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Clones, Assembly-line Capitalism, and Wage-Slaves

Beyond its flair for the fantastic, science fiction (SF) almost always offers the allegorical. In SF, humankind literally masters cloning and produces not quite human slaves, facilitating some sort of truce between the long history of human conquering human to enslave and the contemporary illusion that eradicating institutional slavery absolves us of culpability in the de facto wage-slavery of assembly-line capitalism.

David Mitchell's often tedious but always masterful Cloud Atlas builds through a menagerie of genres and modes of discourse to a powerful ending that highlights a motif central to the novel, of human (and clone) bondage:

"Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunship, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

"Why? Because of this:—one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself....

"If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violences muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass." (p. 508)

One of the most satisfying and compelling narratives in Mitchell's novel revolves around the clone Somni-451, who the reader encounters as she nears her execution in "An Orison of Somni-451." What counts as "human" and what constitutes the ethical limits of slavery are complex questions raised in this narrative, along with the possibility of clone revolt and a clone messiah.

But the allegorical value in the story of Somni-451 must not be ignored, must not be mere fictional soma that clouds our recognition of universal public education not liberating children into a free society, but feeding wage-slaves into assembly-line capitalism's grind.

"Such a World Will Come to Pass"

During my nearly two decades of teaching high school English I encountered a recurring situation.

A bright young person who had tended to be a diligent student would gradually do less and less work in my classes. When I would approach the student about my concern, the student would invariably offer an interesting explanation and our conversation would go something like this:

Me: Why are you missing so many assignments?

Student: I'm sorry. I gotta work til 2 or 3 in the morning and I just can't keep up.

Me: Do you have to work?

Student: Yea, I gotta make my car payments.

Me: Why do you have to make car payments?

Student: I gotta have a car to get to work.

This cycle of "gotta" (gotta work, gotta have a car, gotta make money) was powerfully engrained in my students; in fact, the need to work, earn money, and own things were all clearly essential for them to feel adult, and ultimately as essential for them to feel fully human—ironically pushing them into the dehumanizing work cycle identified above.

Writing from her experiences as an adjunct instructor in a college, Professor Beth personifies the cycle of "gotta" within which she found herself as a part-time worker coaxed into compliance by the allure of a full-time status:

"Quickly the demands of the classroom and of the school grew. I was asked to sit on textbook selection committees, to organize guest lecturers to come to campus, and to test out new books. I was told that doing these things would build my CV and provide me with an edge when applying for a full time teaching position. Every demand was couched under the advice that this would position me better for a full time position. I was teaching three courses – sometimes four – and said, 'yes' to every demand....

"I applied for a permanent full-time position four separate times and never once was even invited to interview."

The twenty-first century American worker sits many decades past institutional slavery in the U.S., but the contemporary worker finds her-/himself trapped in assembly-line capitalism as a wage-slave. And increasingly, public schools are being reformed to guarantee corporate America will see compliant workers sprout from compliant students (who are being trained by compliant teachers): The endless cycle of accountability built on standards and tests is an act of surveillance and control, not education and liberation.

More and more American workers are having their professions reduced to interchangeable functions, creating for any worker the very real fear that she/he can and will be replaced, easily. In public education, the corporate allure of Teach for America is not that the recruits are bright or special, but that they are inherently interchangeable and cheaper than a full-time labor force of professionals.

Manufactured fear insures compliant workers, benefitting the corporate elite.

As well, American workers must work, not just for wages but for basic human necessities such as healthcare and retirement, tightening the grip that corporations have on workers even beyond wage-slavery.

The systematic dismantling of unions and tenure, specifically teachers unions and tenure, is not something to be ignored, like a SF clone war. The de-professionalization of educators at the K-12 and high education levels is not just an assault on academia.

The belittling of the status of "worker," the dehumanizing of the American worker, the rise in the working poor and children living in poverty, and the growing chasm between the privileged and all the rest of us are conditions that we create and sustain—they are all what we believe to be the "natural order of things" within assembly-line capitalism, the Social Darwinism of our self-inflicted rat race, the dog-eat-dog of being a frantic worker.

Most of us will always be workers, and to be a worker is an honorable thing; it doesn't need to be a condition tolerated on the way to something better, and it shouldn't be twenty-first wage slavery.

"one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself"...

As the last paragraphs of Cloud Atlas express, however, the wage-slavery of workers in the U.S. is a condition we have chosen, but it is also a condition we can change—if we believe it is wrong, "such a world will come to pass."

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher educati...