The Lord of the Manor

I don’t have much to say about Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling. The taped conversation was supposed to be private and I do think there are places where even awful people should be able to speak reprehensible ideas without consequences. But it’s already out there, and there is something that bothers me. A lot.

On the tape, he is alleged to have had the following exchange with his “girlfriend”:

Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you? 

Sterling: Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

No, Donald, you don’t give them anything. Except their wages. You hired them for their skills and talents, and pay them accordingly.

I get angry when some very wealthy person, or corporate board member, or CEO, claims that hiring people is a “gift” and that wages are something we are “given” as if it were charity. As I recall the theory, and it’s been a while, so I might be mistaken, individuals and companies hire people in the belief that the skills, talents, and experience will prove profitable for the employer. Certainly basketball has proven profitable for Donald Sterling, and I don’t hear that he balks at having to pay the players he hires — whose labor and skills he leases — what amounts to the going rate in the National Basketball Association.

No, he doesn’t give them anything except what the contract, a supposed free exchange, requires. And that’s not a gift, that’s compensation. Part of the exchange. For leasing their time and talents.

Sterling’s notion of gift, however, is part of the whole idea of labor as unfree. It’s the kind of attitude a slave master or a manor lord would have regarding slaves or serfs. “I give them…” As if it were right and fair that the serf’s labor or the slave’s work go uncompensated. That some people have the right to command or compel the labor of others. At least serfdom, however unfree labor might have been, came with a sense of obligation (imposed fairly rigorously by custom and culture), whether it was fully lived out of not. A master had rights and obligations to those he owned, and a master could be held to those obligations.

But the wealthy in the West have lost that sense of obligation toward the not-wealthy. Indeed, what thy rich in the capitalist world today evince is an overwhelming and overweening sense of victimhood and entitlement. And that can’t foster any sense of obligation. Ideologically, the second half of the 20th century increasingly stripped away any notion that the wealthy have any obligations to those who are not. Those obligations are difficult to impose even in a culture that demands them, but impossible when the rich claim victimhood. That somehow, hiring people is a generous good deed (as opposed to a good way to make money) in and of itself for which the toiling masses, in fear of unemployment, should grovel and be grateful for.

And yes, I do think these things are related. “I support them and give them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.” This shows a contempt for the autonomy of his employees. It shows contempt for the very fact they are employees, who make their own decisions and choices with the money they are paid. Or does Sterling pay his players in food, clothes, cars, and houses?

I do not know if Sterling’s attitude would be different if his players were white. Race does play some part in this — Black labor has never been valued as much as white labor, and Black autonomy and humanity have also never had a high value. How much, though, I’m not sure. White skins didn’t protect a lot of laborers from mistreatment and indignity.

But mostly, we just see a contempt for free labor here.

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