Wage Slaves

Wage Slaves February 22, 2012

The most controversial portion of the Graeber article mentioned in a previous post is his claim that there are structural similarities between slavery and modern capitalism. He enumerates several: “Both rely on a separation of the place of social (re)production of the labor force, and the place where that labor-power is realized in production– in the case of slavery, this is effected by transporting laborers bought or stolen from one society into another one; in capitalism, by separating the domestic sphere (the sphere of social production) from the workplace.”

Both, he claims, involve a form of “social death”: In slave systems, “community ties, kinship relations and so forth that shaped the worker are, in principle, supposed to have no relevance in the workplace. This is true in capitalism too, at least in principle: a worker’s ethnic identity, social networks, kin ties and the rest should not have any effect on hiring or how one is treated in the office or shop floor, though of course in reality this isn’t true.”

The most “critical” similarity is that in both systems “the financial transaction . . . produces abstract labor,” which is “the sheer power of creation, to do anything at all.” Once bought, a slave can be required to do anything his master demands. Feudal systems, he argues, operate by the opposite principle: “the duties owed by liege to lord were very specific and intricately mapped out.”

The first couple of similarities that Graeber describes are fairly arresting. The separation of home and workplace is among the major developments of modern economies. Whether the economy is as free in practice from kin, community ties, and issues of personal formation is another question. In textbooks it may be true; but in actual capitalist business family connections still make a huge difference, and so does character, the effect of “personal production.”

The last “critical” similarity may have been true before the labor movements won concessions from owners, but I wonder if it’s accurate to say that workers give “abstract labor” in exchange for their wages. And, favorable as I am to feudal orders, liege and lord is not really comparable to worker and manager. The closer analogy would be serf and lord, and the serf may have been in a state much closer to that of the wage laborer.

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