Labor in Fiction and History

Ever since the first human discovered that sitting around all day in the shade produced no food, we have labored. Over time, as societies became more complex, divisions of labor appeared based on physical differences (male and female), skill differences (weaving vs. pottery making vs. flint knapping) and later differences in animal management (steppe nomads vs. sedentary farmers, those with chariots vs. those without). In time some theorists decided that labor was the be all end all of economics and how labor was divided and rewarded would be the key to politics and social reform. But no one ever said labor would become unnecessary (Wall*E, Star Trek TNG and a few others notwithstanding).

In the world as it developed after AD 100 CE or so, labor divided into roughly free or unfree, with lots of flavors of each. The least free were prison slaves, then regular slaves, then peasants of various kinds and serfs, then landless peasants, then small holders and free men. The categories were pretty fluid, with slaves becoming free and free men and women being enslaved or enserfed at various times and places. Interestingly, the Black Death and the onset of the Little Ice Age in 1313-1350 or so in Western Europe triggered a shift in labor that never reverted: domestic slavery faded away in the Christian lands so that slavery was actually reintroduced and even then in very small numbers, even peasants gained a lot more rights as landlords competed for the remaining laborers. Any attempt to bind peasants to the land in order to make up for the lack of labor failed, and so merchants and nobles gave in and paid more and gave more rights to their workers. The overall standard of living rose, and while it wasn’t all beer and skittles, individual freedom gained ground in much of western Europe, especially north of the Alps.

Eastern Europe did OK as well, until around the time of the 30 Years War (1618-1648). The peasants were not as free as in the West, but weren’t slaves (unless the Ottomans or Tatars grabbed you, in which case you were stuck, to put it mildly). After 1648, the incredible population drop in Brandenburg-Prussia, Poland, Galicia, and Hungary led to the reintroduction of serfdom or the reimposition of laws and customs that had been ignored for a while. The solution to the lack of workers was to tie the workers to the land and to punish people who tried to go elsewhere, unless they left entirely (see immigration to the US, Canada, after 1850).

Russia. Ah Russia, different again. Serfdom in Russia began during the time of Kieven Rus in the 1100s, but was usually about debt-service rather than serfdom as it later developed. And then the Mongols arrived and chaos followed, along with the Black Death and other plagues. There are some suggestions that the Russian Orthodox Church’s demands for celibacy on fast and feast days (three days a week plus the greater fasts like Lent and Saints Peter and Paul*) lowered the birthrate, and seasonal malnutrition didn’t help. Muscovy and later Russia always needed more labor. Labor shortages made costs very high, and that made transportation expensive, as well as making farming a challenge. Slavery did exist in Muscovy and Russia, in several forms, the most common of which was short-term debt slavery for a few months or years. That gradually expanded even as the government abolished slaves, because slaves could not be taxed or conscripted for military service, and the Tsars always needed more income and more soldiers.

After the late 1500s and the Time of Troubles, serfdom became the rule and free peasants began to disappear. Serfs were tied to the land. Originally there were two periods a year when they could move if they owed no debts. then one time a year, then one day, then nothing. This did not stop serfs from trying to leave a bad situation or nobles from “poaching” serfs, hiring them, giving them better land at lower rents, ignoring their presence on new lands. Serfdom became collective as entire villages were bought and sold, and the law began to treat peasants as collective groups.

The west went to wage labor, especially after the abolition of slavery between 1700-1865. This does not mean share-cropping and various forms of debt-peonage vanished, but that free labor became the rule instead of the exception.

So, what about in fiction? I’ve read a number of books where freeing an enslaved caste or population is the goal. I’ve also read several, mostly fantasy, where happy, prosperous peasants abound. Oh, and there’s the evil corporations make everyone wage slaves until some small group or plucky soul shows how eeeevil the company is and frees the workers and they take over running things and [dictatorship of the proletariat]. Because anything else is bad. Um, yeah, except . . .

How are people going to get around in space, as far as paying their way? Some people will scrape up enough cash to pay their own way. Some will be sent by governments as colonists, with settlement contracts or part-payment. A few will probably be the equivalent of Australia’s First Fleet (“Good riddance!”), but then there’s the rest of them.  And what happens after that?

I’ve toyed with that a bit in the Colplatschki books. Those who are following Fountains of Mercy know that there are indentured colonists who have to pay off their transportation and housing costs various ways. And there are the Subsistence Settlers that certain colonial administrators treat like, er, pets is a kind term, or as tools to use to force other free settlers to abide by company rules. When the Company goes away . . .

But NovRodi, where Pjtor Adamson Svendborg becomes co-emperor with his older half-brother is different. They have slaves. Service-slaves, people who sold themselves into work in exchange for guaranteed food and shelter and protection. Why? Because of the Harriers. This makes foreigners rather uncomfortable, as does the confinement of women in the homefolds. But there are reasons for both, good reasons according to the people of NovRodi. If the Harriers are ever defeated and the people can return to what had once been theirs, this may lead to problems for those who think they are in charge . . .

*If a married couple followed every rule about abstaining on religious days and when a women was “unclean”, there were 66 days a year they could procreate, according to some authors.

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