On The Spiritual Character of Free And Unfree Labour

On The Spiritual Character of Free And Unfree Labour

By Arthur Richard Harrison

In the modern age, and in the name of Liberty, various forms of ‘unfree labour’ common throughout human history have been abolished and replaced with new arrangements between labour and capital. These arrangements are characterised by their mercenary and easily-dissoluble nature and their general lack of attendant moral duties.

It is generally held by right-thinking people that the transition from ‘unfree’ to ‘free’ labour arrangements was an unalloyed good, and indeed, that the previous arrangements constituted a moral crime, perhaps (remarkably) the worst moral crime in human history.

It will come as little surprise to those who are familiar with my work that I find this conclusion less than self-evident. To that end, I intend to examine and contrast the spiritual aspects of the free and unfree labour relationships and shed some light on what I believe are the oft-overlooked virtues of the latter.

First, we must consider the fundamental nature of the distinction between the two relationships. The relationship of master and servant, or of overlord and serf, or any unfree arrangement of labour and capital (henceforth ‘master’ and ‘servant’), is one of unmediated mutual duties. The servant is bound to obey the master and serve his interests faithfully, and the master is bound to ensure the servant’s welfare (contrary to popular belief, masters in Christendom traditionally were not free to kill their servants or leave them to die when no longer convenient to maintain. But more on that later.)

The relationship of employer and employee, on the other hand, is one mediated by money. What the employee does, he does for money. The employer owes him nothing beyond the remunerations agreed upon contractually or verbally. There is no responsibility flowing downward for the employee’s welfare. Rather, the employee alone is held to be responsible for himself. It is his job to spend, save, and invest his payment wisely and thereby ensure his own well-being. If he fails to do this, it is no fault of his employer’s. Curiously, however, despite the fact that the employer has no responsibilities downward beyond the strictly-delimited payment agreed upon beforehand, the employee is often held to have a rather vaguely defined duty to ‘give the job his all’ or some such thing, to the point where some even consider working at less-than-optimal efficiency to be a form of stealing. This attitude actually makes a certain amount of sense insofar as the value of an employee’s labour is not so easily defined, and therefore limited, as that of the employer’s payment to the employee. I believe it was Aaron Jacob who stated that ‘to define power is to limit it’. I would extend this principle to virtually everything. The more sharply a responsibility, in this case, is defined, the more limited it is.

But let us avoid digressing too far from the main point. We have seen that the fundamental difference between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ systems of labour is the element of money as mediator of the duties between labour and capital (here to be defined as ‘servants and/or employees’ and ‘masters and/or employers’ respectively).

What is the nature of money? What are its effects, spiritually, on man and his relationships? The fundamental purpose of money is to abstract transactions and liquefy value. Money, in essence, serves to give us a language in which we can answer questions like ‘how many chickens equal a goat?’ Obviously, in order to answer such a question, the fundamental metaphysical differences between chickens and goats must be abstracted down to a simple number, which can then be subjected to mathematical comparisons like ‘greater than’, ‘less than’, and ‘equal’.

Therefore, it is evident that that which we view through the lens of money we view as abstracted and fungible; as a number. It is a thing to be traded, a value to be increased. To the extent that our interaction with other human beings is mediated by money, we will see them not as human beings but as items in a transaction, as figures to be balanced, as numbers that must add up. The opportunity for the development of mutual affection is severely curtailed.

For those who would doubt this claim, I offer the following thought experiment: Imagine that each Christmas, rather than buying gifts for, and receiving gifts from, your friends and family, you simply made a tally of how much each loved one’s gift would have cost, had you actually bought it. Then you compare notes with each person. Whoever would have spent more subtracts the other person’s number from his own and gives him the difference in cash.

In the sense of net economic value transferred, this situation is identical to the actual one in which gifts are exchanged. And yet I think it will be obvious to most of my readers that the joy of mutual gift-giving and receiving would be severely diminished by the adoption of this practice. Indeed, on a smaller scale, we see exactly this feeling on display when gift cards are considered worse gifts than specifically selected items, while cash, theoretically the best thing to have as it is convertible into anything one might want, is generally considered a rather lackluster gift, even more so than the gift card, which at least (potentially) displays that some amount of thought, effort, and knowledge of the other person went into selecting a particular store at which he likes to shop.

Now, a few conclusions to be drawn from the above statements about the alienating effect of money on relationships. It follows naturally enough from this that the trade in humans is particularly alienating. This might seem to be a strong point against unfree labour. However, this ignores the case of serfdom, where serfs are bound to the land, rarely change masters, and are never sold as chattels. It also implies that one cannot separate the institution of slavery from the slave trade. However, prevailing attitudes in the Old South seem to contravene this notion. Abolitionist preacher Nehemiah Adams, in his monumentally important (and, execrably, all but unknown) text A South Side View of Slavery, relates this story, which may enlighten us as to the real feelings of the kind of people who own slaves toward the kind of people who trade in slaves:

A southern physician described to me a scene in the domestic slave trade. He touched at a landing-place in a steamer, and immediately a slave coffle was marched on board. Men, women, and children, about forty in all, two by two, an ox chain passing through the double file, and a fastening reaching from the right and left hands of those on either side of the chain, composed what is called a slave coffle. Some colored people were on the wharf, who seemed to be relatives and friends of the gang. Such shrieks, such unearthly noises, as resounded above the escape of steam, my informant said can not be described. There were partings for life, and between what degrees of kindred the nature of the cries were probably a sign.

When the boat was on her way, my informant fell into conversation with a distinguished planter, with regard to the scene which they had just witnessed. They deplored it as one of the features of a system which they both mourned over, and wished to abolish, or at least correct, till no wrong, no pain, should be the fruit of it which is not incidental to every human lot.

While they were discussing the subject, the slave-dealer heard their talk, came up, and made advances to shake hands with the planter. The gentleman drew back and said, “Sir, I consider you a disgrace to human nature.” He poured scorn and indignation upon him.

He spoke the feelings of the south generally. Negro traders are the abhorrence of all flesh. Even their descendants, when they are known, and the property acquired in the traffic, have a blot upon them. I never knew a deeper aversion to any class of men; it is safe to say, that generally it is not surpassed by our own feelings [at the North] toward foreign slave traders (pp. 77-8)

It hardly seems impossible to imagine that the slave trade could have been abolished while retaining the relationship of master and servant itself, and indeed, throughout the Western world, abolition of the slave trade generally preceded abolition of slavery itself.

Moreover, whereas under unfree labour the trade in persons, if it exists, is high-intensity and occasional (for each person to be traded, that is; obviously it goes on continually in a broader context), the trade in persons, far more subtle, under free labour is low-intensity and continual. For while no one is bought or sold by force under free labour as under unfree, yet everyone is constantly commercialised. And because there is no duty to bind employer and employee together, each is constantly encouraged to try to ‘trade up’. Each must be wary at all times of being replaced by the other. The human person is not sold at auction, but through money he is abstracted, and this continually. He is not sold once and thereafter left to form a lifelong bond with a master, as is the servant. But more on that to come.

I feel it necessary at this point to address in more detail than I have thus far done a common misconception about unfree labour.

It would be easy to suppose that servitude is an entirely unilateral arrangement, that the servant has the duty of absolute obedience toward the master, while the master can dispose of the servant according to his whims, that the relationship exists solely for the benefit of the master by the exploitation of the slave, and that he gets nothing out of the bargain except what it is necessary for him to get in order to serve the master.

While I will grant it is possible that somewhere in history, at some point, this was the case, it certainly was not the case in the antebellum South. Again, Adams writes:

A strong public sentiment protects the person of the slave against annoyances and injuries. Boys and men cannot abuse another man’s servant. Wrongs to his person are avenged. It amounts in many cases to a chivalric feeling, increased by a sense of utter meanness and cowardice in striking or insulting one who cannot return insult for insult and blow or blow. Instances of this protective feeling greatly interested me…A slave was brought before a mayor’s court for some altercation in the street; the master privately requested the mayor to spare him from being chastised, and the mayor was strongly disposed to do so; but the testimony was too palpably against the servant, and he was whipped, in consequence of which the master sent a challenge to the mayor to fight a duel. (p. 38)

This anecdote in particular is illustrative. The slave is a dependent, more or less in the position of a woman, a child, or an old man; unable to defend his honour by force himself, and therefore entitled to the protection of the one to whom he is charged. Note that the situation is treated not as a property crime, but as an honour crime, as an insult to a dependent, and by extension to his principal.

Every slave has an inalienable claim in law upon his owner for support for the whole of his life. (p. 47)

Nor, indeed, did such an arrangement prevail in French Louisiana. Here are cited several articles from that colony’s Code Noir, as given to us by BlackPast.org:

XX. Slaves who shall not be properly fed, clad, and provided for by their masters, may give information thereof to the attorney-general of the Superior Council, or to all the other officers of justice of an inferior jurisdiction, and may put the written exposition of their wrongs into their hands ; upon which information, and even ex officio, should the information come from another quarter, the attorney-general shall prosecute said masters without charging any costs to the complainants. It is our will that this regulation be observed in all accusations for crimes or barbarous and inhuman treatment brought by slaves against their masters.

XXI. Slaves who are disabled from working, either by old age, disease, or otherwise, be the disease incurable or not, shall be fed and provided for by their masters ; and in case they should have been abandoned by said masters, said slaves shall be adjudged to the nearest hospital, to which said masters shall be obliged to pay eight cents a day for the food and maintenance of each one of these slaves ; and for the payment of this sum, said hospital shall have a lien on the plantations of the master.

XXXIX. We command our officers of justice in this colony to institute criminal process against masters and overseers who shall have killed or mutilated their slaves, when in their power and under their supervision, and to punish said murder according to the atrocity of the circumstances…

Nor yet, according even to La Wik, were feudal lords absolved of responsibility for the well-being of their serfs, but were required to support them by charity in times of famine.

Moreover, these responsibilities make sense in their theoretical context. The relationship between servant and master is characterised by formally recognised dependence. And dependence is universally understood to be accompanied by responsibility. As a parent cannot abandon or neglect an infant, so a master cannot abandon or neglect his servant.

By contrast, the relationship of employer and employee, however dependent the employee may be in practice, is theoretically and formally one of independence. And independence is generally understood to be accompanied by responsibility for oneself. The employee is obligated to take care of himself because he is, nominally at least, independent. The employer has no duty to ensure his well-being.

Therefore, armed with a proper understanding of the mutual nature of historical unfree labour arrangements in Christendom, let us proceed to examine the effects they have on the character of those involved in them and their bond with each other.

I touched earlier in this essay on the impermanence of the relationship between employer and employee. Now I’d like to focus on that point.

It is in the nature of a relationship without mutual duties and based on money to be impermanent. And to that which is impermanent a man is less inclined to form attachments and affections. Who can know that he wont get a better job offer tomorrow? Or, for that matter, be fired or laid off? No one.

By contrast, between servant and master (certainly between serf and landlord) the bond is generally for life. Even in the most lasting employer-employee relationships the bond generally ends (though a pension may be given) at retirement age. But the servant is the master’s charge till he drops dead, and this long after he is too old to work.

Therefore, servants could, and did, develop deep-seated loyalties to their masters that few if any modern employees can match. For example, read the testimony of North Carolina former slave Tempe Hendon Durham:

Freedom is all right, but de niggers was better off befo’ surrender, kaze den dey was looked after an’ dey didn’ get in no trouble fightin’ an’ killin’ like dey do dese days. If a nigger cut up an’ got sassy in slavery times, his Ole Marse give him a good whippin’ an’ he went way back an’ set down an’ ‘haved hese’f. If he was sick, Marse an’ Mistis looked after him, an’ if he needed store medicine, it was bought an’ give to him; he didn’ have to pay nothin’. Dey didn’ even have to think ’bout clothes nor nothin’ like dat, dey was wove an’ made an’ give to dem. Maybe everybody’s Marse and Mistis wuzn’ good as Marse George and Mis’ Betsy, but dey was de same as a mammy an’ pappy to us niggers.”

Or consider, as another example, the case of the Rev. William Mack Lee, body servant to the incomparable General Robert E Lee, of whom it was written:

He cooked and waited on the Southern chieftian[sic] during the entire four years of the war, being with him at the surrender at Appommatox. The fact that the war had set him free was of small moment to him, and he stayed with his old master until his death. He is a negro of the old type, distinguished looking, polite in manner…

The bond of affection between William and Robert Lee had grown so strong in the period of William’s servitude that he happily stood by his master until the end of his life. Moreover, William’s opinion of the General was unalloyed praise:

I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender.

This illiterate slave was indubitably nobler than most ‘free’ men alive today. And his affection for his master was deeper and more beautiful than anything a corporation can offer you.

But how of the master? What is the effect of the institution on his character? Does he develop an affection toward his servants commensurate with that which they often develop towards him? If Tempe Durham viewed her ‘Marse and Mistis’ as ‘just like a mammy and pappy’, did they view her and her fellow slaves as ‘just like their own children’?

Let us turn, once again, to what Karl Boetel so memorably referred to as ‘the racist magic of primary sources’. Indeed, we will again turn to the Rev. Adams (whose progressive bona fides are unimpeachable), in his book The Sable Cloud. We find there, in the very first chapter, a letter written from a slaveholding Southern lady to her father:


You have so recently heard from and about those of us left here, and that in a so much more satisfactory way than through letters, that it scarcely seems worth while to write just yet. But Mary left Kate’s poor little baby in such a pitiable state, that I think it will be a relief to all to hear that its sufferings are ended. It died about ten o’clock the night that she left us, very quietly and without a struggle, and at sunset on Friday we laid it in its last resting-place. My husband and I went out in the morning to select the spot for its burial, and finding the state of affairs in the cemetery, we chose a portion of ground and will have it inclosed with a railing. They have been very careless in the management of the ground, and have allowed persons to inclose and bury in any shape or way they chose, so that the whole is cut up in a way that makes it difficult to find a place where two or three graves could be put near each other. We did find one at last, however, about the size of the Hazel Wood lots; and we will inclose it at once, so that when another, either from our own family or those of the other branches, wants a resting-place, there shall not be the same trouble. Poor old Timmy lies there; but it is in a part of the grounds where, the sexton tells us, the water rises within three feet of the surface; so, of course, we did not go there for this little grave. His own family selected his burial-place, and probably did not think of this.

Kate takes her loss very patiently, though she says that she had no idea how much she would grieve after the child. It had been sick so long that she said she wanted to have it go; but I knew when she said it that she did not know what the parting would be. It is not the parting alone, but it is the horror of the grave,—the tender child alone in the far off gloomy burial-ground, the heavy earth piled on the tender little breast, the helplessness that looked to you for protection which you could not give, and the emptiness of the home to which you return when the child is gone. He who made a mother’s heart and they who have borne it, alone can tell the unutterable pain of all this. The little child is so carefully and tenderly watched over and cherished while it is with you,—and then to leave it alone in the dread grave where the winds and the rain beat upon it! I know they do not feel it, but since mine has been there, I have never felt sheltered from the storms when they come. The rain seems to fall on my bare heart. I have said more than I meant to have said on this subject, and have left myself little heart to write of anything else. Tell Mammy that it is a great disappointment to me that her name is not to have a place in my household. I was always so pleased with the idea that my Susan and little Cygnet should grow up together as the others had done; but it seems best that it should not be so, or it would not have been denied. Tell Mary that Chloe staid that night with Kate, and has been kind to her. All are well at her house.

Or perhaps we can turn to the example of the McGehee family, an Old Southern plantation house whose descendants are still alive today. One of them operated the blog Confederate Colonel, where you can find this very interesting blog post. While Col. McGehee does not appear to take a position as radical as my own, what I find most fascinating is the image of the burial plot. These slaves, these ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’, were buried, as Mr. McGehee testifies, right alongside the white members of the family; were spoken of as family. Few indeed speak thus of their employees.

So our theory is in these anecdotes borne out, as is the experience of that great Southerner and eminent defender of his section, George Fitzhugh, who wrote in Slavery Justified:

We go farther, and say the slave-holder is better than others – because he has greater occasion for the exercise of the affections. His whole life is spent in providing for the minutest wants of others, in taking care of them in sickness and in health. Hence he is the least selfish of men. Is not the old bachelor who retires to seclusion, always selfish? Is not the head of a large family almost always kind and benevolent? And is not the slave-holder the head of the largest family? Nature compels master and slave to be friends; nature makes employers and free laborers enemies.

And thus my apologia for unfree labour arrangements draws nearly to a close. It is incumbent upon me now only to review and perhaps to make a brief evaluation of the contrast I have set up between free and unfree systems.

The relationship of master and servant is distinguished from that of employer and employee chiefly by its impermanence and by the mediation of money between the two. The former difference creates a risk of separation in the ‘free’ relationship, while the latter difference causes the two to view each other as abstractions rather than human beings, and, moreover, defines the responsibility of the employer to the employee far more narrowly than the responsibility of master to servant is defined, as a result of which the employer has not the opportunity for the exercise of selflessness, nor the employee for that of gratitude, that their unfree counterparts have.

All of these contribute to the fact that the nature of free labour is to alienate and separate owner and worker, while that of bound service is to build lasting, ennobling bonds between them. And this theoretical conclusion is amply borne out by the testimony of servants and masters alike.

This is not to say that all must be either servants or masters. I am not advocating the enslavement (or even enserfment) of all free labour, by any means. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Both, no doubt, are appropriate in their place. I am satisfied, therefore, if I have brought to light the neglected virtues of servitude, or even caused a few readers to consider that such might exist, who before had assumed the system was unalloyed brutality and oppression, and I remain

Your Humble Servant,

Arthur Richard Harrison


3 comments on “On The Spiritual Character of Free And Unfree Labour

  1. Cj aka Elderofzyklons Blog says:

    Reblogged this on ElderofZyklon's Blog!.

  2. Ash says:

    I would put forward the guild system, as continues to exist in Germany and other European countries to varying extents today, as a good middle path. While individuals and families can choose their trades according to their natural aptitudes, the guild provides a sense of community, excellence in the trade, and continuity between generations.

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