I acquired today the notion, which I will now test publicly, that people should not use the word “slave” in reference to their relation to existing economic systems. I criticize here white people specifically because, at least in my experience, it is white people who most often employ the word in this way, and because this must be at least partly a function of their whiteness. Though, to be clear, I am not saying only white people use the word, or are capable of using the word, incorrectly. Any usage of “slave”, by anyone, in reference to oneself within liberal state capitalism is imprecise at the least.
Often, the equivocation is done via abstract reasoning, utilizing the definitions of words like “slave” and “property” and “freedom”, which the guilty person has detached from their empirical anchors, raising them as universals while drowning them with subsequent, logical deductions. This is the pathway to a philosophy that, if rigorous, may at least achieve internal consistency, but is regardless incompatible with human experience. A word like “slave”, after-all, must lose entirely its relation to human experience if it is to be used to describe both the capture, forced migration, and torture of millions of Africans and having to pay an income tax. One of these things is not like the other, except in that convenient way things can be like each other when we define them the same and then ignore the wealth and range of conflicting anecdotes. Even the term, “wage slave”, which I have some sympathy for and which seems almost useful, strikes me suddenly as nothing but a conceited attempt by white, often rather bourgeois, individuals to convince themselves that what they endure under capitalism is comparable to the penetrating and inexhaustible tortures of slavery — though, in fairness, perhaps it is only an attempt to canalize the same outrage that abolished slavery and carry it forward, to new economic relations. (Aye, there’s the rub: slavery is so much more than an “economic relation”.)
Having arrived at this opinion, I have decided to remove the word “slave” from my vocabulary, except in direct reference to institutional slavery, or for any ironic or satirical uses as needed. I will, therefore, unless sufficiently rebuked, criticize any attempts I see by white people to use “slave” to refer to themselves, or their jobs, or their form of government, or their incredulous cries against the tyranny of representative democracy. The word cannot be used, even metaphorically, or by analogy, in this way without sacrificing its imagery. The metaphor thus fails at the instant it is introduced. In fact, it may be that those who use the word in this way have not studied, or have at the least failed to internalize, the imagery of slavery — for if they had, they would understand the severity of its appropriation as well as its unique, and thus incomparable, nature.
It is also interesting and relevant to note that the etymology of the word “slave” is rooted entirely in the human practice of owning other humans. The word originally existed to describe “Slavs” taken captive by Otto the Great and retained its usage as colonial slavery spread and deepened in the Americas and elsewhere. Thus, I believe, there are good etymological, historical, and political reasons for reserving the word’s usage for that context alone. For words are images, and, like oil paintings, begin to blur when watered down. When we lose the proper meaning of a word, we lose also the clarity of its image, and whole periods and struggles of history can, by this seemingly minor smudge, become misunderstood or forgotten. But the horrors of institutional slavery, like those of war and fascism, cannot be allowed to succumb to the fuzziness and solipsism of hindsight.