Best Satire Of The Unjust Absurdity Of Wage Slavery?

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Above photo: From GreenAmerca.org.

One century, one decade, and a year ago — that’s going back 111 years, to 1907 — a lovely little gem of a playful yet brilliantly provocative rabble-rousing pamphlet was published about economic exploitation. It focused more specifically on what’s come to be called wage slavery, the economic dynamic whereby in order to have a roof over our heads and not to starve, we’re compelled to allow certain people and artificial legal creations (employers and corporation) to not so much outright own us (that’s illegal) as to “rent” us, so we’re essentially temporarily owned via wage slavery.

The name of this relatively unknown[1] pamphlet is How The Miners Were Robbed. The author was John Wheatley (19 May 1869 – 12 May 1930), a Scottish politician who was the founder and first chairman of the Catholic Socialist Society among other things. I didn’t know much about Wheatley when I first typed in this pamphlet, though (I believe I found it through local union literature while attending graduate school). This is because it was back in the mid-1990s, and occurred not many years following the first widely use browser, Mosaic, came out in 1993, and long before a quick web search or check on wikipedia was all it took.

What I was struck by, however — besides Wheatley’s fitting into so concise a humorous drama such an incisive analysis and critique — was the innovative, almost theatrical set-up, and how the humor (within what even in the 1990s was an almost century-old piece) came through loud and clear. The whole pamphlet is written in the form of an imagined dialogue between the boss and owner of essentially a factory (a colliery is “a coal mine and the buildings and equipment associated with it” collectively) and a judge or magistrate interrogating him — the boss had been accused of theft. What emerges is a kind of Socratic dialogue that is both satirical (there is gentle poking fun at the boss from the start) and simultaneously radical in the old sense of going to the root of things, as the Magistrate (MAG) interrogates the Prisoner (PRIS) and the reader is taken through a relatively short set of twists and turns leading to the climax.

Before turning to Wheatley’s tract, though, it’s only appropriate that we give a brief but respectful nod to three short but striking and singular thematically related historical quotes, starting with the words of a very prominent former U.S. president.

Marx?! No, a Republican President, on Labor vs. Capital

Who to better start us off than Honest Abe himself, Republican president Abraham Lincoln? The following seldom-mentioned though undisputed quote comes from a State of the Union by Lincoln, no less, in which he said:

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.”

“Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” [emphasis added]

While the quote is verified and documented , it’s virtually never mentioned by politicians, be they a Republican or a Democrat. The few times one finds the quote online, it’s even rarer to include the prefacing words revealing how Lincoln introduced those sentiments. Lincoln said he was compelled to “rais[e] a warning voice against [the] approach of returning despotism” namely “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” This nearly forgotten warning against the despotism of putting capital above labor — mammon above human, if you will — is the background to Lincoln’s words about which is the superior and deserves “much the higher” consideration.

Just try reciting Lincoln’s words though, and ask people to guess who in the 1800s said it; they’re far more likely to reckon it was “probably Karl Marx?” than Republican President Abraham Lincoln. [2]. Probably somewhat amusing to see your friends guesses be so wrong. But also a reminder of how important it is to study history if one wishes to change its future course for the better.

The Sins of the Market

It was the great philosopher, psychologist and educator John Dewey (October 20 1859 – June 1 1952) who reminded and warned us that

“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”

But around the same period about a century ago it was among the early leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) who characterized the fundamental goal of the labor movement as:

“to overcome the sins of the market and to defend democracy by extending it to control over industry by working people.” (ref)

That is, you extend democracy from being narrowly confined to just political arena — it’s limited and emaciated there, but exists formally and to a certain extent in reality as well — and you expand and extend democracy to the industrial/workplace arena; you want to extend non-totalitarian democratic principles to exist there, too.

There are purely pragmatic considerations: the lack of economic democracy allows those people/corporations with the most dollars to have the most votes with which to strongly influence politics, both informally in through lobbying, and thus ultimately leads to damage even within the “narrowly confined” realm of politics, so there, too, democracy is badly undermined. But there’s also a matter of a deeper democratic value system. If you think about it, what we have in workplaces today, with bosses giving orders and employees obeying (which is the fundamental reality, even if attenuated in form within the modern workplace), if you translated that into the political arena, what would it be the equivalent? Of some kind of despotism, certainly not any kind of modern political democracy.

Nor are “chaotic anarchy” and “government central planning” the only remaining options. We have not just the mere possibility of democracy-extending, liberty-expanding, people-empowering decentralized democratic planning (DDP) from the community level networked on up to the state, regional and national levels — in our technologically advanced civilization, it’s nothing short of a necessity for sustainable survival. Incidentally, we already have central planning pretending to be a “free market.” After all, central planning is what huge corporations (some of whom are larger economies than entire countries) do all the time; not to mention government-corporate coordinated central planing (G-CCCP), e.g. Pentagon-guaranteed market for military contractors. Neither is a free-for-all based on “one dollar equals one vote” (rather than a non-plutocratic “one person, one vote”) acceptable.

We won’t further dwell on these points here, however. Let us instead — before savoring John Wheatley’s mini-play — enjoy one last, rather resounding quote on the necessity to overcome wage slavery.

Bullseye Eloquence from 1800s “Factory Girls”

Probably the best and most eloquent short, devastatingly strong political, cultural, personal and even spiritual cry against wage slavery comes from the labor newspapers run by young women in Lowell, Massachusetts and calling themselves ‘factory girls’ and working in textile mills, back in the 1840s.

Young women in the early 1800s, working in Lowell textile mills.
Source see also PopularResistance article including it.

The verbal eloquence alone of these young women — who may not have completed a high school education, and certainly in general hadn’t gone to college — makes depressing comparison with the writing abilities of many of today’s middle class or upper-middle class college students (many of whom I’ve enjoyed teaching at universities, and who I do not see as intellectually weaker, but rather as having been deprived of a rich intellectual culture such as these labor-rights agitating factory girls, and many of their male counterparts, had built up and benefited from in that era).

Their composition skills aside, the potent political and personal powder keg they unleash — as quoted by Chomsky on miseducation and the Lost Museum site by the City University of New York, each taken from the Lowell labor press in those days — rings loud to this day, as they contrast the independence and freedom of artisans and other self-employed persons, with the roles of employees; being cogs in the ever-expanding corporate machines, cogs being given orders from on high within the totalitarian hierarchy that is a corporation. This is the razor-sharp, trenchant synopsis that ‘factory girls’ with a modest number of years of formal education, came up with on their own, way back in the 1840’s, as they declared:

“When you sell your product, you retain your person. But when you sell your labour, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of mammoth establishments of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions their right to enslave and oppress.”

Those who work in the mills ought to own them, not have the status of machines ruled by private despots who are entrenching monarchic principles on democratic soil as they drive downwards freedom and rights, civilization, health, morals and intellectuality in the new commercial feudalism.” (emphasis added)

Elsewhere they also wrote: “we will soon show these drivelling cotton lords, this mushroom aristocracy…that our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity; that we WILL not longer submit to that arbitrary power which has..been so abundantly exercised over us.” (Chomsky comments, “just in case you are confused, this is long before any influence of Marxism. This is American workers talking about their experiences in the 1840s”. References for first and second quotes; see also IndustrialRevolution.org’s archive with more experts and Factory Girls page on EconomicDemocracy.org.)

From these powerful words of young working women of the 1840’s, we come at last to the best satirical piece of micro-theater, or Socratic dialogue, that I’m aware of, particularly from a century or more ago. Indeed, it’s among the best intellectual demonstrations of the not only unfair, but truly absurd nature in the exploitative arrangement of wage slavery. One last note before we turn to Wheatley’s How the Miners Were Robbed: I believe “Socialism” is the word in the original pamphlet in the penultimate line, though I’d quite often seen “Anarchism” and “Communism” used as scare-words to try to shut down an otherwise ironclad argument, so I included all those words in square brackets when I created the online copy.

And now, we hope the reader enjoys a luxurious, pleasantly slow and entertaining read of Wheatley’s short dialogue, perhaps playing the voices of the two parties in their mind’s ear, after which we’ll include just a very few last words and one single very resonant cartoon as coda:

 HOW THE MINERS WERE ROBBED

by John Wheatley (1907)

A case of heartless robbery was exposed the other day when the Duke of Hamilton, a local coalmaster named Frederick Michael Thomas Andrew Sucker, and several others were charged with having conspired together and robbed an old miner named Dick M’Gonnagle. Great interest was manifested in the case, the Court being densely crowded. The Magistrate, in opening the proceedings, said that owing to the very grave nature of the charge, and its immense interest to the community, he had decided to adopt the French mode of procedure and would commence by asking the prisoners to submit themselves to examination. The Coalmaster then entered the witness box to be examined by the Magistrate.

MAGISTRATE What is your name?

PRISONER: Frederick Michael Thomas Andrew Sucker, sir.

MAG: You have a great many names.

PRIS: I protest, sir.

MAG: I did not ask you your occupation. I desire to know how you came to be possessed of so many names.

PRIS: I can’t answer your question, sir.

MAG: Ah! That sounds suspicious. Now will you kindly tell us how much wealth you possess?

PRIS: (proudly) One million pounds, sir.

MAG: You must be an extremely able man. How did you come to have a million pounds?

PRIS: I made it, sir.

MAG: Ah! do you plead guilty to manufacturing coin?

PRIS: (indignantly) No, sir.

MAG: Then will you please tell us what you mean by saying you made it?

PRIS: I earned it in business, sir.

MAG: How long have you been in business?

PRIS: Twenty years, sir.

MAG: You must be a very capable worker to have earned such a huge sum in such a short time.

PRIS: (indignantly) I don’t work, sir.

MAG: Ah! this is interesting. You don’t work and yet you have told us that in twenty years you have earned one million pounds?

PRIS: I own a colliery, sir.

MAG: What is a colliery?

PRIS: A shaft sunk perhaps a hundred fathoms in the earth; also various buildings and machinery for the production of coal.

MAG: Did you sink the shaft?

PRIS: No, sir. I got men to do it.

MAG: Did you manufacture the machinery and erect the buildings?

PRIS: No, sir. I am not a workman. I got others to work.

MAG: This is an extraordinary case. You say other men erected the buildings, and manufactured the machinery, sunk the shaft and yet you own the colliery? Have the workmen no share in it?

PRIS: No, sir. I am the sole owner.

MAG: I confess I can’t understand. Do you mean to tell me that those men put a colliery in full working order, and then handed it over to you without retaining even a share of it for themselves?

PRIS: Certainly, sir.

MAG: They must have been very rich and generous, or very foolish! Were they rich men?

PRIS: Oh, no, sir.

MAG: Had they many collieries?

PRIS: Oh, none at all, sir. They were merely workmen.

MAG: What do you mean by merely workmen?

PRIS: Merely people who work for others.

MAG: Surely they must be generous people. Don’t they require collieries themselves?

PRIS: They do, sir.

MAG: And they own no collieries?

PRIS: No, sir, but I allow them to work in mine.

MAG: That is very kind of you, but of course not nearly so kind as their act in giving the colliery to you. Do you find you don’t require the whole colliery yourself, that you can allow others to use it?

PRIS: Oh, you don’t understand, sir. I don’t work in the colliery. I allow the workmen to do so.

MAG: Oh, I see. After those men handed the colliery to you, you found you had no use for it, and so returned it to save them erecting another?

PRIS: Oh no, no, sir. The colliery is still mine, but they work in it.

MAG: Really, this is very confusing. You own a pit which you did not sink, and plant which you did not manufacture nor erect. You do not work in this colliery because you do not want to work. Those
who do want to work own no colliery, and yet they gave one to you. Did you beg of them to come and work in your colliery, as you had no use for it?

PRIS: Oh, not at all, sir. They begged me to allow them to work.

MAG: But why beg leave to use your colliery? Why not make one for themselves, as they had done for you?

PRIS: I beg pardon, sir, but they could only do that by electing their own men to the County Councils and Parliament, and getting those bodies to do it, and THAT would never do. That would be [insert
“Anarchy” or “Communism” or “Socialism” or other scare word, here]

MAG: Seems to me it would be ordinary common sense.

There is little we can say to add to the punchline of this 111-year old pamphlet that so searingly yet amusingly exposes both the unfair and exploitative, and well as absurdly unnecessary nature of the arrangements of wage slavery.

Therefore, beyond the two footnotes already notated above, we’ll take no more of the reader’s time beyond including one single cartoon, very powerful in its own right, and which is the perfect coda for Wheatley’s pamphlet, reminding us, in a step further, of the extremely common exploitation (if not outright theft) inherent in the machines of the factory themselves, usually obscured from view as being just a few steps earlier in the process:

May this little essay — particularly How the Miners Were Robbed, the words of the Lowell factory girls and the above cartoon — come to mind on future May Days, Labor Day weekends, and other times to rekindle your own interest[3] and reinspire constructive rebellion and civic action. Robots and AI may very well free us, in steps, eventually, from wage slavery; humanity and our own dignity, however, deserve, indeed demand, that we not wait for such a day. Let us instead follow our hearts and values, our humanist yearning for liberty and allow libertarian-socialist instincts to propel us to help humanity put wage slavery into the rear view mirror of history sooner rather than later.

Footnotes

[1] There are several indications this tract is relatively little-known. For one thing, as of summer 2018, a search for [“how the miners were robbed” Wheatley] finds only “about 402 results” from Google. I haven’t located my original 1990s posting to UseNet, the pre-web global discussion board system, but one from 2009. And one brilliant internationally prominent critic of wage slavery with whom I only recently shared Wheatley’s piece — I later kicked myself for not having sent it many years ago — indicated they had not seen it before, and that found it most interesting. I hope it will take far less than another 111 years before, with help of word of mouth and sharing, How the Minders Were Robbed becomes much more widely known and circulated.

[2] Another source cites Harvard professor Michael Sandel who in his book Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (p. 181) goes further in analyzing Lincoln’s sentiments, stating:

“Lincoln did not challenge the notion that those who spend their entire lives as wage laborers are comparable to slaves. He held that both forms of work wrongly subordinate labor to capital.”

and, further

“Although he shared the abolitionists’ moral condemnation of slavery, Lincoln did not share their voluntarist conception of freedom. Lincoln’s main argument against the expansion of slavery rested on the free labor ideal, and unlike the abolitionists, he did not equate free labor with wage labor. The superiority of free labor to slave labor did not consist [only] in the fact that free laborers consent to exchange their work for a wage whereas slaves do not consent. The differences was rather that the northern wage laborer could hope one day to escape from his condition, whereas the slave could not. It was not consent that distinguished free labor from slavery, but rather the prospect of [eventual] independence, the chance to rise” out of the unfree [chattel slavery or wage slavery based] state of work, and “to own productive property and to work for oneself.” adding that, in Lincoln’s conception, “free labor is labor carried out under conditions of independence from employers and masters alike.” (Emph. added)

Also interesting is the following wikiquote-cited Diary entry (March 11, 1888) for Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes which is corroborated in full at Internet Archive, , and in part within a League of Women Voters brief before the Supreme Court — from the Citizens United case, in fact, and some google books (and here.) While not touching on wage slavery itself, it’s yet another case of, “Are you sure this isn’t Marx? Oops, it’s another (Republican) U.S. President” moment on corporate power. Corporate power which to this day is very hard to criticize without being red-baited as some kind of “commie” — and which system of what we may call Corporate Feudalism is the modern form holding in place most of today’s system of wage slavery — yet as we’ve outlined, such anti-wage slavery thinking is in fact part of a long, strong Anglo-American tradition of morals and values that’s been forgotten only thanks to a massive effort by corporate think tanks and media.

In fact, President Hayes’ diary entry reads as if it comes straight out of Howard Zinn, Chomsky, or Richard Wolff in the U.S., or internationally from an uncompromisingly principled critic of corporate power like Arundhati Roy; this is Hayes’ diary entry:

“The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital. Hundreds of laws of Congress and the state legislatures are in the interest of these men and against the interests of workingmen. These need to be exposed and repealed. All laws on corporations, on taxation, on trusts, wills, descent, and the like, need examination and extensive change. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations. — how is this?”

[3] Besides the links above, readers may enjoy reading about the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives or even search their jobs database; the Mondragon Corporation in Spain with some 75,000 workers and 11-figure sized revenues and assets and the tenth largest company in Spain; the positive elements, failures, and different income sharing models of the possibly resurgent Kibbutz movement, including cooperative Arab-Israeli projects such as the cooperative village of Wahat al-Salam / Neve Shalom; work possibilities at credit unions or even Community Development Credit Unions; the Income-sharing intentional communities in the U.S. and a global directory of intentional communities; and a guide with an interactive, zoomable map of U.S. worker-owned coops.

See also the links on communitarian economics in the Concluding Remarks section of my piece on the shocking math of how all Americans could be literal millionaires if we ended the U.S.Empire (including community-owned alternatives to Wall Street). PopularResistance also has related articles including on a possible sea change increase in worker co-ops, and how to start one.

  • lcotler

    Fascinating! I’m a theater director in our local community theater. How may I obtain a copy of Wheatley’s play?