The Slave Complex: A Timely Word to Employers


WE are accustomed, in this country, to being told that all men are created free and equal, and it is a fundamental article of our faith to believe it. The statement is contained in the Declaration of Independence; obviously it must be true.

There have been, of course, those sufficiently obdurate to deny it; they have pointed to inequalities in birth and temperament, in natural ability, even in the theoretical aspects of constitutional government. But these critics have never stood in very good repute among us. It has been generally felt that their ideas are subversive and un-American. We have not believed in them because they told us things which we did not wish to believe. We have persisted in thinking that one man is as good as another, and that his opportunities are without limit. The doctrines of Paine and Rousseau have been virtually unquestioned among us for more than a century and a half.

It is particularly interesting, therefore, to note the beginnings of a change in this credo of equality. It is not a change which has, as yet, forced itself into the consciousness of the average man; nevertheless something has happened. The old feeling of sturdy selfsufficiency is gone. We are in fact witnessing the birth, on a national scale, of a species of slave complex.

There was a time, not very long ago, when to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was tacitly added the right to earn a living. It was taken as axiomatic that the desire to work implied the opportunity. And, as a matter of fact, in prosperous times the operations of natural economic laws usually did provide it. As with Newtonian physics, the application of a special frame of reference concealed the error.

Now, however, in the perspective of an unparalleled economic depression, new aspects of the matter present themselves. With one fifth of our working population unemployed, it is no longer possible to believe that jobs are part of the natural order of things; nor is it reasonable to assume that if the one you have is lost you can readily get another. The result is that fear has become the dominant emotion of contemporary America — fear of losing one’s job, fear of reduced salary or wages, fear of eventual destitution and want.

Everywhere one goes in business today this fear makes itself evident. Employees defer to, even cringe before, their employers in a way they never did before. They swallow insults and impositions which once they would not have stomached. They have reached the point where they have ceased to hope for advancement, and are satisfied to keep what they have. They are grateful for very little. They seem even to stand a little less straight. You can see their fear; it is a brand upon them, the mark of the slave. So far as hope goes, or ambition, or independence of mind and spirit, they have already assumed the status of a slave.


It is undeniably true that the greater part of the responsibility for this condition rests upon the operation of economic forces too complex and obscure for the understanding of this generation. But it does not all rest there. It is also true that the growth of the slave complex has had, as it were, outside help. It has been nourished — unconsciously, perhaps, but none the less effectively — by the attitude of the employer.

It is a fundamental attribute of human nature to rationalize our desires. Most of our beliefs and prejudices are colored by self-interest. We believe what we want to believe, and we are prone to consider just and good that which works to our advantage. The employer is no exception. He is as human as anyone else. The present condition of the world is anything but pleasant for him, but he cannot help regarding the universal reduction in salaries and wages as something of a silver lining to his cloud, and he looks without enthusiasm toward the time when old levels would logically be restored.

Thus we hear much to-day from employers about ‘revaluations’ of wage scales, the reëstablishment of ‘ deflated salary levels,’ and the formulation of more ‘sound’ and ‘equitable’ standards of compensation all along the line.

These things are said in all sincerity, and in the present state of world business they are perfectly justified, but the unfortunate aspect of the matter is that their potential effect and purpose are not confined simply to the present depression. What these gentlemen have deep in the backs of their minds is the post-depression period. They are anticipating — although they will not admit it even to themselves — the inevitable reaction.

To put it plainly, the idea is gaining currency among employers that present wage and salary levels must prevail with little alteration for a long time to come, and that this situation is both natural and proper.

No one, as yet, has put the thing quite so baldly; but that the sentiment exists is shown in a variety of ways. It is reflected in the published interviews and statements of certain industrialists. It is suggested in the discussions which one hears at business meetings and conventions. There is a vague, formless hint of it in the personal attitude of many employers toward those whom they employ.

It would be grossly unfair to suggest that (except in isolated cases) American employers are consciously intimidating or exploiting their employees. But, so far as labor is concerned, this is a buyer’s market, and the employer — the buyer of labor — exhibits that thinly veiled arrogance to which the situation gives rise. He imposes a sterner discipline. He speaks with a curt incisiveness which indicates quite clearly that he does n’t propose to stand for any nonsense. He is, in short, very much the master, and he does n’t care who knows it.

This is in some degree simply a manifestation of worn nerves and general bad temper. It is partly a wish to display, in the midst of his present doubt and uncertainty, some of the old-time authority and self-confidence. But it is also, as I have said, the working of an unrecognized desire. It is an unconscious move in the direction of employee peonage.


It is superfluous, of course, to point out that the law of supply and demand will eventually dispel any such roseate hopes on the part of the employer, whether unconscious or otherwise. When trade revives and goods are wanted, labor will be wanted too, and the buyer’s market will disappear. But the point is that, even if artificial wage fixing were possible, it would not be desirable. The employer who arbitrarily keeps his pay roll below what he can reasonably afford to pay for services rendered is acting in a manner contrary to his own best interests.

Every manufacturer’s goods are sold in some market or other, and markets are simply people. The overwhelming majority of the people in this country are employees. Their wages, their salaries, buy most of the goods that are bought. If those wages and salaries were to be artificially reduced, the manufacturer would make an extra profit for a little while; but, as soon as his markets began to dwindle, his losses in terms of sales would more than offset his gains.

It is not to be expected, once the process is well under way, that circumstances will permit the employer to linger overlong on the road to higher wage levels. But it is entirely possible that in the difficult transition period which lies ahead of us — the slowly brightening dawn of economic rehabilitation — the suppressed desires of the employer will retard that process.

Recovery seems now to be a matter of many small steps up a very long ladder. It is going to be a case of a little here, a little there, a consolidation of small gains, a slow gathering of strength. Every advance made by the manufacturer, however negligible, must be shared by his employees — otherwise the process cannot go on. As orders gradually increase, pay rolls must increase proportionally. Only thus can employee morale be maintained. Only thus can public confidence be restored, and the sinews of buying be provided.

The employer has a definite responsibility in this matter — not only to himself, but to the public at large. And it is not enough merely to keep his pay roll in just ratio to his volume of business. He should, for the benefit of all concerned, do what he can to destroy fear. He should give his employees assurances, by word and deed, that he has their best interests at heart. He should treat them essentially as friends and human beings.

It is this psychologic attitude which I particularly wish to emphasize at this time, because it is the aspect of the matter which can most readily be acted upon. It may not now be possible for the employer to increase his pay rolls — indeed, it is most unlikely that he can. But he can be kind and courteous to the people in his employ. He can refrain from browbeating them. He can do a great many little things to show them that he is not taking advantage of them, and that he considers himself their friend.

It is this spirit of mutual confidence and good will which the great employee public needs now, almost as much as money. In times of stress we tend to revert toward the ethics and psychology of the jungle. The strong grow stronger and the weak grow weaker. The small measure of protection which society has succeeded in providing for the underdog begins to break down. He sinks lower and lower in the social scale. He loses what little courage he had, and his self-respect. In the end he becomes spiritually and economically a slave.

Men and women in this condition need help. They need help both in the things of the spirit and in the things of the pocketbook. And in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred there is no one to give it to them but the employer.


The slave complex is bad for everyone. It degrades the employee and makes him an insensate automaton. It kills both ambition and desire. It debases standards of living. And from the employer’s point of view it is equally disastrous. Where there is no desire there is no demand. People who desire nothing buy nothing. Moreover, people in whom there is no ambition do not work well. They lose their enterprise and initiative. They are content simply to drift. The consequence is that the employer’s organization becomes infected with dry rot. There is none of that pressure from below which produces healthy competition. It all ends in general stagnation and decay.

This condition of mental and spiritual inertia has a particularly depressive effect upon the creative faculty. People with incurious, unambitious minds do not bestir themselves to the making of new or beautiful things. They are neither inventive nor resourceful. Yet the growth of America has been founded largely upon the development of new things. Our history has been one of expansion, enlargement, replacement. We are, or have been, a nation with an almost Hellenic love of novelty and change. And if people are ever to be freed of their fears, if they are ever to be induced to buy again, they must be drawn into buying by the offer of merchandise so fresh, so attractive and interesting, that it cannot be resisted.

Price cutting is not the answer. The public has demonstrated that it will not buy inferior goods even at cutthroat prices. What people want is more value for their money — goods that are better-looking, better-made, and more efficient than anything they have ever seen before. And to give them that we must have ingenuity; we must have individual enterprise; we must have the will and power to create.

The plain truth is, we cannot afford a slave complex in this country. It is dangerous, not only from the point of view of immediate expediency, but for reasons deeper and more far-reaching. Man cannot live by bread alone. If he is to continue to exist as a useful member of society he must possess the spirit of self-respect, of self-reliance. His life must have in it both hope and purpose. Without these things he ceases to be human and becomes only a machine. And the ultimate fate of all machines, no matter how efficient, is the scrap heap.

It is a commonplace of modern economics that the old individualism is dead. The employer can no longer play the lone wolf; his activities are affected by too many interrelated forces. He is a cog in an intricate industrial mechanism, and he must mesh with all the other cogs.

But in times like these he is very likely to forget it. Worried, harassed by troubles that occupy his whole horizon, he has no time to be kind, or generous, or even coöperative. Yet it is vitally necessary that he should find that time; it is necessary that he should look beyond the pressing needs of the moment. For the employer of men and women cannot exist upon the labor of slaves, even though he may pay something for their services. If he wishes to work back to a condition of even approximate prosperity, he must take them along with him. He must realize that their welfare and his are inextricably mingled. In order to receive, he must first give.