Degree Year


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Marc Blecher
Chris Howell


Unfree labor, Capitalism, Slavery, Mass incarceration, Prison labor, Prison-industrial complex, Legitimation, Spectacle, Neoliberalism, Political economy, Marx


From Marx to Friedman, most theorists of capitalism claim that capitalist development promotes free labor and diminishes the productive use of "pre-capitalist" forms of unfree labor such as slavery or serfdom. Such theories have trouble explaining both the persistence of different types of unfree labor throughout the capitalist era of American history and the resurgence of prison labor in the contemporary neoliberal period. Applying works by Connor and Habermas, this paper argues that the American history of unfree labor under capitalism has been shaped by the "contradiction" between private, concentrated capital accumulation and generalized public legitimation of the capitalist state. Both slavery in the antebellum south and convict leasing in the postbellum south were examples of accumulation by unfree labor. Then, under Fordism, unfree labor declined as Marx would expect. However, in the neoliberal period, unfree labor returns in the form of prison labor under racialized institutions of mass incarceration; the racial disproportionality of U.S. prisons are heir to past racializing institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow. However, contemporary prison labor differs from past examples of unfree labor in that today it is generally unproductive materially, but it persists because political elites use it as a legitimating spectacle that reinforces ideological-cultural values at the core of neoliberal capitalism: that everyone, especially the African American "underclass" must work. The ongoing insertion of capitalist institutions into U.S. prisons through prison labor and privatization are the results of ideological attempts to reconcile contradictory elements of the neoliberal-penal state: the ideology of free markets and limited government conflicts with the "big government," coercive reality of mass incarceration, and the cost of maintaining the massive carceral apparatus conflicts with the neoliberal obsession with governmental and economic efficiency. The neoliberal-penal state holds together, both materially and discursively, through the blending of markets and extra-economic discipline; hence the return of unfree labor, despite predictions of its demise.