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The Social Distance Between Us

The wage labour system is based on slavery laws & we should can it

Most employment law, if not all of it, needs to be thrown out and replaced with legislation that wasn’t built on more than 150 years of master/slave law and precedent.

Or so says Professor David Graeber, anthropologist and author of the best selling book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. In it, he argues that, rather than freeing us from work and diminishing the 40 hour work week, automation has led to the proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’ and the creation of an administrative and managerial class hired to help extract rents, suppress wages and maximise profits in a bid to redistribute ever more global resources to the elite.

A consequence of this is what he describes as ‘the bullshitisation of real work’, the rise of industries of administrators and managers that seemingly exist to ensure that those with a qualification get to spend less time doing the thing they were hired to do, (teach, or care for the sick, for example) and more time on pointless administration and paperwork.  

It’s no wonder the last few years has seen doctor and university lecturer strikes in the UK, care worker strikes in france, nurse strikes in New Zealand and Australia, and primary school teachers in the US. 

It probably does not help that most employment contracts in existence is based on 150 years of legal precedent that stems from master / servant law. 

The origins of wage labour

“I was researching the origins of wage labour legislation,” professor Graeber tells Renegade Inc. “I hadn’t realized that that in terms of law, in the UK, working contracts really only became a thing during the 1940s. Before that it was all under masters / servant law. But they had to change it to make it less advantageous to the servant.” 

“The interesting thing about wage labour is that in theory, the person who owes something is the boss, right? Because you work all week, and then you get paid at the end. That was kind of the way they thought about it during the Middle Ages. Everybody owed workers money all the time. Workers were very demanding, and the government was constantly trying to create legislation to prevent workers from demanding too much because usually they were in an advantageous position.”

But, as the wage labor system emerged, authorities had to work to reverse that. 

“There was all this legal expedience done to try to make it as if the workers were the debtors to the employer, rather than the other way around, ” he says.

Under master/servants law in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, workers had a year long contract and where employers gave their workers ‘God’s penny’ at the commencement of their employment, which was like a promise of future payment. 

“That very much stresses a debt to the person who is working for you,” says Graeber. “But you have to provide them room and board, and payment, regardless of whether you could find work for them. And you had to take care of them when they were sick. That is where the duty of obedience comes from. 

“Because normally, if you have a contract, you don’t draw up a contract where one person has to do whatever the other guy says. In fact, that completely contradicts the idea of a free and equal contract. So the conceptual leap to go over a contract were two free and equal parties might agree to not be free and equal parties, it basically doesn’t work in law. So they had to use the master/servant stuff.”

150 years of precedent based on slavery

The problem is master/servant law still informs the working contracts of today. 

“In America it’s still the law that is applied,” he says. “They don’t say so explicitly, but it’s still master/servant law. Because it’s all a series of precedents all based on master / servant legislation, the common law system.  That’s what it traces back to. That’s the body of law it is.” 

Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that we have in 2018, a “managerial feudalism” style economy where wages have stagnated and working conditions have become so precarious that they can no longer afford to challenge either the government or their employers for better rights, pay and working conditions. 

“They really came up with a lot of these industrial techniques on slaves,” says Graeber. 

“The thing about managerial feudalism is that it takes out the one good thing they had in feudalism, which is that at least people are autonomous, in the sense that only people who know how to do something can be put in charge of making people do that,” he says.

“That was another thing they had to legally  eliminate in order to setup the factory system. People would sue factory owners all the time, saying this violates guild law. You can only have a master iron worker telling iron workers what to do.” 

It is for this reason, the anthropologist advocates for throwing out 150 years of legal precedent and starting over, because it is the only way to remove structural discrimination from employment. 

Employment is a political project

The anthropologist says the structure of the job market is part of a 30-40 year political project designed to achieve complete social control, creating a permanent pool of unemployed people, while extracting wealth and resources for the administrative and executive classes. 

“I don’t argue that it’s deliberate conspiracy in the sense that people came around and said ‘how do we design a work regime that would be ideal for social control?’,” he says. “It’s not a cabal. I mean, there are cabals, it’s called the G8. They sit there and say ‘what are we going to do to world economy?’. They talk about these things very explicitly.”

So if the job market is itself a form of social control, what incentive is there for either government or industry to introduce a Universal Basic Income. It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of good will there…

“There’s no good will but there is a perception they’ve gone as far as they can,” says Graeber. “It’s getting to the point where it’s ridiculous and people are beginning to notice. I think that’s it. There’s a sense that, even the people who are coming up with the justifications for the system realise that the jig is up in terms of justifying it. Basically all they’ve got is ‘we can’t think of anything else’.” 

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