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Wage Slaves & Debt Serfs

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song Sixteen Tons tells the story perfectly about what America once was for millions of Americans; that twilight past is a new dawn for generations of our entire population. We are, for the most part, already a country of wage slaves and quickly becoming bound as debt serfs.

When your government becomes the vassal possession of a few private individuals, there is little room for the government to provide the necessary infrastructure for broad prosperity. Unemployment is expected to remain very high, according to government officials, and there is nothing they are willing to do about it. They claim they are powerless, but they only powerless against unemployment because the choose to be: They have a set of priorities and the American people do not figure into those priorities, other than as a source of wealth they can redistribute to their corporate masters.

And they are accomplishing this in two ways: By uncertainty in job prospects and by chaining us to debt. No, not the Tea Party’s shouting-point of national debt being yoked around the necks of the future (although that does serve an important purpose—to restrict the policy options of future generations to those the current generation believes they should have), but ensuring that consumers cannot discharge certain kinds of significant debt in bankruptcy: Credit card and student loan debt.

We hear a lot from Washington about personal responsibility, but that doesn’t seem to apply to our newest citizens: corporations. These large, and self-described sophisticated businesses, take risks by lending to consumers. They know that if the consumer falls on hard times, they will lose—they even account for losses by setting some money aside to cover expected losses. But being subject to the actual whims of the market is not acceptable to market fundamentalists, so the law had to come to the rescue and protect the banks against these losses by requiring that consumers pay back the debt regardless of their ability to do so. The credit card and student loan businesses are risk-free to the legal loan sharks that engage in them. Free, government-guaranteed profit with no risk! Think of that, Ferengis!

With the uncertainty of the current marketplace, which serves big businesses very well, workers are less inclined to venture into new territories professionally. Maybe an engineer somewhere, working at a telemarketing job, invented a better mousetrap in his garage on the weekends, but can’t leave the dead-end world of high volume phone sales because he can’t leave the security of a full-time wage to build a business based on his innovation.

So here we have an engineer, who is saddled with credit card debt from his recent stint of unemployment, and still groaning under the weight of his student loan payments, but can’t leave his $12/hour dead-ender to pursue his dream. That’s America today.

Traditionally, serfs were tied to the land, today in America serfs are tied to debt. Wages that are barely enough to survive (and often less) coupled with an uncertain economy which will stretch on for years, keep people living in fear, too afraid to strike out on their own. This is just what the Washington and Wall Street elite want: Wage slaves and debt serfs too cowed to put up a fight.


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About Gary S. Barkley