Does Failure to Resist Exploitation and Oppression Justify Injustice?

Here’s an argument one often hears from the capitalist apologists: “We should support capitalism because it works, namely it has raised the living standards of workers.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume as true the claim that it raises the living standards of workers. One can make this argument even while admitting that the capitalist makes his wealth off of exploiting labor.

Suppose I could show that the living standards of slaves in the 1850s were better than they were in the 1750s or 1650s? Is that an argument for slavery? That was certainly one of the arguments in defense of slavery. Slave masters argued that, because slaves were capital, they were well taken care of, even materially better off than wage laborers whom northern capitalists rented and then threw away when finished with them.

After slavery was abolished, the conditions of blacks in the South deteriorated sharply, since they could no longer depend on having a place to live and work and food to eat. Was abolishing slavery a bad idea because the living conditions of blacks deteriorated with its abolition? It’s obvious that one cannot justify slavery on the grounds that it works or that the living conditions of slaves improved over the years of slavery’s development. Slavery is wrong because human beings are forced to work for somebody who is not working but rather profiting from the labor of others. This is exploitation and it’s wrong however well the exploited live.

Here’s another argument one often hears from the pro-capitalist crowd: “If capitalism is so bad, why aren’t more workers trying to bring it down?” This argument seeks to justify the righteousness of capitalism on the basis of widespread failure to resist or reject it.

Suppose I could convince an audience that, while there were slave revolts, there were far fewer of them than one would think given how terrible slavery was. Is this an argument for slavery? “If slavery is so bad, why weren’t more slaves trying to bring it down?”

What happened to slaves who rebelled against slavery? The same thing that happens to workers who rebel against capitalism. It’s not pleasant. But the deeper point is that the failure of people to resist oppression does not in any way justify oppression. I will leave you the endless analogies that are sure to occur to you now.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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