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Going Medieval on Our Ass

Serfdom was a form of modified slavery that became the foundation of the medieval economic system across Europe and Russia for centuries. With the rise of the European nation states in the 5th through 8th Centuries and the concentration of wealth among new elites, peasant labor that could migrate freely in search of employment became problematic to the emerging class of large estate holders. Thus, in collaboration with the Catholic Church, the system of serfdom was invented to create a captive labor market whose token benefit was ostensibly the “protection” of the local estate holder against other, invading estate holders not unlike the latter day version enforced by the Mafia.

As described by encyclopedia.com, “serfdom was primarily a means of attaching peasants to the land, restricting their mobility and choice of how, where, and when to dispose of their own labor, and of extracting payments in return for services over which the landowner had a monopoly.” The freedom of the serf to negotiate his price, to organize with his fellow serfs or to migrate in search of more advantageous employment was nil and efforts to do so were punished heavily. Although not taught in history classes, peasant revolts were common during this period but it was the Black Plague that truly freed Europe and made way for a new mode of commerce, one not so heavily dependent upon landed wealth.

Any similarities to 21st Century trends in security, immigration and labor laws are therefore not coincidental. The recent shot off the bow, by the rapacious Koch Brothers, is that minimum wage supposedly hurts the poor. As we further militarize our border (http://www.nationofchange.org/creating-military-industrial-immigration-complex-1373639752), we don’t realize that this, combined with international trade agreements, has the effect of penning us inside as much as it pens others out (or lets others in only insofar as they undermine the wages and working conditions of American workers). With a few decades of practice to examine these trade agreements, we can easily discover the effect to be one of throwing small farmers off their lands, creating a new subclass of laborers in “special economic zones” (aka maquiladoras), releasing corporate elites from legal responsibilities, and freeing capital to move without taxation or any other limitation around the globe while pinning workers more firmly in place. Less visible are the foreign workers shipped in by private contractors to work our army bases around the world who are as trapped as those caught in the net of increasingly widespread human trafficking.

The latest of these agreements, the TPP, currently being negotiated in secret, will further restrict the rights of workers by superceding national sovereignty to permit corporations to strike out legislation that “creates a barrier to commerce” such as environmental, public safety or labor laws. While the full extent of this treaty is yet unknown, the results of similar so-called “free trade” agreements are quite transparent. Moreover, the rise of private prisons has led to a new class of laborer, one fully fixed and not subject to the (albeit decreasing) protections of as-yet free labor. If this weren’t bad enough, Republicans are now assaulting limitations on the use of child labor, harkening back to the Dickensian nightmare that was the Industrial Revolution. The right to organize is being removed, state by state, while federally the National Labor Relations Board has been disempowered, distancing even organized labor from the enforcement of long-won rights.

“Only Nixon could go to China” may be a political truism but “only Obama could repeal the 13th Amendment” reflects the other side of that coin.

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