Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The "New" Slavery, Part II: The Wage System as Slavery

Sometime in the early 1820s, William Cobbett, the "Apostle of Distributism," ran for parliament. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he ran from parliament. The account of his campaign (published as a series of pamphlets during the campaign and collected later and republished under the title, The Poor Man's Friend) makes for interesting reading, especially as it has the air of complete accuracy. He names names, specifies times and dates, and— even aside from the picture he paints of voting without the secret ballot — shows how the propertied interests (those later lauded by William Bagehot as the real rulers of the British Empire and then deified by John Maynard Keynes) maintained their positions by threats, intimidation, physical violence, manipulation of the "rotten" or pocket borough system, and so on.

Most commentators stop there, asserting that greater State control and oversight of elections would have corrected the problems, as they allegedly have in our day when government control has managed to insert its way into virtually every part of public, even personal life. Consequently (or so the theory goes) people today are more free, happier, hunger and poverty have been abolished, peace has broken out everywhere, etc., so on, so forth, and all because we have surrendered everything to the State, just as Thomas Hobbes advocated in Leviathan. Private property has been effectively abolished for the great mass of people in socialism, capitalism, and the welfare State, and the wage system with its ever-increasing level of pay and benefits has established universal prosperity, just as Keynes predicted. Economic ills, outbreaks of fighting, unemployment, etc.,— all of these are just temporary glitches on the Road to Utopia until the government can take total control of everyone's lives.

Fortunately for us, Cobbett thought differently. He observed that, the more private property disappeared as an institution in which most people could participate, the more the State took over and intruded into people's lives. As the State was increasingly controlled by those with property, this meant that ordinary people, ostensibly dependents (slaves) of the State were, in reality, the slaves of the rich.

Ironically, the socialists— understanding that the proletariat (the word is Latin for "propertyless worker")— is effectively enslaved to those who own or control the means of production (that which Pope Pius XI called a "despotic economic dictatorship") tried to make the State the protector of the poor. One modern enthusiast has gone so far as to claim (evidently with perfect sincerity) that, "the State is the sole intercessor available to the poor." The fact that when most people own little or nothing in the way of capital and are forced to subsist on wages alone for their incomes puts power over the State directly in the hands of those who own or control the means of production seems to have escaped their notice. By demanding increasing levels of State control over every aspect of life, so-called reformers merely pour gasoline on the fire.

We see this today in the demands for increased regulation of the financial services industry and control by the State. Rather than install obvious "internal controls" in the form of separation of function, prohibiting horizontal and vertical integration (monopolization), ensuring that no institution becomes "too big to fail," and (most effectively) opening up democratic access to the means of acquiring and possessing private property in the means of production, there is an increasing reliance on ineffectual and pointless regulations that only burden honest people, and are easily circumvented by dishonest people.

It escapes those calling for more State control that the very interest groups, industries, and individuals being "regulated" by the State control the State. Essentially, as in subjective tests in which students are asked to give themselves a grade, people are being asked to pass judgment on their own actions— and yet many people seem baffled as to why the current "recovery" is benefiting only the rich and the gamblers on Wall Street!

This irony did not escape William Cobbett's notice. He was fully aware that when you depend on someone else for your income you effectively belong to that someone, that is, you are a slave. As he pointed out in The Poor Man's Friend and reiterated in A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland,

Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means,— and it means nothing else,— the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave. (A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, 1827, §456.)

As Evelyn Waugh's characters in Love Among the Ruins had the habit of exclaiming, "State save us!"


1 comment:

nail-in-the-wall said...

Two additional resources;

De Tocqueville's "Wage Slavery in America"

“Money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal—that there is no human relationship between master and slave.” -- Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy