The Servitude Of Our Times

France’s yellow vest protest have been comprehensively ignored, but the fundamental grievances remain

The streets of Oxford are full of vans doing plumbing, roofing, gardening—all jobs that would have been done by the downstairs servants of yore. Men in vests unload commodities from wage-slaves even further off-shore. We think the days of slavery and servitude have passed, but they haven’t. They’ve just stepped out the door. Thanks to the chemical slaves of fossil fuels, we can have the service we’re used to without having to live with the servants.

In Sri Lanka, we literally live with our servants, and look like assholes. If we don’t share a roof we (the respectable rich) build houses for them, employ their extended families, it’s basically a feudal relationship. This seems backwards and people are embarrassed to talk about it. Indeed, there are many abusive feudal relationships that people should be worse than embarrassed about. And yet I increasingly thing that western servitude at a distance is not a qualitative difference but a quantitative one. It’s the same servile relationship, just at a distance where the enserver gives even less fucks.

As I’ve said, tourism is colonial servitude with tips. Can I rub your feet sir, can I scrub the villa, is the curry too hot for you? What the west calls the ‘gig’ economy is really just a distributed servant class. All the stuff we in the Dirty South would use a driver for (get the groceries, bring some food) western people use an app for.

Those distributed servants brings your goods and you don’t even have to look at them, let alone buy their kids school shoes. And yet their kids still need school shoes. Technology hasn’t removed the problem of inequity, it’s just removed the need to look at it so much. Instead of having one servant and potentially his entire village to bother you, you just get a different person from the lower classes all the time. So digitally divided into pieces of men that you don’t have to confront any of them as a human being. You can just get your shit and close the door. I think of the John Ruskin quote, via Tolstoy:

“It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided, but the men — divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now, it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished — sand of human souls — we should think there might be some loss in it also.”

To paraphrase him, it is a good and desirable thing to get next-day delivery, but if we could only see the hands that make and package these things—the hands of human beings—we should think there’s some loss in it also.

We just moved into student housing (for my wife, I’m essentially just visiting) and I think of this as I cut through the endless cardboard boxes with a knife. Who folded this thing, who taped it? Who made the microwave, what hands taped the cord to its side? And who gives a shit? We hide all the lifeforce that goes into commodities behind branding and packaging. We literally eat chicken sold to us by cartoon chickens. Someone can just put ‘artisan’ or ‘climate-friendly’ on the front of something and we’re like ‘cool’? What the fuck do we know? What we really want is to not know. A servant should never impinge on the conscience of their master, except to flatter it.

I think, also, that all of this is only possible because the chemical servants of even further yore. All the undead phytoplankton (oil) that goes into the vans that enable the builder to live far away and not downstairs in your own house. All the dead zooplankton (natural gas) that keeps your house warm without servants tending multiple fireplaces. And all of the above that means you don’t have to get shoes from a local cobbler but can instead ship them across the sea, soles made by distant souls you don’t have to think about at all. All because the undead souls of photosynthetic life make it possible. We burn our ancestors and disregard our brothers and sisters. Spiritually, this can’t end well.

England is weird because it’s an American vassal-state and thus nominally follows the ruling religion of equality and individualism (a contradiction and a falsehood, but nevermind, that’s what the best-organized religions are built on). England is, however, a much older civilization that is congenitally classist as fuck. I was watching some guys do scaffolding in London and they asked where they could use the bathroom. Then I realized that’s what the janky bathroom near the bins was for. They have servants toilets too. In Oxford, they seem to bring in port-a-potties for the same purpose.

The servant class here talks different, they wear different shoes, they even wear luminescent vests so you can see them from afar. There’s literally a class uniform, whereas in Sri Lanka they merely look a bit shabbier. And yet these people are employed by corporations, they perhaps own capital machinery themselves, they don’t look like the feudal servant who owns neither their tools or themselves, but they’re doing the same jobs.

You can see it keenly around Oxford University where there are (honestly shabby) eggheads walking around seemingly doing nothing and an entire class of uniformed workers making sure the heat is A) working and B) carbon-neutral, to suit their master's latest preference. Because not only do they want to be removed from their human servants, they don’t want to see or think about the chemical ones either. Is this possible? I don’t think so. Things are what they are.

As Bob Dylan said,