The Ethics of Golden Shackles



RECAP: As we approach the opening of the (iron?) curtain to Marx’s Capital, we will set the stage by touching upon the work of those that Marx refers to in his magnum opus. Not only should excerpts of related thinkers help show how Capital is expected to be a step up from these, but they should also give a clue as to the power of Capital in highlighting with awesome lucidity the problematic nature of today’s capitalist social relations.

Having first focussed on the importance of desire in the status of the working class, we then touched upon the notion that, because of human nature, workers would be comfortable in being dependent upon capitalists for their subsistence. Today, I want to come back to this notion of golden shackles, as it is described by Marx himself:

“Under the conditions of accumulation supposed thus far, those most favourable to the labourers, their relation of dependence upon capital takes an endurable form or, as Eden says, easy and liberal.

A larger part of their own surplus-product, always increasing and continually transformed into additional capital, comes back to them in the shape of means of payment, so that they can extend the circle of their enjoyments; they can nourish, clothe, furnish themselves better and they can save up small amounts of money. But just as little as better clothing, food, and treatment, and a larger peculium, do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker.

A rise in the price of labour, as a consequence of accumulation of capital, only means, in fact, that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage worker has already forged for himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it.”

The image of the golden chain wants to push the idea that being an employee is in many, if not all, respects the same as being a slave. You might have a big house and a cool car, but you are still dependent on capital to receive the money needed to sustain yourself; in this way, you are wearing “golden” chains.

Supposing that Marx is right in saying that the worker gives away part of his work for free, it is worth highlighting that the equation “wage labour = slavery” is not a factual one: labourers have rights and obligations slaves did not (right to refuse work, right to choose a different employer, etc.). Rather, this equality is based on a value judgment, on ethics.

By using the expression “golden chain”, Marx is stepping into debates of human morality by implicitly saying that the capitalist relations of production produce an unjust situation. On the one hand, it is wrong for capitalists to use their material superiority to coerce the workers into a certain situation where they are in chains. On the other hand, it’s just as wrong for workers to become complacent due to their apparently good/golden conditions of life; there’s the implicit feeling of some kind of cowardice in doing this, in ignoring that you are still in chains and still far from the ideal of a full and free development of your human capacities.

In volume one of Capital, the picture of exploitation is recurrent. It then becomes relevant to ask: is exploitation wrong? How and why would it be wrong?

Quote is from Chapter 25 of Vol. 1; slightly modified and shortened for better readability.

The open-source reference to Marx’s Capital, Vol. 1: here.

Blog of the picture source: here.



  1. Thanks for this spot-on post!

    I have to say that I find myself a bit struggling with your last paragraph, especially the part about the workers being complacent and ignoring their chains. I think it is much more complicated than that, and for sure you do too, but in today’s world, it seems that there are no golden chains – it’s just chains. The great majority of people, especially in America, need to work three jobs to be able to survive, so there is nothing golden there. And this doesn’t mean that they are cowardly or that they are ignoring the fact that they are in chains: I think they realize they are in chains and they do what they possibly can in order to secure the subsistence of themselves and their families, even if this means perpetuating this perverse system (think about the Vox article about fast-food worker burnout: “You have a family to support. You think about your family, and you walk away.”). And herein also lies the tragedy of the worker, I think. It becomes very difficult to move in an increasingly restricted space.

    I just don’t see any cowardice in this.

    It’s a tricky position to be in for the one getting exploited. I feel we all realize at one point or another that we are being exploited and we sense that there should/could be an alternative out there where what you described doesn’t happen, but we don’t know how to articulate that. Or we find nothing out there that could give us some sense of direction towards something else where we could indeed fully and freely develop our human capacities. In a sense, we feel powerless. So we turn to what requires least effort: turning our chains into golden chains. Who has the energy to read Marx or the like after having worked 3 jobs, being yelled at etc., when they feel like even after having gained all this knowledge about their condition, they are still alone in this endeavour and barely able to do something about it?

    I also see a difficulty in talking about Marx, since I feel that people tend to almost automatically dismiss him, due to already preconceived ideas about his person, work and legacy, even though what he says is very lucid. But this lucidity makes it also potentially dangerous, especially for the ones who exploit, I think.

    That’s why I feel like your work is admirable. You deconstruct popular notions about Marx and show that he actually is on our side and that he has something very relatable to say and explains it in a way that makes very much sense. So thanks for this immense work of showing us, plebeians, how this intricate mechanism functions. Maybe we can then start thinking what we can do about this…



    1. Thanks for your compliments, but you give me too much credit.

      About the use of the word cowardice: maybe it is indeed the wrong word to use for unaware workers. The situations you highlight are very real and relevant. I think that as long as you are caught in a spiral of misunderstanding, of interpreting what is happening to you in a kind of skewed way, you can’t be qualified either as a coward nor as a hero, because your mind hasn’t yet wrapped itself around the situation.

      However, once your mind does wrap around the situation, I think it becomes aware of its position as a “seriality”, in the sense that it is similar to and functionally equal to other people in similar positions. Once aware of this, I think each has to make their own decision about which similarities they want to cultivate: the similarities of the freedom to develop as a full human being, or the similarities of maintaining one’s position and function in the system (in the name of family or otherwise).

      But I do think that some choices are harder than others to make, and that we sometimes balk in front of the difficulty one choice presents over another. Maybe when we talk of an ethical dimension to the expression of “golden chains”, we can make a first step in the thinking of that ethic by evaluating just this difficulty. Sometimes, things are really too hard to engage in, and we must grow someplace else before tackling that most difficult thing; but other times, maybe we are too hasty in judging that a thing is too hard, fearful as we might be of leaving our comfort zone.

      In that moment, it’s easy to forget and important to remember that, as a worker in the capitalist mode of production, that comfort zone is at best ever shrinking and, at worst, non-existent.



  2. I feel deeply Snoogy Woogy’s pragmatic and immediate concern about gaining ”all this knowledge about our condition yet barely being able to do something about it”. If one thinks he possesses some thorough understanding of the world’s functionning, this same person must adapt to the lower level of comprehension of the general population. This is a minimum. One cannot demand from the general public to have the same knowledge as an academic. This is why it is SO CRUCIAL for the academic to give as much an explicit and concise answer to the question of the general worker;
    So what can we do about all this?

    Golden shackles or plain old shackles will continu to bind every worker for a long, lonnnng timmme.
    Perhaps the role of the academic is to give more moderate actions the ordinary joe can take in order to slowly but surely tend towards a better world…

    It is one thing for an academic to explore as vastly and as universaly as he can his discipline (Sociology in this case), but he must be able to communicate it to the rest of the population. Or else his knowledge will be very much useless since only other sociology\humanities academics will use it to better the world.



    1. Thanks for sharing your concern, Mik. The issue of the position of intellectuals and, more generally, that of “Theory” with a big T is an issue that has been at the centre of debates for many decades. I have a particular position I believe in on this question, but first I want to give you some “context”.

      At the turn of the 20th century, Lenin published an essay called “What is to be done?”, where he talks precisely about this question. He argued, for example, that workers could not achieve the end of the relation of dependence to capital (aka the end of capitalism) by purely “economic” means, that is to say through negotiations and battles over salaries and working conditions. For Lenin, it was the calling of intellectuals (like him) to lead the workers on the path of political emancipation, that is to say on the path to achievement emancipation through political means. This is largely translated into his concept of the “vanguard”.

      This is one position on the question, among many. But it is a position that, in his time, hugely impacted the course of the 20th century.

      I would say his position has merits (purely “economic” struggle is probably indeed insufficient = “1”) but also limits: it does NOT necessarily follow from 1 that a vanguard is necessary to lead the people to a good they don’t know about. Most notably, as I highlight in my Soviet series, people knew about WW1 and wanted at all costs to stop it, and only the Bolsheviks held this position; but when the Bolsheviks then tried to impose something that wasn’t so much known about and not that desired, i.e. the collectivization of the means of production and especially of agriculture, there was heavy resistance that contributed to the strength of the opposition (the “Whites”) in the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921.

      This is why my position on the question differs from that of Lenin, and I think my position has historical merits (the ultimate downfall of the Soviet bloc) but also theoretical merits, because I believe that it is largely inefficient to simply give the answer to your question: “So what can we do about all this?” There’s all sorts of answers out there and of people who will tell the worker what to do. But so long as the worker has not himself gone through the process of thinking about his practice and about what he reproduces every day, the “answer” will remain powerless.

      Descartes, in his Meditations, has a similar argument: it is pointless for a philosopher to give the answer to a question asked by someone else (“how to stop fearing death”, for example). The answer alone will not be fully understood, indeed CANNOT be fully understood until the person asking the question has gone through all of the steps that the philosopher has gone through to reach his answer. This does imply some severely limiting consequences on knowledge and especially science, but it seems to me that it is ethically justified.

      I hope this contributes to your thoughts on the matter, I really want to thank you again for highlighting this other important aspect of “Ethics”, as the title of the post hints towards. This is an important enough question that I will have to soon dedicate a full post to it, so that the position and the objective of this publication be clear.

      I leave you with a paraphrased thought of Marx on the matter, from his “Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right”: theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses; theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical; because to be radical is to grasp the root of the matter, but for man the root is man himself.



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