Capitalism finds a way: Parallels between slaves, salarymen, home owners, and why Generation Y will have its day

"The history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way."
Jurassic Park (1990) by Michael Crichton

I have an arguably cynical hypothesis to put forward: that the progression of equality has been, and continues to be, driven less by justice, and much more by greed. I am going to make my argument by looking at two historic case studies – emancipation, and women’s suffrage and equal opportunity – to support some predictions of how Generation Y will fare as professionals (tldr: eventually, really well).


Parallels between race-based slavery, and gender-based slavery (not to mention age-based subservience), are extensive. Consider the popular and comforting notion that slavery was made ‘obsolete’ by dawning of the age of Enlightenment - where white men were more likely to look, with their secular tools, at the lack of ethical justification to chaining up a person on the basis of their pigmentation. And consider instead that emancipation was the result, at least in great part, of the stirrings of the industrial revolution.

Slaves were simply becoming too expensive to keep – more accurately, slaves were no longer as efficient as emerging tools of industry.[1] 

So my thesis is this: emancipation occurs because of technological advancements. Furthermore, the ‘fuel’ for such revolutions – be they industrial, colonial or information revolutions – is extracted from their predecessor. People are liberated in order for them to engage in tasks that are more economical. Regardless of whether you claim that “slavery disappeared only as industrial capitalism emerged” (Boudreaux) or that industrial capitalism emerged as slavery disappeared (Eric Williams), you are still maintaining that Emancipation resulted from money finding a better place to ‘live’.

Consider that slavery was, in its way, a heavily regulated industry with slave owners being responsible for their slave. While a slave owner might have been entitled to rape or whip their slaves, they were also probably also obliged to keep them on for life or pay for their upkeep – see the Law of Manumission (Wahl).

Slave owners were not permitted to simply disown their slaves, who would then become a financial burden or threat to white-dominated society. Similarly, parents are prohibited from abandoning their children in part so that roaming gangs of juveniles do not take over the adult-dominated streets, a la City of God.

Lifetime Employment: Voluntary enslavement?

In Japan, the feasibility - and indeed, moral imperative - of lifetime employment was, and generally continues to be, taken for granted. Such arrangement was likely an extension of the peon-lord arrangement of the feudal Edo era. The pact between shogun and samurai now rewritten for worker and corporation – you give yourself wholly to us, and we will receive you for your employable life.[2] Yet as secure and rewarding such an arrangement can be it can also be a really dumb one.[3] For when it breaks - it shatters.

Money likes to breed – and it does not care who it screws over. When the circumstances, or technology, or weather permits a more economically efficient model, capitalism throws all romantic notions about form, loyalty, and tradition out of the window, stamping out such archaic ideologies with little mercy. To run with the metaphysical theme, the Invisible Hand of capitalism carries a hammer, with which it moulds people and politics to fit its own ideal.

A few million breadwinners were given their marching orders when Japan’s bubble economy burst. When that happened, the true spirit of the Japanese patriarchy reared its ugly head: they were also given their marching orders by their families.

No longer able to fill the paternal role that they had enjoyed and exploited, they ‘died by the very merciless, pragmatic, Patriarchal sword that they had once lived by. Tent cities emerged on every stretch of public space in the metropolis of Nippon; when men define their power in terms of their money-earning potential (in a work-culture that clearly favours them, and shuns others), then they are liable to become powerless (or more fairly, be seen, and see themselves as such) when they can no longer bring home the bacon.[4]

When the bubble burst and lives and families modestly splattered on every street corner and every park of the cities, it was a correction. The economy shaped up to reality, ejecting some of the free-riders from its saddle (not necessarily of their fault, mind you). An economy where everyone’s job is secure obviously loses the incentive, and inventive, factor – something obviously not limited to Japan.[5] The arrangement inevitably created a stilted economy – start-ups, small businesses trying radical departures from the norm, community-based cooperatives, all found it extremely difficult to source fresh staff, let alone fresh ideas. With everyone trying to be a graduate of Tokyo University and to work at Toyota, those wanting to become street artists or join the circus are unlikely to be encouraged by their significant others.[6]

House ownership

The ‘job for life’ model is typically laughed at by those in the West.[7] However, something similar happens with home-ownership – just as many adults want (or are expected to want) a full-time permanent position - and to put in the extra hours in for some distant, hypothetical pay-off - so too do many adults want, or are expected to want, a mortgage.[8]

When you get that kind of pressure to realize (or at the least, permissiveness to indulge in) such a Fabuland-style fantasy, a few things happen.
  • Supply and demand means greater competiveness, and since ‘god’s not making any more land’, the only way for property values tends to be decreasing in affordability.
  • People are much more intransigent: economically, physically, and rationally. If you have a half-million dollar mortgage, which you have spent a substantial proportion of your pay cheque each fortnight simply to service, you are a lot less likely to look on investments (particularly your own) in an objective manner. And while property might ultimately, and on average, be a smart investment, it’s difficult to critique your own investment when there’s no easy way out. With all one’s capital tied up in one’s own debt-relief efforts, there’s not often a whole lot of margin for error when things turn south – or north for that matter.
  • People tend to get a little attached to the investment-property / dream-home that they have poured their heart and wages into. This means less ability or willingness to relocate. Yet a work-force that generally will not move across town, let alone across state, is incapable of taking their profession to where their industry is blooming – or relocating to. When a job pops up, no matter if it’s for a lucrative contract spanning several years, people are less likely – indeed, financially and economically able – to relocate. That means diminished employment rates, and a slower economy for everyone

In Japan, the middle-aged men had been so thoroughly indoctrinated into believing that the particular organisation that would take them in on their graduation day would keep them forever, that they were probably psychologically and emotionally incapable of conceiving working elsewhere. This was especially when they had been so heartlessly expelled from their paternal employer. In Australia, and perhaps in the United States, there is a similar close mindedness. People are too location oriented; yet rather than this meaning that they feel strongly empathic towards their neighbours, it means that they have come to associate settling down and having a particular roof over their heads with their own identity.[9]

Admittedly, that also has much to do with
  • Wanting to keep family’s stable – not obliging little four-year-old Timmy to get used to a different pre-school, for instance.
  • What kind of excitement-level people are after – and changing cities after you’re forty is probably more than what the hearts of most white-collar working fathers can handle.
  • The social meta-narrative we have been taught – that while it’s great to be able to afford to jump on a plane and fly around the world in a couple of weeks during our annual leave, the progress of the species has been about settling down.[10]
Thus, in willingly mortgaged to our necks in pursuit of the Great Australian (or American, or European, or New Zealand) Dream, and wanting a stable nest in which to house our offspring, we are actually more likely to be unemployed than if were ‘just’ renting. Yet amongst all this, capitalism – like life – finds a way, ‘creating’ situations like the Subprime mortgage crises. This emerged in great part because intransigent and unemployed people could no longer afford to pay off their feudal overlords – that is, the banks. Now, people are on the street or moving from relatives’ to relatives’. Yet at least they are moving: able and obliged to take up a job on the opposite coast, to start a new career in a different profession, to try something different. People are mobilized – and the sleepers have awoken.

If we keep this up, we might even survive.[11]

What does this mean?

The above demonstrates how capitalism will generally not tolerate romantic or traditional practices that are grossly inefficient. Slavery ended, at least in part, because it was no longer tenable to provide lifetime employment to an unskilled and short lived workforce to grow cotton (itself a highly exploitative and unsustainable crop), when up north there are rudimentary factories manufacturing items of all description (and requiring a comparatively skilled and willing work-force), and train networks that could quickly transport labour and supplies to where it was most needed or wanted.[12]

Globalization is the logical continuation of Abolition. Where the mid nineteenth century saw the emancipation of people, the late twentieth century saw the emancipation of markets. Intellectual property, capital, and professionals have been mobilized en masse, relocated anywhere in the world via the tubes of the internet, the flight corridors of passenger jets, the trade lanes of the canals, and at speed matched only by their regulation.[13]

Emancipation of women is occurring in large part because technology – primarily domestic technology – made their primary role as housekeepers less critical. A burgeoning service economy, driven most recently by information technology, has meant that skilled professionals, even if they are women, are in demand. Just as many Caucasians were presumably resistant to allowing African Americans (or whichever imported or indigenous non-white denomination) to work in the same factories or fields, so too were many men distraught at the prospect of women filling analogous roles in the same office space. Yet their cries have gone unheard - because there is just too profit to be made by enfranchising half your potential labour pool.

Generation Y

What are we seeing now, with the first wave of the baby-boomers hitting retirement age, is a supposed demographic and human resources nightmare: employers must now look towards young people to fill roles that their predecessors were required to spend decades of brown-nosing to earn.

Yet take them on board, the old guard must. Employers will try to keep their seasoned, senior staff on as post-retirement contractors and consultants; they will tempt and sponsor skilled immigrants; maybe they will enlarge their graduate employment program, so that they may shape the youthful apprentices before they get too cocky. Yet employers will have to budge, because sooner or later, some other employer – less principled, less discerning, and less traditional – will break ranks and draw (without discernment) from the spoilt and frustratingly-savvy crowd of Generation-Y. And the new wave of professionals will adapt, and in turn manipulate the economic landscape to adapt to them, and they will survive - because life, like capitalism, always finds a way.


Another, more nuanced explanation of how Emancipation came to be has struck me, in which the post-slave era was brought about by industry, but via the Enlightenment. Industrialization ‘powered’ the Enlightenment, which in turn powered the opposing ideological framework to slavery. Many of the proponents of Emancipation for instance were Quakers, who waged an inspiring information-war against pro-slavery ideology. They were mobile – they presumably used trains and well-formed roads to travel from one city to the next; they were coordinated and skilled communicators, using the printing press to drive home the message of their seminars; and most importantly, they had surplus time and energy to engage in an awareness campaign. Consider that only a few generations earlier they would probably have been living a subsistence existence, uncertain of what their next meal was going to be. Industry gave them the ‘luxury’ of travelling the country, lobbying their cause – and it gave their audience the luxury to pause and listen. Having the time to discuss the ethics of their civilisation’s basis was, to be fair, probably of as much importance, if not more importance, than actually being able to provide an alternative.

What might this suggest about our current day issues – for example, providing a political solution to climate change, or managing the looming demographic dilemmas – is not necessarily heartening. I fear that, considering the amount of time and energy my technologically aware 30 something peers and I put into the moral equivalent of writing captions for lol-cat photos, it is pretty clear that simply having the tools with which to engage in global discourses such as ageism or environmentalism is not enough. We have the technology, yet we must also have the care factor – which I’m afraid is in deficit.

Certainly Mark Davis, author of Gangland: Cultural Elites and the new Generationalism, believes that younger people have something valuable to say. But what’s frightening to realize when referring to such a well-articulated condemnation of the powers that be is that it was written in 1997, and the generational cohort being championed was Generation X, and not Y. Ten years later and things had only gotten worst. It’s unsettling to think that by the time the baby-boomers have finally been forced to surrender their reign on power, their ‘children’ – GenXers - will be too old to really be able to have fun with their new found power. And will Gen X hold onto the reigns as tightly as their parents? Will they gag their children as tightly as they were?

What Davis may not have foresaw, and which should be a source of hope or solace, is the emergence of the web as a medium of discourse that does not play favourites according to a person’s age. Even if I am denied the opportunity to give a non-stereotypical opinion in the columns of The Age, at least I have my blog, right? Yet I am afraid that having been prohibited from the main-stream media, for so long, young writers have become like Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest – capable of some amazing moments of pathos and poetry, but otherwise just Prospero’s punching bag.

Like stumbling shell-shocked veterans, they “had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them”.[14] Sure, we have our blogs, and in time may even have our own newspapers, magazines and journals – yet perhaps the moment will have past. In the mean time, all we can do is try to manage the ocean of information we are now privy to – and keep up with writing our lol-cat captions.


[1] “The profits from New World slavery had significantly contributed to the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital that enabled the industrial revolution, especially in Britain. However, by the end of the 18th century, the profitability of plantation slavery was in decline and so was the slave system as a whole. ... There were now more profitable outlets in industry and commerce for investments than in the dirty slave business.” (Packer)
“During the 1770s the West Indies became less important for producing sugar. In 1771, 2728 slaves were imported, but in 1772, no slaves were imported anymore. This was because Cuba and Brazil started to produce cheaper sugar. The workers on those plantations were being paid for the work that they did, this meant that they worked harder because there was something in it for them. If Britain could buy sugar somewhere else for less money she would.” (Abe C.)
[2] “The lifetime employment system, cemented in Japan’s post-war economic boom, bound dutiful workers and paternalistic employers together, producing a mutual loyalty (and labour harmony) rarely seen in the West.” (Tabuchi)
[3] “By helping to maintain excess employment, you face the risk of keeping alive businesses that are no longer competitive, and perhaps whose productive era is over,” said Hisashi Yamada, an economist at the Japan Research Institute, a private research group in Tokyo. “This could hurt employment in the long run. What you need is more structural change.” (Tabuchi)
[4] This might be (completely) off the mark, but it’s the story that when teaching in Tokyo, me and the other ESL instructors were told, and in turn told ourselves, when visiting Ueno Park for instance.
[5] “It’s practically impossible to remove an underperforming teacher under the system we have now,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, lamenting that his state has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation. Eliminating tenure, Mr. Sandoval said, would allow school districts to dismiss teachers based on competence, not seniority, in the event of layoffs.” (Gabriel and Dillon)
[6] “Japan’s obsession with keeping workers employed — even those who are not needed — comes at a cost. Companies slash wages, which reduces consumer spending. Businesses become more reluctant to take on new recruits, shutting young people out of the labour force.” (Tabuchi)
[7] Though such ridicule would presumably have become more popular when Japan followed suit with the rest of the developed world in the late 90s and its asset-price bubble burst.
[8] The tendency is for a house with a lawn and a veranda - to the point where this style has become a near-fetishized fashion. This is much like everyone wanting to buy a particular breed of dog, naturally better than their neighbours, but still within the same class or breed. As the theory goes, we do not wish necessarily to be financially autonomous, but wealthier and more prosperous than our peers. See Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety.
[9] As Tyler Durden would say, however - You are not your balcony.
[10] The greatest achievements we human have accomplished have supposedly been related to
  • graffiting the same obscure cavern
  • building fences around our herd of cattle
  • tilling the same patch of land with a progressively improved strain of grain, of intergenerational construction projects,
And perhaps the most important idea in the world at the moment is also currently the most meaningless and destructive: territory. For armies may clash for decades over stretches of earth, trying to hold on to the most pitiful pieces of estate at the cost of millions of lives – while CO2, CFCs, and acid rain happily drifts over continents and oceans.
We’ve been taught that nomadism as a romantic, almost Arcadian notion, which young backpackers can explore the world in order (cynicism alert) to appreciate the value of having a job, and a place where you can get a clean shower every morning. In this regards, it’s not unlike the Amish practice of Rumspringa – ‘running around’ – where youths are possibly encouraged to go a little crazy, so that their excesses lead them to the tower of wisdom (ideally, being adults in the Amish community).
Yet our attitude towards nomads, or the mobile, can best be seen perhaps in the average attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers: contempt; even when their mobility is an imperative created by our own international adventurism – for instance, invading Afghanistan.
[11] I am rather confident that in a few decades, Australians will be confronted with a climate refugee influx that will utterly transform the nation’s cultural and political landscape. Consider that “By 2050, most observers project climate refugees to swell into the range of 150 to 200 million. If accurate, these figures readily surpass those of conventional political refugees.” (ReliefWeb) Maybe Canada will start looking much more appealing for a lot of those currently living in Australia. For those that remain, however, it will be an excellent opportunity to explore the alternative to urbanisation and mortgages: Smart Growth. In the resulting population-dense – yet environmentally smart – cities that embrace such a model, ‘white picket fence’ will become a rude-word. While Golden Retrievers may not necessarily become part of our diet, we will likely come to prefer the Japanese model of tiny tatami-covered apartments so that we may also preserve enough common land so that we may still enjoy the outdoors – as well as enough arable land so that we may also eat. And if we are less fixated, emotionally and financially, with the walls that we are living between, we will be more likely to move with the work. 
[12] “On purely economic grounds, capitalism rejects slavery because slaves are productive only when doing very simple tasks that can easily be monitored. It's easy to tell if a slave is moving too slowly when picking cotton. And it's easy to speed him up. Also, there's very little damage he can do if he chooses to sabotage the cotton-picking operation. Compare a cotton field with a modern factory.” (Boudreaux)
[13] Consider, for instance, that anyone can transmit a copy of a film that cost a quarter of a billion dollars to make and market ( I’m looking at you here, Avatar), to pretty much anywhere else in the world, but if you got caught, it would cost you tens of thousands of dollars, and/or incarceration. Money can be wired in an instance from a distributor in Sunshine, Melbourne, to a sweat shop in Pakistan – yet if it turns out that that factory is managed by some Muslim entrepreneur with sympathies towards the Palestinians, their assets are frozen. And consider that, while an MBA graduate with carry-on luggage only, and a print-out from their online book-in, can walk virtually unimpeded through customs in their native country, to exit half a world and twenty-four hours away from an Airbus a380 Superjumbo Jet (worth a third of a billion dollars). And yet people on the run for their lives opt to climb on board a ship that ends up smashing against the rocks of Christmas Island – and are then held as criminals.
[14] “LIONEL: It’s true, I’m not a doctor, and yes I acted a bit, recited in pubs and taught elocution in schools. When the Great War came, our boys were pouring back from the front, shell-shocked and unable to speak and somebody said, “Lionel, you’re very good at all this speech stuff. Do you think you could possibly help these poor buggers”. I did muscle therapy, exercise, relaxation, but I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie.” The King’s Speech