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Basic Information

Unfree is a status category which indicates a person who lacks fundamental liberties inherent to their society - it is not necessarily the same as a lack of citizenship as it is entirely normal to be free and yet not a citizen - minors, resident aliens and the like, leaving aside those societies who have a whole non-citizen class - and possibly a citizen but unfree (usually as a result of indenture or as a punishment for a crime. Generally "unfree" applies to the subject's labour status but may have other effects. Someone whose choice of livelihood is constrained by caste is not generally considered unfree.

The classic example of unfree status is slavery - in its many forms, but generally with the implication that the person is property to a person or institution. Serfdom is another traditional form of unfreedom, where the subject is bound by lopsided contracts. More limited forms of unfreedom include apprenticeship, military enlistment and various forms of indenture and similar debt bondage. Arguably there is also wage slavery which is, in theory, voluntary employment but typically with the contract terms heavily biased towards the employer and the employee unable to resign for financial reasons - this is somewhat more marginal compared to the other cases cited here. In all cases the subject has little or no choice over the time, place and nature of their labour once bound and will generally be unable to dissolve or transfer their employment. They may well also lack full property and other legal rights, electoral franchise (where relevant) and the freedom to bear arms (although this could vary widely). In the modern era many forms of unfree labour are described as slavery (or, with a little more honesty "modern slavery") - this is obfuscatory and unhelpful in many cases, but also makes the occasional important point.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Historically, a lot of people have been unfree. Quite a lot of people still are. Freedom has a way of slipping away whilst you aren't looking.
  • Dystopian settings … some of them a little too familiar for comfort … can feature even quite well off people as unfree. Your cyberpunk corporate salaryman lives - materially at least - quite well, but has zero control over his life, little in the way of personal freedom and cannot afford to quit as his entire world is company owned - housing, medical care, children's education etc. That and he likely owes significant debts to the company for his student debt … dropping from middle class to homeless (at best) is a step very few family men could take. Expect the company to drive any single employees to family life for this very reason. This is, essentially, the shiny part of wage slavery.
  • Likewise, (a very few) slaves could be quite wealthy - especially those in close attendance to wealthy men (court eunuchs, valued concubines and well trusted slave clerks) - and even powerful. There were even times and places where a slave could lead an army of slaves for his master.
  • Unfreedom need not necessarily be a stigma - in addition to the examples above, apprenticeship was normal for young men in many walks of life, some of whom would later become extremely wealthy, likewise compulsory military service. As in these cases it may be a recognised, generally accepted, stage of life … much as no-one holds legal minority against anyone (unless it has to be continued into physical adulthood due to incapacity).
  • A medieval serf is not necessarily at the bottom of the pile wealth wise - indeed if he has tenure of a large holding of good land he may well be richer than some or all of the freemen in his village. If he can afford to pay someone else to fulfil his labour obligations, the remainder of his missing liberties might lie comparatively lightly.
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