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,

Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

In this day we know it’s definitely the devil, and in this age we know he’s coming for his due. Ancient civilizations with slave classes still understood the social instability that came from keeping a class down too long. As the late David Graeber said in his book Debt, “it is significant that the Sumerian word amargi, the first recorded word for “freedom” in any known human language, literally means “return to mother” — since this is what freed debt-peons were finally allowed to do.”

The guy he quotes, Michael Hudson, talks about how Western Civilization is different from these older civilizations because it doesn’t have jubilees or even periodic economic freedom for the poor. They just get driven deeper and deeper into debt, poor countries at the White Empire’s frontiers (like Sri Lanka), and even poor people within its core.

Nearly all early non-Western societies had protections against the emergence of mercantile and rentier oligarchies. That is why it is so important to recognize that what has become Western civilization represents a break from the Near East, South and East Asia. Each of these regions had its own system of public administration to save its social balance from commercial and monetary wealth that threatened to destroy economic balance if left unchecked. But the West’s economic character was shaped by rentier oligarchies. Rome’s Republic enriched its oligarchy by stripping the wealth of the regions it conquered, leaving them impoverished. That remains the extractive strategy of subsequent European colonialism and, most recently, U.S.-centered neoliberal globalization. The aim always has been to “free” oligarchies from constraints on their self-seeking. (The End Of Western Civilization)

I think of this as working-class people install heat-pumps around Oxford while they themselves will struggle to afford heating this winter. All because some rentier arms dealers want to make a killing in Ukraine, and so Ukrainians must die and Europe must be cold. Even all the talk of ‘just stopping’ fossil fuels (which I’ve been guilty of) ignores the fact that people servants depend on these chemical servants for their very food and movement. The dual pressure of trying to do the right thing while also doing the wrong thing is too much for this civilization to bear.

Like the USSR trying perestroika, eventually western civilization will just snap under pressure of this contradiction. The whole ‘civilization’ is built on human and environmental exploitation, that’s all it is. Trying to be less evil is, paradoxically, what will make the whole thing fall down. People sometimes ask me what western societies should do, and my answer is kill yourself (not personally, God bless you). And that’s precisely what they’re doing.

Ancient civilizations understood this (ie, experienced it) and they had jubilees and debt-relief (ie, freeing slaves) but western civilization is poisoned by the hubristic belief in eternal progress. The rentier class won’t give up a dime of profits (ie captured labor), so it all has to go down in a crash, falling on the heads of the poor the worst, but eventually everyone.

The great western mythos is that they eliminated slavery, they eliminated serfdom, they even eliminated colonialism (you’re welcome). Their great power is devouring their rebellions, but eventually the shit will all come out. The fact is that slavery is everywhere, it’s just hidden behind shipping containers and computer screens. Serfdom is everywhere, it’s just more bureaucratic and distributed so you can’t see it right in front of you. And of course colonialism never ended, it just turned into ‘free-market capitalism’, meaning the freedom to exploit the fuck out of the South, punishing rebels with coups, invasions, or interventions from the IMF.

The great power of this historical moment, like any historical moment, is that you can’t see it. Such is the nature of history for the people living it, we’re just bugs in a rug. I didn’t see it for many years, I’m not some genius, I think we all can see it now; now that the threads of meaning are being torn, now that the fucking weather is changing, now that our pockets are getting lighter and that the general suffering becomes too much to ignore. Now I can see it sticking out like a sore thumb, the servant class still scurrying around Oxford while the rich do, objectively, nothing. All the machinations around making beer companies and universities ‘carbon-neutral’ while the global carbon balance becomes even worse.

Tolstoy talked about The Slavery Of Our Times over 100 years ago and what really gets me is that we’re still doing it. We’re still surrounded by servants and wage slaves doing stuff for us at great cost to themselves, and even the servants and wage slaves have servants and wage slaves now. That’s the great improvement. It’s an ouroboros of exploitation, two snakes biting each other, spinning violently into the sun.

The great modern sin, above our exploitation of each other, is that we’ve chained up hydrocarbons. And so we get a slave rebellion that even the ancients couldn’t imagine. Not just the rebellion of human servants that can’t take anymore (though, inshallah that will come). We also get the rebellion of an entire environment that has also had enough. The slavery of our times is, in truth, worse than anything that came before. Human slaves might come and burn your house, but carbon slaves will burn the whole ecosystem. And yet here we are. Assiduously not looking at our servants, thinking we’re better than all that, when an equal and opposite reaction is, inexorably, about to come.