Wage Slavery

Wage slavery is a condition in which a person is legally de jure (based on law) voluntarily employed but de facto (in fact) a slave. It describes a condition where a person is compelled to work in return for payment of a wage in order to subsist. Wage slavery is the condition where a person must sell his or her labor-power, submitting to the authority of an employer, in order to merely survive. Different sources have different ideas about what practical conditions qualify a worker as a wage slave.

Wage slavery in capitalist society

Wage slavery as a concept is a criticism of capitalism, defined as a condition when a capitalist minority of the population controls all of the necessary non-human components of production capital and land that other people (workers) use to produce goods. This sort of criticism is generally associated with socialist criticisms of capitalism, but is also expressed by the branch of liberalism represented by Thomas Jefferson, Henry George, Silvio Gesell, and Thomas Paine, as well as the Distributist school of thought within the Roman Catholic Church. Criticism of capitalism on these grounds is connected with the belief that one should have freedom to work without a boss or obligation.

The use of the term "wage slavery" is also a rhetorical device to draw parallels between modern work and the historical institution of slavery, specifically to chattel slavery wherein one person owns another person as property. The concept of wage slavery suggests that even where the conditions of chattel slavery do not apply, wage earners may live in conditions which for all practical purposes are identical with the conditions of those under chattel slavery.

To Marx, wage slavery was a class condition, not an individual situation. This class situation rested on:

  1. the concentration of ownership in few hands

  2. the lack of direct access by workers to the means of production

  3. the existence of the reserve army of unemployed workers

Furthermore, in Marx's view, this situation was ultimately due to the existence of private property and the state. Marx recognized that some working people could escape wage slavery and become capitalists, if only in small numbers. But to him, the profits received by the capitalists were dependent on the work done by the working class, so that too much upward mobility would lead to the downfall of capitalism, unless it was balanced by downward mobility out of the capitalist class. This suggests that even if the faces of the "wage slaves" change, the category remains. A common analogy is that even if some slaves can win their freedom (as it was sometimes possible in ancient societies like Rome, for example), that doesn't justify slavery.

Critics of capitalism may view the working class as slaves if employers have unrestricted power to fire individual workers. This is especially true if they can blacklist them from other employment (such blacklisting of suspected communists was instituted by employers during the McCarthy Era in the United States in Hollywood and other sectors). The "at will" employment arrangement means that a worker may be fired (or quit) for any reason. If a worker fears losing his job more than the employer fears losing a particular worker, then the employer can govern the personal life of the worker. For example, a worker may be fired based on his sexual orientation, unless protected by an enforceable anti-discrimination law. In an unrestrained form, this power even extends to basic civil liberties, such as the right to worship freely or to express political opinions. (In the United States, employees have no legal right to express political opinions while on the job.) This power could also undermine the right to vote; fear of this factor was a significant motivator for instituting the secret ballot.

(this is adapted from the Wikipedia article on wage slavery)