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Historical and Contemporary Labor as A Commodity

Updated on December 27, 2020
jared ray page profile image

I grew up in the south under a deeply traditional Christian family, and now combat religious propaganda through writing. Also PoliSci.

The ability of a ruler to mobilize labor has generally been a historical criterion when measuring the reputation of ancient societies. The Mayas, Mongols, Ming Dynasty, and others relied on heavy labor to materialize their cities and the wonders that they left behind. Throughout history, the work of low-level citizens has been the most important aspect of growth in a society; without mass-labor, great wonders like pyramids would have proved impossible. Many instances required more labor than what was available; the result meant slavery and forced labor being exploited in order to achieve architectural wonders, among other works. The significance of human labor has been reduced throughout history with the introduction of improved technologies, and history shows that the laborer’s regard for the value of their work is a factor in the success or failure of a society. In the modern United States, the poor bureaucratic management of labor may point to an unsettling reality in the near future.

Laborers not only make up the majority of society, but they also endure the physical exertion needed to improve the architecture of a society. An excellent example of something that is modernly considered to be a great wonder is the Terracotta Army of 7,000 individually-unique figurines that were hand-crafted by laborers. It’s extremely likely that at least a portion of the required labor was obtained through force or slavery considering the social structure of the Qin Dynasty. The labor required to build the Egyptian Pyramids was obtained with the assistance of the social structure in the Egyptian Kingdom. The pharaoh assumed that laborers owed their labor as a matter of social structure, even though they were in the early stages of a complex society.


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Many factors have a role in the effectiveness of human labor. When ancient populations began to decrease, so did their productivity, and occasionally the entire society would collapse. Disease or inclement weather could determine the fate of a society because it directly affected the most important commodity; labor. Beginning in the 1330s, the same disease responsible for the Black Plague allegedly infected the Chinese Yuan Dynasty to the point of devastation. The impact of disease caused taxes to be raised on peasants, which resulted in an uprising that overthrew the Yuan Dynasty and forced the occupying Mongols back to their homelands. When laborers lose the value in their work, it results in a last-ditch effort to retain that value, whatever it may be. Since societies have been traditionally structured around labor, laborers primarily perform their job as their means of significance in relation to society as a whole. In the United States today, unemployment is high, wages are minimal, and the cost of living greatly exceeds what the average laborer makes. This unchecked trend has historically resulted in some shift of government at least, which would have global implications coming from the United States.

The dynamic of labor in the United States can be considered as forced labor when analyzing the reality of lower-class citizens who work strictly to survive. The deindustrialization of large portions of the United States’ economy with no safety net through trade deals like NAFTA ensures that labor is quite literally exported and imported as a commodity. The resulting decline in meaningful labor being fulfilled by local, labor-oriented members of a society is certain to have a negative reaction. Complex societies as early as the Indus Valley Civilization thrived without any sign of slavery, and the issues that caused the decline of their society is most likely solvable with modern technology-based solutions.


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History has consistently shown that labor is the fundamental decision-maker within a complex society. The United States is currently operating at an exceedingly unrealistic rate of labor exploitation, a tactic that has proven regrettable for many centralized societies. Income inequality is well past salvageable, social programs are consistently threatened with cuts, and the military budget exceeds the education budget. Most citizens are considered middle to lower class, further increasing the significance of labor in relation to satisfaction in residents. In my opinion, the contemporary United States most closely resembles the Late Republic of Rome, in which war, private exploitation of labor, and resistance of socioeconomic reform were all major factors in the downfall of that society. As internal tensions flare, leadership in the United States would benefit from observing the historical relationship between forced labor and the ultimate success of a society. The power of modern labor was showcased in the 1933 New Deal, in which labor federally was prioritized and the United States saw unprecedented growth. Most conflicts between various groups in the United States maintain a central theme of employment opportunity, socioeconomic status, and the value of labor. When examining the significance of work throughout history, it’s apparent that any society that places little to no value on common labor will ultimately be reformed or replaced.

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