Thursday, March 29, 2007

America's Past. America's Future?

This nation was founded by elements of European society that were outcast, which is why our grand tradition of egalitarianism arose.

But our history is filled with instances of classism and caste systems. Take indentured servitude, where a destitute working class or impoverished person (usually male) would agree to work for a set period of time for a sponsor, who would then "loan" passage on a ship, along with room and board as this person worked off his debt.

In other words, it was a form of economic slavery, as opposed to actual slavery, which is the granddaddy of all caste systems, and gave aid and comfort to the so-called "genteel South" with its own classist societies.

Too, capitalism being what it is, there was always a submarket for slave-like workers. As slavery itself was being slowly eroded away in America, the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the 24 hour a day mills and factories cried out for a new source of cheap labour: children. Once that abhorrent stain on American corporatism was done away with, immigrants became (and still are) the source of cheap labour. First, legally, what without a minimum wage it was easy to find workers who made a pittance "over there" who felt that pennies a day was a goldmine.

And now, of course, illegally.

American corporatism has squeezed the lemon now, and it is running dry: if guest worker programs and unwanted refugees are eliminated by the current anti-immigrant sentiment, American corporations are going to have to find a new source of ubercheap labour.

I've written in the past about the dangers of the American economy of late, in particular as it pertains to returning Iraq veterans, mortgage defaults, lagging consumer spending, debt-laden American middle class members, stubborn underemployment figures, the Federal deficit, and just making ends meet for the average Joe.

The rumbles are there. Trouble looms on the horizon, and I suspect when all is said and done, given the new bankruptcy laws on the books, we'll be slaves to our debts.

Don't believe it could happen in a great democracy? Oh, it could. It is already. In the greatest democracy on the planet:
Ashok Kumar is one. He is a small, slim boy of 13, busy making delicate patterns in real gold thread along the borders of the sari.

Ashok says he has been weaving since he was nine. He sits working for 12 hours every day, seven days a week. He gets just one day off each month.

He is a bonded labourer, what is also known as a debt slave.

When Ashok's mother died, his father left home. The boy was abandoned with his grandmother. Desperate for money she took £12 ($25) from a loom owner and, in return, sold the boy's freedom.

Ashok is now bonded, forced to do this one job. He is not free to leave unless the debt is repaid. And he is paid just 15p (30 US cents) a day, so there is little hope he will ever do that.

Ashok's boss, Muthu Pereumal, can sell the boy to another employer, trade him like a commodity.

"He will stay here until he is 20 or 22," the boss tells me, standing by Ashok's loom, "or until someone else comes to buy him from me. He will never do anything else but this."
Now, far be it for me to suggest that this precise mechanism is at work here in America, but you can see the signs of some form of this type of "debt relief" coming into play here.

After all, the rise of the wealth of the wealthy is tailor-made for some form of indentured servitude: all that money lying around, all that work to be done. There is without a doubt the risk of economic slavery as people, desperate to be free of debt, sign a significant portion of their lives away in order to clear their consciences.

And indeed, if my inbox is any indication, rumblings of some form of this being implemented are already gathering. I see an awful lot of "get out of debt" spam and even some "Christian jubilee" spam, whereby, for a small commitment, a God-fearing organization will help you get rid of all your debts through Christ (and the goodness of predatory lenders, no doubt).

How widespread might this be? Hard to say. You'd like to think that people would shun this sort of arrangement like the plague, as stupid as it sounds right off the bat.

But people fall for the Nigerian e-mail scam often enough that it's still profitable to try and fleece more suckers.

People are greedy. Moreover, people are lazy and look for the quick fix to problems. And there's why I think we might actually see the day when workers will work for nothing, and it won't be called slavery.

In fact, we sort of see some of this process happening already (h/t MissC):
Circuit City Stores' (CC) decision to lay off 3,400 employees in order to hire lower-paid replacements is raising questions about the impact of severe cost-cutting on employee morale.
The consumer electronics retailer announced Wednesday that it was immediately firing store associates "who were paid well above the market-based salary range for their role." New workers will be paid less, although Circuit City did not reveal the pay of the workers.[...]

Those hourly workers who are laid off will get severance packages and can apply for open positions after 10 weeks.
Start the clock. You have ten weeks to replace your current salary, or take your old job with a smaller one.

Sound real fair, right?