The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Wage Slavery on Labor Day

One of the simplest ways to evaluate a society is by the common denominators of the lives most people have to live. For a lot of history that was farming. Sure, there were people who weren’t farmers, but 80% to 95% of the population farmed.

Most people in the modern world are wage laborers. They work for someone else, and without the money they earn from their employment they would be homeless, go hungry and after a few years of misery, likely die.

We have a weird idea of freedom “I am free to sell my labor,” that many people who lived would consider essentially slavery, which is, in fact, why the term wage slavery was coined. Most of us are not free to not take orders, only (maybe) to choose our boss.

Most of the time we don’t even really get to choose who gives us orders: there aren’t a lot of options and we need a job now. If the labor market is bad, and it’s been bad in most places for most of my life (there have been a few exceptions), bosses get to choose workers, not workers bosses. You take what you can get, put up with what you must, because the alternative is worse.

Some of us get good labor jobs, some of us bad labor jobs, but most of us ultimately take orders, often daily, hourly or even as often as every few minutes (if you’ve never had a job like that be grateful).

We are wage slaves. It’s not as bad as traditional slavery, but you’re still spending your entire working life doing what other people tell you (after spending your childhood obeying teachers.)

We’re a society of order-takers, who MUST take orders or die (with few exceptions and the exceptions cannot scale to the majority, there aren’t enough slots). Yet, somehow, we think we’re free.

That’s the sign of a very good indoctrination and propaganda system.

Anyway, enjoy Labor Day, but remember, wage-slaves treated better are still wage-slaves. The idea is to change who gives the orders from them to ourselves.

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 6, 2020


Some graphs and comments for LABOR DAY


  1. Hugh

    To paraphrase, we have a weird idea of freedom: “You are free to go die in a ditch.”

  2. Willy

    Most American boomers remember times when a ‘normal’ unskilled, uneducated city kid could walk down a street and find reasonable work. It was harder if they wanted an educated and/or skilled job since experience was also important.

    That all seems to have been turned on its head. I have old staff photos from engineering companies. In the pictures there’s a wide range of ages, with people in positions of authority usually having grey hair. I’m looking at a current one right now from firm where the average employee age seems to be just a few years past college graduate. And this isn’t a software company.

    None of my college educated nieces or nephews had to ‘start in the mail room’. They all just jumped right into responsible jobs and are buying homes. The non-educated ones are mostly still living at home with parents. That’s quite a divide.

  3. someofparts

    “None of my college educated nieces or nephews had to ‘start in the mail room’. They all just jumped right into responsible jobs and are buying homes. The non-educated ones are mostly still living at home with parents.”

    Sounds like the military to me. Unless you come in as an officer you have no future.

  4. Willy

    But yeah, the corporate world is a dictatorship. Of the “Do as I say not as I do” kind. I worked for a name brand multinational where our Dear Leader provided a 10 item dictate which most supplicants posted in a conspicuous place in their cubicles. The division I was working in ran nothing like those 10 dictates. And as a young naive I foolishly bitched about it. That Dear Leader acquired a rep for scapegoating innocents before he was fired for chasing one too many of his office nubiles. His replacement was also fired for doing the exact same thing.

    So I was a fool who’d complained that nobody was sticking to those 10 dictates and what a zoo the place was. When I wound up working as a gigger in the new economy, that company never hired me back. They did hire a lot of questionable characters though, well known as butt hut dwellers and for wearing ruts in the office carpet. That place is currently hurting, badly, and should be needing/taking assistance since I think they’re officially too big to fail.

  5. RobotPliers

    I’m reading Studs Terkels’ Coming of Age and, while the interviewees are largely drawn from the exceptional and talented, the scope of freedom that they exercised while working and simply living in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was immense compared to what seems possible today. The opportunities and leeway they were given are virtually non-existent today. Even people living under Jim Crow, while officially segregated and discriminated against, describe experiences that are qualitatively freer, at least in some ways, than today. Interviewees, mostly in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, and interviewed in the early 1990s, almost universally describe seeing changes for the worse, with more formalization of rules/roles, predatory behavior, higher barriers, less flexibility, less personal touch, etc.

    I get a sense, reading their stories, of what has been lost. They weren’t really free either, and faced terrible prejudice and organized, sometimes violent opposition. But their choices and strategies for dealing with the obstacles in their lives exhibit a range of possibilities that at least seems foreclosed upon today.

  6. someofparts

    Over my working lifetime, management attitudes toward capability and diligence have changed.

    Back when those qualities were valued, managers were like good coaches. They seemed to regard staff as valuable players who, with encouragement and an occasional assist, could move the game forward for the whole team.

    Now managers tend to be hustlers. They are adapted to corrupted worksites where the show you put on is all that matters. They will tolerate people who get work done as long as those people don’t mess up the show they are staging.

  7. StewartM


    Most American boomers remember times when a ‘normal’ unskilled, uneducated city kid could walk down a street and find reasonable work.

    One of the many reasons I dislike the “boomer” grouping is it’s way to diverse and doesn’t account for shared generational experience. To whit, borrowed from Tony Wikret:

    Notice how the gap between those born in 1950 (Boomers) vs those born in 1960 (Also called ‘boomers’). Notice how there isn’t much difference between those born in 1960 and the X’ers born in 1970. I’m in the 1960 group, and I know that the era of ‘walking in and getting that ‘good job’ was over by the time I got out of college.

    Note too, how much of our leadership (McConnell, Trump, Pelosi, Biden, etc) falls in the 1940 generation. For them it was really rosy, even the Boomers born in 1950 didn’t have it as well. I am sure the 1940 graph would apply to the Greatest Generation too. So our leadership, both generationally and individually, think things are just fine.

  8. StewartM


    But yeah, the corporate world is a dictatorship

    Knowing a thing or two or three about Soviet history, it always amused me how corporate culture was ‘Soviet’ in makeup. Just like you would open a book on history, physics, or biology and the first sentence would be a quote from the great leader when the book was written [Fill in the Blank here], I once heard a manager open a meeting with a quote from the CEO! There were ‘organizational tails’, as they were called by Soviet-watchers; for the aspiring career-conscious (look at those who seem to be climbing, and those who were seen as falling, and hitch your wagon to their ‘tails’. Conversely, unhitch it from the ‘tails’ of those who seem to be falling, else their fall may take you down with them). Then lastly, there was the leaders who made the lamest of jokes in meeting whose jokes were met with very forced laughter (which hearkens to other tales of the Stalinist days).

    Every now and again, the organization would try to open up—have a gladnost moment. The career-conscious here would try to pretend to be open when they really weren’t. That ‘s because you never knew when the Breshnev reaction would occur.

    Of course, the analogy for our political life is that anyone who promises to “run government like a business” is promising to do no less or better than our current Fuhrer-wannabe. I’ve work for private business all my life, in small companies and large, and while the evils can be mitigated by a benevolent dictator the fundamental danger of the system always remains. Moreover, as anyone can tell you–the inefficiencies and waste of private business dwarf those of government, at least when the government isn’t bought-out and acting directly under Wall Street’s direction. People have the misconception that private capitalist enterprise is more efficient for the same reason they though Nazi Germany was efficient (it was actually among the most inefficient states in WWII)—just because of the external image projected. If reporters were allowed to go inside the walls of Citibank, or 3M, or GE, or Microsoft, and report everything they found like the access they have to HUD people would be shocked.

  9. Wagematon

    A nice job may be waiting for students with certain degrees from notable universities. The state program I finished years ago deceived me about graduate placement and other expectant perks. Since then I\’ve been a wage collector at a company where the tasks are roughly similar between employees. Dispositions and dollars paid however follow the eternal divide of corporate rank. The managers rewarded with full insurance and stock options are happy puppets, contorting only when underlings need anything that saps profit. At best, expect a consolatory coffee if you ask for a living wage or just a new mop.

  10. I am always fascinated by people who think that farming is not hard work. “Farming is freedom, while working a 40-hour week for wages is slavery.” What farmer works less than 100 hours or so per week? What happens to him when locusts eat his crop?

  11. Genuine Hippie

    In the 70s, when I graduated High School, I quit job after job and kept getting new ones as easy as you please. I had about twenty of them before I broke down and went to college. A favorite song of mine from back then had the lyric, “I’m gonna work a week, make a hundred dollars, and hit the road again.” Also there was a hit country song called “Take This Job and Shove It.” Indeed, the illusion of freedom was easier to sustain than it is now.

    We are not free: An identifiable class (most of us) has to guarantee our labor 40 hours a week on a schedule for forty years or so in order to not grow old in poverty, and we still might. We ought to explicitly call our class “wage-slaves” and form one big Union or a political party to represent us. Instead of fighting for Socialism, we could fight for Humane Treatment of Slaves! (I’m only half joking.)

    I’m no historian, but I believe Roman slaves were better treated in some ways than modern wage-slaves. My understanding is they got healthcare, food, clothing and shelter even after they were too old to work.

  12. StewartM

    I’ve work for private business all my life

    I will though add this–overall, in small businesses, small enough at the owner/boss was there working with us, doing mostly the same job, such businesses are (again, speaking very generally) better-run and more humanely run. Ian’s principle of having the ‘elites’ share the same experience as the ‘proles’ leading to a better and fairer situation holds true here. For one thing, personnel decisions are often better; the boss can see with his/her own eyes who does a good job and who does not.

    Still, even here, there are exceptions and caveats. I never worked for this person, but there was a restaurant in my region run by a man who has been described as a petty tyrant–not only to his employees, but at times to his customers (throwing food back at them and kicking them out of his establishment if they dared complain). From what I have heard, he was a beast to work for, and moreover dishonest–he promised everyone who he hired with pay raises and promotions after a year’s service, but never had to honor that pledge, as he would always find a reason to fire everyone he hired for cause before the year was over in order to avoid having to pay. I should note that he was considered a successful businessman in that he made a lot of money, so Ian’s description of we got the elites we have rings true to me (him being a complete asshole only helped, not hurt, his rise).

    And even good, humane, efficient businessmen have quirks. One of the best people I worked for was Chinese, he and his family ran a Chinese restaurant in my college town. He was great to work for overall, and he treated all his employees as family (he even bought people Christmas and birthday presents, and he held staff- and family-only parties off hours for us). I remember us having a waitress who wasn’t very good, to be honest, but he kept her on the payroll shaking his head and saying, “Oh, but she has that little baby to take care of”. He himself and his wife worked as hard or harder than any of us.

    When I graduated and eventually got my ‘good job’ at my company, I would go down to the local Oktoberfest at my college town and there my old Chinese restaurant would have a booth. And they would sometimes ask “Stewart, we need help now–can you help us?” And sure enough, I’d end up spending Oktoberfest making egg rolls or the like. Because he and his family showed loyalty to us, you’d have felt like a cretin if you didn’t return it.

    Overall, a great person to work for. His one flaw, though–he didn’t let you off work when sick. I had to search for someone to fill end because I think I had at least bronchitis or maybe even walking pneumonia yet. Now, you could say “I have a family obligation to meet” or even “there’s a party or game I want to go to” or “I need to study for a test” and he’d arrange for you to be off. But being sick wasn’t an accepted excuse. That was his own negative quirk. This reinforces my observation that even with good people, the best decisions are consensus decisions, where any individual’s quirkiness gets cancelled out and overridden.

    Years afterwards, I heard that my former boss had suffered a serious accident with a chainsaw flying back on him and burying itself into his shoulder (ugh). He was then unable to work and had to sell his business. I never had the chance to see him again, or know if he’s even alive.

  13. Willy

    I knew three brothers who grew up on a farm, went top college and then worked corporate jobs for many years in the big city, then quit to buy a large “unfarmable” property together which they themselves transformed with much hard work and their life’s savings. I wonder what would make 3 ‘life of ease’ suburbanites ever want to do that? Horrible bosses maybe?

    I’ve never had the time to parse what the Steven Pinkers of the world say, or learn where they specifically get their facts and statistics or who might be funding them, about how things just keep getting better and better for all of us. I look around me and see the opposite, for most.

  14. Ché Pasa

    Labor mythology is strong. One of the myths of course is that the post-War generation, Boomers, somehow made out like bandits and were/are in clover throughout their lives.

    Not so. The working class neighborhood in Los Angeles County where I spent part of my childhood was new with post-War housing and practically every household owned (“”) their own home — with a VA mortgage. Every household had at least one car — they had to, the plants and other places where people worked were miles away and there was no public transportation out where we were.

    The myth, though, is that everyone had a good job, with good pay and benefits, lifetime employment for those who wanted it, yada yada, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

    Few in those days had that kind of employment. Most workers in my neighborhood were like gig workers today. Their employment was casual, no benefits, uncertain work hours, fired at will. Pretty much everyone was constantly on the financial precipice. Remember, people with little or no assets had little or no access to credit. If they wanted to buy something like a car or a refrigerator or a television on time — which nearly everyone had to do because they had no savings — they had to do it through a finance company or a loan shark at sometimes crippling interest, if they could get a loan at all.

    If they ran out of money — as some did — because they were unemployed (many couldn’t collect UI) or because they weren’t paid enough for the work they did, or whatever, there were few or no public programs to help. They could look to family, friends, neighbors and church charity to tide them over, but that was about it. If they still couldn’t make it, tough luck. The repo men came, took their furniture and appliances and their car, their utilities were shut off, and in the end, their house was foreclosed. It happened more often and to more people than the mythology lets on.

    We may think of the post-War era up to the late ’70s as some kind of halcyon period for labor, but it really wasn’t. It was rough. Not as bad/hardscrabble as the Depression era, but not a paradise.

    Was it better than now? Let me put it this way: the Future was supposed to be far better than it is. Far better. That was the spirit of the post-War era. No matter the difficulties of the post-War present and the horrors of the past, Tomorrow would be Better and Better. But starting in the mid-70’s (earlier for many) the Future was anything but Better.

    The Ratchet has been moving in the opposite direction, and Labor for some reason is more passive than ever.

  15. nihil obstet

    You have to obey more than just to work orders. Since most employment is “employment at will”, you have to cater to the boss in other slavish ways. This is particularly true of women with male employers (“I had to get rid of her — she had no sense of humor and she threatened me”), but can affect a wide range of activities according to the boss’s opinions. I know, I know. My example is of an illegal action, so those who have always demanded their own freedom at work and been successful will object.

  16. anonone

    \”In Tall Buildings\”

    By John Hartford

    Someday, baby, when I am a man,
    and other\’s have taught me
    the best that they can
    they\’ll sell me a suit
    and cut off my hair
    and send me to work in tall buildings

    and it\’s goodbye to the sunshine
    goodbye to the dew
    goodbye to the flowers
    and goodbye to you
    I\’m off to the subway
    I must not be late
    going to work in tall buildings

    now when I retire
    and my life is my own
    I made all the payments
    it\’s time to go home
    and wonder what happened
    betwixt and between
    when I went to work in tall buildings

    and it\’s goodbye to the sunshine
    goodbye to the dew
    goodbye to the flowers
    and goodbye to you
    I\’m off to the subway
    I mustn\’t be late
    going to work in tall buildings

  17. Chuck

    So, this is what our grandparents and parents fought for in Europe and the Pacific? The children of the people our relatives rescued and the economic system they saved are now screwing what\’s left of them, and us, and our children, out of our homes and livelyhoods.

    Patton was right. We were fighting the wrong people.

  18. Clark

    I saw this short post because it was linked from Naked Capitalism. (Yves & Co. often links to Ian\’s site, but I need to check it more often.) …. I\’ve learned more from the comments to this post than I ever expected. … Happy Labor Day, y\’all.

  19. Ian Welsh

    I’ve worked in farming, actually. It’s hard work, yes, but you decide what you do when you do (well, the primary farmer does), subject to the dictates of the season. Depending on the farming, as well, there are periods with a lot of work and those with little.

    But I’ve also worked multiple jobs at a time, and that was no better and with a lot less personal freedom.

    The point is that they (especially free farmers) had a different type of freedom than we do. And when wage labor started becoming huge, they were repelled by it exactly because it involved close supervision by a boss in most cases. (Early manufacturing work, as an aside, was WORSE than farm labor, far worse and also less free.)

  20. StewartM

    Patton was right. We were fighting the wrong people.

    Not the way Patton was meaning it. The Nazis doubled-down on wage slavery. (In fact, they employed actual slaves).

  21. Old Economy Steve


  22. rangoon78

    English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?
    But in order for capitalism to work, capitalists needed a pool of cheap, surplus labor. So what to do? Call in the National Guard!

    economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.

    The peasants were forced off their land by the British government who attacked the economic independence of the rural peasantry through a series of Enclosure Acts.“Some enclosures had to be carried out by force and many sparked resistance from users of the common land, including the tearing down of fences used to enclose the land. As a historically significant process of land privatization, the Enclosure Acts are sometimes seen as one or both of building blocks of capitalism and theft by major landowners from the peasantry.”
    This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:
    “The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness.”

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén