Anti-Slavery and Anti-Capitalism

Rick Wolff



hen Marx referred to workers in capitalism as “wage-slaves” he meant more than a striking phrase. For him, the analogy between slavery and capitalism offered a powerful contribution to anti-capitalist movements. The clue to that contribution lies in the Communist Manifesto’s summary of what differentiated communists from other leftists: the latter seek to raise wages, the former to abolish the wage system.

While slavery emerged at different times and places in world history, it always generated opponents. Among the enslaved and others, two kinds of opposition arose. The first focused on improving the slaves’ living conditions: these opponents demanded that slaves be better fed, clothed, housed, treated, and so on. The second made a very different demand: slavery as an institution had to be abolished. The two oppositions sometimes collaborated, but they sometimes fought each other bitterly. Then the first accused the second of an irresponsible utopianism that sacrificed action for the immediate improvement of slaves’ lives and aimed instead for what at best was a distant goal. The second retorted that so long as slavery survived as an institution, improvements for slaves would be difficult to achieve, insufficient, and insecure; moreover, by limiting the opposition’s goal to improving slaves’ conditions, slavery as an institution was condoned and the movement for abolition weakened.

Although slavery lasted for long periods in many places, eventually the second sort of opposition prevailed. Across much of the modern “civilized” world, slavery was abolished as an intrinsically immoral and inhumane institution regardless of whether the slaves’ enjoyed good conditions or not. The fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution outlawed the institution of slavery for all except prison inmates. Predictably, the de-facto slavery of prison inmates has everywhere generated, once again, the same two sorts of oppositions.          

When Marx likened wage-workers to slaves, he brought the lessons of oppositions to slavery to the emerging movements against capitalism. Put bluntly, Marx argued against forms of anti-capitalism that limited themselves to improving workers’ living conditions. Fast-forwarding to today, Marx would criticize movements such as those for “a living wage” or “pension reform” or “welfare increases” or “saving social security” and so on. A Marxist opposition to capitalism is rather one focused on its abolition as a system. Marxists, he might say, are to capitalism what abolitionists were to slavery.

For Marx, the crux of the issue is that capitalism entails exploitation. A large part of the population (productive laborers) produces a surplus that is appropriated and distributed by a small part of the population (capitalists). In capitalist enterprises, workers are hired only if the value that their labor adds (to the raw materials, tools, and equipment their work uses up) exceeds the value paid to them as wages for doing that labor.  That excess value – the surplus – belongs to the capitalists since they own the outputs of production, sell them in markets, and thereby realize the surplus value in them. In the preferred language of capitalism, that surplus value comprises the “profits” of the capitalists, their “private property” to dispense in their own interests.

The less wages that capitalists must pay to workers, the more surplus they get for themselves. Exploitation thus situates tension, hostility, and conflict in the heart of production. Capitalists and workers are set into oppositional struggles. Moreover, those struggles ramify and provoke competitive struggles among capitalists and among workers. Alongside the outputs of capitalist production yielding impressive incomes and accumulating wealth, there are also the countless, ramifying social costs of the conflicts and competitions.

By excluding them from the surplus, exploitation also excludes workers from the tasks, skills, and rewards of organizing, managing, and directing production. Workers and capitalists thus become systemically unequal in ability, competence, and confidence. The inequalities anchored in capitalist production usually carry over to make the politics and cultures of capitalist societies similarly unequal. The absence of democracy in production undermines efforts to establish it in politics.

Capitalist exploitation would be difficult to sustain if it had to be imposed on workers resentful of their exploitation and its social effects. Hence, as with all other exploitative systems (e.g., feudalism and slavery), theories are advanced and disseminated by capitalism’s organic intellectuals that make exploitation invisible and so function to deny its existence. Such theories parallel their counterparts in slavery and feudalism where it was argued that slaves and serfs were not exploited but were rather protected (saved from despair, poverty, and death), loved like children, culturally uplifted, and so on by their lords and masters.

Today, the hegemonic economic theory, called “neoclassical economics” for historical reasons, serves to make exploitation invisible. Building on the early formulation of such ideas by Adam Smith, neoclassical economics casts production as a process in which no surplus gets produced, nor appropriated, nor distributed. Instead, production is an harmonious collaboration: workers bring their labor, landlords their land, and capitalists their capital. All three contribute to production and all three share in its fruits according to their contributions: the workers’ share is wages, the landlords’ is rent, and the capitalists’ is profit. It is a world of fairness and harmony. The inability of workers to contribute capital is explained by their failure to save out of their incomes and their resulting lack of capital to contribute to production. The capital in the hands of capitalists is not the fruit of exploitation, of taking a surplus from workers, but rather the fruit of their own virtuous frugality. Capitalism fairly rewards individuals for the contributions each brings to production. More than that, capitalism represents an engine of wealth production, economic growth, and thus the possibility for everyone to become rich. Those who have failed to do so should chiefly blame themselves. To blame capitalism is not a valid social critique but rather the whining of losers.

Neoclassical economic theory, among other hegemonic sets of ideas, has worked well to support and justify capitalism and undermine the appeal of Marxist economic theory. One modality of its working has been the sedimentation into the popular consciousness of the notion of “the wage.” It strikes vast numbers of people as somehow obvious, natural, and necessary that production be organized around a deal struck between a wage payer and wage receiver. And this is all the more remarkable in as much as the vast bulk of human history displays economic systems without wages (neither serfs, nor slaves, nor individuals who work alone, nor most collective work systems have used wages). Capitalism’s history is in part the history of the deepening conceptual hegemony of the wage. Thus, for example, the individual peasant or craftsperson working alone has had to be renamed a “self-employed person” to revision a non-wage production system as if it were waged.

Naturalizing the wage concept works to naturalize capitalist relations of production, the employer/employee relation, not as one among alternative production systems but as somehow intrinsic to production itself. Workers, trade unions, and intellectuals often cannot imagine production without wages and hence wage payers juxtaposed to wage earners. This helps to make capitalism itself appear as necessary and eternal much as the parallel theories celebrating feudalism and slavery performed the same function for those systems of production. The naturalization of the wage system helps support the notion that the fundamental goal of workers’ organization must be to raise wages.

Thus, no surprise attaches to the fact, these days, that one widespread kind of social criticism concentrates on softening capitalism’s negative impacts on workers and the larger society. It seeks to raise workers’ wages and benefits and to make governments limit capitalists’ rapaciousness and the social costs of their competition. In the US, this is what “liberals” do: from the minimalist oppositions within the Democratic Party to the demands of social democrats and many “radicals” for major wage increases, major government interventions, and so on. What always frustrates liberals and radicals is the difficulty of achieving these improved workers’ conditions and the insecurity and temporariness of whatever improvements they do achieve. Today they bemoan yet another roll-back of improvements, namely those won under FDR’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and so on.

Marxism is that other kind of opposition that demands the abolition of capitalism as a system. Since Marxists find capitalist exploitation to be as immoral and inhumane as slavery, they might logically seek a further amendment to the US Constitution that abolishes it as well. A Marxist program would seek to replace capitalist production by a non-wage system, one where the workers will not only produce surpluses but also be their own boards of directors. The “associated workers” would, as Marx suggested, appropriate their own surpluses and distribute them. The wage-payer versus wage-recipient division of people inside production would vanish. Every worker’s job description would entail not only his/her technical responsibilities to produce a specific output but also her/his responsibilities as part of the collective that appropriates and distributes the surplus. Monday to Thursday, each worker in each enterprise makes commodities, and every Friday, each worker functions as a member of that enterprise’s board of directors. The stakes here are less obtaining higher wages than abolishing the wage system.

The point of such a Marxist program is to overcome the conflicts, wastes, and inequalities (economic, political, and cultural) that flow from the existence of capitalist exploitation whether or not wages are raised. The point is likewise to stress the incompatibility of any genuine democracy with the wage system and its usual social effects (and again whether wages are higher or lower).

Of course, in the struggle between such a Marxist perspective and its various critics, the latter will depict the programmatic advocacy of an end to the wage system as impracticable, utopian, or deluded. Those persuaded by neoclassical economics will simply dismiss or ignore not only the Marxist criticism of the wage system but Marxism altogether. For them, the wage system is not only eternal and necessary, but also fair and “efficient.” For them, since there “is” no surplus, they need not read or learn Marxist theory and criticism, let alone debate it. So Marxist theory and its proponents can and are largely excluded from public discourse in the media, the schools, and politics.

For liberals suspicious of neoclassical economics – or “neoliberalism” as it is now more often called - the Marxian program sketched above would be seen as utopian fantasy at best. Yet, not the least irony of Bush’s America today is how his regime’s relentless removal or reduction of the past reforms (high wages, pensions, medical insurance, social security, state social programs, etc.) makes a liberal politics today seem painfully deluded to so many. The liberals seem hopelessly weak, unable to stop let alone reverse the Bush juggernaut. Worse still, what they advocate are precisely the reforms now being dismantled and thus revealed as having been fundamentally insecure all along. The audience for capitalism’s critics and opponents is thus being primed to listen rather attentively to Marxist claims that an abolition of the wage system offers not only a better society but also a far better basis for securing those improvements in wages and working conditions that mass action can achieve. What is needed now are Marxists able and willing to articulate those claims to that audience, to persuade ever more of capitalism’s critics and opponents that abolition of exploitation and the wage system must be a component of their program for social change.

Rick Wolff's major interests include (a) the critical comparison of alternative economic theories (neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian) (b) the application of advanced class analysis to contemporary global capitalism, and (c) new developments in Marxian economics. He has published several books with Stephen Resnick including Knowledge and Class: A Critique of Political Economy. He is a member of the editorial board of several academic journals including Rethinking Marxism.