G.K. Chesterton wrote this article about Englishmen a century ago. But it just as easily applies to American workers today. Medieval serfs and peasants enjoyed conditions which–in many ways–are preferable to those endured by modern American employees.
It is really time that the comfortable classes made a short summary and confession of what they have really done with the very poor Englishman. The dawn of the mediaeval civilisation found him a serf; which is a different thing from a slave. He had security; although the man belonged to the land rather than the land to the man. He could not be evicted; his rent could not be raised. In practice, it came to something like this: that if the lord rode down his cabbages he had not much chance of redress; but he had the chance of growing more cabbages. He had direct access to the means of production.
Since then the centuries in England have achieved something different; and something which, fortunately, is perfectly easy to state. There is no doubt about what we have done. We have kept the inequality, but we have destroyed the security. The man is not tied to the land, as in serfdom; nor is the land tied to the man, as in a peasantry. The rich man has entered into an absolute ownership of farms and fields; and (in the modern industrial phrase) he has locked out the English people. They can only find an acre to dig or a house to sleep in by accepting such competitive and cruel terms as he chooses to impose.
Well, what would happen then, over the larger parts of the planet, parts inhabited by savages? Savages, of course, would hunt and fish. That retreat for the English poor was perceived; and that retreat was cut off. Game laws were made to extend over districts like the Arctic snows or the Sahara. The rich man had property over animals he had no more dreamed of than a governor of Roman Africa had dreamed of a giraffe. He owned all the birds that passed over his land: he might as well have owned all the clouds that passed over it. If a rabbit ran from Smith’s land to Brown’s land, it belonged to Brown, as if it were his pet dog. The logical answer to this would be simple: Any one stung on Brown’s land ought to be able to prosecute Brown for keeping a dangerous wasp without a muzzle.
Thus the poor man was forced to be a tramp along the roads and to sleep in the open. That retreat was perceived; and that retreat was cut off. A landless man in England can be punished for behaving in the only way that a landless man can behave: for sleeping under a hedge in Surrey or on a seat on the Embankment. His sin is described (with a hideous sense of fun) as that of having no visible means of subsistence.
The last possibility, of course, is that upon which all human beings would fall back if they were sinking in a swamp or impaled on a spike or deserted on an island. It is that of calling out for pity to the passerby. That retreat was perceived; and that retreat was cut off. A man in England can be sent to prison for asking another man for help in the name of God.
You have done all these things, and by so doing you have forced the poor to serve the rich, and to serve them on the terms of the rich.
They have still one weapon left against the extremes of insult and unfairness: that weapon is their numbers and the necessity of those numbers to the working of that vast and slavish machine. And because they still had this last retreat (which we call the Strike), because this retreat was also perceived, there was talk of this retreat being also cut off. Whereupon the workmen became suddenly and violently angry; and struck at your Boards and Committees here, there, and wherever they could. . . .
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). A Miscellany of Men. Excerpt from the article, “The Sun Worshipper”.