A person in a capitalist society who is forced to sell themselves, their time and their labor out on the labor market and whose life, therefore, is not entirely their own, is suffering under wage slavery.

This person is known as a wage slave.

Some people take offense when this phrase is used. "Slavery" is usually defined as a condition where an individual is compelled by force to work without sufficient monetary and/or material compensation. Since "wage slaves" are not under the threat of a master's whip, and since they supposedly have "choices", they are not (say those offended) slaves.

To understand why a wage laborer is a slave, one must first understand that the capitalist system itself is a form of whip, held by the wealthy capitalist/owner/boss; the slavemaster. As the mass of people are denied democratic access to resources, means of production and means of distribution, they are beholden to those who have managed (through force, be it physical, political or economic) to aggrandize and monopolize all of the above.

As such, you, the wage slave, must labor for the master and, in return, be paid a small fraction of what your work is worth to the master. You must do this simply to survive.

The master can use your position as wage slave to force you to work long hours, in bad condidtions, and to place "work" above "living". If you refuse to wholly submit, the master can fire you. This is known as a "flexible labor market".

There are two ways out of the wage slavery system as it currently stands.
1. Amass wealth; become a master. Live off the interest on your large bank account and/or savings. Then do only the work you enjoy and you find fulfilling, at the expense of all the other wage slaves who've made your situation possible.
2. Drop out. Become a subsistance farmer and/or subsistance hunter.

There is a third way, of course; the creation of an entirely different economic and political system based on democratic self management of workers and consumers, access to resources, and community control of the means of production and distribution. This is called Participatory Economics.

It isn't.

In the past year or so, I've had many chances to reexamine what could have been called (anachronistically) the "Woke" philosophy that I developed as a teenager in the 1990s. Because when I had my first exposure to thinking about the world critically, and to understand intersectionality and how institutions controlled and defined our life, it seemed an important breakthrough to realize that if you have to work to live, if some people in the system have the power to make decisions, and the rest of us are stuck needing to adhere to the system, wasn't that effectively slavery? Why should we proclaim ourselves "free" when we were caught in a web of debt and necessity that kept us tied to a limited number of people that could give us the things necessary for life? Wasn't this just slavery in another name? Wasn't the common belief that we had control over our lives, that we could always "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", just a result of propaganda, and that we were all victims of Stockholm Syndrome?

The short answer to these arguments, and all the many good arguments in the same matter, was that it was a good thing to think about, a good thing to understand, but that slavery, as an institution, especially as it was practiced in the United States, was so cruel, so barbaric, and so dehumanizing, that slavery, and wage based economies, should not be compared. Slavery and wage systems are both based on power imbalance, and both are supported by a series of institutions. But "wage slavery" is not dependent on cruelty and dehumanization. My own understanding of slavery, as practiced in the United States, is that the economic justification for it was secondary, that establishing a cruel system where some people were dehumanized so some people could feel better was actually the primary purpose.

So even though I think it is good to be aware of the spectrum of ways that societies control people, I also think it is important to remember that there are sharp discontinuities in that spectrum. Because something shares features with slavery does not mean it is slavery. "Wage slavery" is not slavery.

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