Prisons and Primitive Accumulation

One important point my colleague Kevin Carson has emphasized repeatedly is that the prevailing labor relations in our society are not just a natural outgrowth of voluntary exchanges in a free market. Instead, they have resulted from pervasive state intervention that constrains the options of workers, thus leaving them in a worse position to bargain with employers. Drawing on Marx, he notes that the position of wage laborers was particularly influenced by the enclosure of the commons and the resulting dispossession of peasants from their ancestral lands. Marx called this process primitive accumulation, and famously wrote that “these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”

This process was not a one time event that occurred in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Instead, it is an ongoing process, seen in the news even today.

Historically, incarceration has played an important role in this process. This should not be surprising. After all, incarceration is one of the primary techniques of state violence, and states controlled or influenced by employers will likely be used to impose work discipline.

One prominent example of the use of prisons to impose work discipline is the criminalization of African American life in the South after the Civil War. The Black Codes provided a variety of restrictions that exclusively applied to blacks, many of which were directed at imposing work discipline. Many of these laws were intended to coerce freed blacks into labor conditions very similar to those they had faced on slave plantations. For example, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation:

The South Carolina code included a contract form for black “servants” who agreed to work for white “masters.” The form required that the wages and the term of service be in writing. The contract had to be witnessed and then approved by a judge. Other provisions of the code listed the rights and obligations of the servant and master. Black servants had to reside on the employer’s property, remain quiet and orderly, work from sunup to sunset except on Sundays, and not leave the premises or receive visitors without the master’s permission. Masters could “moderately” whip servants under 18 to discipline them. Whipping older servants required a judge’s order. Time lost due to illness would be deducted from the servant’s wages. Servants who quit before the end date of their labor contract forfeited their wages and could be arrested and returned to their masters by a judge’s order. On the other hand, the law protected black servants from being forced to do “unreasonable” tasks.

Other criminal law provisions of the Black Codes were used to pressure blacks into accepting these contracts. For example, vagrancy laws criminalized unemployment, gambling, peddling, and other forms of “idleness.” They also heavily restricted economic opportunities outside of these hierarchical options. Economist Jeffrey Rogers Hummel notes that “South Carolina forbade them from practicing any profession other than servant or agricultural laborer.” These restrictions on economic liberty limited labor mobility and bargaining power, forcing black workers to accept conditions that they would never tolerate in a freed market.

An article in the Marxist magazine Jacobin argues that the Black Codes were a textbook case of primitive accumulation:

One of the key features of primitive accumulation is the use of direct coercion until the wage-labor/capital relationship is naturalized — at which point Marx’s famous “dull compulsion of the economic” takes over. The political struggle, at least for a brief time, during Reconstruction was whether emancipation would mean real liberation — Jim Crow settled the question securely in favor of former plantation owners, and the criminal law was the central instrument through which wage-labor was instituted.

Freed blacks may have wanted to pursue any manner of economic activity to support themselves, independent of the bosses who used to call themselves slave owners. But the state, through its criminal justice system, ensured that couldn’t happen.

One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to recognize that incarceration has played a major role in imposing work discipline throughout history. For example, free market economist Bruce Benson, in his anarcho-capitalist classic The Enterprise of Law, describes how one of the first uses of English prisons was imposing work discipline:

“Houses of correction” were first established under Elizabeth to punish and reform able-bodied poor who refused to work. A “widespread concern for the habits and behavior of the poor” is often cited as the reason for the poor laws regarding vagrancy and the establishment of facilities to “reform” the idle poor by confining them and forcing them to work at hard labor. But Chambliss reported that “there is little question but that these statutes were designed for one express purpose: to force laborers (whether personally free or unfree) to accept employment at a low wage in order to insure the landowner an adequate supply of labor at a price he could afford to pay.” Such laws clearly reflected the transfer function of government.

By forcing the poor to work at low wages, prisons were used to transfer wealth from workers to politically connected land owners. The Black Codes played a similar transfer function for politically connected plantation owners and other white employers.

Primitive accumulation is far from the only function of incarceration. Today, mass incarceration does not so much enforce work discipline as it punishes black market entrepreneurship and excludes felons from the formal labor market, both through discrimination by employers and through licensing laws that prohibit felons from participating in a wide range of occupations.

But the history of incarceration as a tool to impose work discipline is important. It reminds us that government often redistributes wealth upwards by repressing workers to the benefit of employers. And when we understand that, we can understand why struggles against poverty and exploitation are intimately tied to struggles for liberty.

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