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Wage slavery, the commons and the future of our planet

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Who runs your workplace?

For most of us the answer is a boss, who reports to a higher boss, who reports to an even higher boss, who reports to a ... all the way up to the "owner" of the enterprise. This is called a chain of command.

The words "chain" and "command" are both suggestive of a fundamental truth: Today's rules about the power of bosses and workers evolved from a time of masters, servants and slaves. While many norms and expectations have changed over the years the fundamental truth that bosses give orders and workers are required to obey remains the same.

This explains the use of the term "wage slavery" by some who oppose capitalism. It suggests that working for wages is similar to being a slave. The Wikipedia entry on wage slavery offers a good introduction to the subject, pointing out the concept is much older than capitalism and that even ancient Romans argued accepting wages for work put one into a slave-like position. The idea that giving up your free will for any reason or length of time makes you a slave is as old as wage work itself.

Interestingly, the usage of the term wage slavery has diminished as a greater and greater proportion of us work for wages. The notion that most of us are effectively slaves is probably too uncomfortable to contemplate. And, of course, not talking about this serves the interests of those who profit from our labour.

But I’d like to suggest there's another reason as well.

As more and more of us work for wages it becomes more and more normal and we lose the sense of an alternative. I was reminded of this while reading Peter Linebaugh's stimulating new book Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, a series of 15 essays "written against enclosure, the process of privatization, closing off, and fencing in."

Contrary to the mythology of a modern, progressive and democratic capitalism replacing backward feudalism, most ordinary people had more say in their day-to-day work life before our current economic system came along. In fact, the rights and privileges of "commoners" (the majority of people, whose independent livelihood depended on the shared commons) were destroyed as part of capitalist expansion. To this day, everywhere capitalism goes the rights and privileges of indigenous people disappear as the commons are enclosed (become private property) so that rich people can steal their profits.

When commons were common, through tens of thousands of years, people mostly developed technology and systems of usage that respected the land, ocean, river, forest, grassland and creatures that lived there. They did this because it was in their collective self-interest to do so. This was reflected in their religions and how their societies were organized, including the ways people thought of themselves.

Mutual respect, independence, collective responsibility, reciprocity, community and what we would now call a sense of ecology were encouraged because all served a society that held its resources in common.

As Linebaugh points out in Stop Thief, 200 years ago poets bemoaned the loss of these values as well as the ugliness created when capitalism enclosed the land and resources that people depended on for their livelihood. Capitalism waged war on the rights, privileges and ideology of commoners. Enclosure of the rest of the world (colonialism) was the logical next step. That war has continued ever since, with today’s military interventions, as well as the mass marketing of never-ending consumption and individualism just the latest in a long line of assaults.

But this is not just interesting history. People who work for wages today can learn important lessons from those who resisted, and continue to resist, the enclosure of the commons.

We should learn that:

-  Every enclosure of the commons is an assault on the environment. The point of capitalism is to exploit nature and other human beings for private profit.

-  Our strength is always collective; it flows from the commons. As individuals we are weak and defeated. 

-  We must insist that everywhere people work together be transformed into a commons. The factories, the shops, the distribution systems, all the places of our employment -- the entire means of production -- are a commons enclosed by capitalists in order to profit at our expense.

-  To create an environmentally sustainable, healthy, nurturing economy requires we no longer accept being wage slaves. We must take responsibility for what we do. We must understand that our world is a commons, not private property, and begin to act collectively to protect the resources that belong to all of us.

-  We must re-learn the values of mutual respect, independence, collective responsibility, reciprocity, community and living in harmony with the environment that were once the hallmarks of commoners.

During most moments of sudden, great change in human history people have been motivated by rights that were lost, insisting they be restored.

To accomplish the great change necessary today let us demand that which requires social labour be recognized for what it is, the common property of all. Let us rebuild the ways of thinking, the social relations, as well as the rights and responsibilities that were lost when our commons were enclosed.

The term that best describes what we would be fighting for is economic democracy. The commons was always an economic democracy.

The term also helps explain a key flaw in our current so-called democracy -- power flows from control of the economy, which is "owned" by a tiny minority.

The most successful social movements in the past two centuries have all pushed for an expansion of democracy. The fight for economic democracy would be a continuation of these movements.

Let’s build an economic democracy to rebuild the commons!

Gary Engler is a novelist (The Year We Became Us) and co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite (www.newcommuneist.com).

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