Despite the abolition of chattel slavery, other forms of slavery abound. Wage slavery, sex slavery, debt slavery. Plus that form of labor permitted in the language of the thirteenth amendment, which forbids slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime”: i.e., prison labor. Prisoners who refuse to comply are placed in solitary confinement. American capitalism is a legal-political-economic construct built atop these various slaveries. White workers organized after the Civil War. Blacks were often excluded from these organizations and fraternities. Mike Davis tells part of that history in his classic study Prisoners of the American Dream. The story also receives treatment in Robin Blackburn’s An Unfinished Revolution. The latter includes a series of letters exchanged between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War. Against those wishing to maintain racially segregated workplaces stood the International Working Men’s Association, a group that sought to unite “black and white, men and women, native and foreign-born.” The IWA may never have acquired more than a few thousand supporters in its day. What interests me now, though, is not organization so much as abolitionism and antifascism, rebellion and revolt.
Upon finding employment on his third day in the Northern city of New Bedford, Frederick Douglass declares himself his own master. “I was now my own master,” he writes. This is a “happy moment” — one of the few such moments in Douglass’s narrative. Its rapture can be understood, he says, “only by those who have been slaves” (78). The scene leaves me wondering: at what point is there no longer someone robbing us of the rewards of our work? The employment Douglass has found is a form of wage slavery, is it not? Is the reward not taken in the setting of the wage by the capitalist? Are Marx and Engels wrong? In what sense is the wage relation not a form of slavery? Labor hours remain at the command of external masters under capitalism. The economy one faces is manufactured by the State, and the State is a mere police-backed conspiracy of land developers and financiers. All of us are in some way or another pressed into its service. Those of us in entertainment and education — those of us manning the ISAs, as Louis Althusser would say — we’re the functional equivalent of PsyOps officers. Yet we can always rebel — and many of us do. Wizards needn’t always be their wizards. There are fugitive histories to be learned, memories of fugitive ancestors awaiting remembrance through fugitive study. Because if the past isn’t past, as Faulkner wrote, and the demand on the streets is “NO COPS / NO JAILS / NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME,” then abolitionists are among us today, their cause as just as it was a century and a half ago.