A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Monday, August 18, 2008

De Tocqueville's "Wage Slavery in America"

Especially in times of economic hardship, people become concerned with securing income. They will even submit, often eagerly, to effective slavery, as Karl Marx quite rightly called the plight of the propertyless worker. (Marx's solution to capitalist wage slavery, however, was socialist wage slavery, which makes little difference to the wage slave.)

The problem with this obsession with wages as the only legitimate way to earn income is that it locks people into a slave system. It does this chiefly by convincing them that there is no alternative to the wage system, no third way (just or otherwise) to capitalism, socialism, or a surreal mixture of the two. This causes people to dismiss CESJ's Just Third Way, particularly its "Capital Homesteading" proposal because it doesn't fit into their preconceived ideas concerning income generation in a modern industrial economy.

As a case in point, Yahoo! just got around to posting an article from U.S. News and World Report published July 25, 2008. The article by Liz Wolgemuth, "9 Reasons Your Salary Isn't Higher," while obviously well-researched and thoughtful, leaves out one very important reason some people don't make as much as others: they are relying solely on the perceived value of their labor to an employer. They own no significant amount of income-generating assets.

The article centered on various factors that affect the price of labor, such as sex, social abilities, even height, but did not consider total income. The underlying problem most affecting income — the relative abundance of labor — was not addressed. As long as purchasers of labor (employers) have an effective monopoly on access to the means of income generation, they will, ultimately, determine who gets paid and how much. Artificial manipulation of wages drives up the price of goods and services, and (contrary to the intent of those doing the manipulation) creates incentives to replace expensive labor with cheaper alternatives.

More than a century and a half ago Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America pointed out the way to break the current monopoly on access to income. The quote is long (and I was honestly trying to make this a short entry . . .), but well worth reading:

"I shall take for example that branch of productive industry which is still at the present day the most generally followed in France, and in almost all the countries of the world - I mean the cultivation of the soil. In France most of those who labor for hire in agriculture, are themselves owners of certain plots of ground, which just enable them to subsist without working for anyone else. When these laborers come to offer their services to a neighboring landowner or farmer, if he refuses them a certain rate of wages, they retire to their own small property and await another opportunity.

"I think that, upon the whole, it may be asserted that a slow and gradual rise of wages is one of the general laws of democratic communities. In proportion as social conditions become more equal, wages rise; and as wages are higher, social conditions become more equal. But a great and gloomy exception occurs in our own time. I have shown in a preceding chapter that aristocracy, expelled from political society, has taken refuge in certain departments of productive industry, and has established its sway there under another form; this powerfully affects the rate of wages. As a large capital is required to embark in the great manufacturing speculations to which I allude, the number of persons who enter upon them is exceedingly limited: as their number is small, they can easily concert together, and fix the rate of wages as they please. Their workmen on the contrary are exceedingly numerous, and the number of them is always increasing; for, from time to time, an extraordinary run of business takes place, during which wages are inordinately high, and they attract the surrounding population to the factories. But, when once men have embraced that line of life, we have already seen that they cannot quit it again, because they soon contract habits of body and mind which unfit them for any other sort of toil. These men have generally but little education and industry, with but few resources; they stand therefore almost at the mercy of the master. When competition, or other fortuitous circumstances, lessen his profits, he can reduce the wages of his workmen almost at pleasure, and make from them what he loses by the chances of business. Should the workmen strike, the master, who is a rich man, can very well wait without being ruined until necessity brings them back to him; but they must work day by day or they die, for their only property is in their hands. They have long been impoverished by oppression, and the poorer they become the more easily may they be oppressed: they can never escape from this fatal circle of cause and consequence. It is not then surprising that wages, after having sometimes suddenly risen, are permanently lowered in this branch of industry; whereas in other callings the price of labor, which generally increases but little, is nevertheless constantly augmented."

The problem becomes how to bring about this happy (or, at least, less gloomy) state of affairs. CESJ's "Capital Homesteading" proposal, which would open up democratic access to the means of acquiring and possessing private property to everyone, has the potential to accomplish this goal. It should be studied by every American, and every candidate for public office in the upcoming election.

Donations to CESJ are tax deductible in the United States under IRC § 501(c)(3):




No comments: