Time Heals All Wounds, And Then Kills the Patient
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Tue Jul 3 17:36:27 2012
On the Actionability of the Wage Slavery Critique

Those of you who are familiar with my criticism of some kinds of third-wave activism may have seen me use the term "actionability" there, and those of you who are familiar with socialist discourse may be familiar with the socialist critiques of "wage slavery". Depending on how broadly you follow me, you may have seen me make these particular arguments before; I aim to take them further. Is the wage-slavery critique actionable under technocratic socialism?

First, some terms:

To evaluate this, we must ask if wage slavery can be eliminated or mitigated. The strong form of the wage-slavery analysis suggests that societal recompense, en toto, should be independent of the kind of labour one does, if any, and that any labour should be an entirely free choice. For this, we would need to either believe: The first would depend deeply on technology to be viable (one of the reasons many communists were so gung-ho on technology); the second would depend on either a significant amount of the first combined with a bit of public-good labour, or very particular inculturation (this line of analysis is explored most throughly by anarchosocialist theorists). Although I concede that advances in technology or some future culture may be able to achieve any of these paths, I hold that at least for the forseeable future, none of these are likely, and so I consider the strong form of the wage-slavery analysis unactionable.

However, the wage slavery analysis is too appealing to discard so easily, and we can imagine weaker forms of it that may be actionable. Let's divide it into two parts:

Starting with the weak form of the wage-slavery analysis (because it is least difficult and because we would build on it with our middle analysis), we recognise that the fact that we use a single currency (and means to that currency) for luxury, reasonable needs, and necessary needs in society, we consider that necessary needs are the most coercive when denied; a person whose access to food and shelter depend on a job will accept much more indignity/suffering than someone whose access to recreational gear depends on it. By deciding to move some of the necessities of life out of pure markets (providing social safety nets, for example) reduces this vulnerability; the more basic rights, such as access to basic food, water, shelter, healthcare, transit, legal representation, and the like; these lessen the degree to which the poor are forced to endure hardship. I believe this is very actionable, and that broad consensus for this is possible.

Moving on to the medium form, we consider the vulnerability that everyone faces in labour; the arbitrary power of at-will employment gives the employer the ability to act like a small dictator over the lives of their employees, limited only somewhat by the ability of those employees to leave. Moderate success has already been had at limiting some of these abuses in western nations (discrimination over race, gender, and some other status is forbidden), but this process remains both incomplete by its own theory and insufficient in that theory. Labour Unions have likewise limited some of these abuses, while introducing smaller problems of their own. What other approaches might we have? A moderate theory would suggest that employers figure out an allocation of jobs based on what work needs to get done and that they may hire or fire based on changed needs or reasonable interpretations of performance but nothing else, significantly changing the at-will climate. A socialist theory might instead insist on democracy in the workplace, where instead of owners controlling a company, all workers control a particular collective and vote on its policies and direction (consulting expertise as they so choose) and own the product of the labour it organises. Either of these are actionable by my metrics, one of them belonging to the democratic-capitalism-with-social-values theory I'm developing as part of a partial-compliance framework (Rawlsian term there), the other belonging to the technocratic socialism theory I'm also developing as a full-compliance framework.

Reviewing, I consider the strong form of the wage-slavery theory unactionable; I don't believe it can be resolved anytime soon, and consider it instructive but not a fruitful line of thought for a short or medium term theory. The weak form is very actionable and is (just barely) within the realm of discussability in even the (very right-wing with both parties) American political system. The medium form can either be approached in tiny parts with a moderate solution or more fundamentally with a more disruptive solution, either of which I claim are actionable and both of which are worth exploring. I believe the solutions which I have marked as actionable can mitigate much of the harm that the hardline socialists see in their hard-form analysis, even if these solutions will leave them disappointed and leave people depending on work for full societal benefits.