Typically, there are some activities (whether at work or play) that a person wants to do, and other activities that s/he does not want to do. Of course, there may be some on which s/he is not certain, or on which his/her opinion is changing; also, the activities s/he prefers may be inextricably entangled with activities that s/he does not prefer. To illustrate that last point, a person may not like to lace up his/her boots, but s/he faces, nonetheless, the common human realization that it may be advisable to do it before either working or playing in mud.
The distinction between voluntary and involuntary activity arises in one of the traits of slavery identified by Patterson (1982): the use or threat of force. Force need not compel service; it only has to compel what the master wants. Patterson provides the example of Islamic masters “whose slaves produced nothing and were economically dependent on their masters or their master’s nonslave dependents” (p. 11). In an observation that may also apply to some present-day corporate acquisitions and other displays of power over the lives of others, Patterson suggests that the value of slaves in that context was found, not in their economic contribution to the enterprise, but rather in the honor engendered by possessing them.
According to Patterson (1982, p. 5), compulsion is possible because of the slave’s powerlessness, which follows in turn from his/her status as someone who, historically, would otherwise have died as a captured soldier, or as a criminal, or “from exposure or starvation”; “execution was suspended only as long as the slave acquiesced in his powerlessness.” Patterson illustrates that reference to “exposure or starvation” with descriptions of societies in which former members in good standing were enslaved when they failed to meet “socioeconomic norms” (p. 41). He might have added debtors’ prisons to the same end (Finn, 2003, p. 154).
Patterson (1982, p. 46) says that the slave obeys the master “not only out of fear, but out of the basic need to exist as a quasi-person, however marginal and vicarious that existence might be.” If a quasi-human status is the only alternative to imminent death, many will accept enslavement. This is not the general case in which people of any employment status might encounter at least a temporary dearth of good alternatives (e.g., Grover & Fixmer, 2010); this, in the context of a market economy, is the “desperate” need for “terrible” jobs in sweatshops and the like (Snyder, 2008, p. 390), if that is what it takes to survive.
Yet that distinction is not very sharp. Even at the bottom of the heap, people find alternatives. They can take jobs that are even worse than the sweatshops (e.g., Kristof, 2009). They can entertain hopes of escape or improvement, for themselves and/or for their children or others (e.g., Jacobs, 1862). Improvements can occur (e.g., Sinclair, 1906); and when they do not, hope nonetheless springs eternal (Pope, 1733; e.g., Woodcock, 1998, p. 453). If all else fails, in desperate time, people can explore previously rejected options, such as prostitution (e.g., Rosen & Venkatesh, 2008), violent crime (e.g., Douglass, 1845, p. 63; Marley, 1973), rebellion (e.g., Urbainczyk, 2008; Kennedy, 1962), and suicide (e.g., Hickman, 2009, p. 4; Scocco, Fantoni, Rapattoni, de Girolamo, & Pavan, 2009).
However one defines “quasi-person,” conditions of desperation – in the common expressions, conditions where people “would have done anything,” or that are “not fit for a dog” – can be generally considered subhuman. Differences in degree of subhumanness are like differences between millionaires and billionaires: enormous, to those so positioned, but roughly similar, in the eyes of others at these opposite extremes. When a person is driven to crime, prostitution, rebellion, or suicide, the appropriate observation tends to be, not that others seem to be coping with the situation without going to such extremes, nor that those so compelled have even worse alternatives, but rather that their alternatives have become bad enough already.
From a leisure-oriented perspective, the foregoing observations suggest that voluntary tends to be distinguished from involuntary, not by the presence or absence of any alternatives, but by compulsion toward alternatives that are subhuman. In that same spirit, the involuntary need not entail absolute powerlessness in all regards (e.g., Light, 2009, p. 129; Beavis, 1992, p. 47); the suggested revision of Patterson (1982), relevant to the involuntary, is just that one is driven toward subhuman options.