Elon Musk is the founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity, and a PayPal co-founder. When Tesla bucked the automotive distribution monopolies, Musk was hailed as an anti-corporate or alt-corporate hero. He’s one of the many Americans who describe himself as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” American “libertarians” rallied around Musk, despite his heavy reliance on government money, in part due for releasing patents in an “open source” gesture. Musk has also described himself as “libertarian.” But so do American politicians and even the former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden.
Let me make this clear: there is nothing “libertarian” about prison labor. There is nothing libertarian about the NSA, nor state-funded corporatism. Except in the Bizarro World of American demagoguery, where slavery is freedom and down is up, liberty is the opposite of slavery in any form.
It isn’t hyperbole to assert that prison labor is a form of slavery. It is the forced labor of trapped human beings, regardless of why or what justifications exist for trapping those persons. The term “wage slavery” may call up the image of Karl Marx or the political left-wing. It’s older than that. Slavery-via-employment, wage slavery, capitalism, all were recognized during the abolition era as alternative forms of slavery.
Take this dialogue from Uncle Tom’s Cabin between Augustine St. Claire, the archetypal “kind master,” and Ophelia, St. Claire’s cousin, a naïve but well-intentioned Northern abolitionist:
“Alfred who is as determined a despot as ever walked, does not pretend tot his kind of defense;–no, he stands, high and naughty, on the good old respectable ground, the right of the strongest; and he says, and I think quite sensibly, that the American planter is ‘only doing, in another form, what the English aristocracy and capitalists are doing by the lower classes;’ that is, I take it, appropriating them, body and bone, soul and spirit, to their use and convenience. He defends both,–and I think, at least, consistently. He says there can be no high civilization without the enslavement of the masses, either nominal or real. There must, he says, be a lower class, given up to physical toil and confined to an animal nature; and a higher one thereby acquires leisure and wealth for a more expanded intelligence and improvement, and becomes the directing soul of the lower. So he reasons, because, as I said, he is born an aristocrat;–so I don’t believe, because I was born a democrat.”
“How in the world can the two things be compared?” said Miss Ophelia. “The English laborer is not sold, traded, parted from his family, whipped.”
“He is as much at the will of his employer as if he were sold to him. The slave-owner can whip his refractory slave to death,–the capitalist can starve him to death. As to family security, it is hard to say which is the worst,–to have one’s children sold, or see them starve to death at home.”
But prison labor is beyond wage slavery. Prison labor resembles chattel slavery more closely than it does wage slavery. It is in prison labor where you may still see, in 2015, men chained hand-to-handle, ankle-to-ankle, working in a field. There is no “free market” in the prison. The free market does not even exist for the released prisoner, most of whom are forced to seek employment as a condition of release.
And woe to the prisoner who refuses to work; woe to him. While officially possible, refusal to work is always followed by punishment. Punishment and coercion, physical, mental and emotional. The work is not voluntary by any means.
Supporters of this modern day slavery, too, often assert that prisoners want to work while incarcerated. Working passes the time, they say. It teaches them a skill. They are happier while occupied. The holder of chattel slaves claimed the exact same things. Slaves are happiest at work. Work makes you free. Arbeit macht frei.