According to the Cambridge Dictionary, wage slavery is defined as the economic condition where someone is obliged to work so that they can earn enough money to live on and pay for necessities. In effect, all workers in the global economy who have no other option but to work and sell their labour or else face poverty and homelessness, are in fact slaves to the capitalist economy. This links with the ideas of thinkers like Karl Marx and Joseph Proudhon, who elaborated on the comparison between wage labour and slavery, most notably the critique of work and working conditions.
Moreover, any consistent critique of contemporary wage slavery and global capitalism must engage with the contemporary political and societal situation, especially industrialization, the rise of the nation state and individualism.
The path to creating a society beyond wage slavery means drawing on different insights from disciplines as diverse as sociology, politics and philosophy. Primitivist philosophers like John Zerzan exhort pre-industrial civilization, specifically the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers as a cultural ideal. A world where the modern state did not exist and could not force people to either work or starve; a world where men and women didn’t have to slave away and dedicate the most meaningful hours of their day to deadening, mechanistic work. Instead, life was lived on a more individualistic, if somewhat tribal level.
A society where physical fitness, outdoor exercise and play, self-sufficiency and a tight sense of community foster an environment closer to human flourishing. While the wholesale implementation of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle might seem impossible today, with the pressures of industrialization, urbanization and the nation state; primitivism offers a challenge to the dominant industrial paradigm.
By reverting to a simpler lifestyle, growing your own food, living close to nature and the adoption of foraging, the average person can challenge the chokehold of industry, technology and capitalism from supermarkets to fast-food restaurants and return to an unhurried and more deliberate existence.
Now, the question of work enters the equation. What is the role of work in a pre-industrial society based on foraging and small-scale subsistence agriculture, and is this linked with wage slavery? Work in a pre-industrial society is anathematic to the modern conception of wage slavery.
A pre-industrial lifestyle, or a limited industrial lifestyle, can accommodate small-scale subsistence agriculture, foraging and crop harvesting, and this is very different from the factory system and industrial jobs in urban centers. Subsistence agriculture is when farmers grow crops to meet the needs of themselves and their immediate families in smallholdings rather than serving the market economy.
If wage slavery is defined by the pressure to work in exploitative conditions or else face poverty and homelessness, then the close-knit bands of foragers or farmers engaged in smallholding or subsistence agriculture, are not wage slaves in the strictest sense of the word. Instead, while they are aligned with an economy based on the production and exchange of crops and other goods, this is not exactly industrial capitalism.
The economy of pre-industrial society largely excludes wage slavery because the adoption of smallholdings and subsistence agriculture is conducive to a gift economy. A gift economy is compatible with freedom from wage slavery as smallholdings and subsistence agriculture don’t explicitly depend on the selling of crops and livestock. Instead, crops, livestock and handmade goods can be exchanged between rival bands and small communities due to the absence of any large-scale industry or market capitalism. As such, it is very plausible that pre-industrial lifestyles offer liberation from the yoke of wage slavery.
Moving beyond wage slavery will also impact society quite profoundly. Instead of rush-hour traffic and the rat race, society will be based on straightforwardness, social connection, proximity to nature and handmade craftmanship. Not a traffic light in sight!
All these differences between industrial and pre-industrial society, the latter heavily dependent on wage-slavery, demonstrate the benefits gained by forgoing the pressures of modernity and the market economy. While it may seem very difficult to turn back the clock and escape from wage-slavery, state interference in the economy and society, industrialization and automation; it is a necessary step considering Climate Change, a phenomenon which has been fueled by the industrial revolution.
Therefore, it is only by taking inspiration from the past that humanity can revert to a better lifestyle and live in harmony with nature once again. Of course, by transcending wage slavery and escaping the clutches of capitalism and industrialization, society will reap considerable economic, social, political and even psychological advantages.