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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:

  • Technocratic socialism here refers to the specific confluence of those terms in the form of my political philosophy. Technocracy is a style of governance where the focus is significantly on getting policy right, with any boldness in theory requiring strong justification, and a general principle of subordination of theory to results. It is, in brief, a style of political focus for policywonks more than activists. Socialism is a commitment to public ownership of the means of production and to the primacy of the public good in political deliberation; it does not entail commentments against markets, competition, democracy, or high degrees of personal autonomy, all of these are potentially means to reach the public good (but they are not ends in themselves)
  • Wage-slavery is a (primarily socialist) critique of the way market systems often function under mercantilism and capitalism; it is a recognition that the decision to work is not a free one when one's basic needs are hostage to the economic system, effectively coercing people into labour. Those who have no cash reserves or unusual financial needs are stronger than others are effectively slaves to their employer, enjoying little dignity, autonomy, or ability to say "no" to any request or condition.
  • Actionability is an analysis we make on a solution (or implied solution); whether the solution can be made concrete or realised or advocated while achieving its ends without unacceptable damage to other values. For example, if we were concerned about the quiet injustices done to ugly people in society (there is actually pretty good research on this), we might decide to either sharply condemn any aesthetic judgement on the human form, or we might decide to blind everyone, but I expect few people would be accepting of either tactic. Actionability can stray into tactics too, where a given tactic might be marked softly-unactionable under a philosophy if there is a less-strident way to achieve the same end with markedly less damage to other values held under that philosophy.
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 resources that society has can be brought to a final form without human labour, or
  • Under a situation of open and non-personally-consequenced choice, sufficient human input would be put into producing the goods provided to society to provide for an acceptable status for members of society
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:

  • Medium wage-slavery, where we recognise that everyone suffers from the need to work, lessening the free-choice aspect of labour, and we respond to this with attempts to mitigate that feature
  • Weak wage-slavery, where we note that the lowest classes of society are much more vulnerable under market systems than others, and we aim to lessen the strength of that vulnerability, bringing it closer to what everyone else faces when they act in the labour market

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.


A slight capitalist critique: I think a better solution, instead of moving necessities of life out of markets, is to let markets continue to supply them -- regulating those markets appropriately where they produce bad results -- and separately hand people money to spend on necessities (but with no restriction on how they spend it.)

This gives us the substantial benefits of market-based allocation of necessities, but otherwise produces a similar result if you assume that people will spend on necessities before luxuries.

There is a standard slander against the poor that they will spend on luxuries first, or that they are drug-addicted and will spend on drugs; I don't think they generally hold up well to scrutiny.

Furthermore, the "give them cash" system has the substantial additional benefit that it is more humanity-affirming to let someone make their own choices, than to limit their choices where it's unnecessary to do so.

Also, if you use the 'reverse income tax' scheme, which amounts to paying everyone (rich or poor) a fixed amount of money per year, you save on administration costs, and you don't even have to worry about qualification. This system has the additional advantage that there are no perverse incentives generated; since you don't lose anything by becoming employed, unlike many current and proposed systems.
That's probably more fair for some kinds of care than others; we might prefer to handle things like healthcare in a way that they never have to balance it with other needs, and we might want to think about how to handle costs-of-living differences between areas.

The reverse income tax idea does seem reasonably low-overhead to administer if we were to go with cash, true.

One of the sides of this that I forgot to mention in the original post is that mitigating wage-slavery also mitigates the worry of effectively-coerced marriages, in that if people know that they're going to be alright if they walk out of a bad marriage/relationship, it gives them both the ability to do so and the ability to negotiate more strongly if they're not the primary earner; women's shelters right now are just a limited solution to this problem.
I don't disagree that healthcare specifically might want to be handled in a less-markety manner. There seems to be substantial evidence that this is a good idea. :-)

Cost of living is sort of a wash; it doesn't totally make sense to adjust for that, because more expensive places usually get that way by being more popular, so if you adjust for cost of living then the crowded popular places are going to get even more crowded. On the other hand, there may be a real issue where, e.g., cities as a whole are more expensive to live in but provide better employment opportunities. And certainly you can't assume that a person in California should move to, say, Montana to save money; that's just not practical. So some level of geographic adjustment makes sense.