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Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South

“Powerful, painstakingly researched, gracefully written.”—Robin D.G. Kelley

For the first time in a generation chain gangs have reappeared on the roads of the American South. Associated in the past with racial terrorism, this cruel and unusual punishment should invoke strong memories. But, in the rush to embrace ever-harsher sanctions, the American public has ignored the troubling history of Southern punishment.

Twice the Work of Free Labor is the first book-length study of the history of the Southern convict-lease system and its successor, the chain gang. For nearly a century after the abolition of slavery, convicts labored in the South’s mines, railroad camps, brickyards, turpentine farms and then road gangs, under abject conditions. The vast majority of these prisoners were African Americans. In this timely book, Alex Lichtenstein reveals the origins of this vicious penal slavery, explains its persistent and widespread popularity among whites, and charts its unhappy contribution to the rebirth of the South in the decades following the Civil War.

The book also offers an original analysis of the post-Civil War South’s political economy. Lichtenstein suggests that, after emancipation, forced black labor was exploited not by those who yearned for the social order of the slave South, but by the region’s most ardent advocates of progress. The convict-lease and chain gang allowed a New South to rise while preserving white supremacy.


  • “Powerful, painstakingly researched, gracefully written, Twice the Work of Free Labor is a must read for anyone seeking an historical perspective on the current expansion of the US prison industry and the state’s reliance on incarceration to deal with the poor.”


  • Forced Labor and Progress

    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.

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  • Watts, Lowndes County, Oakland: The Founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense

    October 15th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. 

    Donna Murch's
    Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, published in 2010 by UNC Press, traces the longer origins of the BPP in southern migration and struggles at public universities in California. Below we present an excerpt from the book which deals with the immediate context surrounding Newton and Seale's formation of the party and its platform.  

    Top left to right: Elbert "Big Man" Howard, Huey P. Newton, Sherwin Forte, Bobby Seale Bottom: Reggie Forte and Little Bobby Hutton. via Wikimedia Commons.

    In the aftermath of the Watts rebellions, the failure of community programs to remedy chronic unemployment and police brutality prompted a core group of black activists to leave campuses and engage in direct action in the streets.
    The spontaneous uprisings in Watts called attention to the problems faced by California’s migrant communities and created a sense of urgency about police violence and the suffocating conditions of West Coast cities. Increasingly, the tactics of nonviolent passive resistance seemed irrelevant, and the radicalization of the southern civil rights movement provided a new language and conception for black struggle across the country.Stokely Carmichael’s ascendance to the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1966, combined with the events of the Meredith March, demonstrated the growing appeal of “Black Power.” His speech on the U.C. Berkeley campus in late October encapsulated these developments and brought them directly to the East Bay.Local activists soon met his call for independent black organizing and institution building in ways that he could not have predicted. 

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  • Preface to Delphy's For a General Theory of Exploitation

    A resurgence of interest in social reproduction theory has presented new ways of understanding gendered labour under capitalism. The political economy of Christine Delphy offered an important starting point for such questions, but remains little known in the Anglophone world. 

    A translation of the Preface to Delphy's 
    Pour un théorie générale de l’exploitation [For a general theory of exploitation] (2006), by Isabelle Courcy and Melissa Blais, is below. Translated by David Broder; original French text here

    The different forms of exploiting labour today

    In Quebec, Christine Delphy is often presented as one of the first feminists in France to have denaturalised ‘sex’, and consequently as a pioneer in conceptualising gender. Less common are the presentations that emphasise her contribution to political economy.

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