My brother Robby (four years younger than I) died in 2012, at 76. He was a rare soul, gifted with a mischievous sense of humor. He was a great book-collector and accumulated a magnificent library during a lifetime of collecting. I purchased from his heirs an almost complete collection of the Loeb Classical Library which at present consists of 521 books; these contain almost all of what has come down to us of the most important written works of the Classical Age, which came to a close about two centuries after the birth of Christ. One large bookcase contains the bedrock of our civilization. I love to contemplate it.
Robby liked to poke fun at visiting Americans. They would come around to talking about “democracy” and the social equality which prevails in the US. Robby loved to scandalize these naive aliens. On one occasion the conversation turned to slavery and Robby came up with “I own several slaves. I have two to drive our cars, two to do the garden, two housemaids – one for cleaning and one for washing - and the cook and her helper. They are all excellent slaves and have been with the family for decades.” This did raise eyebrows.
Of course, they were not legally slaves, but one could almost say they were slaves, for they did his bidding loyally and unquestioningly; some of them did not work fixed hours, but were on call at any time of day or night. When Robby died, his wife having pre-deceased him by a two years, his daughter told me that the household consisted of - 11 people! His was a good life, indeed, and he was a good and kind master. His servants were paid more than the going wages for their services. The live-in servants had room and board for free, and the food was abundant and to their liking.
Now except for the fact that they were paid for their services and were at liberty to leave their employment at any time, there was really not much difference between being formal, legal slaves and household servants. Robby’s turn of mind was classical and his household reflected his outlook on life. I venture to say that South of the Rio Grande and all the way down to Patagonia, this has always been the way of life for people of comfortable means. We are the heirs, through Roman Catholicism, of the Roman way of life merged with the aboriginal Indian way of life, where the fact of Master and Servant remains unquestioned, though softened. Spain and Portugal brought the Roman traditions to this hemisphere and the dozens of Indian cultures merged, to some extent, with those traditions.
One of the consequences of the liberation of the intellect which the Renaissance brought about was a rebellion against the cold facts of life, which found expression in the French Revolution, manifested in the idea that “all men are created equal” as Papa Jefferson put it; he was himself a potential revolutionary fire-brand while being a slave-owner. The facts of his personal life were in utter contradiction to the idea he promoted.
The idea of “Equality” is a fantastic intellectual construct. There is not and has never been equality among human beings. Some are more talented than others; some are given to attend to things of the mind, and some like to watch sports on the television; some are wealthy either through their own business acumen or through accidents of fate, and some are born in poverty and destined to live in poverty, “for Time and Chance happeneth to them all”.
However, the idea of equality is now firmly entrenched around the world and it is political death to question it. This is The Lie which underlies our present political world, where “Democracy” has become the only legitimate form of government.
The TV series “Downton Abbey” fascinates the democratic public because it provides a glimpse into how things were not too long ago, in Merry England. The servants “Downstairs”, and the masters “Upstairs”, served hand and foot by the servants. A minority of the viewers relate to the Upstairs group, while the majority sympathizes with the Downstairs staff.
On the TV, the program “Young Victoria” deals with the early life of Queen Victoria, who became queen when she was 18 years old, in 1837. A few years later, she and her husband Albert became concerned with the hard life of the poor. The Prime Minister, Melbourne, who guided the young Victoria during her first years as queen, prudently advised her against implementing a “social policy”; Melbourne saw that in the natural scheme of things, poverty is an eternal feature inherent in human society and that attempting to palliate poverty would only be opening a Pandora’s Box of never-ending demands for greater “benefits”. Of course, in the “Young Victoria” program, Albert and Victoria are supposed to have triumphed over the hard-hearted Melbourne. However, look at Britain today: totally wrecked by “wet” Progressives and Socialists.
I recall having seen some data about households in the US one hundred years ago; a remarkably large number of households had one or more servants. In fact my own maternal grandmother was nanny to the children of a wealthy family in the 1880’s, and travelled to Europe with them.
Again, during the Colonial era, the American colonists brought over indentured servants from Ireland and England – these were poor people who wished to move to America and could only manage the change by selling themselves into temporary slavery to masters in the Colonies. Many Americans are descendants of these slaves, who had a hard life indeed; many of them died before regaining their freedom.
There is a great problem of unemployment in the US and it does not appear to be getting any better as the years pass; actually, unemployment is increasing. As the amusing TV commentator Davidowitz says, “America’s growth sector is poverty”.
If it were not for US government subsidies to unemployment, in the numerous ways in which they are offered, those in more comfortable circumstances in the US might be relieving poverty by taking on numbers of quasi-slaves into their households – to do the cooking, the washing, the cleaning, the gardening, the driving, the taking care of the children. But no, there is no such option. The quasi-slaves don’t want to take up those jobs, and one can’t blame them. Why work, if you are paid not to work? Besides, the masters of households face big liabilities if they take these unemployed people into their households: the minimum wage; wages for “overtime”; questions of legal residence; payment of social security and a host of other potential problems.
The same situation prevails elsewhere. Recently, a Mexican couple, who wished to live in France for an extended period, took with them a girl as a servant. They decided that while there, this girl should improve her education by enrolling in some courses. At school she met a French boy who talked to her about her “rights”. So she ended up by suing her employers for not paying her according to the Law and won her suit in a French court. Her employers had to pay her many thousands of Euros as punishment for wanting to improve her education.
If there weren’t so many rules that make hiring quasi-slaves for domestic work so expensive, no doubt a large number of unemployed Americans, amenable to accepting the facts of life, would find working in homes more agreeable than eating in food-kitchens.
Davidowitz says, “Poverty is the new growth sector”. As the century wears on, realities will undoubtedly bring back slavery, at first in the very mild version of the present, but as life becomes harsher, out-and-out slavery will make its reappearance in the world. The imperatives of life will have their way: food, clothing and lodging in return for total obedience and work. This is an aspect of “Peak Prosperity” that has not been examined so far.
As a post-script: the Democracy of Athens at the time of its greatness, when it became the impossible model for our times, consisted of all of 21,000 Athenians who were free citizens. It did not include 400,000 slaves of said democratic Athenians.