The Ghost of the Colonial Master: Modern Political Dimensions of the Wage Paradigm

Mark L. Young
Tinted lithograph of a blacksmith in a bowler hat in his shop striking iron on the anvil while a boy works the bellows and another man shoes a horse

Prang’s aids for object teaching, Blacksmith, c1874. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As I argue in my JER article, “Equality and Corporal Punishment: Wage Labor’s Crisis of Legitimation, 1795–1835,” the expansion of hired labor to a broader demographic forced a re-formulation of the legal doctrine of master and servant (sans corporal punishment) to accommodate popular ideology.[i] But while the JER article was concerned with hired labor, I would like to now draw attention to the demise of apprenticeship and the way its legacy continues to influence modern workplace relations. Apprenticeship, during the first half of the nineteenth century, was subsumed incrementally by the growing wage paradigm. As this happened and the subsection of master and servant concerned with apprenticeship fell into disuse, its ruling ethos, I argue, persisted in a paternalistic workplace culture of permanent apprenticeship. This ethos, the spirit of the old master’s authority conferred to the employer, became manifest in a workplace culture of discipline, obedience, and fidelity—the psychosocial impact of which continues to extend beyond work to influence modern political and economic institutional activity.

Modern workplace culture perpetuates the spirit of apprenticeship in three important ways. First, as the paternalism of the master in an infantilizing ethos that is alive and well today. This ethos evolved from a presumption, directly analogous to the proscriptions written into old indentures, that workers were “illiterate, uneducated, drunken, and wayward.”[ii] This enduring discourse legitimated the employer’s authority as the beneficence of a moral superior. Second, the domestic, social relations of the apprentice as a member of the master’s household were reproduced by industrial psychologists and management consultants in a “designer culture” intended to foster employee loyalty (fidelity) and improve productivity (obedience).[iii] And finally, the supervised freedom of the old apprentice was re-created through the corporate psychology of “managed autonomy” in which freewill became “a product of discipline.”[iv]

These features of modern employment represent elements of the master’s domain transferred to wage labor, which together reflect a persistent ideology of workplace domination. As some nineteenth-century artisans and mechanics realized and resented, the capitalist, “aristocratick” master who assumed command with the rise of the wage paradigm transformed the independent producer into a permanent apprentice.[v] These circumstances gradually enveloped white-collar and professional workers during the twentieth century.[vi] As a result the infantilizing influence of the master’s spirit, its ubiquity and persistence, seriously impinges on our democratic institutions. For as Adam Smith warned on the eve of industrialization the “understandings” of the individual are “formed by their ordinary employments.”[vii]

The importance of Smith’s observation has been reiterated and demonstrated by scholars over the last two centuries. In a world in which “More and more people,” observed C. Wright Mills, “spend the most alert hours of their lives being told what to do,” it is within the theater of these daily rituals that “the framework of modern society must be sought.”[viii] For “the ethos of the workplace, corporate culture and the mores of management,” insisted Al Gini, “influence the ethical norms of individual workers on and off the job.”[ix] Corporate culture, argued Robert Jackall, “shapes actual morality in our society as a whole.”[x]

But there is a more concerning import in Smith’s warning, which, due to its position at the extremity of a continuum, has been historically brushed aside. [T]he “torpor of [the worker’s] mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interest of his country he is altogether incapable of judging. . . .”[xi] Indeed, Carole Pateman and others have demonstrated that workplace authoritarianism fosters passivity and politic apathy.[xii]

Smudged black and white photo of a group of boys bent over a long wooden trough working with coal.

A view of Ewen Breaker of the Pa. [Pennsylvania] Coal Co. (1911). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The most serious impact of a workplace culture of discipline, obedience, and fidelity is that it habituates the employee to their own subjection.[xiii] In the mid-twentieth century, Abraham Maslow argued that “when people are led, and decisions are made for them, they steadily become less capable of autonomy, and making their own decisions.” Psychopathology he warns, has been “produced in intelligent people leading stupid lives in stupid jobs.”[xiv] Maslow stressed that psychological maturation (self-actualization) is thwarted by the absence of substantive freedom, the cultural implications of which were pointed out by Maslow’s contemporary, Erich Fromm.

Workplace domination, no matter how subtle, produces a psychological sense of powerlessness. The powerless individual, according to Fromm, is more likely to embrace authoritarianism, to submit to domination, and yet believe they are free.[xv] More recently Jeffrey Bagraim has argued that workplaces themselves, by cultivating intense moral commitment among employees, “resemble the religious orders [and] totalitarian parties” of the past.[xvi]

The psychosocial impact of workplace domination, however, goes unnoticed by many because it is mistakenly associated with “natural” (ahistorical, universal, inevitable, rational) economic principles operating under the auspices of freedom and opportunity. But as David Graeber has recently observed, the proliferation of meaningless employment that he termed “bullshit jobs,” (representing 37–40 percent of employment in the north Atlantic world) is not economic in nature but rather a neo-feudal exercise of power.[xvii] Surprisingly, this phenomenon is not new but a recent, mass expansion of a similar practice identified by Thorstein Veblen at the end of the nineteenth century in which honorary “lackies and retainers” were employed to bolster the social-political status of the employer or patron.[xviii] Today this practice has shifted to management hierarchy within the administration of large organizations representing, as Graeber noted, “the pure exercise of power for its own sake . . . the purest expression of lack of freedom.”[xix]

If Fromm and others are right, the normalization of wage labor represents a power that conditions the worker to accept trans-institutional domination. It is a political power that habituates us to the absence of substantive freedom, an infantilizing influence that, in the words of Benjamin Barber, deprives democratic society “of the responsible grown-up citizens who are its only legitimate custodians. . . .”[xx] It produces a culture that eschews the trials of true freedom for a comfortably coerced, easy stability. It is the old master’s continued dominion, in loco parentis, over his life-long wards. Once apprenticeship was an education in maturity and independence, but when its power relations were made permanent workplace training became always and everywhere a lesson in domination. “It cannot be repeated too often,” Tocqueville once observed, “that nothing is more fertile in prodigies than the art of being free; but there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty.”[xxi]


[i] Mark L. Young, “Equality and Corporal Punishment: Wage Labor’s Crisis of Legitimation, 1795–1835,” Journal of the Early Republic43 (Fall 2023), 427–54.

[ii] Peter Anthony, The Ideology of Work (London, 1977), 74–75, 240; James Wallace, “Making a Healthy Change: A Historical Analysis of Workplace Wellbeing,” Management and Organizational History 17, nos. 1–2 (2022), 26–28; Philip Scranton, “Varieties of Paternalism: Industrial Structures and the Social Relations of Production in American Textiles,” American Quarterly 36, no.2 (Summer 1984), 235–57; “Indentures of Apprentices,” in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vol. XLII (New York, 1909), 113–99; Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-run Companies (New York, 1982), 236.

[iii] Catherine Casey, Work, Self, and Society: After Industrialism (London, 1995), 135; Elton Mayo, The Human Problems of Industrial Civilization (New York, 1933), 131.

[iv] Peters and Waterman, “Indentures of Apprentices,”, 322; Wallace, “Making a Healthy Change,” 32.

[v] (Or journeyman) “House Carpenters,” Evening Post (New York), Mar. 7, 1836; Henry Ware, The Industrial Worker, 1840–1860(Boston, 1924), xi, xiv; John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (2 vols., New York, 1864), 1: 305; Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America (New York, 1946), 209; W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age (Oxford, UK, 1986), 171.

[vi] C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Class (Oxford, UK, 1951).

[vii] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations (2 vols., London, 1776), 2: 366.

[viii] Mills, White Collar, xx, 152.

[ix] Al Gini, “Work, Identity, and Self: How We Are Formed by the Work We Do,” Journal of Business Ethics 17 (1998), 712.

[x] Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers (Oxford, UK, 1988), 13.

[xi] Smith, Wealth, 366.

[xii] Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge, MA, 1970); J. Maxwell Elden, “Political Efficacy at Work: The Connection between More Autonomous Forms of Workplace Organization and More Participatory Politics,” American Political Science Review 75, no. 1 (Mar. 1981), 43–58.

[xiii] Wallace, “Making a Healthy Choice,” 34; Hugh Willmott, “Strength Is Ignorance, Slavery Is Freedom: Managing Culture in Modern Organizations,” Journal of Management Studies 30, no. 4 (1993), 527, 538.

[xiv] Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York, 1954), 95, 208.

[xv] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York, 1941), 141, 240.

[xvi] Jeffrey J. Bagraim, “Organisational Psychology and Workplace Control: The Instrumentality of Corporate Culture,” South African Journal of Psychology 31, no. 3 (2001), 47.

[xvii] David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York, 2018), 176–77, 191, 266.

[xviii] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (New York, 1899), 76–79.

[xix] Graeber, Jobs, 85.

[xx] Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York, 2007), 19.

[xxi] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (2 vols., New York, 1838), 1: 227–28.

5 September 2023

About the Author

Mark L. Young is a historian of the early republic.

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