Focusing on slavery as a set of theoretical property rights constructions is therefore somewhat bizarre. It considers the types of legal rights the owner holds or exercises, rather than the person in question’s actual experiences. Thus the same two experiences could be slavery or not, depending on how they arose. If we see a row of men doing back-breaking work picking cotton, whipped and beaten, working 12 hour days, they might be enslaved. But what if we learn that they’re employees, that they’ve signed up for this since it’s the only job in the area? Well, according to all the theories we’re not dealing with slavery anymore, but it sure looks pretty similar.
That’s one of the reasons the phrase “wage slavery” arose to describe industrial toil. By the people-as-property definition of slavery, it’s an oxymoron; if everybody in the factory is being paid, nobody is being enslaved. But workers’ rights campaigners used the term “wage slavery” to illustrate a crucial point: being given wages so pitiful you couldn’t afford to move elsewhere meant that a wage system and a slave system could end up feeling exactly the same for the worker. Some even argued that wage-systems were worse; a capitalist who rented his labor could brutalize and destroy workers’ bodies and simply replace them one they wore out, while a slaveowner had some incentive to protect his investment. Most people treat rental cars with less care than cars they own, thus leased wage-workers could be even more poorly treated than slaves in many cases. (Rather than justifying slavery, that fact indicts wage work.)
Because the boundaries of slavery are difficult to pinpoint, and people tend to associate it so strongly with the slave regime of the American South and the Transatlantic slave trade (far more than they think of Greek slaves, slaves in the Middle Ages, or, well, Slavs), many situations resembling slavery in “all but name” are ignored or treated as normal.
Yet if we honestly examine what sort of experiences constitute slavery or its equivalent, we find that the experience of brutal and effectively involuntary work, is everywhere. Slavery is invisibly present in the architecture of our lives. In fact, we are surrounded by innumerable symbols of slavery, cunningly-disguised, made anodyne by ubiquity and routine.
The experience of slavery is present in countless products we unthinkingly purchase, consume, and discard every day. These items were created or harvested, in whole or in part, by fellow human beings who have been conveniently hidden from our sight. Such workers are not paid a living wage. Their lives are devoid of the most basic necessities. They live under conditions of abject misery and fear. And so once we get ourselves out of the conceptual muddle, and look below the surface, we are faced with the disquieting reality that we are all actively participating in a slave economy: today, right now, this minute.
sooo good omg