Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Unfree and The Outsider

As usual, our definitions must be clear:

Slave-a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another.

Unfree labour-a generic or collective term for those work relations, especially in modern or early modern history, in which people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves, or to members of their families.

Master-a person with the ability or power to use, control, or dispose of something.

Outsider-one who is isolated or detached from the activities or concerns of his or her own community.

There are many ways of explaining why these roles exist. The most obvious is by historical example, tracing the establishment and evolution of the institution of slavery through various eras and cultures. This is to understand slavery's importance to the stability and development of the various societies which have employed it. This is also to frame it academically as a bygone practice, something barbaric to be wondered at in our absurd, modern pseudo-enlightened style. Another way is to understand the master-slave dynamic as alive and well, functioning as an essential element in the maintenance of mainstream socio-economic reality. This I think is the more interesting approach, though my outlook is bound to be affected by my sympathies. I enjoy and appreciate history, but my responsibility, if I have any at all, is to live well and truly in my time and place and try to understand what a master is that a slave is not. And vice versa.

And so.

Human groups. Power accords to the capable so long as the weak are in agreement or under control. But the powerful, as Rousseau points out, are not, by virtue of their power, judicious. Might is might, not right. To exercise authority is to oppress, regardless of intention. There is no absolute freedom in society, only wider or narrower bounds. This seems a natural effect of communal living. Decisions must be made and restrictions put in place to ensure mutual gain and safety among members. All in a group would come to understand this in one way or another because it's a basic feature of human dynamics. Slavery, however, is not. It is an effect of imbalance, of social sickness and degeneration very much in line with the current state of affairs domestically and internationally. And equality? Equality is much written about, seldom discussed, and almost never practiced. Why? Because it will never cooperate with the kind of machinery we've been given. It can't. There are masters involved, richer and more powerful than ever. So powerful, in fact, that most of us never see them; like myths, they occupy an ethereal realm, sustained by the unwitting sacrifices of their subjects. A community can have equality; an empire never will. Communities need trust, cooperation and mutual concern; empires need slaves. And so we have them: the working poor, immigrant labourers, third world serfs and a great many of the so called "middle class". If slavery is submitting to the will of another to survive, then most now are enslaved; and though the chains be comfortable, they're no less binding.

It's true we're not property. It's true we have certain options open to us as citizens of a country more or less tolerant of diversity. A man cannot be shackled to a workstation for refusing to obey his employer. He almost certainly will, however, be obliged to borrow thousands from either the government or the bank in order to secure the credential which grants him - perhaps - a living wage. Not witnessing the extravagance of the master class, he assumes there isn't one, and feels lucky for his three meals a day. Emerging from the classroom, he faces a mountain of debt and subsequently must submit to whatever opportunities are available. This is deliberate. High tuition ensures that those who can't afford, or are in opposition to, for-profit educational insitutions are denied professional advancement - regardless of ability - and kept under thumb, while those who graduate are conditioned to obedience by obligation of repayment. This is fundamentally in conflict with several of our cultural assumptions, most notably that we value education as a right and not a privilege. Again, stratification is reinforced by those who benefit from it. If we're buying education, they're selling degrees. If we're buying rebellion, they're selling t-shirts. If we're not buying, they're selling us reasons to. Millions of dollars a year - which could be used to alleviate poverty - go into ad campaigns designed to generate the atmosphere of inadequacy necessary to keep us spending and, therefore, in check. Material greed is fear in service to comfort bolstered by insecurity, and it's something which is encouraged in all grossly imbalanced societies.

Tell a slave he's a master and he will labour in earnest to his final day. Sell him his chains and he'll think he owns them. Give him a taste of power and he'll bear through all indignity. Symbols are key here. The elevation in symbolic importance of elaborate and expensive possessions by the master class serves the twin purposes of increasing debt load and reinforcing the illusions of freedom and success among their servant populations. Add to this the sacred myth of the nuclear family and the Christian handicaps of sin and guilt and you get slaves who feel their suffering is deserved and so accept their role in the game, and the game itself, as more or less natural phenomena. Understanding just enough to perform, they're given just enough rope to hang themselves. In all relationships, there is exchange. Equality supposes each member to be entitled to no more or less than any other member by right. Capitalism supposes there will never be equality and embraces the master-slave paradigm as its de facto foundation. Common humanity must be a distant secondary, a kind of fluffy abstraction, to a mind which can accept the validity of exploitation of people for profit.

When dissent becomes fashion, revolution becomes trivial and the conscientious outsider a person to be ridiculed and pitied. It must be this way for those in power to keep it. Everyone must play the game or the game breaks down. And so we hear words like "patriot" thrown around, and wonder what to make of it. Surely the notion of patriotism must be relegated to the history books. What could it mean today? Just this: do as your leaders command. Close ranks. Defend. Against what threat, we ask, and the reply is more or less "unconventionalism". That which does not serve convention. That which does not serve. Viewed with suspicion, a non participant is emptied of identity and filled up with whatever ghosts are currently haunting the master class. Terrorist, communist, sexual deviant, immoral atheist. He is any and all of these because he hasn't asserted his place in the game and so casts doubt on its validity. He's the master of himself. He does not serve, and so makes his way alone. There are naturally few of these people, and their importance has been lost to us by incessant vilification. Their true role is to mirror what the rest of us can't see in ourselves. They're people who've chosen not to accept responsibility for their social inheritance. People who are unable to accept it. Classically, the mountain hermit. More currently, the hippie or "alternative" person. Regardless of labels, one thing is clear. They help define the true nature of the societies which create them.

But these roles are not mutually exclusive. A member of the master class may become an outsider as surely as one of the unfree sector may eventually become a master. It's a unique feature of our culture that this is possible, even common. Allowances are made to avoid tyranny. But these tolerances are surface, aesthetic. A change of outfit, generally speaking. There must be slaves. If not from within, then imported. And the masters are as they've always been, busy convincing themselves of their specialness, their inviolable right to be above and beyond the rest of humanity. The outsider has more in common with the master than the unfree, but is more liberated, more actually free. The master atop his human powder keg feels exalted, but the inevitable explosion and chaos will destroy him completely. In the meantime, he must soothe it. The outsider can watch this show from a safe distance and feel a part of himself in it. A part left behind. Solutions have been brought forward to the problem of masters and slaves. The old overt styles of slavery have been abolished with great sentiments of righteousness, but the practice itself remains strong as ever and will continue so long as equality remains merely an idea and profit the ultimate goal.

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