June 18, 2013
Locking Down an American Workforce
Posted on Apr 19, 2012
By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman
Convict Leasing Rises Again
“Now,” means our second Gilded Age and its aftermath. In these years, the system of leasing out convicts to private enterprise was reborn. This was a perverse triumph for the law of supply and demand in an era infatuated with the charms of the free market. On the supply side, the U.S. holds captive 25% of all the prisoners on the planet: 2.3 million people. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world as well, a figure that began skyrocketing in 1980 as Ronald Reagan became president. As for the demand for labor, since the 1970s American industrial corporations have found it increasingly unprofitable to invest in domestic production. Instead, they have sought out the hundreds of millions of people abroad who are willing to, or can be pressed into, working for far less than American workers.
As a consequence, those back home—disproportionately African-American workers—who found themselves living in economic exile, scrabbling to get by, began showing up in similarly disproportionate numbers in the country’s rapidly expanding prison archipelago. It didn’t take long for corporate America to come to view this as another potential foreign country, full of cheap and subservient labor—and better yet, close by.
What began in the 1970s as an end run around the laws prohibiting convict leasing by private interests has now become an industrial sector in its own right, employing more people than any Fortune 500 corporation and operating in 37 states. And here’s the ultimate irony: our ancestors found convict labor obnoxious in part because it seemed to prefigure a new and more universal form of enslavement. Could its rebirth foreshadow a future ever more unnervingly like those past nightmares?
What accounts for that peculiarly narrow view of recovery, however, is that the general costs of doing business are falling off a cliff as the economy eats itself alive. The recovery being celebrated owes thanks to local, state, and Federal austerity budgets, the starving of the social welfare system and public services, rampant anti-union campaigns in the public and private sector, the spread of sweatshop labor, the coercion of desperate unemployed or underemployed workers to accept lower wages, part-time work, and temporary work, as well as the relinquishing of healthcare benefits and a financially secure retirement—in short, to surrender the hope that is supposed to come with the American franchise.
Such a recovery, resting on the stripping away of the hard won material and cultural achievements of the past century, suggests a new world in which the prison-labor archipelago could indeed become a vast gulag of the downwardly mobile.
Steve Fraser is editor-at-large of New Labor Forum, co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books), and a TomDispatch regular. He is, most recently, the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He teaches history at Columbia University.
Joshua B. Freeman, a TomDispatch regular, teaches history at Queens College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is affiliated with its Joseph S. Murphy Labor Institute. His forthcoming book, American Empire, will be the final volume of the Penguin History of the United States.
[Further Reading: For those interested in learning more about the history of prison labor and the convict-leasing system, we highly recommend three books that were crucial to us in writing this essay: Rebecca M. McLennan’s The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941, Alex Lichtenstein’s Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, and Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.]
This piece is an adaptation of an “In the Rearview Mirror” column that will be published in a forthcoming issue of the magazine New Labor Forum.
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Copyright 2012 Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman
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