If the question at the head of this article be put to people to-day most of them will reply emphatically that they are not slaves; that apart from a few places abroad, slavery was abolished long years ago.
Book after book has been written denouncing or explaining the slavery of antiquity and of the Southern States of America during the last century, all with the implication that slavery has now practically disappeared.
Books are still being written and societies organised to abolish the chattel slavery that still exists in outlying parts on the ground that it is a shameful thing and a moral blot upon civilisation.
On the last point one or two preliminary remarks may perhaps be useful to illustrate a general and curious example of defective mental eyesight. The evils that exist thousands of miles away stir up the passionate indignation of people who daily pass the human wrecks of ‘the modem industrial system without giving them a thought. People who contribute pounds to societies for the alleviation of the hardships of native peoples often would not dream of contributing a penny towards the alleviation of the poverty of the toilworn workers by means of whom they obtain their own incomes. It is easier to see the mote in a neighbour’s eye than the beam in one’s own.
The chattel slave was unquestionably a slave: upon that everyone is agreed. These slaves were owned just in the same way that horses and cattle are owned. They were well looked after or worked to death according to which of the two methods was most profitable to their owners. The important thing that distinguished the slaves from the owners was the fact that the slaves depended for their living upon the will of another person or class, for slaves were owned sometimes by individuals, sometimes by groups and sometimes by the privileged class as a whole. For instance, the policemen in ancient Athens, owned by the State, were Scythian slaves.
One can therefore define a slave as one who depends for his living wholly or mainly on the will of another person or class.
The chattel slaves of times gone by were employed in a variety of occupations covering the whole field of the production and distribution of the means of life of the times both as overseers and as workmen. Some even occupied at times governmental posts on behalf of the privileged. It is well known that there were Emperors of Rome who were in origin slaves, and, as such, climbed to places of influence under the patronage of their masters or mistresses. In the Southern States of America during the Civil War, the slaves carried on all the work of the plantations while the planters were away fighting.
A well-known American economist, Professor Seligman
, defines slavery as “an institution designed to secure the services of others by force.” While he says that this applies entirely to the chattel slave, and in a less degree to the bond worker, he looks upon all who form the citizens of modern states as outside the application of his definition.
Finally it may be pointed out that the people of chattel slaves States were split into two main groups. At the top was a relatively small, privileged class having control of Society and of the means of production. At the bottom was the mass of the people (the bulk of whom were chattel slaves) engaged in industry—whatever had to do directly with the work of getting a livelihood.
Let us now examine modern society in the light of the foregoing remarks.
Here we again find a privileged group at the top owning the means of production and possessed of the control of government. Underneath is the mass of the population, the working class, dependent on the owning class for their means of living.
In order to live the worker must find a buyer for his manual and mental energy. It does not matter what the nature of his working capacity may be, he must find employment for it in order to live. With few exceptions this is the lot of the worker from early years until old age.
To whom does the worker apply for a job? To the masters individually or collectively. It is true that it is not to the masters in person that the worker applies for a job as a rule, because nowadays the masters are usually hidden behind a company, a trust or a state concern. It is to a paid representative of these concerns that the worker must apply.
All the while the worker is at work he is haunted by the fear that he may lose his job and perhaps not get another one, or be thrown among the wreckage of the industrial system. Consequently he humbles himself in ways that sometimes make him squirm. He is respectful and subservient to those above him and to the wealthy class in general. He fears and jumps to the call of “the guv’nor.” Like the chattel slave he depends for his living on the will and the whim of another. Consequently he is a slave. It is true the worker is personally free, which the chattel slave is not, but this is cold comfort when the hooter goes, calling him to his daily toil.
The capitalists as a class own the means of production, and are therefore in a position to determine when, where and how the worker shall live. There is no escape from the shackles under present conditions apart from death. The worker depends on the wage he receives in order to get the necessaries of life, and he is rightly described as a wage slave to distinguish him from other kinds of slaves.
Hypocrisy is a leading characteristic of modern times, and one often reads remarks of satisfaction over the fact that slavery is long since dead and that freedom is the right of all people to-day. Unfortunately the victims of the system are themselves only too ready to accept this view, even though they occupy abominable slums, hurry in harassed and turgid streams over the bridges in the morning, haunted by the fear of being late on the job.
Within the ranks of the working class itself there are many who suffer from the illusion that they are in a class apart from and above the common worker; in fact that their interests are identical with those of the masters as against the rest of the workers. Amongst these are scientists, managers and salaried workers of various kinds.
These types of workers would be under no delusion if they would apply to their condition the test of a slave. On what do they depend for their living? Are they dependent wholly or mainly on selling their energies for wages or salaries in order to live? If this fits their economic condition then they are members of the working class, slaves, always in fear of losing their jobs and suffering accordingly.
The point always to be borne in mind is the frailty of the hold upon that on which the living depends, and the ease and swiftness of operation of the power of the job-controllers. Many in exalted positions have had this very cruelly impressed upon them, and although they scorn the suggestion that they are enslaved, yet they take good care to placate and dance to the tune of those responsible for the salaries.
There is no escape, therefore, from the conclusion that the fundamental interest of all who depend upon wages or salaries is identical, and is opposed to the interest of those who own the means of production and pay their slaves wages or salaries. It is a slave interest opposed to an ownership interest.
The slaves of old tried to release themselves from their bonds by bloody revolts, which, however, were always suppressed, because the masters controlled the political machinery, the instrument of power. The slaves of to-day have had passed over to them the means to obtain control of the political machinery. Thus they are able to mould society to suit their needs when they know what those needs are and how they can be satisfied.