[O]ne can define "capitalism" as broadly or narrowly as one likes. It would be easy enough to play the same trick with terms like socialism, communism, or fascism, and define them so broadly one could discover them all over ancient Greece or Safavid Persia. Yet somehow no one ever does. Alternately, one could just as easily [...] define "capitalism" as necessarily a matter of free wage-labor, but define "slavery" in the broadest terms possible: say, as any form of labor in which one party is effectively coerced. One could thereby conclude that modern capitalism is really a form of slavery. One could then go on to argue that the fact that modern capitalists don't see themselves as coercing others is irrelevant, since we are talking about objective constraining structures and not what the actors think is going on. Such an argument would not be entirely unprecedented: there's a reason why so many workers in modern capitalist countries have chosen to refer to themselves as "wage slaves." But no economic historian has ever, to my knowledge, even suggested such a thing. The ideological biases become clearest when one considers not just what's being argued, but the arguments it never occurs to anyone to make.Many of us—perhaps the majority of us who are relatively privileged enough to be salaried professionals—are even constrained from describing our own situation as a form of slavery, so completely have we internalized these ideological biases, so narrowly have we defined freedom for ourselves. Yet how free do we really feel?
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Noted: David Graeber
From "Turning Modes of Production Inside-Out: Or, Why Capitalism is a Transformation of Slavery", collected in Graeber's Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire: