I probably don't give enough credit where credit is due to Dan Carlin whose history podcasts are not only interesting to me but to my kids as well. You should know that if you are still one of those folks who listens to the radio during your commute and at your lunch break, that's how you fall behind those of us who remain fascinated by the world. There is so much better stuff on podcasts.
In his most recent history program, he 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.
As Carlin said, there are two ways to have leisure. You can either have a machine cook your breakfast or you can have people do it for you. For a long time, even being a technologist, I have always been more on the organic side. 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 - 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.
There used to be a chap who visited Cobb with some disgust when we talked about immigration issues, and he would 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 human 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 being and way less than a citizen. But it is in that gray area 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 Wright 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, and 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 Cobb'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. In a moral way, he enables us to get away from slavery which is a more natural relationship in a pre-industrial world. 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.
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.
The Weird Al Show
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 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 this blog was a useful analogy to a set of values that underlie the strength of America's ex-slavery population. I hesitate to call it 'black' because there was no such political or cultural connotation at the time. But in sense that they are related to black people today I tried to make some sense of what was lost as evidenced by a contemporary culture of complaint. We often have more than they ever desired, and we often lack that set of things that got them through. The key touchstone idea is that many Americans were born at home, and 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 of Cobb is to attempt to evoke that strength and independence and disabuse those cultural and political markers we try to leverage today.
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, but a labor market nonetheless - which but for the inventions of Eli Whitney 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 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.
Today there is human trafficking and 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, 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, come up with a fair wage.
But of course 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 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 mutal 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.
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, as America plunges into economic recession and even depression given the current accelleration of the downturn, we are going to learn these lessons all over again. I'm slightly ahead of the ball because I am trying to learn the lessons of kings.
Slavery is evil 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.