Chattel Slavery, Wage Slavery, and “Django Unchained”

by x365097

“And now from the window of a four-wheeled cab the Queen of Babylon beheld the wonders of London. Buckingham Palace she thought uninteresting; Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament little better. But she liked the Tower, and the River, and the ships filled her with wonder and delight.

“But how badly you keep your slaves. How wretched and poor and neglected they seem,” she said, as the cab rattled along the Mile End Road.

“They aren’t slaves; they’re working-people,” said Jane.

“Of course they’re working. That’s what slaves are.”

-E. Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet

Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film, “Django Unchained,” is a surprisingly mature effort from a director who has been known to allow his movies to dwell on violence seemingly for its own sake. While “Django” does plainly rejoice in its share of bloody gunshot wound FX, it is equally a courageous exploration of the horror and degradation of the system of chattel slavery with which the working class of the United States coped, and from which its ruling class profited, for centuries. The entertaining and thought-provoking ways in which it has brought these important themes to mainstream audiences more than redeems its excursions into make-up excesses, some of which are actually rather comical. However, like so many works which touch on the subject of what we know simply as “slavery” in the U. S., it leaves the paradigm of workers’ rights which succeeded it virtually untouched.

The film’s plot begins with Django (Jaime Foxx), a slave of African descent caught in the plantation system of the South, as he is liberated from his leg-irons by a Federally employed bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who needs his help to identify a group of fugitives. As Schultz finds the new “freeman” a worthy companion, he also trains him in the profession of bounty hunting.

After a series of adventures, Django opts, with a pledge of assistance from Schultz, to try to track down and reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he had been separated by a slaveowner who deliberately sold them to separate employers because he didn’t approve of his slaves being married. The duo learn that Broomhilda is being held at a large Mississippi plantation called Candyland, a living hell presided over by a wealthy ignoramus named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who enjoys such entertainments as forcing his slaves to grapple to the death in his parlor*. To free Broomhilda from Candie’s grip will require every trick in Django’s and Schultz’s repertoire — and, as Tarantino would have it, a whole lot of ammunition.

(*While certain others concern themselves with historical hair-splitting over the “mandingo” scene, let’s not forget the modern, non-snuff (usually) version of this sport, known as “boxing,” from which real workers suffer brain damage, vision impairment, and worse. Also, one need look no further than Ralph Ellison’s brilliant 1952 novel, Invisible Man, for additional, beautifully poetic exposition on the often race-motivated humiliation that is frequently intended to go hand in hand with this brutal amusement.)

Though a bit on the long side at 165 minutes, “Django Unchained” is a tremendous film for the ways in which it viscerally immerses the viewer in the outrageous injustices that characterized the racism-underpinned system of chattel slavery in which workers were legally held to be chattels, or the property of their employers. To remember this taboo era of U. S. history in which workers held no more rights as human beings than held the tools with which they labored, is vitally important as the US moves squarely into the twenty-first century, and the reactionary right, strongly on the ascent, tries to paint over these memories, for the values which enabled and perpetuated chattel slavery hundreds of years ago continue to shape actions and discourse concerning current struggles for workers such as undocumented immigrants. (Along these lines, the KKK-style lynch mob scene in “Django,” in which a gang of would-be murderers on horseback struggle to see out of their ill-fitting hoods at night, is quietly hilarious.)

From a Wobbly perspective, a shortcoming of the film, one which is frequently encountered in discussions of the subject of chattel slavery in the US, is that it defines “freedom” as anything but this particular form of slavery. The IWW, in fact, was founded to abolish another, only slightly milder form of slavery which co-existed with chattel slavery prior to the Civil War, and which continues to persist today. That system, we call wage slavery, and it is more widely known as capitalism.

To illustrate: early in the film, Schultz explains to Django that, as a reward for his help tracking fugitives, he will be sent North with seventy-five dollars to begin a life of his choosing as a Constitutionally protected citizen. But as the fast-food cashier from “Dude, Where’s My Car” might reply,

“And then?”

The U. S. Constitution, durable though it may be, has remarkably little to say about workers’ rights, or the social impacts of the burgeoning system of industrial capitalism into which our friend Django would have been released to try to make his way (partly because the U. S. was still mostly pre-industrial when it was written). It was only in the early twentieth century that major advances were made in that area, and it was only due to the intense struggles of organized workers (including first-generation Wobblies) that they were made — despite the vicious and often violent counterattacks of the employing class and their lackeys.

In Django’s time, things were different in that the ratio of wage workers to those who made their living through other means — small-scale farming, for instance — was basically the reverse of what it is today. (Today, about 90% are wage earners.) That has changed because resources, particularly productive infrastructure, or workplaces (the means of production), have become consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. And although a great majority of the U. S. working class, despite all evidence to the contrary, historically has acted as though our aspirations could be realized under this system, conditions are getting worse and worse, the economic gap between those who work and those who own growing wider and wider.

Maybe U. S. workers just don’t want to believe it. Maybe we’re putting all our chips on winning the golden ticket and being the last one standing, a fantasy pseudo-solution that, even if it had some basis in reality, assumes that it’s morally just that “millions will enter; few will win.” But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore, harder and harder to think that this is just some kind of an economic “pendulum swing” or some other sort of natural cycle that will pass on its own. It will not end like that.

Like chattel slavery, wage slavery will only end when those who profit from it are forced to give it up. The ones with the most to gain from that happening, and the only ones with the means to make it happen are we, the working class, because they live from our labor. Until we organize for this purpose and develop our capacity to withhold our labor in strategic ways, we will remain powerless as individuals to do much of anything about it. Instead, those of us who recognize some element of the problem will continue to dream of saviors and supermen who might swoop in and end the injustice for us — saviors and supermen who will never arrive. Or (possibly) worse, we could sink into self-destructive behavior, pitying ourselves and lamenting the better future, the better society we knew was possible but which we did not do everything in our power to try to create.

If you are like most workers in the U. S. today, you go to work most days of the week at a business or businesses in which you do not have a claim to ownership and at which you mostly do not participate in the major decision-making processes. You’re paid as little as the bosses can get away with paying you, and the other businesses in your industry are in effective collusion with them on that; they all pay about the same, and that pay has been in decline with respect to inflation since the early 70s. All of the rest of the value that your work generates gets paid out to the bosses as their personal profits or as reinvestments in the equipment that they, and not you, own. You can be fired at any time for basically any reason, and therefore severed from the money that you depend on to pay for the commodified essentials of life: food, water, shelter, medical care, etc. Survival then becomes a crapshoot because unemployment insurance doesn’t amount to much, even when you do qualify for it, and the only thing worse than having a job is looking for one. Maybe you’ll make your rent or mortgage payment this month, or maybe you won’t. Or you hang on to your job, and you work, and you work, and they get rich, and you maybe get by, or maybe you even manage to scrounge up enough to invest back into the system and make yourself some money off the backs of other workers — just like the parasites at the top do. This is wage slavery.

There are alternatives. There is more than enough to go around without 99% of the population running like rats on a wheel to provide a handful of billionaires with access to more goods and services than they could possibly consume in a thousand lifetimes. No one needs to do without in the midst of that kind of wealth. The working class needs to take what literally is ours — ours because our labor created it — and assist consciously in the process of sharing it efficiently, according to need.

Grassroots, democratically determined change to benefit workers is possible, but it will only start happening when workers decide that we are ready to take the necessary steps to begin the process. We can see a direct connection between periods of time over the last century in which the working class is organized, and we’re winning, and when workers try to go it alone, and we’re losing. Right now, we’re losing. What we need to do is say, “Enough,” and turn it back around. If you’re ready to commit to a solution to the poverty and the powerlessness, the IWW is ready to talk to you. Contact or join us today, and we can help you start to organize.