The theory of class conflict paints history as a never-ending series of struggles between different classes in order to achieve political and economic dominance (Howard, 2019, 35). According to that theory, the few who owned the most power, be that aristocracy, clergy, or the bourgeoisie, sought to dominate the larger masses of people, which constituted the peasant and working classes (Howard, 2019, 35). Slavery was one of the means to do so, as it represented the most brutal and direct way of human exploitation (Parish, 2018, 21). The primary response to the tyranny of slavers was direct and violent revolts, which were typically suppressed with equal brutality.
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The history of revolutions can be traced back from the three Servile Wars in Ancient Rome, to the French Revolutions, to Russian, Chinese, and colonial uprisings across the globe (Parish, 2018, 49). Marxist economic theory suggests that capitalism can only grow its influence and riches if two main prerequisites are being met – the first being that the workers are paid less than their labor earns the capitalist and the second being that the workers are kept so engrossed in their daily struggles for survival that they have no strength or time to ask themselves the important questions of who to blame for their predicament and what to do about it (Howard, 2019, 90). Nevertheless, the revolutions of the early 20th century showed that the potential for a violent backlash should not be underestimated, paving the way for alternative solutions to peasant and worker revolts (Abendroth, 1990, 73). This paper puts forth a thesis that outsourced labor propagates modern slavery and seeks to undo the gains transnational labor movements achieved in the 20th century by effectively separating the workers and perpetuating crises of poverty.
Definition of Modern Slavery
The conventional definition of the word “slavery” states it to be a condition where an individual is effectively treated as property, belonging to a person or an organization, with no rights for self-determination, protection, or adequate compensation for their labor (Parish, 2018, 19). If we use this definition to identify the position of workers in post-industrial and rapidly industrializing countries, then we would discover that slavery does not exist – nobody in the world owns anyone else, the right to self-determination is preserved as well. However, there are different ways of looking at the question.
The keywords here are the rights of self-determination and adequate compensation for the labor provided. If we look at the overall statistics of wealth distribution, it would not be difficult to discover that the percentage of wealth owned by the majority of the population has been declining over the course of the last 40 years, whereas the wealth of the top 5% has been growing despite the various economic crises that struck the world during that time period (Pfeffer and Schoeni, 2016, 3). Marxian theorists would point that out to be the proof of capitalism stealing from workers, which explains the shrinking assets owned by the masses versus the explosive growth of capitalists (Howard, 2019, 49).
Aside from the dropping quality of wages, modern workers also suffer from increased competition for the working places, perpetuated by outsourcing. Faced with the necessity to provide for oneself and their families, the individual’s rights for self-determination are indirectly restricted (Howard, 2019, 213). Many are forced to work whatever job they could find in order to maintain a semblance of living. Thus, a “free” individual in modern capitalist society is not really free. Personal freedom and protection also become moot points, as workers in times of crisis would cling to their workplaces and refuse to go elsewhere due to a shortage of employment, meaning that the capitalist effectively owns their workers and is capable of easily replacing them with others, while dictating their own rules of engagement. Based on these statements, it can be concluded that modern employment is effectively serving the same purpose as slavery in a grander economic world picture.
Outsourcing as Means of Counteracting Revolts and Transnational Labor Movements
The ideas of a transnational labor movement that would protect the rights of workers everywhere around the globe and perpetuate a revolution were around since the assembly of the first and second Internationals, the second one being the most prominent and built upon Marxian ideas (Howard, 2019, 53). However, the idea of an international worker society without borders ultimately failed to achieve success, as workers and worker unions were effectively split from one another by borders, languages, and barriers in communication (Van der Linden, 2017, 27). The first and second world wars effectively widened the rift between various international worker communities, forcing them into isolation and working towards their goals within the borders of a single nation.
Nevertheless, even on a national level, worker unions proved to be a significant force. In the US, for example, a prominent bastion of capitalism, almost all secessions to the workers, such as the 8-hour working day, paid medical insurance, paid leave, maternity leave, protections against unlawful downsizing, and the concept of minimum wages, were all adopted under the organized pressure of the working class, with unions as its uniting catalyst (Abendroth, 1990, 101). With the smoke of the Russian Revolution still settling, capitalists were forced to make secessions, fearful of violence on a similar scale. At this point, revolution and revolt became important bargaining chips for the worker class. The use of violence was not out of the question. Since the majority of the industries were located domestically and providing not only for the international but for the local markets as well, they were vulnerable to takeover, destruction, and boycotting. The effectiveness of the latter was shown during the fight for African-American rights initiated by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 and 1963 (Robinson, 2019, 431).
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The solution to the looming danger of a national revolt came with the evolution of means of communication and the appearance of a transnational capitalist class. It consisted of capitalists whose financial resources were not rooted in any one country and whose production values were located in countries other than the main markets. This occurred during the neo-liberalization of economics during the 1980s when major businesses explored East-Asian countries as new means of labor (Pattenden, 2016, 80). Europe and the USA became post-industrial countries as a result of this transformation. The second phase occurred when e-banking became possible, as the system enabled the transferring of large sums of money within a matter of moments. It helped secure the safety of capital, which could be easily moved from one country to another.
As a result, the main bargaining points of national trade unions weakened considerably. They could no longer go on strikes and halt the production as effectively as before, and the potential for an effective, violent takeover was limited as well (Van der Linden, 2017, 79). Simply seizing the means of production was no longer an option – one also needed materials, monetary sources, and customers to continue work, all of which would be curtailed should an unlawful nationalization happen. Venezuela is a good example of such a situation occurring. After the forceful nationalization of its agricultural, industrial, and oil assets, only the latter was allowed to continue interaction with the global markets, whereas its other industries faced sanctions and withered as a result. Now, with the oil prices down, Venezuela is on the brink of an economic collapse.
The migration of industries into China, India, and Vietnam allowed capitalists to pressure the workers into unfavorable conditions. Between lower wages and potential unemployment, people would always choose the latter. The conditions put up in the majority of American companies are strictly against any kind of worker unions, which caused the unionization rates to drop from almost 35% in 1954 to about 10% in 2018, with a yearly decrease of roughly 0.2% year (Van der Linden, 2017, 63). The rise of the gig economy and online outsourcing affected even the non-industrial professions, as accounting and tech support were effectively outsourced to 3rd-world countries. The benefits of such positions for the capitalists are obvious – gig workers do not require job security, paid leave, medical insurance, and other benefits a regular employee would be provided by law. The percentage of such workers in the US has been steadily growing since the early 2000s.
The concept behind using underdeveloped nations as sources of cheap labor echoes with how early capitalists used slaves and indentured local populaces in India, China, and the rest of East Asia to grow sugar and cotton for them (Parish, 2018, 142). That way, there was no need to involve white populations in farming and production and being forced to pay them more, in comparison. Small-scale farmer revolts in America and other places were caused either by the unfair competition or the banking blockade perpetuated by the same capitalist forces. Nowadays, the industrialization of the East is increasing the standards of living there, at the price of them being decreased in the West. It is not unreasonable to assume that once the East achieves the same demands as the West, another great migration would occur. It is already happening, in a way, with the revolts of Chinese workers, and the increased demands for better pay and conditions force some enterprises to migrate to Vietnam, where the situation is less demanding (Parish, 2016, 209).
Conclusions and Predictions for the Future
The capacity of slaves, peasants, and workers to achieve social changes through violent struggle has been a staple for the majority of human history. However, with the effective atomization of the society, the destruction of large working collectives, and the migration of production to third countries, capitalists managed to gain the upper hand in the social struggle. The effects of their dominance can be observed through the growing rates of poverty, the curtailing of social programs in post-industrial countries, and the gradual reduction in employee rights.
The Marxist answer to such a turn of events is as it was before – an international revolution. While it was impossible at the beginning of the 20th century, with the proletariat being divided by borders, nations, and politics, the communications revolution may be capable of uniting people across the globe once more. This was demonstrated in the remarkable spread of the revolutionary sentiment during the Arab Spring, which saw the toppling of numerous middle-eastern dictatorships. It is uncertain where the class struggle as perceived by Marxian theorists will lead humanity, but the robotization of the workplace and the potential for growing unemployment will make the forgotten ideals of Luddites and Chartists become popular once more.
Abendroth, Wolfgang. 1990. A short history of the European working class. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
Howard, Dick. 2019. Marxian legacy. New York, NY: Springer.
Pfeffer, Fabia T., and Robert F. Schoeni. 2016. “How wealth inequality shapes our future.” RSF: The Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2 (6), 2-22.
Robinson, Stephen. 2019. “Consumer boycotts.” The World of Jim Crow America: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, 54, 431.
Parish, Peter J. 2018. Slavery: History and historians. New York, NY: Routledge.
Pattenden, Jonathan. 2016. The neoliberalisation of civil society. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Van der Linden, Marcel. 2017. Transnational labor history: explorations. New York, NY: Routledge.