Domestic forms of slavery are mostly founded on the example of the ancient patriarchal family. A male owns or controls the household and exercises power over the skills and labour of all the family members. Any economic activity, including its type, pace and duration will be directed by the patriarch. The family members will be persuaded or compelled to also do domestic labour as instructed by the ‘head of the house‘ – on threat of punishment or promise of future benefits.
The patriarch (kind or cruel) determines the amount and type of food, clothing, shelter and entertainment appropriate, for each family member. In the domestic economy he will decide the allocation of any surplus-production the family generates. Although, the biological members of the patriarchal family are not ‘bought‘, their socio-economic circumstances are analogous to those of indentured or purchased slaves. They cannot escape; for there may be nowhere to escape to; they can be whipped or beaten, locked away, deprived of food and have little or no control over their private lives.
Within the Abrahamic influenced communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, many features of the ancient patriarchal family were still prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wives and children could be brutally beaten, forced to hand over personal wealth, do household chores, locked in their rooms, denied food and even killed. Wives could be forced to have sex and domestic servants could be sexually exploited by the male head of the family.
Moreover, domestic violence, mainly by men against women and children has still not been entirely eradicated from 21st century domestic life around the planet.
What I call absolute slavery is the form extensively developed in ancient times but resurrected in the 17th, to 20th centuries. In warfare and conquest in the ancient world, some enemies were captured rather than killed. They were then ransomed or sold as household slaves or as forced-labour in agricultural or mining activities. But the economic aim was (and is) essentially the same for all forms of slavery; the slave-owner obtains all the value the slave produces that is greater than the value the slave consumes in living. Obtaining this ‘surplus-production‘ (or its equivalent in ‘value’ once these products are sold) is the purpose of all forms of slavery.
In the ‘middle ages’ serfdom became a modified form of slavery in the agricultural districts of Europe and surrounding areas. The serfs worked some days to feed and clothe themselves and were compelled to work for the owner of the land for the remaining days of the week. The latter days supplied surplus-production. However, It was with the development of huge, labour-intensive plantations in the new world of the Americas that human beings became commodities – on a vast scale. Slaves laboured to produce cotton, sugar, tobacco, coffee and other agricultural products.
In plantation forms of slavery, the aim was also to extract more value from the labour of the slaves, than the value they cost to purchase (their intrinsic or potential value) and keep alive. The value difference of plantation slave-labour over its costs was often large and their numbers considerable so the surplus-production in monetary terms was frequently huge. Centuries of accumulated profits by plantation based capitalists were used to fund the industrial revolution in Britain, Europe, North America and the world.
The industrial stage of capitalist development quickly became more productive and more dominant than slave-based agriculture. Consequently, absolute slave-labour became less productive than wage-slave labour and returned less capital to the capitalist elite. Absolute slaves had to be fed, housed, clothed, monitored and disciplined 24/7, whether engaged productively or not. If worked too hard they had short lives and replacing them was costly. In effect, wage-slavery increased the surplus-production value going to capitalists and eliminated many of the costs associated with absolute slavery.
In contrast to the absolute form of slavery, wage-slavery (described by the elite as ‘freedom’) meant the capitalist only had to pay for the work actually done and only when that work was needed. Thus the employer saved capital by not purchasing the worker outright and by not housing or feeding them when unemployed. Wage-slaves therefore, had no intrinsic value to capitalists and so were ‘free‘ to starve and even become homeless between jobs. Moreover, the compulsion to work hard for wage-slaves was not via a paid overseers whip, but via their own existential ‘need‘ for the wage or salary.
Better still (from the capitalist perspective), the subsistence level wage was only paid to the worker – after the work was done! Then the wage money was used to purchase food, clothing, housing and entertainment – from other capitalists! So capitalists got the surplus-production created by the wage-slaves during their employment period and got the wage-money back when these were used to purchase essentials for living. Isn’t such ‘freedom‘ wonderful?
The abolition of plantation slavery is often presented as resulting from elite moral conviction. In actual fact there was a strong economic dimension to abolition. Slavery had been considered immoral down through the ages and during the 200 year history of plantations. However, it was only ended, when the advantages of wage-slavery became obvious. When industrial capitalists became more powerful than plantation capitalists they began to impose their methods of exploitation on all other modes of production.
So in fact, the civil war between the North and South in the USA, was fundamentally a conflict between the wage-labour based industrial capitalism of the North and the slave-labour based agricultural capitalism of the South. Politics and morality at the time, was already largely determined by the process of global commodity production, and it was rapidly being shunted in the direction of wage-labour by the steam-driven power of industrial capitalism.
Moreover, on a world scale, all three forms of slavery still exist and still await abolition. In the meantime the bulk of humanity go – job application in hand – to those who only employ us when it suits them.
Roy Ratcliffe (July 2020)