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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #94, 8/30/2007

The New Slavery

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

[Subject to active editing for the next day or two.]

Slavery was supposedly outlawed in the United States a century and a half ago. One person can no longer own another and physically compel them to work. However, the experience of slavery continues to this day, and it is likely to touch all of us. Slavery today isn't compelled by ownership but by economic need and by servitude to prior commitments.

At some point in our lives, all of us have been forced to work for "The Man." That is, we have had to do things we don't personally agree with simply to receive a paycheck and pay our bills. That is the inescapable nature of "work": It is doing someone else's bidding. When you work, you are selling off some of your precious time in exchange for money. It becomes slavery when we have little choice about where we work and when the work itself has ceased to expand us.

You can make $200,000 a year and still be enslaved. There is probably only a narrow field of work in which you can make this much money, and once you achieve that level of achievement, you are chained to that career. Your economic and social commitments have probably expanded to absorb the $200,000, so you can't just quit and start a new career at $20,000, even if it were more meaningful.

Doctors and lawyers can be just as enslaved as anyone else. After a while, you're doing the same thing over and over again and have little choice about how you spend your time. If you are creative and resourceful, you will find ways to make the make the sentence pass more quickly. Certainly, there is a nobility in doing your job well and in serving the public, but the haunting question is whether it is the best you can do.

Remember that the real coin of life is not money but time. True freedom is to be able to use your remaining time in the most productive way possible without being held down by either hunger or prior commitments. One example of freedom would be to have a million dollars in the bank while living like a hermit and not having any significant social obligations. Then you could truly follow your muse and do what you wished, presumably to the ultimate benefit of mankind.

This isn't the way things usually work, however. If most people were given a million dollars or a $200,000/year job, they would quickly construct a new prison for themselves based on that income. Their expectations and commitments would expand with their resources, so that hermit status is no longer good enough for them. Eventually, they would become imprisoned once again, but this time at a much more expensive level that is more fragile and difficult to sustain.

It is only a small step from imprisonment to prostitution. This is where you are selling yourself to someone else's perceived needs without doing anything to address their real underlying problems. The casino and advertizing industries are institutionalized prostitution, but even being a doctor can seem that way. As a doctor, who are you treating? To a large extent, it is people who have taken poor care of themselves. You patch them up so they can go off and engage in the same unhealthy behavior. Doctors can feel enslaved to insurance companies and other forces beyond their control, and their work may eventually seem repetitive and factory-like. "Is this all there is to life?" they may ask.

Ideally, your life should go through phases. You can be happy doing something for a while, but eventually your perspective is going to shift and your goals are going to change. The things that were important to you when you choose your career path might not be important now. When these unexpected internal changes happen, you want to be able to rearrange your life to accommodate them. It is slavery when you are forced to pursue your previous path anyway.

Of course, most people who are enslaved don't believe they are. They support their delusion of freedom by suppressing internal change. They develop a ritualized set of hobbies and interests and do not deviate from them. Twenty years from now, they will be pretty much the same as they are today, except where misfortune forces change upon them.

We tend to think of slavery as dull, repetitive, backbreaking labor on the master's fields, but slavery today can take many different forms. Slaves produce most of our consumer goods: either slaves in China working for pennies an hour or slaves in our own country working for much higher wages. Slaves can belong to a union or be members of management. The common feature of all slaves is that they are trapped in the patterns of the past and have little real discretion about how they conduct their present lives.

We think of slaves as having a master standing over them with a whip. Today, the whip is much more subtle. Punishment is economic: conveyed by bank account balances and credit card payments. If you don't do what some abstract master wants you to, you will lose your property and your ability to support the people you care about.

You don't have to physically shackle someone to force them to go to work in the fields. A simply understanding of economic cause and effect is enough to keep them in line.

Reader Comments

“It's LaBaronable” — 12/31/07 (rating=3)

“This is just plain obvious--in the "duh" category” —TooUnfazed 1/17/08 (rating=2)

“Alimony, especialy the lifelong form, is the true surviving form of slavery/peonage.” — 3/13/08 (rating=3)

“You Got It Made Glenn, And again Thank Youn For Sharing With The World . Braxtonperry” — 2/17/10 (rating=4)

“The concept is good, but you have enormous logical gaps in your argument.” — 6/24/10 (rating=2)

“I suggest you study the Dred Scott case” —Dred Scott 11/20/10 (rating=1)

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