Voluntary Slavery

Photo: Philip Brewer

When you think of slavery, you probably think of the brutal and violent sort of slavery, such as existed in the United States until the Civil War. But voluntary (or semi-voluntary) slavery has existed since ancient times. (See also: Wage Slave, Debt Slave)

In the minds of most people, slavery is defined by violence. Slaves were taken by force, held by force and compelled to work by force. But long before the present day there has been slavery with less violence. For example, the Bible provides a thoroughly worked-out set of rules for semi-voluntary slavery, under which the head of the family could sell family members into slavery to cover the family's debts. (The rules provided that you couldn't sell family members into perpetual slavery. They had to be given their freedom within no more than seven years.)

Even indentured servitude — a particular kind of voluntary slavery — used the threat of violence to compel labor, with police power used to keep people from reneging on their agreement to serve.

What I find so striking about society today is that we've just about gotten rid of the violence without getting rid of the slavery.

When I've talked about wage slavery and debt slavery before, I've gotten some criticism — "It isn't slavery if it's voluntary!" But I don't think that's true. As I said, voluntary slavery has existed since Old Testament times at least. But I don't want to argue about whether what we have now should be called slavery. I want to argue that, whatever we call it, it's an evil system. It's bad for the people who are trapped in it, and it is bad for the rest of us.

It's not the violence that makes slavery evil, so the evil does not disappear just because the violence has been (mostly) withdrawn. In the run-up to the civil war, there was a lot of propaganda to support slavery. One large category used images of "kindly masters" and "happy slaves" to disguise the brutality of the system. But that kind of propaganda never worked, because slavery is evil even without brutality. The true evil of slavery is that it denies people their freedom.

And yet, my critics have a point. Why should I complain about other people's voluntary choices?

I guess I complain for two reasons.

First, it makes me sad to watch. Sure, there are many who do fine in the system. The people I used to work with — software engineers, mainly — did pretty well. They led very comfortable lives, and their job skills meant that they were less trapped than many others — if something about their current job didn't suit, they could always find another that paid about as well. Others — most others — did not do so well.

But the pain of having to stand by and watch as people lock themselves into the gentle chains of wages and debt is only the smaller part of the reason I complain.

The bigger reason is that we all suffer when people aren't free. When people are dependent, they are constrained from doing what's right.

This was Thomas Jefferson's point when he wanted a nation of yeoman farmers. If you're beholden to the bosses, managers, owners, and financiers, you're constrained from following your own best judgment. At some level, you're always considering the interests and desires of your employer, your banker — and the government, which is all the more necessary, because its rules are all that protect you from the bosses and the financiers.

Voluntary slavery is nothing new. But even voluntary slavery is evil.

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Guest's picture

This was an insight I realized when I read a book a couple of years ago about WWII. It provides one of the reasons the experience was so different between the Eastern Front and the Western Front. In the West, most people were economically dependent upon the "system", making them comparatively easy to enslave. In the East, by contrast, there was a larger population of economically independent small farmers and landowners that were much harder to subjugate and the Nazis were reduced to having to just kill them all. This isn't to reduce the other reasons the Nazis engaged in genocide (ethnicity, religion, etc), but it is a part of the equation that often isn't considered.

Guest's picture

This really doesn't apply to anyone unless they are completely self sustaining. If you sell or barter any of your goods or talents, your "enslaved" to who ever you deal with. Being employed only "enslaves" you to your employer in exchange for money on which you spend on things to "enslave" others who provide you with what you need or want.

Philip Brewer's picture

I guess I don't see this as an absolute. There's a lot of space between "completely self-sufficient" and "this is the only job that pays enough to cover my expense—if I lose it, I'm screwed."

I was always a lot more comfortable when economic and business conditions were such that I knew I could quickly find another job. And when economic conditions were otherwise, I took steps—I boosted savings, I cut debt, and I tried to broaden my skills and strengthen the network I'd need to find a different job.

Even a few little steps back make you more secure. That's what I'm hoping people will come to understand. Since slavery imposed by violence has been banned, people are now only enslaved by their own fears and desires.

Guest's picture

Whatever happened to "Personal Responsibility"? I see people every day who are getting into debt with the choices that they make, but that debt is a result of THEIR OWN CHOICES. If you want to be out of debt, it is possible, if you want a better life, it is possible, you have to make wise choices that reflect those goals. If you continue to make choices to please yourself, without thinking of the future at all, don't complain. I know this is a statement that doesn't apply to everyone, but a vast majority of the United States lives in wealth that most of the world could only dream of. Clean running water, 3 meals a day, those are things that a lot of the world would love to have and we take it for granted. We have expensive cell phones as a "necessity" now and all the latest technological gadgets that we don't "need" but that we "deserve". We think nothing of spending hundreds or even thousands on presents for our family even if we can't pay for them and must go into debt because, "we deserve a good Christmas morning". Living with the results of choices like that are not fun, but they are a big part of learning personal responsibility.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, that's what I meant when I called it "voluntary" slavery—it's really on the choices each individual makes.

And yet, I think the system is structured in such a way as to make us much less free.

It's tough to get a degree without going into debt—much tougher than it was thirty years ago, when I got mine. And once you're in debt, your options are much narrower.

A recent grad who's broke can probably get by on almost no income at all, at least for a while—sleeping on couches or spending a winter in some relative's summer cottage. That's not the way most people want to live their whole lives, but it's long enough for someone with aspirations to some life other than a regular job to try to make a go of it. But a recent grad who has even just a few thousand dollars in student loan debt doesn't have that choice: he has to earn enough of a surplus to cover those debt payments, and that means a job.

It's possible to escape. I largely have. But society provides no support for people who want to avoid the voluntary slavery of what Dmitry Orlov calls the "iron triangle of house-car-job" where each of those elements supports—but also requires—the others.

I want to remind people that there are other options. They may require that you live at a lower standard of living, that you avoid debts that most middle-class Americans incur without even thinking about them, that you deviate from social norms about what counts as "acceptable" housing, and so on. I wish they came with more support from society, but they do exist at some level, and people are free to choose them. But there is so little support from society that it never occurs to most people to even consider them.

That's why I write about it.

Guest's picture

"The true evil of slavery is that it denies people their freedom."
In that case, do you consider taxation to be evil? After all, the money that employees earn for the first few months of the year (as a percentage) must be paid to the government and they don't have the freedom to not do so unless want to be eventually imprisoned for tax evasion.

Philip Brewer's picture

Here again, I guess I don't see it as an absolute.

A level of taxation that meant people needed to choose between paying their taxes and keeping a roof over their heads, or putting food on their table, or paying the pharmacist for their prescriptions would be evil.

But just like you don't need to be completely self-sufficient in order to largely free yourself from the voluntary slavery of our current wage/debt system, I don't think the tax rate needs to be zero before you can be free.

Guest's picture

Without taxation you would likely not be earning a pay check at all. The roads your drive on to get to work, the education system that you likely benefited from, the economic infrastructure, the internet that you used to respond this this article (the gov founded the internet) - all the direct result of tax dollars at work.

Guest's picture

I'm trying to follow your logic; are you saying that roads would not exist without taxation?

Annie Mueller's picture

I always enjoy reading your pieces, Phillip, and this one was no different. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.
I find that, for me and my family, a lot of our "self-sufficiency" comes from stepping back from cultural norms enough to question them. When you take the first steps of mental/intellectual freedom (analyzing and choosing carefully rather than accepting blindly) you're on your way to getting out of that voluntary slavery altogether.

Guest's picture

You mean you're on your way to being a slave to the weather, fields and animals. Slave to bad smells, physical exhaustion and pain on a daily basis and more "freedom".

Anyone idiotic enough to think the life of a yeoman involves more free choices than that of a wage slave obviously has never tried it.

Guest's picture

IMHO the violence aspect of the modern slavery has never went away. It got obfuscated, proxied and delayed, but the end effect is still the same.

Philip Brewer's picture

Oh, I think the level of violence is much reduced. Especially the level of casual violence.

Yes, the police will still use unnecessary violence when they're arresting someone who has annoyed them—proxy violence for the wealthy and powerful. But violence in the workplace is way down from even 50 years ago.

There is now a niche for someone who refuses to be complicit in their own slavery. If you cut your expenses low enough that you don't need a regular job, you really will be left alone—not chained up and put to work.

Guest's picture

I agree to that. Nowadays, no one is stopping us except of the fear of disappointment, fear of rejection. I like what you said, "broaden skills". And I've been planning to take up a short course I really like, one that I enjoyed doing when I was a kid.

Guest's picture

They'll always be slavery in some form or another. Unfortunately. This article did make me think. Thanks for writing it.

Guest's picture

Wow, what a powerful and intelligent article. It never ceases to amaze me that as consumers we are willing to take on more and more debt and why? Because we're told that we must certain goods/services now! Why wait? Why Save? Isn't that boring? Why not have it now and you can pay us back later? - Of course later means added interest charges. So I totally agree and value your argument. I'm not against capitalism per say, I personally think it's a good system, but only in so much as it serves rather than enslaves society.......