Thursday, November 17, 2011

On slaves, employees, and prisoners: Choose to not be a slave

At first thought, it might seem that we are all well familiar with these three terms and that they are all mutually exclusive. But i suggest a different idea - what we generally think of as slaves are actually prisoners, and the difference between "slave" and "employee" is a matter of state of mind.

Here's what i mean:

According to, an employee is, "a person working for another person or a business firm for pay." We know however that this is not exclusive to employees. In America we used to get prison inmates to do labor that would result in their receiving money. These people were prisoners, but they were also paid by a business, in that case the states. Also slaves in America, though legally owned by other people, were sometimes able to work for money, even for the purpose of buying their own freedom. Point is, it is clear that just because you are paid to do something does not mean that you are NOT a slave or a prisoner.

Now clearly a prisoner is someone who is physically restrained - either locked in a confined space or whose movement has been forcibly resticted. If you have freedom of movement, clearly you are not a prisoner. House arrest? Your choosing not to leave. Maybe with good reason, but all the same, i would not consider being ordered to stay in your house (or anywhere else) as actually being a prisoner because your limited freedom is of your own choosing, not of physical restraint.

Then the interesting part - slavery. Certainly there is one type of slavery, legal slavery, that has been written as policy into the laws of many nations, including Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, the United States, and many others. In this case a slave is like a prisoner in that there is some restraint to the slave's freedom in the form of laws that allow other people to kill, capture or otherwise restrain a slave that is acting out or escaping. But for a person to be owned by another person is just as much an illusion as it to say that we own our possessions. 

To prove to yourself that you do not, in reality, regardless of the law, own your possessions, leave your wallet sitting next to you on a bench in a busy train station or leave your car running with the doors open in a busy city - if ownership were real, robbery would be impossible. Our possessions are not our property they are our slaves and they can escape just the same.

But what is more interesting to me is the possible similarity between a slave and an employee. A slave does what they are told because they believe they have to. If she or he tries to disobey or escape they may be punished or caught and be brought back, but they might not get caught. They are free to give it a try. What makes him or her a slave is not the reality that they cannot escape but the belief that they cannot escape.

And to be sure to not offend through confusion - i am not saying that slavery is not real where it does and has existed. What i am saying is that Harriet Tubman, for instance, proved that she was not actually a slave, in her essence, in her soul, simply by not being so in time and space, by claiming her freedom. i don't know if the law ever did give her her freedom, but her mind did when she decided to make a run for it and happened to succeed.

i seem to remember also Denzel Washington playing the main character in The Hurricane, playing boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, wrongly imprisoned for a crime he hadn't commited, saying that in prison he was still free in his mind. i even saw an interview with Charlie Manson, who has been imprisoned for decades now and has spent more than a small amount of time in solitary confinement saying that even as a prisoner there was no harm they could do to him because he was free in his mind.

Still, i know many people that believe they cannot quit their job. They believe they cannot change jobs or go without working and therefore do so against what they believe is their will. i have done so myself in some periods. This is slavery. i believe that some jobs, some sectors, encourage this belief. i believe that there is a system in the United States that is designed to create that belief by encouraging Americans to get in debt so that they must work, and must retain the best job they can in order to afford their lifestyle and pay off their debt, causing some people to believe themselves as bound to their jobs as any slave ever was bound to their master. 

In this case even i cannot blame the banks or corporations for the crime though - we do it to ourselves when we act in ways we believe we do not want to. We all always do what we want to do. We are incapable of doing otherwise. You have never done anything you didn't want to do. So, my advice is, and i believe the key to actual freedom is, own that. Be aware that nothing is forcing you to do what you choose to do nor is anything, short of actual physical coercion, capable of doing so.

The point of all this is to encourage us (and i write to US, not to YOU) to choose to be free, to choose to be employees instead of slaves, to be free instead of imprisoned, to remember the words of Bob Marley, in a song about actual legal slavery: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds."


  1. I know that I am coming from an American worldview, but I can see no value in comparing slavery to employment. We get to choose our careers. We can prepare or not prepare as we wish, and if a job does not work for us, we are not compelled by the system to stay in the job (college loans for a degree in a field you end up hating was a choice, obviously not well thought out) Our nations history is filled with people changing jobs and finding careers that fulfilled them. The fact that some do not make the change is not evidence of a system compelling them to do anything, but rather evidence of the fact that freedom to choose is not a guarantee of right choices being made. Arguing that employment and slavery equate in fact minimizes the reality of what real slavery was and is. American workers have amazing levels of career mobility, 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, and the freedom to take their skills to where jobs exist...on this side of the ocean and elsewhere. That isn't slavery, and those who have actually been slaves would tell you that.


  2. I just read this quote and thought of this post from a couple months ago. For sure you must have heard this before, but here it is anyway:

    "The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fail. Freedom and slavery are mental states." -Mahatma Gandhi



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