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A Choice of Slaveries
Thoughts about the most minimal acceptable wages.
Note: I’ve been thinking a lot about labor on this Labor Day. Does anyone even do that any longer?
The Banality of Slavery
In a particular history program, Hardcore History podcaster Dan Carlin (a longtime favorite) touched on the ubiquity of human trafficking and the particulars of chattel slavery. Full of the requisite apology, because after all Carlin is political as well, he outlined the world's second oldest profession. His angle on slavery and forced labor was very interesting. He asked the basic rhetorical question is slavery essentially evil? But I think he was getting at something more revealing since he talked about 'debt slavery' as well. As his program progressed, it began to be very clear from my interpretation that he was getting at something fairly deep, which is the extent to which we draw meaning from our relationships to each other and to technology.
You can either have a machine cook your breakfast or you can have people do it for you.
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As Carlin said, there are only these two ways to have leisure. For a long time, even being an IT dude, I have always been more on the organic side. I want people to do things. Why have some expensive machine smooth the sand in the long jump pit at the Olympics when you could have some kids with rakes? I considered this when I was in Sydney in 2000 - about the mechanisms in society that would allow an engineer to be educated, for the farming out and funding of such a project, for the fabrication of the actual machine and training of the personnel who would move and operate it. Obviously the technological avenues are more fragile and expensive, but are they better? Why not save all the hassle and expense and just hire some local kids - why deal with machines instead of people?
Where the heart of the matter gets interesting are those implications of 'less than slavery' relationships of a human centric world. If we extend the continuum of the humanistic value of human labor down the skill or pay chain, eventually you end up at slavery.
A long time ago somebody used to call me a 'cheap labor conservative' because I oppose the minimum wage. I've always seen the possibilities in allowing a class of businesses to operate without certain regulations that would solve the homelessness problem, and I've always had sympathy for America's ability to accommodate an internal Third World. After all, an economy that tolerates slavery, or near-slavery is a full employment economy. I think it is reasonable to assert as an axiom of human society, the more you seek to give meaning to people who, for whatever reason cannot compete, the more accommodating you are of slavery.
Now the way to read this is not with regard to the deprivation of civil rights and dignity that is implicit in chattel slavery. A person who doesn't own his own labor is not a person in any social way, but a mere human animal and way less than a citizen. But it is in that gray area between unskilled minimum wage labor and slave wages that some inspection is useful. Still I am more interested in the matter with regard the economics we can afford. After all, as Carlin mentioned, Marx understood that the Industrial Revolution changed our ideas about human dignity and labor. It was this fundamental abstraction that he took to the extremes in a historicist way. Marx and his followers looked at somebody whose life and dignity were clearly understood in the pre-industrial world - Joe Chandler, for example. Joe made candles and lamps for the sailing ships, lived near the docks and got tallow from cow fat he bought at market. Joe bought his wagon from Wayne Cartwright who built it with materials from John Woods, etc. All of those were the relationships and social standing from pre-industrial society. Until they were all disintermediated by Sears & Roebuck's lamp section of the catalog, the ship company could buy lamps from the factory and put Joe, Wayne and John out of business. Instead they put Sam Widget on the assembly line in the lamp factory.
So where does Sam's value as a human being come from? He just looks at an assembly line all day. Where in fact does anyone’s value as a human being come from? I just type at a computer terminal all day. A new kind of society has to have new humanizing values for new kinds of work. This is what Marx understood even before postmodernism. (Was this understanding an enabler?) In a moral way, he enables us to get away from slavery which was the more common relationship of the pre-industrial world when more people chose serfdom than starvation. But Marx' great mistake was that he figured that all humanizing values must come from work and thus put labor at that center of his universe and the locus of power he placed around the state's (and revolution's) control of those definitions. This usurped the value of other vital humanizing factors like spirituality. But Marx must have understood how building a framework for humanizing the industrial revolution took us towards a new, modern world.
I think we today make the same mistake as Marx when we pretend that the material condition is all that is required and that we necessarily dehumanize when we monkey with the minimum wage. Wage doesn’t make the man - unless you decide it is most important to measure him that way. Admit that’s what you do when it comes to minimum wage, poverty and slavery. That’s why you’re fixated on equity, right?
It is some coincidence that I am listening to Weird Al Yankovic as I write this. Weird Al understands and exploits the absurdity of the modern world in which our relationships are abstracted from physical labor.
The Weird Al Show
Oh, this is a story 'bout a guy named Al
And he lived in a sewer with his hamster pal
But the sanitation workers really didn't approve
So he packed up his accordion and had to move
To a city in Ohio where he lived in a tree
And he worked in a nasal decongestant factory
And he played on the company bowling team
And every single night he had a strange recurring dream
Where he was wearing lederhosen in a vat of sour cream
But that's really not important to the story
Well, the very next year he met a dental hygienist
With a spatula tatooed on her arm (on her arm)
But he didn't keep in touch
And he lost her number
Then he got himself a job on a tator-tot farm
And he spent his life-savings on a split-level cave
Twenty miles below the surface of the Earth (of the Earth)
And he really makes a might fine jelly bean and pickle sandwich
For what it's worth
Then one day Al was in the forest trying to get a tan
When he heard the tortured screaming of a funny little man
He was caught in a bear trap and Al set him free
And the guy that he rescued was grateful as could be
And it turns out he's a big-shot producer on TV
So he gives Al a contract and whaddya know
Now he's got his very own Weird Al Show.
What Weird Al understands as does Marx is that there is extraordinary dislocation between human beings and meaning when they become abstracted parts of labor markets that make sense in the economic system but lose common touch. Which takes us to Aunt Jemima.
Somewhere in the bowels of my archives was a useful analogy to a set of values that underlie the strength of America's ex-slavery population. I hesitated to call it 'black' because there was no such political or cultural connotation at the time. But in sense that the Negro Race is related to black Americans today I tried to make some sense of what was lost as evidenced by our contemporary culture of complaint. We often have more material wealth than they ever desired, yet we often lack the intestinal fortitude and spiritual discipline that got them through. The key touchstone idea is that many Negroes like my parents were born at home, not in fancy exclusive hospitals, and those people understood how such matters were handled. They were organically strong where we are institutionally leveraged. Part of the purpose of the Old School message I have previously cultivated was to attempt to evoke that strength and independence and disabuse those cultural and political markers we try to leverage today. I feel that I have to continue reinforcing that message to all of us Peasants.
But here, in objectifying slavery in a global context, is another opportunity to recognize the world of those old Coloreds. They existed in, no doubt, a morally corrupt labor market under Jim Crow law, but a labor market nonetheless - which but for the creeping industrialization (and oil) might still be the economic basis for the South of America. A modified labor market with wage concessions to be sure, but one still more human-labor based than machine industrial. It is still the case that industrial unions did not take hold in the American South, and much of the manufacturing done there now in under open shop rules, which had meant for a time, depressed wages in comparison to the industrial North. Of course the South is heir to slavery and then to tenant farming and sharecropping after manumission. To see slavery as the mere bottom end of labor markets is useful to understanding the dynamics of today's global economy. My great grandfather was not an illiterate chattel slave, but he was a sharecropping tenant farmer, which doesn’t sound so particularly horrible to me. Surely there are migrant farmworkers toiling on American soil today that possess only a fraction of my great grandfather’s social mobility. Neither are slaves.
Today there is human trafficking, chattel slavery and forced labor of all sorts. While Carlin points out the obvious, that cheap labor is, well.. cheap, there's something else going on here which is not necessarily exploitive and that is the human touch. What is the difference between a good slave master and a bad one? The answer is obvious, one is cruel and one is not. What is the difference between someone who hires a cook for $40 a day and someone who orders $40 of take out food per day? Well, it rather depends upon how he treats the cook, or the gardener or the baby sitter.
Without getting into the elaborate details of master/slave relationships, they are without question more humanizing than user/computer relationships or man/machine relationships in general. As a labor saving device, wouldn't you rather have a human? Isn't our concept of slavery and much of human dignity merely a matter of a fair wage? Absent matters of cruelty and deprivation of civil rights, the answer is yes. And so what we need to be able to balance, is the very social ability of masters, bosses, teachers and all in superior circumstances to be ethically mindful of their charges, and of course, to come up with a fair wage.
Still, I haven't dealt with the matter of chattel, which is the idea of a human being as property. To put it simply, that is the primary evil of slavery, because to deprive one of the right to liberty is fundamentally wrong, even if a slave can own another slave. What makes work ethical is the mutual agreement between consumer and producer. Slavery is coercive in that it is not an at-will situation. I won't go into the details of indentures, which is essentially a contract because things get a bit slippery when a labor contract can be bought or sold. It's an interesting detail however. A person has the fundamental right not to work, which is basically what those who pay for labor saving devices are expressing. If that only applies to one class of people, that's a grave problem.
Put it into this context if you will. What made Ex Machina such a compelling and frightening movie for many people was that it got right to the heart of American male fantasy. An uber smart, ultra wealthy man creates the perfect servant, a brilliant, sexy, vulnerable, capable female chattel. Practically human, she carries out a brutal slave revolt. Period. End of Story.
Now considering all I have said, I offer that the modern world has depersonalized much of our existence. And much of that is due to an attitude towards technology and institutions that present convenient abstract humanizations. Here's the curveball.
If we were to allow 100 million people from all over the world to come to America and offer them liberty, we could not do it without getting rid of the minimum wage. We would have to approach 'slavery' with a sort of dignity our culture by and large does not understand. It is the impersonal and flippant way we use kitchen appliances and the like which does not allow us to maintain respectable relations with the very poor. That is because we assume a sort of social mobility that does not in-fact exist outside of a particular set of economic conditions. We don't respect the teenager. We respect that he might go to college or that he might serve in the Army. We respect his potential. The teenaged bride who works as a part-time waitress isn't respected - we call that 'low expectations'. It seems suicidal. That is because Americans are not adjusted to low wage work - it is in fact a symptom of our inhumanity, our learned inability to respect the individual regardless of economic circumstance. It is that thing, an ethical thing falsely dependent on individual wealth, which would make us cruel masters, not slavery or low wage work itself.
Over the next few years, if America plunges into economic recession and even depression given the current acceleration of the downturn, we are going to learn these lessons all over again.
Slavery is evil not because it is dirt cheap but because it is forced labor from which the worker has no right of exit. Dirt cheap labor can be as dignified as any labor. It all depends on the character of the boss.
This should be obvious to anyone who respects ‘sex work’ but is horrified by human trafficking for sex work. What we have to do is be very careful in our negotiation in trading off the happy talk of inclusion against what we are willing to pay. Very specifically, we know Woke to be based on the lie of racial essentialism and all variants of identitarian ideologies. So where exactly is the ‘equity’, in symbolism, in cash, or in political power? Who gets what in this deal? What is the character of the DEI proponent who desires influence?
The American Yeoman
This extended quote from Tocqueville underscores something very important about the American character.
In aristocratic communities not only are there hereditary families of servants as well as of masters, but the same families of servants adhere for several generations to the same families of masters (like two parallel lines, which neither meet nor separate ); and this considerably modifies the mutual relations of these two classes of persons. Thus although in aristocratic society the master and servant have no natural resemblance, although, on the contrary, they are placed at an immense distance on the scale of human beings by their fortune, education, and opinions, yet time ultimately binds them together. They are connected by a long series of common reminiscences, and however different they may be, they grow alike; while in democracies, where they are naturally almost alike, they always remain strangers to one another. Among an aristocratic people the master gets to look upon his servants as an inferior and secondary part of himself, and he often takes an interest in their lot by a last stretch of selfishness.
Servants, on their part, are not averse to regarding themselves in the same light; and they sometimes identify themselves with the person of the master, so that they become an appendage to him in their own eyes as well as in his. In aristocracies a servant fills a subordinate position which he cannot get out of; above him is another man, holding a superior rank, which he cannot lose. On one side are obscurity, poverty, obedience for life; on the other, and also for life, fame, wealth, and command. The two conditions are always distinct and always in propinquity; the tie that connects them is as lasting as they are themselves.
In this predicament the servant ultimately detaches his notion of interest from his own person; he deserts himself as it were, or rather he transports himself into the character of his master and thus assumes an imaginary personality. He complacently invests himself with the wealth of those who command him, he shares their fame, exalts himself by their rank, and feeds his mind with borrowed greatness, to which he attaches more importance than those who fully and really possess it. There is something touching and at the same time ridiculous in this strange confusion of two different states of being. These passions of masters, when they pass into the souls of menials, assume the natural dimensions of the place they occupy; they are contracted and lowered. What was pride in the former becomes puerile vanity and paltry ostentation in the latter. The servants of a great man are commonly most punctilious as to the marks of respect due to him, and they attach more importance to his slightest privileges than he does himself. In France a few of these old servants of the aristocracy are still to be met with here and there, they have survived their race, which will soon disappear with them altogether.
In the United States I never saw anyone at all like them. The Americans are not only unacquainted with the kind of man, but it is hardly possible to make them understand that such ever existed. It is scarcely less difficult for them to conceive it than for us to form a correct notion of what a slave was among the Romans or a serf in the Middle Ages. All these men were, in fact, though in different degrees, results of the same cause: they are all retiring from our sight and disappearing in the obscurity of the past together with the social condition to which they owed their origin Equality of conditions turns servants and masters into new beings, and places them in new relative positions. When social conditions are nearly equal, men are constantly changing their situations in life; there is still a class of menials and a class of masters but these classes are not always composed of the same individuals, still less of the same families; and those who command are not more secure of perpetuity than those who obey. As servants do not form a separate class, they have no habits, prejudices, or manners peculiar to themselves; they are not remarkable for any particular turn of mind or moods of feeling. They know no vices or virtues of their condition, but they partake of the education, the opinions, the feelings, the virtues, and the vices of their contemporaries; and they are honest men or scoundrels in the same way as their masters are.
The conditions of servants are not less equal than those of masters. As no marked ranks or fixed subordination are to be found among them, they will not display either the meanness or the greatness that characterize the aristocracy of menials, as well as all other aristocracies. I never saw a man in the United States who reminded me of that class of confidential servants of which we still retain a reminiscence in Europe; neither did I ever meet with such a thing as a lackey: all traces of the one and the other have disappeared.
After you let that soak in, especially the bolded part, let me help you understand something of the racial regression in today’s Progressive political mindset, including that of the Woke mind virus, some fraction of ESG, and most DEI. This is the hardening of the classes of complaint and the axis of grievance anchoring themselves as they do with the hierarchies of the 19th century.
When I speak of the Negro Race, when I speak of the Wokies, and especially when I speak of CRT ideologues, look at how closely they hew to my rewording of Tocqueville’s bold text above. But the same applies to all special victims of today’s culture of complaint. It is an express rejection of the democratic essence of equality perverted into a never ending question for moral superiority and unquestioned power.
In this predicament the oppressed minority ultimately detaches his notion of interest from his own person; he deserts himself as it were, or rather he invests himself into the opposite character of his oppressor and thus assumes an imaginary personality. He complacently contrasts himself with the wealth of those who oppress him, he exaggerates their fame, exalts himself by his lack of rank, and feeds his mind with borrowed greatness, to which he attaches more importance than those who fully and really possess it.
Two Slave Mentalities
It is thus important to note the particular difference between the chattel slave mentality and [Afropessimistic] ghetto mentality. The chattel slave mentality will always seek to attach historicist meaning to the plight of their select minority. If it was the Cherokee who was oppressed in 1889, that translates according to their economy directly to some privilege or civil rights they should assume today as soon as possible by any means necessary, without which the corruption of the society and state is ‘systemic’.
The ghetto mentality, on the other hand is ready, willing and able to convert the havoc of their previous condition of servitude into diamonds and pearls. You won’t hear them blaming capitalism, they intend to exploit it to the material maximum. For them, slavery was an energizer, an underserved punishment transformed into a superpower. They aim to be ‘more real’ in their engagement of The Struggle. And the moment they become ghetto fabulous, you will never hear the end of it. It is the grubby victory, the white trash endzone dance of the American underdawg.
This ghetto mentality, for all its peasant garb, yokel provincialism and mafia sensibilities, is preferable to the Marxist alternative. The gangster who works to keep his hustle is constrained by his tight circle of trust. He has demonstrated his ability to transform and transcend by keeping a tight crew, and grinding his unique set of skills. Floyd Mayweather is not going to fall for solidarity of the proletariat. He is not going to ‘believe women’, he is not going to pretend that Black Lives Matter. He wants all lives with all dollars to flow his way - he will accept any currency except that which compels him to bend the knee.
The AI Question (For Next Time)
What we want from AI doesn’t depend on the nature of AI, but the direction of our desires. Those who want AI to take over the world do so because they want to control that which takes over the world. But it is reasonable to assume that actual advances in AI, including making the field of AI more exciting, will bring more money, make more money and waste more money than ever in this particular sector of computer science.
The most important question about the monetization of this ‘AI Revolution’ has everything to do with how much we as a society are willing to pay money for convenience delivered by technology at the expense of human labor.
The Stoic Take
Whether one believes in a social conservatism or social liberalism, there is some philosophical consideration of what is best for society. I don’t take the Stoic to be particularly political, but there are political implications in the movement and advocacy for a stable and secure social order. So I say it is reasonable for the Stoic to lean one way or another, but he assumes that there is a proper comportment for the individual in that stable and secure society. But if it is not a society of free men and women, the Stoic is burdened by this injunction best put by Solzhenitsyn.
“You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this. Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me. The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.”
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