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Editorial: The Power to Say No

There has been more ministerial sneering recently from Iain Duncan Smith after his department’s Workfare regime of unpaid work placements for benefit claimants, ‘slave labour’ to some, was declared illegal by a High Court ruling.  The ruling was made on narrowly technical grounds and not, as some had hoped, under the anti-slavery laws.  This came as a disappointment to campaigners, but as a judgement by the capitalist state on a capitalist system of government, it should surprise no one.  But what of slavery within capitalism itself?

Capitalism’s system of exploitation is dependent on the existence of a large pool of free labour which can be taken up or discarded by employers at will as individual businesses and the economy expand and contract.   This meant that before capitalism could flourish in Britain, the old medieval system that tied serfs to a particular place and a particular overlord, had to be broken up.  In the southern states of America, chattel slavery was another system that tied labourers to a master.  It was inevitable then that the dynamic new capitalist economy in the north and the older slave economy in the south would sooner or later come into conflict.  That conflict was eventually resolved on the bloody battlefields of the American civil war, and led to the triumph of Northern capitalism. The resulting freedom that workers acquired in both countries to sell their labour to whoever would buy it would seem, on the face of it, to be the very antithesis of slavery. 

But slavery, in its broadest economic sense, takes many forms.  Best known, perhaps, are the chattel slavery of Greece and Rome and the serfdom of medieval Europe.   But child soldiers, those forced into marriages, bartered wives, coerced prostitutes and indentured servants are all slaves.  Slavery flourished in the twentieth century in the Soviet Gulags and in German and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. In southern Asia, today, many are forced by economic circumstances to sell themselves to creditors.  Debt bondage is prevalent in this region, particularly in rural India where a family can find itself enslaved for generations in payment of an unpayable debt.   The forced labour regimes and the sale of  ‘orphaned’ children to employers by British workhouses in the nineteenth century were both direct form of slavery. 

In theory, slavery was abolished worldwide by article four of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.  Yet one form of slavery remains today which is not only legal, but universal in the capitalist world: wage slavery.   Those free wage workers on which capitalism depends are free only to the extent that they have a choice, a limited choice, over which employer buys their labour.  And like the ancient Athenian or modern Indian slave who has sold himself into bondage under contract because it was the only way he could survive within a private property economy, the wage worker is forced to sell his labour by contract to an employer.  And while the wage worker’s employer only owns his labour and not his body and mind, that body and mind must nevertheless go wherever his labour goes, which is where his employer directs it.