Slave for Hire

I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.

In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.

Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.

But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?

This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.

I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.

Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.

Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.

Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.

It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.

I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.

The Gaza Freedom March report

In December 2009, over 1,300 international peace activists arrived in Egypt expecting to travel through Egypt to Gaza and to break the siege. The march brought together all kinds of groups: feminists, Vietnam veterans, worker’s unions, Palestinian solidarity groups, Israeli journalists, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – our diversity epitomised by Hedy Epstein, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor.

The Gaza Freedom March was organised by The International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza. This organisation was formed after Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in Winter 2008-09. The coalition conceived this march as part of a broader strategy to end the Israeli occupation by targeting nonviolently its flagrant violations of international law from the house demolitions and settlements to the curfews and torture. But, on our arrival, the Egyptian authorities prevented us from gathering together as a group and revoked our permits to travel to Gaza.

We protested the decision: some members of the march went on hunger strike, 300 people from the French delegation made an encampment outside their embassy for a week. Eventually, one of the groups who helped organised the march, CodePink, opened dialogue with Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian President. After some negotiations, it was announced that two buses would be allowed to go to Gaza. This made a mockery of the stated reason for our detention in Cairo: our security. Furthermore, the Egyptian foreign minister made an announcement to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had vetted the members of the march and these 100 were the only people who had genuine humanitarian aims for Gaza. Having been involved in the chaotic process by which the list of the 100 was created, I can state categorically that this was not the case. I was telephoned in the evening of the 29th of December and told I had 5 minutes to provide two names of people who would represent the United Kingdom. This was farcical: I had no particular mandate to speak for everyone who came from the UK – I just happened to be the person they had the telephone number of.

This process created a rift among the marchers; in many ways the Egyptian government played the game very cleverly. They gave us just enough room to make our protest, but ensured that it didn’t spread beyond the confines of our visit. Then they drove a wedge between the organisers who accepted Suzanne Mubarak’s offer and the vast majority of the marchers who were angry that not everyone would be allowed to go to Gaza.

As it happened, I ended up on the bus bound for Gaza. As we sat in the bus waiting to leave, one of the organisers of the march in Gaza called. He said that he didn’t want us to come like this; the march was supposed to be an act of solidarity and shouldn’t be divisive. Hearing this, I got off the bus, much relieved.

After another day of protests in Cairo, I decided to get the night bus to Israel to see the conflict for myself.

Don’t Feed the Human

It is now illegal to give food to scruffy looking types in two US cities: Las Vegas and Orlando.

Two new ordinances in these cities, passed on the 20th of July in Las Vegas and the 26th of July in Orlando, mean that people on government support cannot eat in a public place for free or a negligible fee. The punishment? Well the recipient stays hungry and homeless (unless he or she can be squeezed into the local jailhouse) and the feeder could get $1000 fine and six months in prison. Now that’s an expensive sandwich by anyone’s standards (although some City delis come pretty close).

But how will this be enforced? How on earth can Marshals know who is on government support when they come across a suspect sandwich transaction? Well luckily the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has the answer: “Certain truths are self-evident. You know who’s homeless.”

Now he mentions it, I guess they do look a bit different to us don’t they? Skinny, drawn, probably with a beer can in hand and eyes bulging as a result of some kind of substance misuse. Clothes a bit ripped and messed up; hair unkempt and certainly unshaven. And then there’s the smell of course: a vile cocktail of human excrement and alcohol.

Quite apart from the difficulties of policing this new law, just imagine the bourgeois nightmare: you’re just sitting down with Timmy, Gemima and Clarence the dog for your delightful picnic in the park after a splendid morning feeding the ducks (legal). As you unpack the smashing sandwiches that cook prepared from the rems of last night’s charming soiree a down-at-heel type approaches you (note: he has not shaved recently – beware!). You signal calmly to the children who have retreated to cower behind you; brave Clarence sniffs disdainfully. The man (who, you quickly realise, is not wearing the latest style at ALL) removes his beaten cap and asks if he could possibly have a sandwich. What on earth do you DO? Give him a sandwich and risk criminal proceedings (heaven alone knows: he could be an undercover Park Attendant!), or refuse the sandwich and almost certainly risk losing the kids in a brutal daylight kidnapping?

The implications are wide-reaching: there was a famous summer during my schooldays in Reading when both Doritos and Tango were promoting new products simultaneously. They would generously hand out packets of crisps and bottles of drink to all comers in Reading station. It was beautiful: the perfect way to end the day, relaxed, feet up, on the train home with 14 packs of Doritos and a six bottles of Tango Still (it took a lot of nerve and a large bag to pull off, but it was certainly possible). But now, in the light of this legislation, presumably the promotion would only be open to those who could produce a gas bill or some other proof of address. This provokes the troubling thought: would they have accepted one in my Dad’s name?

Allen Lichtenstein, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney puts it another way: “So the only people who get to eat are those who have enough money? Those who get (government) assistance can’t eat at your picnic?” Surely this is madness!

Luckily, Las Vegas councilman Steve Wolfson raised this exact point with the city attorney Brad Jerbic. Wolfson was understandably worried that a hypothetical kind-hearted individual would be prevented from giving some homeless guy a hypothetical bite to eat. Jerbic clarified the matter for him: “If you bought a couple of burgers and wanted to give them out, you technically would be in violation, but you wouldn’t be cited.” Great! The Las Vegas ordinance was passed unanimously.

I guess they’re just after the big boys then; the people who go out and just hand out burgers to ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, no, maybe five thousand hungry people!

This certainly appears to be the case with Orlando’s apparently less extreme ordinance. The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit. The reason given (according to WFTV) was that “transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses”. Well, of course, the smelly buggers, coming here with their wee and poo and beards – yuk! Banish them! Two miles should do it… No wonder that negotiations between the city council and the American Civil Liberties Union ended badly due to a suspicion of bad faith.

***

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some kind of crazy US social fuckup; remember that what happens over there will happen over here sooner or later. Sorry, that is a terrible generalisation and a frankly exhausted tabloid cliché: ignore me – but just ponder the following:

A couple of weeks ago Westminster City Council criticised soup kitchens: “We appreciate they are trying to help but all they are doing is helping to sustain people on the streets.” The BBC reported that “a spokesman for Westminster City Council said soup runs fail to reduce the number of homeless people and can disturb residents in surrounding areas.” This seems to echo the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude expressed by the city councils of Las Vegas and Orlando.

With withering simplicity, Mr Samson, director of Shelter, pointed out “It is not lack of soup that causes homelessness”. Wise words.

***

The French, meanwhile, have been busy closing down soup kitchens for other reasons.

Soup kitchens run by right wing groups, serving soup somewhat provocatively made with smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, pigs’ tails and sausages, were targeted by French authorities last February. This was in response to the growing alienation felt by Muslim groups in France and during a period when the whole of Europe seemed to be in the grip of cartoon-related civil unrest.

The kindly matron of one such soup kitchen in Paris made the point, however, that “Other communities don’t hesitate to help their own, so why can’t we?” – shortly before climbing on top of a car and screaming, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!”

And it is true that Islamic and Jewish charities dole out (shock!) halal and kosher food respectively. But it wouldn’t be too hard to argue that these special diet kitchens don’t actually exclude certain social groups. It’s hard to say the same about a soup kitchen who baldly state: “The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork.”

***

It is easy for me; I could happily live a life in which food was not an issue of great social and political importance, but every now and again something nudges me awake.

The Man on the Train

The man on the train leant forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is ok? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
‘I have’

He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish. He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’
‘No, Hayes. I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘London-On-Sea.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘And a beach! Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the…um…forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.

Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging. Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. Hmm…looks like I’m out of ideas.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Lebanon.’
The wide, idiot smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently…Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out!
‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguing to register Concern, ‘…Gosh.’
‘Yeah. It is bad.’

At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.
‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
‘Your family!’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’
He looks pained, ‘No electric, no water- it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’
I look down at my bottle of water.

‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses, ‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people. I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody. Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retina burns when I meet his look.

‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want. Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us? How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London,’ he realises this doesn’t capture the scale, ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘ – Malta.’

‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down, ‘…A clear view.’

‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns – they are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘Bombed?’
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘Without the body.’
‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘Smaller than, smaller than,’ he leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure. ‘Smaller than…a football.’

‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them…anyway that was in World War’ he brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm. ‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die. If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’
He cuts me off brutally: ‘Well they must do something.’
‘They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

‘I must get off here – it’s been nice talking to you.’
I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship. But he is not the one in need, he is strong.
‘I hope you’re family are alright.’
‘It is life my friend.’

He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

I wish I’d asked his name.


This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.