partial answer, but not as I think a very interesting one. Our options do not lie merely in a space bounded by these economic orders along with various socialisms.

      I think that the concept of slavery has been fairly constant across cultures, but the everyday conception has indeed been quite different. That is to say that most cultures could recognize the slavery that obtained in other cultures as forms of slavery (which is why one is able to discuss the differences between Roman and American slavery, though the Romans used an entirely different term for slavery!), but what was accepted practice could differ greatly. (Though perhaps not as greatly as people liked to believe. The legal protections supposedly afforded to American slaves were largely ignored. The greater legal protections of Latin America were also largely ignored.)

      • J_D_La_Rue_67 says:

        The difference between "concept" and "conception" is intriguing.
        It's interesting to me that the Romans and the Ottomans had slavery, but in those societies a slave could always hope for redemption. Had he enough money, a roman slave could become a Libertus. Some Liberti were actually very wealthy. And I remember that a slave was "valuable" in Rome. A christian slave in Costantinople could always hope that his family could pay a ransom to free him. But in Nazi Germany (and, to some extent, in the Gulag) slaves were chosen strictly on racial/political basis. They just HAD to die working, no redemption was possible.
        Nowadays, in certain parts of the world, we DO have very hard child labour, just like in England, when Swift or Dickens wrote their books.
        Those kids receive a salary but, slaves or not, I wonder what are their hopes for redemption, and if they are "valuable" for their "masters" as a Roman slave was.
        Interesting discussion, thanks.

        • Daniel says:

          The possibility of redemption seems to me not so much to have been binary as a shading of probabilities.

          A number of things ought to be said about child labor.

          First, some children are indeed slaves; others are indentured servants, who will attain freedom upon reaching some age; and some are children upon whom the responsibilities of adulthood have been thrust. This last condition is terrible, but the redemption is of entirely a different sort from manumission.

          Child labor existed in England during the time of Swift and that of Dickens because it had existed before their time; it was a continuation of poverty. (Likewise for other nations.) What was new during the industrial revolution was hard child labor in factory settings, a practice actually pioneered by early socialists. But the introduction of child labor to factories was thinkable because people in that era were aware that the typical child was made to work hard at home. So long as people had more children than they could afford to support, the choice was either one of having the children themselves make-up the short-fall, or having the children starve. As the industrial revolution created a proletariat — not by robbing peasants of their land but by feeding people who would previously have starved — a larger share of the population had no option of work from home. So children made-up the short-fall in factories, rather than on farms or in small shops.

          Poverty is not ended by decrees; it is ended by production. Laws prohibitting the sort of child labor most often bemoaned did not come into effect until production had lifted the standard of living to a point that the result of such laws would not be massive starvation, and the hiring of children for hard labor had already become an exception. Production in market-orient economies had managed to outrace people's desire for coïtus.

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