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Indentured Servitude Gets A 21st-Century Makeover

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Indentured Servitude Gets A 21st-Century Makeover


Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Indentured servitude is back in a big way in the United States, and conservative corporatists want to make sure that labor never, ever again has the power to tell big business how to treat them.

Idaho, for example, recently passed a law that recognizes and rigorously enforces non-compete agreements in employment contracts, which means that if you want to move to a different, more highly paid, or better job, you can instead get wiped out financially by lawsuits and legal costs.

In a way, conservative/corporatists are just completing the circle back to the founding of this country.

Indentured servitude began in a big way in the early 1600s, when the British East India Company was establishing a beachhead in the (newly stolen from the Indians) state of Virginia (named after the “virgin queen” Elizabeth I, who signed the charter of the BEIC creating the first modern corporation in 1601). Jamestown (named after King James, who followed Elizabeth I to the crown) wanted free labor, and the African slave trade wouldn’t start to crank up for another decade.

So the company made a deal with impoverished Europeans: Come to work for typically 4-7 years (some were lifetime indentures, although those were less common), legally as the property of the person or company holding your indenture, and we’ll pay for your transport across the Atlantic.

It was, at least philosophically, the logical extension of the feudal economic and political system that had ruled Europe for over 1,000 years. The rich have all the rights and own all the property; the serfs are purely exploitable free labor who could be disposed of (indentured servants, like slaves, were commonly whipped, hanged, imprisoned, or killed when they rebelled or were not sufficiently obedient).

This type of labor system has been the dream of conservative/corporatists, particularly since the “Reagan Revolution” kicked off a major federal war on the right of workers to organize for their own protection from corporate abuse.

Unions represented almost a third of American workers when Reagan came into office (and, since union jobs set local labor standards, for every union job there was typically an identically-compensated non-union job, meaning about two-thirds of America had the benefits and pay associated with union jobs pre-Reagan).

Thanks to Reagan’s war on labor, today unions represent about 6 percent of the non-government workforce.

But that wasn’t enough for the acolytes of Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. They didn’t just want workers to lose their right to collectively bargain; they wanted employers to functionally own their employees.

Prior to the current Reaganomics era, non-compete agreements were pretty much limited to senior executives and scientists/engineers.

If you were a CEO or an engineer for a giant company, knowing all their processes, secrets and future plans, that knowledge had significant and consequential value—company value worth protecting with a contract that said you couldn’t just take that stuff to a competitor without either a massive payment to the left-behind company or a flat-out lawsuit.

But should a guy who digs holes with a shovel or works on a drilling rig be forced to sign a non-compete? What about a person who flips burgers or waits tables in a restaurant? Or the few factory workers we have left, since neoliberal trade policies have moved the jobs of tens of thousands of companies overseas?

Turns out corporations are using non-competes to prevent even these types of employees from moving to newer or better jobs.

America today has the lowest minimum wage in nearly 50 years, adjusted for inflation. As a result, people are often looking for better jobs. But according to the New York Times, about 1 in 5 American workers is now locked in with a non-compete clause in an employment contract.

Before Reaganomics, employers didn’t keep their employees by threatening them with lawsuits; instead, they offered them benefits like insurance, paid vacations and decent wages. Large swaths of American workers could raise a family and have a decent retirement with a basic job ranging from manufacturing to construction to service industry work.

My dad was one of them; he worked 40 years in a tool-and-die shop, and the machinist’s union made sure he could raise and put through school four boys, could take 2-3 weeks of paid vacation every year, and had full health insurance and a solid retirement until the day he died, which continued with my mom until she died years later. Most boomers (particularly white boomers) can tell you the same story.

That America has been largely destroyed by Reaganomics, and Americans know it. It’s why when Donald Trump told voters that the big corporations and banksters were screwing them, they voted for him and his party (not realizing that neither Trump nor the GOP had any intention of doing anything to help working people).

And now the conservatives/corporatists are going in for the kill, for their top goal: the final destruction of any remnant of labor rights in America.

Why would they do this? Two reasons: An impoverished citizenry is a politically impotent citizenry, and in the process of destroying the former middle class, the 1 percent make themselves trillions of dollars richer.

The New York Times has done some great reporting on this problem, with an article last May and a more recent piece about how the state of Idaho has made it nearly impossible for many workers to escape their servitude.

Historically, indentured servants had their food, health care, housing, and clothing provided to them by their “employers.” Today’s new serfs can hardly afford these basics of life, and when you add in modern necessities like transportation, education and child-care, the American labor landscape is looking more and more like old-fashioned servitude.

Nonetheless, conservatives/corporatists in Congress and state-houses across the nation are working hard to hold down minimum wages. Missouri’s Republican legislature just made it illegal for St. Louis to raise their minimum wage to $10/hour, throwing workers back down to $7.70. More preemption lawslike this are on the books or on their way.

At the same time, these conservatives/corporatists are working to roll back health care protections for Americans, roll back environmental protections that keep us and our children from being poisoned, and even roll back simple workplace, food and toy safety standards.

The only way these predators will be stopped is by massive political action leading to the rollback of Reaganism/neoliberalism.

And the conservatives/corporatists who largely own the Republican Party know it, which is why they’re purging voting lists, fighting to keep in place easily hacked voting machines, and throwing billions of dollars into think tanks, right-wing radio, TV, and online media.

If they succeed, America will revert to a very old form of economy and politics: the one described so well in Charles Dickens’ books when Britain had “maximum wage laws” and “Poor Laws” to prevent a strong and politically active middle class from emerging.

Conservatives/corporatists know well that this type of neo-feudalism is actually a very stable political and economic system, and one that’s hard to challenge. China has put it into place in large part, and other countries from Turkey to the Philippines to Brazil and Venezuela are falling under the thrall of the merger of corporate and state power.

So many of our individual rights have been stripped from us, so much of America’s middle-class progress in the last century has been torn from us, while conservatives wage a brutal and oppressive war on dissenters and people of color under the rubrics of “security,” “tough on crime,” and the “war on drugs.”

As a result, America has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, more than any other nation on earth, all while opiate epidemics are ravaging our nation. And what to do about it?

Scientists have proven that the likelihood the desires of the bottom 90 percent of Americans get enacted into law are now equal to statistical “random noise.” Functionally, most of us no longer have any real representation in state or federal legislative bodies: they now exist almost exclusively to serve the very wealthy.

The neo-feudal corporate/conservative elite are both politically and financially committed to replacing the last traces of worker power in America with a modern system of indentured servitude.

Only serious and committed political action can reverse this; we’re long past the point where complaining or sitting on the sidelines is an option.

As both Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama regularly said (and I’ve closed my radio show for 14 years with), “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

Tag, you’re it.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of over 25 books in print

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.



  1. Dominick Vila July 19, 2017

    The most pervasive, and remarkable, component of the ability of corporate America, Wall Street, and their minions in government to portray organized labor as the enemies of workers, and large corporations as benign entities that care for the employers is a case study. The use of disinformation was worthy of Third Reich tactics. Fear of losing jobs, and the faux allure of creating well paid jobs, with excellent benefit packages defied logic, but it worked. I don’t know if indentured servitude is the right analogy, but there is no question that the top 1% of our population, with the help of high government officials, managed to turn the USA into a plutocracy where the interests of a few are paramount, and the livelihood of the majority of Americans is seen only through the narrow prism of need and profitability.

    1. TZToronto July 19, 2017

      This is why Trump constantly talks about fake news. He knows that the news about him, his family, and the GOP plan to impoverish almost everyone (while at the same time making them, and keeping them, sick) cannot be allowed to reach the proles. Along with the bashing of real reporting comes the attack on education. Many, especially in the flyover states, feel that college education is a waste of time and that all that is taught (except at those outstanding evangelical schools) is the much-despised liberalism that they blame for their own lack of ability. Keep ’em dumb and gullible, and they’ll believe anything you tell them.

  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth July 19, 2017

    Feudalism and rigid class distinctions never went away once the Pilgrims landed. And to large extent the mind-set of mostly Protestantism type of thinking regarding the individual, and society, was the blueprint and impetus to maintain hierarchical class structure.

    Contrary to the best intentions of the Founding Fathers, this Protestant ethic was stamped on the brow so to speak of every one in the British colonies—including America.

    Since materialism is the driving force in running societies on a day-to-day basis, when taken to an extreme where the individual is conditioned to see himself or herself as a “production unit” vital to the smooth operation of society. And with the premise that the individual must produce on behalf of the society in order to gain something in return, those who are more able-bodied and/or of a higher class and deserving of special recognition in such a system, that leaves the less “able” relegated to a “slave/indentured servant” status, and therefore deserving of less of the goods produced.

    The trouble with this is that such a dreary way of looking at the individual as just a cog, and those not functioning as expected are perceived as not worthy of assistance or consideration, for “failing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The notions of altruism and the ability to show empathy are quickly weakened, or altogether rendered of no importance.

    From this, we all should be able to sense the devastating and debilitating lack of affinity which fills the void left by the absence of spiritual qualities. And this void is a direct consequence of holding on to any Religion whose “term” has been spent—in other words, when the clerics fail to step aside once a new Religion appears on the “horizon of Revelation”, signalling the dawn of a new Religion to harmoniously step in to continue the progress established by the previous Message.

    Since this intended paradigm, Progressive Revelation, has repeatedly been opposed by “conservative” forces—whether religious clergymen and/or secular rulers who wield authority by virtue of whatever the current Religion happens to be. And this discontinuity is reflected in how the human being is often degraded as a result of the atrophy and a social dysfunction induced by a Religion that has reached its “expiration date”.

    A brief statement from the Writings of Baha’u’llah highlight this principle while explaining the harmony of purpose of all the Messengers and The Religion They caused to appear to whatever community of humanity They appeared before:

    “Their revelation may be likened unto the light of the moon that sheddeth it radiance upon the earth. Though every time it appeareth, it revealeth a fresh measure of its brightness, yet its inherent splendour can never diminish, nor can its light suffer extinction.

    It is clear and evident, therefore, that any apparent variation in the intensity of their light is not inherent in the light itself, but should rather be attributed to the varying receptivity of an ever-changing world. Every Prophet Whom the Almighty and Peerless Creator hath purposed to send to the peoples of the earth hath been entrusted with a Message, and charged to act in a manner that would best meet the requirements of the age in which He appeared.”

    When we as a society can begin to put this insight into practice in how we run societies the world over, then slavery and indentured servitude will finally be relegated to irrelevant concepts with no place in today’s world.


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