Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Neofeudal fantasies?

I remember being struck--in that way that almost feels like one has been physically struck--the first time I heard the phrase "wage-slave." I don't recall the context it was in any more, but the concept rang like a bell. Many of us, for one reason or another, feel or are wage-slaves. Actually, to be more precise, we're wage-serfs.
Slave One who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights.
Serf A person in a condition of servitude or modified slavery, distinguished from what is properly called ‘slavery’ in that the services due to the master, and his power of disposal of his ‘serf’, are more or less limited by law or custom.
Sometimes that condition of servitude is more explicit than normal; I know a couple who need to move upstate to be closer to elderly family, some of them suffering failing health. But they can't--they live in a trailer home which they owe money on, and are buying it on contract from his employer... under terms that require the payment of all money owing if/when his employment is terminated, for any reason. Coming up with several thousand dollars is a challenge for most people in this economy. They're wage-serfs. It's made even more egregious because he's actually being paid what are more or less entry-level wages although he's been at it long enough that he's a journeyman in his trade. More serfdom; he can't go find a new job where someone will pay him fairly, because he'd need several thousand dollars to buy himself free. Legally, he's not actually a serf; he'd only become homeless if he tried to change jobs.

It's actually more egregious; the trailer's on the boss's property, in violation of county codes. So even if he had the money, leaving would be hard; they'd have to find somewhere to move the trailer, immediately.

This sort of thing may be a more extreme case than most. But wage-serfdom is actually a feature of our society's way of being. Having severed the bonds of literal slavery and serf-bondage, most of us are economically un-free. We're not really able to up and do and be as we would freely choose.

And things aren't getting better.

The minimum wage hasn't kept up with inflation, not even close. It's about half, in terms of buying power, what it was 35 years ago. But that may exaggerate its buying power, really. The cost of living has been hit hard at the basic level in the last decade or so--the cost of housing, transportation, etc., those things that one must have... they've gone up sharply, while things like computers have actually come down in price.

Many of the egregious evils that great nobles could commit in the past, abusing their serfs, servants and slaves, today are committed by economic powers and principalities--primarily corporations, though far from entirely--and the courts protect and affirm their rights to do so. Or if not, the fines and punishments are trivial to the corporation, a pittance in the corporate bottom line, a mere parking ticket.

Looking around, I'd have to say that those wielding the reins like it that way.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Of course, we do have a better facade now. But economic justice, and freedom... those are tough challenges. Things like universal health care are critical elements of that freedom.

Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose--though that state can be astonishingly liberating. But it's not what our corporate masters (my, another one of those terms that folk have used for years, in a bitter, ironic, snarky underground way...) actually want. After all, were enough of us to find that liberty, things could get very scary.

I'd rather try another way. I'm too much of a historian; I know how poorly many--most--such spasms turn out; trading oppressors for new ones who can spin the lingo isn't really much of an improvement.


kim said...

You say you'd rather try another way: what way? You have suggestions?

ogre said...

Yeah, kim, I would.

Liberty is meaningless to anyone without the basic resources needed for life. Starving people aren't all that concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, for example.

A society which provides a basic set of guarantees--that you won't starve, that you won't become homeless, that you won't be without health care (and neither will your family) creates precisely the conditions in which people CAN be more adventurous, and more creative and entrepreneurial.

As long as the owners of the "ownership society" have power to menace your ability to have a sane, stable life... you'll have people who will, in large measure, understand themselves as wage slaves, or serfs, or... whatever you choose to call them. "I owe my soul to the company store."

We have a society that has been burdened with a problem for a century or more--overproduction. It's EASY to produce far more goods than people want or need, or can consume. So... we've juvenilized our youth, and young adults, and urged the society to keep them off the streets and in school (learning things and getting important graduate degrees in things... that aren't really needed for the job they'll do, but make great green stamps). That cuts the work force a bunch. Even then... it's easy to overproduce.

Rather than do something sane... like aim for full employment with 24 hour work weeks, or some such... and encouraging them to try to create new businesses, or new products, or create great art and literature.