Published as part of Verso's Haymarket Series in 1996, Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South was the first book-length history of the convict-lease and chain gang systems of penal servitude in the Southern United States. Focusing on Georgia in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Lichtenstein traces the interwoven development of the region's notoriously brutal carceral forms and it's industrial and commercial expansion. "The postbellum history of Georgia's penal system," Lichenstein writes, "offers a clear illustration of how convict labor helped forge the peculiar New South 'Bourbon' political alliance, by accommodating the labor needs of an emerging class of industrialists without eroding the racial domination essential to planters."
In the text below, the book's epilogue, Lichtenstein expands on his findings in a broader historical consideration of the relation between coerced labor and economic development.
A Georgia road gang in Rockdale County in 1909, shortly after the state abolished convict leasing. (Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History).
“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” –Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History”1
Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin's Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.
From the explosion in border walls to the rise of Donald Trump to the books that they've read along the way, Verso authors reflect on one of the most shocking years in recent history in this 2016 review.
With contributions from: Franco Bifo Berardi, Christine Delphy, Keller Easterling, Nick Estes, Liz Fekete, Amber A'Lee Frost, Andrea Gibbons, Owen Hatherley, Eric Hazan, Helen Hester, Karen L. Ishizuka, Reece Jones, Costas Lapavitsas, Andreas Malm, Geoff Mann, Jane McAlevey, Ed Morales, David Roediger Nick Srnicek and Wolfgang Streeck.
Ninety-nine years after the Soviet Revolution the stage is set for precipitation into global civil war. While the financial class exacerbates its agenda fuelling unemployment and social devastation, the dynamics that led to Nazism are deploying worldwide. Nationalists are repeating what Hitler said to the impoverished workers of Germany: rather than as defeated workers, think of yourself as white warriors so you’ll win. They did not win, but they destroyed Europe. They will not win this time neither, but they are poised to destroy the world.
After two centuries of colonial violence, we are now facing the final showdown. As worker’s internationalism has been destroyed by capital globalisation, a planetary bloodbath is getting almost unavoidable.
After centuries of colonial domination and violence, the dominators of the world are now facing a final showdown: the dispossessed of the world are reclaiming a moral and economic reward that the West is unwilling and unable to pay. The concrete historical debt towards those people that we have exploited cannot be paid because we are forced to pay the abstract financial debt.
The year now coming to an end has abounded with bad news on the political front. After a foul and very long debate on how we could ‘strip’ French citizens of their nationality – ultimately reaching the conclusion that this was impossible with regard to both French laws and international conventions – the government abandoned the bill. Immediately after that, a fresh bill was presented to ‘reform’ the labour code, largely getting rid of the majority of the guarantees enjoyed by workers. There was a mass mobilisation against this plan, lasting across the whole spring and part of summer. It opposed demonstrators in all France’s towns and cities to a police which, as the prime minister Manuel Valls put it, ‘had not been given any orders to show restraint’.
This post first appeared in Counterpunch.
Early in the evening during which Donald Trump’s election as president unfolded, I talked to a union activist friend in Wisconsin about something unrelated. In signing off, he said he expected to stay up late seeing if the Democrats regained a Senate seat in the state, Hillary Clinton’s victory being assured. A few hours later, it became clear that Donald Trump had instead carried Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin. Who, MSNBCers wondered, were these hidden Trump voters that delivered in Wisconsin one of the three Rust Belt victories paving Trump’s road to the White House.