Short Story: Overheard

Frank —(To Jack, who appears to be thinking furiously.) What is the matter now?
Jack —You fellows say we are wage slaves, and are cheaper to the masters than chattel slaves, but that’s rot.
Frank—Steady, old chap; why is it rot ?
Jack — Because the chattel slave had to work absolutely for nothing, while the masters must pay us wages.
Frank (laughing)—Well, even according to official figures the average wage of the modern worker hardy represents his cost of maintenance, and as the slave was always fed and lodged, he could hardly have got less, could he?
Jack — Well-er-of course. Anyway the wage worker is not a slave.
Frank — Oh? The essence of slavery is compulsion; the means employed are unimportant. Now is it not slavery to be compelled to toil for another?
Frank — Well, is not the modern worker absolutely compelled by fear of starvation to sell himself to a master? Can the workers get a living at all to-day without the permission of the owners of the mines, factories, railways, land, etc.? And are they not, therefore, the slaves of this owning class ?
Jack — H’m! But still the wage slave, as you call him, is very much better off than the chattel slave. Just compare them.
Frank—Well, in the first place the chattel slave had a considerable exchange-value, and was sought after; whereas thousands of modern workers are compelled to tramp the streets in search of a master, and are starving for a crust.
Jack looks glum.
Frank—In the second place a master will take more care of a thing that will cost him a big sum to replace, than of a thing that can be replaced for the asking.
Jack nods assent.
Frank—So that if a chattel slave falls ill the master will get him well quickly, for he cannot work or be sold when ill; but if a wage slave is ill he is turned out and left to starve, for another can be had for nothing.
Jack — That’s right enough. If you feel unwell and get to work late two or three times, on the street you soon go.
Frank— Further it would hardly pay the chattel slave owner to overwork his slaves, for he would use them up too soon and have to pay heavily for new ones. But a modern employer finds it to his interest to use up his wage slaves as quickly as possible, for there are always plenty more to be had for the asking.
Jack—Yes, just as the modem contractor takes very great care that his horses are not overworked, but continually overworks his men.
Frank — That is so. The up-to-date capitalist uses his men only for the best years of their lives, and throws them on the scrap heap when he has taken the steel out of them.
Jack — Right again. They are turning out all the old men now. Only young men need apply. And at the pace they drive one can’t last long at the game. But with regard to the chattel slave; he used to get flogged; we don’t.
Frank — No, Jack, it is not necessary to flog us in order to make us work hard. The threat of the “sack,” the fear of starvation, is quite sufficient. Between being flogged to death and slowly starved to death, the choice would be embarrassing, would it not? A large proportion of the working population of to-day suffer slow starvation even while in work.
Jack — I begin to see that we are the wage slaves of the owners of the means of life.
Frank — Yes. Private ownership of the means of life gives private power to absorb all the surplus produced. Slavery can only end by the democratic control of wealth by and for the wealth producers: that is Socialism.
Jack — Good’ Speed the abolition of wage slavery!
Frank — You see, then, that wage slavery, which hides its ugly features under the mask of Freedom, is much more profitable to the master-class than chattel slavery. And let me whisper this: Had it been otherwise, chattel slavery would not been abolished.
F. C. Watts