Privacy, Slavery and Weiners

Why can’t I have an indentured servant? Let’s say you’re down on your luck, jobs are scarce; I offer you room and board for three years, and in return I own you. You clean my house, tend my garden etc. It’s a voluntary agreement: at the end of the three years you’re free, or you can sign on for three more.

Hey! That’s illegal!  Yes, but why is it illegal? It seems like a violation of freedom of contract. I can buy your  labor: if you’re hungry enough, I can make you work for 12 hours a day seven days a week. I can tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. There are guys gathered outside of my local Home Depot everyday, looking for work. I can rent the use of their bodies in effect, but I can’t buy them. Why can you sell you labor to me, but not yourself? It’s an outrageous limitation on market freedom!

This kind of deal was once ubiquitous in American life. Indentured servants were everywhere: Ban Franklin estimated they accounted for about half of Pennsylvania’s labor force. If you have access to Accessible Archives, go to the archive of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin’s newspaper, and enter the search term “runaway.” You’ll be amazed at the number of ads for runaway indentured servants.

So why is this kind of unfreedom now illegal, if the founding fathers practiced it so enthusiastically? For the same reason slavery is illegal, you say? And why is that?[1. indentured servitude was a form of legal unfreedom, and so was slavery. There were important differences: slavery was for life, for example, and more important, slavery came to be understood in the US as hereditary: the children of a slave was a slave. “Slavery,” in the American colonies, was for Africans and maybe Indians. Indentured servitude was for white people and the semi-white, like the irish.]

A standard answer to this question has to do with the rise of wage labor, which eventually replaced both indentured servitude and slavery. Wage labor depends on imagining people as having two selves: the public self, the body which does the actual laboring; and the private self, the self which signed the contract to do the labor. While this might sound too abstract at first, most people have had, at some point in their lives, jobs they really hated. And most people have experienced this divided self: the self which agreed to do the job is not the same as the self which is actually doing the job. I’m here stocking these shelves at WalMart, but it’s not really me.

This divided sense of self is one of the crucial ways “modern” people, meaning in this case people from after the American revolution, are different from their ancestors. You would find wage labor in 1776, but much much less of it. Work was done by individual small proprietors, artisans and mechanics who owned their own shops, and by large numbers of unfree persons—indentured servants, apprentices, slaves, and semi-unfree person like sailors. [1. one of the signs of the difference is the old tradition of naming people after their occupation: “John Carpenter, Peter Cooper, Bill Shoemaker.” That tradition seems odd and puzzling to us today, for many reasons, but we would never imagine naming someone “Tom Claimsreviewer” or “Sally Marketing.” That’s because we have a sense that what you do is not who you are. That sense was much less present in the past.] Americans in the past had much less of this divided sense of self, which is why you could buy someone, instead of just renting their labor. We now imagine a self which is “priceless” and outside the market, a private self which can only belong to itself.

But the sense of private self is clearly eroding. We are under constant surveillance at all times. Not just by traffic cameras, ATM cameras and other public security devices, but also by our credit cards, by and other retailers who track our buying preferences. Facebook and other social media sites track our preferences and expressions: your car probably includes an event data recorder and your iphone is logging your location.

This surveillance offers us a lot of advantages, but it also tends to undermine a sense of the private self. We’ve all recently learned way too much about Congressman Anthony Weiner, for example, but Weiner was broadcasting his private life, something that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. I have 125 Facebook “friends,” but my students typically share the fact that they have a hangover this morning with about three times that number. The public/private split is collapsing.

If the rise of a sense of public/private self was crucial to the end of slavery, what will the erosion of the sense of public/private mean? I have to wonder if slavery, which was common for most of human history, will return.

The best argument against this points out that slavery is inefficient–that it doesn’t pay as well as wage labor. It’s a good argument, but the idea of “efficiency” as a goal in labor is itself also an artifact of the age of the American revolution, the age of the public/private split. “Efficiency” was one of the arguments abolitionists cooked up to oppose slavery.

It still seems like an interesting question. If ending slavery required universalizing a sense of two selves, what larger effects will eroding the sense of privacy have?



So I open the WashPost this morning and what do I see, besides Weiner Weiner Weiner? This: local couple indicted on charges they held woman in servitude.


  • Great post, a provocative and necessary extrapolation from the familiar gripe that “there’s no privacy anymore” to thinking about the impact of these challenges on our economic and social systems.

    I think that it is worth noting that “erosion” and “collapse” are two different verbs, and you apply both to the current state of the public/private split. “Erosion” is perhaps a bit more accurate and nuanced, as it reserves for us the agency to navigate the implications on privacy of our increasingly networked lives. Exploring and nurturing this sense is one of the things that has motivated many of us to fight for an increased attention to digital literacy in higher ed…

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    What about the consequences of not performing at the required level? It’s my understanding that indentured servants were subject to corporal punishment, slaves to capital punishment, but wage laborers can only be fired (or verbally, and emotionally abused as long as they take it).

  • That’s right–there were some legal limits on servants that didn’t apply to slaves, but there was never a point where you could beat your wage workers, at least not legally

  • Did you catch the address in the Post piece? Richmanor Terrace!

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