1990s >> 1994 >> no-1075-march-1994

Wage Slavery

Some people don’t like the term “wage slavery”. It’s not nice to be called a slave. They think you’re insulting them and they might want to smack you in the eye. Other people recognise how accurate a phrase it is. They get all bitter and maudlin about their “wasted life”. They normally want to smack their boss in the eye. (The boss, unconcerned, smacks his lips and carries on counting).

But “wage-slavery” is what we are in, whether we admit it or not –even those accountants in their fancy cars are only a few months from the breadline if their boss decides to dispense with their services, as well they realize. For the kind of money they’re on, they’ve got to pull out all the stops. The family? Leave it to the wife. Interests? Two hours on Sunday and be thankful for that. Peace? Relaxation? Self-determination? Forget it.

Wage-slavery is a condition of capital and of capitalism. Capitalism itself is, you might say, the latest refinement of a popular illusion that there is something called “ownership” and something else called “property”, rather in the same way that there is something called “gravity” and something else called “weight”. As long as we accept the illusion that this is a physical law, then we are also obliged to accept the working conditions, to say nothing of all the other catastrophes we keep meaning to join Greenpeace, etc, etc supposedly to prevent.

Well-adjusted people take it philosophically. After all, if you were sent to prison for forty years without parole your best strategy would be to learn to like it. Look on the bright side. Things could be worse. At least I get fed. At least I’ve a roof over my head.

If you don’t like being a wage-slave but you aren’t rich enough to have other options it’s a bit tough. Bad for stress. That attitude won’t get you anywhere. Don’t let the boss catch you talking like that.

It seems to me that there is such a thing as collaborating against yourself, like a Quisling in your own personal Class War. It’s as if by some awesome mental self-deceit you can trick and trip into reverse the normal emotional process, with the result that employed work becomes life itself and you the employees come to define and subjugate you the person. You con yourself into thinking you are doing something useful and worthwhile with your life, whereas in reality you are keeping some capitalist’s books for him and nothing more. Thus, you live to work rather than work to live. It’s not really a matter of cheap fuck-you-Jack materialism either, even if some people do dribble and slobber over fast cars occasionally. “You’ve got to work”, they would argue, “you might as well enjoy it”. So every morning, bright and early, you get up and shoot the resistance fighter in yourself and lace up the jackboots.

Nope, can’t do it. I can’t learn to love wage-slavery. I do think it’s a prison, and I think of the Socialist Party as a somewhat understaffed Escape Committee. But I’ve emulated the capitalists and adopted sound business principles in selling my skills –we agree on eight hours, they pay for seven hours, I give them six and hope they don’t notice. As for the solitary confinement of the dole, that’s hardly an improvement.

I know there are a hell of a lot of workers out there who feel exactly like I do, but they either won’t admit it or aren’t saying anything for fear of being labelled a bad worker. Their attitude can be summed up as “OK, so it’s all bullshit, but you’ve got to play the game.”

The thing which really pisses me off is that if I object to the terms of this “game” I’m told by the likes of Michael “Mr Shithouse” Portaloo or Blue Peter Lilley that it’s because I’m just a lazy feckless git who won’t get out of bed to do a decent day’s hard graft. This is true, in a way. Most of the “hard graft” which is on offer I wouldn’t cross the road for, except maybe to avoid. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like money at all. I simply dislike employment on someone else’s terms.

Let me have the sort of work I can see a useful point in, in which I have a say, which I can enter into freely and without obligation, which is creative, which I can take a pride in, which I can do when I want and stop if I want, which I change when I like to something else I want to try. With half the world starving and the planet poisoned it’s not as if there isn’t anything useful that needs doing. It’s my body and my labour, after all. Why the hell shouldn’t it be me that decides when and where to apply it? Money doesn’t even come into it. That sort of work I would do for nothing if I could, and what’s more if you’re honest about it, so would you. Without “property” fetish, that is how socialism would be able to do things. But that’s not how it is, and in this stick-and-carrot society, we’ve got there is no real opportunity, for most of us, to find this kind of work. Employment is for the most part a dreary, oppressive, soul-destroying way of paying the rent and the food bills, but it’s the only game in town until we decide to change the rules.

So we carry on playing the game. Some of us even manage to like it. But we might as well recognize that we, the working class, are not holding any of the boss cards. We’re not supposed to, because this is a game devised by the owning class which we cannot ever win. Therefore, we must kick the table over once and for all.

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