From Agriculture to Wage Slavery

An isolated hunter-gatherer has only his or her own wits and skills to depend on. In order to get food, the individual may need to make tools and weapons using skills learned from the previous generation. In order to survive periods of low food availability, it may be necessary to save food such as nuts that will remain edible if they are kept dry, grain that may remain edible if it can be protected from moisture and animals, and dried meat or fish that can be kept dry enough not to spoil.

The same hunter-gatherer in the company of a dog, cheetah, or other suitable predator-partner, is benefited by complementation of natural abilities. A dog can not only help with hunting, but also offers protection and companionship. The dog will eat parts of the prey that the human probably would not eat and scraps or leftovers of other food that would otherwise go to waste. So the relationship is symbiotic, beneficial to both parties.

A hunter-gatherer in the company of another human can enjoy the benefits of division of labor, complementation of skills, and even reproduce. With or without the help of a companion-predator, the pair of humans can be more successful than either one as an individual. The addition of children imposes additional burdens in their first years, but they transition to accepting greater and greater levels of responsibility. Work done in the raising of children is another way of saving up the work done in hunting and gathering. The children also serve as an investment for the old age of the parents.

When surpluses are present, bartering and other forms of resource exchange (including, for instance, gifts and hospitality offered to strangers) make it possible to gain wealth without doing more work since trade may provide fish hooks, knives, or other items made by expert hands, salt or other edible items not available locally, etc. Both parties in such exchanges benefit.

With increases in population pressure it becomes more and more useful to keep related families together in tribes. Families may unite the offspring of two or more sets of originally unrelated grandparents, so a tribe may be fairly complex in the kinds of genetic relationships it encorporates. However, increases in population pressure in the presence of separate clans or tribes of humans may easily result in predation of one group upon another or warfare over issues of territory. Slavery is a rather uncommon outcome of such encounters since only captured children could be prevented from escaping when offered the opportunity.

The invention of agriculture around 12,000 years ago introduced many important changes to human life. Food could be produced in greater volume, related families could clump their dwellings together for convenience and safety, and starting around 5,000 years ago water buffalo and then oxen were domesticated to pull plows. These animals, and horses (domesticated around 4,000 years ago) could also pull wagons and created the possibility of trading large amounts of good and the need for roads and road maintenance. Once again, increased complexity of human organization created advantages and also dangers. While population pressure was low, villages were unprotected, but later on villages became defended by walls.

Money is an intermediary in trade. Three-way trades are difficult to arrange in the absence of money. Perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago, more certainly from around 9,000 years ago, cattle became a standard unit of exchange. Around 3,000 years ago a certain weight of grain was used as a unit of currency. The first minted coins were produced around 650 to 600 BCE. Depending on the region, other symbolic tokens of value may be used, e.g., the cowry shells favored by both the ancient Chinese and by the Ojibway in North America.

Hunting can be a cooperative activity, e.g., when many people surround an area of prairie and then close in on game, or when several hunters drive prey into traps. Presumably, the hunters share equally in the spoils of the hunt. So it must have been unusual for hunter-gather individuals to recruit labor for some special project.

Agriculture often must depend on recruited labor to be as successful as possible. A farmer may have a large field of wheat that has matured and ought to be harvested promptly to avoid damage by wind and rain. If the farmer can recruit labor then the entire harvest can be kept safe and stored away for future use. One solution is for several farm families to harvest fields together in rapid sequence depending on which fields become mature earliest. Obviously, if the several farms involved are of greatly different size then a simple trade of labor will be greatly to the advantage of the farmers with the largest fields.

Agriculture may secure labor by means other than simple exchange. One of the earlies solutions is slave labor. A second solution is serfdom, in which farms are owned by one group and farmed by serfs who are bound to the land. There are several intermediate variations. One arrangement persists today, the tenant farmer. The normal solution to short-term labor requirements is to pay agricultural workers.

The objective of the farm owner is to obtain wealth by utilizing farmland, seed, fertilizer, knowledge of farming, etc. The wise farmer also aims to preserve the fertility of his land and avoid any side-effects of farming that become liabilities, e.g. runoff of sewage from animal husbandry, runoff of fertilizers or agricultural chemicals that may contaminate streams of the land of neighbors, etc. Whether the farmer lives a abstemious life and gives all surplus money to an organization such as a church, or spends his disposable income on frivolities or gambling, or makes some other kind of plan for his earnings will not affect the basic question of how to make the farm work.

Agricultural outputs diagram

The ratio of the four outputs from the farm is contingent on several factors. Waste depends on the crops grown, the care taken in management, etc. The amount given to workers must be enough to ensure that they will be available to do the needed work. The amount the government takes in taxes ought to be according to some general rule applicable to all farms, but some situations permit some farmers to reduce their taxes. In China, during the traditional period, farmers could donate all their land to the nearest Buddhist monastery, and then rent the farm land back from the monastery (which was tax exempt) for less than the amount given for taxes. The amount available to the farmer is the difference between the total output and the aforementioned three factors. The farmer is not obligated to take all of that money. The farmer will apply some of the earnings to maintenance and improvement of the farm, farm buildings, etc., some to his home and family, and he can put some amount into grain storage (to protect against a possible failed crop season next year, to make possible selling grain at high prices in bad years, etc.) and he can also save by selling surplus output and storing his earnings in the form of money, gold, etc.

There are several limit conditions that would terminate the normal functioning of the farm. All of the output could be given to the workers, in which case the owner would starve unless s/he was independently wealthy. The government could take all the output of the farm, in which case the workers would have only the hope that they could divert enough farm produce to live on. Waste could be so high that income would be insufficient to support the farmer, pay the workers, and give the government the taxes it demands. The farmer could pay the workers so poorly that they would seek employment elsewhere or, if they could not find other work, they would suffer from malnutrition and other maladies and become less and less able to or willing to work well.

The most recent full-blown slavery in the United States  before the Civil War. The institution was linked with a very profitable crop essential to one kind of mechanized industry, cotton. The industry of one human being in a cotton field might produce only a little more than it takes to keep him or her healthy enough to work. However, the plantation owner harvests that small differential from each of a large number of slaves and can become very well paid in the process. After the Civil War, slavery was illegal, but owners of large spreads of cotton-producing land used other means to secure the labor of African Americans at profit-preserving costs. Slavery was still legal in Mauritania until recent decades, but getting rid of the legal status of the institution has not totally wiped it out.

Maltreatment of farm workers has occurred under the Soviet Union, Communist China, and other states that have tried to keep possession of the various means of production in government hands, have the workers live in communes, and make directors of farms and other industries members of the political hierarchy. Ironicaly, the party functionaries took the place of the members of upper classes who ran things under serfdom. The ancient Egyptians used slavery, and with that institution in place the only source of relief for farm workers was a slave revolt. The Germans used slave labor during the Second World War under conditions that made escape almost entirely impossible, but workers resisted by discretely sabotaging bombs and other war materials that they were forced to produce. Slavery and human trafficking are still present in the world, and not many people try to defend these institutions. Nevertheless, these institutions seem to thrive in the same social and technological environment that makes transnational criminal and terrorist organizations difficult to control by the tools of national governments. However, as far as I know, there are currently no national governments that give legal status to slave labor or bonded labor, indentured servitude, as recognized parts of their social and political organization.

The problematic motivations of farmers are: (1) desire to provide a high standard of living for self and family, (2) desire to purchase more farm land to increase the amount of rake-off accruing to the farmer, (3) desire to save for the future in the form of stored produce (which could eventually be sold during times of bad harvests and so lower the prices of grains sold to families) and in the form of gold, silver, jewels, money, and other imperishable commodities. That humans are motivated to create treasure troves, possibly by nature and surely by culture and education, has been known for all of human history and the same kind of motivation exists in many other animals that hoard resources for the future.

The repretoire that humans have for increasing their own wealth to the disadvantage of others includes: direct predation, slavery, serfdom, tenant farming, and providing hired workers with the minimum necessary to retain the desired number of employees. In situations wherein the employer provides food, living space, sundry goods, etc., employers may apply fees, interest on loans, penalties for various infractions, etc., with the intention of making employees owe to the farm or other place of employment more than they are due in wages. The situation is often complicated by the fact that if the owners of similar enterprises pay their employees at wage-slave rates, then they can undercut the minimum price at which that owner can still make any money. One of the functions of a minimum wage law is to protect the interests not only of employees but also of compassionate employers who otherwise face a choice between going out of business or becoming yet another wage-slaver.

When two economies are not in equilibrium, when the economy of one country is such that workers must be compensated for their work at some minimum salary R in order to buy food and pay for the other requirements of daily life, but the economy of a trading-partner country is one in which workers only need, e.g., half that amount to maintain an adequate way of life, then the second country can sell grain or some other product at a lower price due to the salary differential. Businesses in the country with a higher standard of living may succeed in cutting costs by gains in efficiency, but also by cutting workers' salaries. Finally they may be unable to compete against imported products and are then required to take rather extreme steps to stay in business. One solution is to make their products by employing workers living in the other country. Doing so means that almost all of their original employees will have to find other forms of employment or become unemployed. Advanced forms of production such as depending largely on automated machinery to till and harvest farmland, manufacture products, etc. will also create a large swell of unemployed workers. Then workers in neither country will escape harm. Perhaps the most damaging effect of trade among countries at various stages of economic development and iving standards occurs when first-world countries with highy developed agro-business firms that can produce corn, wheat, and other grains at very low cost then sell part of their surplus in third-world countries wherein it is the much-cheaper product. Doing so can make unemployed large numbers of farm workers who had been working with primitive tools, little or no use of fertilizers and/or agricultural chemicals, and unimproved varieties of seeds. Ironically, when the foreign suppliers no longer find it possible or convenient to export grain to those countries, and when drought or other causes of famine visit the third-world country, they are most in need of locally-produced crops but the laborers and perhaps even the farms cannot jump in to fill the gap in the food supply. In the aftermath refugees from starvation may put large burdens on surrounding nations with better supplies of food, epidemic diseases may occur at a serious rate, violence may be spurred by the unplanned and unwelcomed mixing of populations, It may be impossible to make an inclusive list of all the problems that could develop in the wake of spasmodic imports of large volumes of grain to third-world countries with tenuous agricultural economies, but in the aftermath of a famine most people would probably agree that it would have been preferable to avoid all the human suffering by tolerating some level of governmental regulation.

In many situations in first-world countries all players in some field of the economy would benefit by making a major change in their production methods or in other practices. However, not one of them will be the first to make the change because doing so would add appreciably to the selling price of their product and it would then become priced out of the market. Decades ago, automobile manufacturers in the United States knew that seat belts would save the lives of many of their customers, but they also knew that if consumers reacted against installing restraints or reacted against the increased price of the vehicle, then they could suffer greatly in the marketplace. Government regulations that made seat belts mandatory components of all new cars sold in the U.S., and traffic laws that penalized car occupants for failing to use seatbelts made seatbelts commplace and accepted, and their regular use resulted in saved lives, decreased levels of injury, reduced costs to communities for providing emergency services, etc.

Two important commonalities of all the economic systems examined thusfar should be given careful attention:

(1) Humans at least appear to be hard-wired to save for a rainy day. If this penchant is a culturally-derived peculiarity of our species of hominid, then it is an oddly widespread choice to be based on supposedly unrelated past histories. 

(2) Humans are either hard-wired to take advantage of other people, or else they find it extremely easy to learn how to do it and how to appreciate the advantages that it brings to them.

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