Capitalism’s Master/Slave Relationship and Hegel’s Dialectic
This essay is written to address a different way to look at the relationship between slave/master and employer/employee. This comes from a deep place in me that recognizes the monstrous mendacity, the hyper-hypocrisy, and ubiquitous criminality of a failing capitalist system. This is system built on the exploitation and de-humanization of the worker in exchange for larger shareholder profits. In this essay, I highlight one of Germany’s greatest philosophers, Georg Hegel. My goal is to explain how his dialectic of the master/slave relationship coincides with today’s perilous employer/employee relationship.
We have frequently printed the word Democracy, yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from a pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted. – Walt Whitman Democratic Vistas (1871)
The mistake has been to imagine, that because the master dominates the slave, the line of dependency is in one direction, that the slave depends on the master, the master orders, controls, directs, and literally owns the slave. The point Hegel wants to make is that this is only a one-sided perspective. It turns out that it runs the other way too. What I mean is this: the master is dependent on the slave.
Here’s how it works. Precisely because the master can get the slave to do virtually everything he needs; the master becomes dependent on the slave doing everything for him. And thereby, the very mastery of the slave makes the master the slave of the slave. The slave of his own dependence on the slave. The line of dependency runs both ways. The illusion of the master, that he is in charge is smashed the minute the slave declares he’s not going to do it anymore. He refuses to continue to be a slave whereupon the master discovers his dependence on the slave. And in that act of rebellion, the slave confronts what Hegel is teaching: that the dependence runs both ways, that the slave and the master are caught in a relationship they both depend on.
Now why does Hegel talk about this? Because it gives us an insight into how capitalism works. The capitalist needs the worker. But the capitalist also dominates the worker. The capitalist decides whether the worker has a job or not. That’s an enormous power. The capitalist pays the worker, or not. The capitalist profits from the worker. The worker is dependent for income, for the work, for his/her position in the world, ability to feed their children. The dependence of the worker on the capitalist can appear to be one-sided, slavish in many respects and many workers have felt that. And indeed, the capitalist acts in a dominating way toward the employee all the time. Capitalists are forever trying to replace workers with machines to save having to pay the worker any wages by replacing the costly worker with a less costly computer or a less costly robot. The capitalist is always (in a way) threatening the worker by unemployment by having the worker replaced with a machine. Likewise, the worker is threatened by his/her employer because the employer has the power to relocate production. That capitalist, for example, can relocate to where wages are lower, or threaten your job by moving to China, India, or Brazil, or Mexico.
There’s another way the capitalist can threaten your job. If he chooses not to move the production to another country to catch the low wages there, he can bring the low wage people here and get away with paying them less money for the work that he would have had to pay a native-born person here. So capitalists are always threatening, squeezing, calculating, and conniving to save on labor costs which threaten the worker. The system compels capitalists to do that; they’re competing with other capitalists who are doing it, so they have to also. They depend on profits to stay in business and profits can be enhanced by automating the workers or relocating to lower wages.
But here comes now the other side that Hegel alerts us to look for. The more successful the employer is (replacing workers with machines, moving production out of the country), and the more the capitalist does, he is forced to confront his dependency as a capitalist on the workers. Because having cut the wages or removed the wages of workers, the workers lack the ability to buy. To buy what? To buy what the capitalist has to sell to stay in business. Here in lies what Hegel calls the contradiction: the two-way relationship of dependence. The worker depends on the capitalist to be sure like the slave depends on the master, but the reverse also holds, the capitalist depends on the workers, he depends on the workers to produce whatever it is he has to sell, but he also depends on workers to buy what it is he has to sell. And if they cannot, or if they do not, then the capitalist is as destroyed as the master would be destroyed if the slaves were unable or unwilling to work.
And you know it runs the other way. Workers know that in some sense, even if they can’t say it in so many words, that that capitalist depends on them. That in a way, they have the upper-hand, even though it seems as though that the capitalist does. How do workers have the upper-hand? How do workers make capitalist depend on them?
Well, first of all the workers are the majority, the capitalists are the minority. As it was with masters and slaves and workers long ago who struggled to get universal suffrage, to be able to vote, make political leadership at least subject to one-person-one-vote. And that gives the masses the power through the vote to confront the masters, the employers, and workers use that power, who often choose someone for government that the employers were at best neutral about or very skeptical about. That’s what the workers in England did when they voted to leave the European Union. And that’s what many workers did in this country when they voted for Mr. Trump after the business establishment made it clear that they were at best of mixed minds about him.
Here’s another way capitalists depend on workers. The vast bulk of the police and the army, the enforcers of the rules of capitalism are working people, they are not themselves capitalists. So the capitalists depend on the army functioning the way they want and the police functioning the way they want – and that’s a dependence of the capitalist on the power of enforcement that are workers.
Here’s another way that workers reveal the dependence of the capitalists. They can go on strike. They can say to the capitalist “we won’t work, and you know what Mr. Capitalist, if we don’t work, you don’t make any money, you don’t make any profit, you depend on us for your survival.” Rather like a master depends on the slave whom he has enslaved to do everything for that master.
Then there is that last item, that historically needs to be included. Workers can sabotage the production process. And here the way to explain is it so provide you a history of the word. Sabotage comes from the French word Sabot. And that was the word for the wooden shoes that people in Northern France and Northern Europe used to wear. And when workers who were angry at their capitalist employers, they were known, secretly and quietly, to throw one of their wooden shoes into the machinery in the factory. And thereby to commit sabotage. In other words, it’s another way to remind the capitalist that he isn’t in charge all together. He depends on the workers too.
Well what’s the message and the lesson of Hegel’s teaching? ‘Master and slave’ therefore is not the ‘master in control’ and the ‘slave all together dependent’. The dependency runs both ways, between the lord and the serf in feudalism and now between capitalist and worker, the same two-way dependency. What happens in this system is that you have two choices. You can continue the endless conflict, the endless struggle, the master, trying in everyway to dominate control and profit from the slave, and the slave finding ways to use the dependence of the master to relieve their suffering to impose costs on the master. And the same back-and-forth between lord and serf. And the same back and forth between employer and employee. The struggle can last forever, and take up your whole life, or you can try to make a resolution, what Hegel calls a synthesis of the two opposites: solve the problem of endless conflict between master and slave, lord and serf, employer and employee, by overcoming that relationship.
And what that means in economics is a democratic worker cooperative. Make the workers both the employer and employee. End the struggle between two groups, each dependent on and trying to overcome this dependency and not recognizing that they were locked into a relationship and that the escape from the dependency and the endless struggle requires fundamentally changing the relationship. That’s why as far back as ancient slave society and throughout the history of feudalism, and throughout the history of capitalism, human beings have tried to escape from those tensions, those oppositions, those contradictory struggles to form cooperatives to produce goods in a collective way that did not pit master/slave, lord/serf, employer/employee.
Hegel’s teaching is a way to understand both what ails us in a conflict ridden economic system, and where the escape, the future, the better economic system lies. It lies with an overcoming of the contradictions that beleaguered slavery, feudalism and capitalism. It lies with the democratization of a cooperative community organization of work. Together with the same kind of democratic community organization of the residential neighborhoods and communities where we live.