Contra Zizek: Capitalism Doesn’t Need Slavery

Mason Mohon | @mohonofficial

When discussing Slavoj Zizek, “prolific” is an understatement. He has written over fifty books in English over his life, and many more are to come. His theories have ranged from philosophy and cultural theory to Lacanian psychoanalysis and economics. Even those that disagree with his fundamental theses could learn a lot from him. He does, though, fall into the trap of traditional anti-capitalism. “Profit man bad” NPC memes aside, let’s look at where Zizek goes wrong in claiming that slavery is necessary for capitalist organization.

In his book Against the Double Blackmail, Zizek has a short passage on the international view of slave relations in countries adopting capitalist principles. His claim at the end of chapter 6 is that rich countries are experiencing the “rise of a new slavery.” He makes the claim that capitalism prides itself on the promotion of individual freedoms. Yet, the system inevitably creates conditions for slavery to arise.

This article is not going to merely prove that “capitalism is against slavery.” That argument would be directly akin to the “not real socialism” argument made so often by our friends on the left. Instead, I will address the claims that various forms of slavery have manifested in the capitalist system. Through this, I will show that his understanding of capitalism and slavery is misguided.


Zizek’s forms of slavery that he identifies are sweatshops and the traditional work relations in the developed world. The image of sweatshops tends to immediately conjure a negative image in the mind of the reader. They think of poor South Asian women and children making Nike shoes in a dilapidated building. Our inclination as bourgeoisie westerners is that their life is horrendous and that we as the great western saviors need to rescue them from their terrible slavish conditions.

Yet the traditional conceptualization of sweatshop workers is fundamentally misguided. The reason people work in sweatshops is that there is no other option. The market is whichever country the sweatshop resides hasn’t developed to the point where people can have cushy insurance sales jobs. These people have one option – work in a sweatshop. In instances where these terrible institutions are torn down, we don’t see wealth abound for the newly unemployed. Bangladesh exemplifies this phenomenon: children engage in more dangerous jobs like stone crushing or prostitution.

Chris Calton wrote on the Mises website:

Abolishing sweatshops is not the remedy to the dismal conditions of the citizens of poor countries. Removing the government from the economy would be, but even short of that, any reduction of trade regulations, taxation, and socialization will help foster an environment in which sweatshops are done away with naturally, through market competition and capital accumulation.

Hopefully, we can acknowledge that capitalist development is the solution, not the cause, of this alleged form of slavery. Economies have to develop over time. Going through a difficult period of industrialization is a pre-requisite for escaping an agrarian economy and reaching a world of widespread wealth and relative comfort.

Capitalism and Workers

After describing the sweatshop situation, Zizek describes the western habit to point to these terrible sweatshops in other countries and pat ourselves on the back for being better than them. But Zizek claims that this is an act that hides the slavery going on in our own homes. “Slavery can be right here, within our house. We just don’t see it – or rather, we pretend not to see it.”

Zizek refers here to the way that employment functions in developed society, but this notion of employment as slavery is once again flawed. I have written on this issue in the past:

The relationship between the worker and the business owner is voluntary in private enterprise. The worker chooses to work for the employer for a wage they agree upon (minimum wage laws set aside). This consensually agreed upon relationship is only slavery in the furthest reaches of intellectual fantasy. Any other situation would be slavery. This is the only relationship that can be outside the definition of slavery. So if this is slavery, what is freedom?

Marx believes it is slavery because the employer steals from the laborer. The employer exploits the worker and takes away the value he produces. This is also an inaccurate depiction of the relationship. The worker does not create the products he or she is employed to create from scratch. The worker creates a product using the capital goods the employer has provided them with. Thus, the employer is not stealing anything. Rather, they are paying the worker to do something with the resources they already own.

At the same time, the employer does not buy the worker. The employer rents the labor of the worker. Buying the worker would mean they never went home to their family and they would get a one-time payment to their previous owner, not a wage paid out directly to them. Clearly, this is not the case. Workers rent out their labor voluntarily, and they are still in control of themselves.

The way that Zizek understands slavery under capitalism is not slavery at all. His argument is a mere moving of the goal posts. If we change the definition of slavery to cover innocuous capitalist relations, it will surely lead to mass outrage. But this is not a substantive argument – its mere rhetoric. Capitalism doesn’t need slavery to survive.

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