Wage Slavery

When I attended university in Wolverhampton a decade ago, I would daily see an accusatory piece of graffiti near The Mander Centre shopping mall. It said, “PⒶY CHEQUE SLⒶVES”.

I admired it greatly, but always had a nagging doubt as to its political correctness and, for that matter, its accuracy. It’s a common enough thing in anti-work discourse, but is it not insensitive to liken professional drudgery (and commercial gullibility) to actual slavery?

I recently received The Wage-Slave’s Glossary as a thoughtful gift (thanks, Kristin and Chris!). Alongside other witty and rousing definitions, it gets to the nub of the wage slave matter:

Though similarities between chattel slavery and wage labor had already been noted by everyone from Cicero to Thomas Jefferson, 19th-c textile workers in Lowell, Mass., were the first to use the phrase wage slavery. The Lowell Mill Girls, as they were known, condemned the “degradation and subordination” of the emerging industrial system. […] Their coinage called attention to the similarities between buying and renting a person; they denounced a social order in which you’re encouraged to believe you’re free to direct your own life, when, in fact, you are dependent on income derived from wage labor.

The similarities between buying and renting! Paid workers are free-range or self-employed slaves: rented rather than bought.

It’s important to remember though, that “wage slavery” is not a new incarnation of an old thing. Actual slavery still exists.

There are obvious parallels between white-collar mediocrity and actual enforced labour. As long as we have to work for someone else in order to pay for the modest spaces we occupy (on once-common land, forcefully confiscated by people who aren’t even alive any more), we are not free.

The Wage-Slave’s Glossary also points out that a lot of our current work terminology (and organisational techniques) actually has origins in the plantation.

Plantation work and office work are not the same thing. But it is worth remembering the connection.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

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