Feb 222012
 February 22, 2012  Posted by at 10:21 pm Finance

altNational Photo Co. Former Slaves 1916 “Washington, D.C., Convention of former slaves. Annie Parram, age 104; Anna Angales, age 105; Elizabeth Berkeley, 125; Sadie Thompson, 110”


It is almost surprising that the concept of slavery is very foreign to those living in the developed world, especially the U.S., since it was extensively practiced as recently as 70 years ago. What’s more disturbing about this ignorance is the fact that the system of post-Civil War slavery in the U.S. was not so different than the systems of slavery many Americans and Europeans will be experiencing in upcoming years. Indeed, I’m sure many people will probably take offense to such a comparison even being made, as they feel it demeans the atrocious acts committed in the past.

I would argue, however, that we demean history by failing to understand it and learn from it. Many people refer to debt slavery when referencing current policies of the West, especially in Greece right now where the concept has become very real, but they perhaps still under-estimate how bad it can get. These systems of slavery are primarily borne out of deeply-rooted economic structures which foster high levels of dependency, greed and malice by those with unchecked levels of political power. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these powerful groups consisted of wealthy Southern agricultural and industrial elites.

In his book “Slavery By Another Name” [documentary here], Douglas A. Blackmon documents how very few of the 4 million slaves that existed at the end of the Civil War were actually allowed to realize their freedom until decades later. As the white middle class of the South grew from 1870-1950 (with the exception of some years encompassing the Great Depression), due in no small part to the success of Southern industry, the blacks were kept in their chains through various mechanisms, such as convict leasing and debt peonage, over and above the outright discrimination and violence that they also suffered.

The Southern convict leasing systems were a means of extending slavery for African Americans well past the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th amendments. Southern laws were crafted to guarantee that the now “free” African Americans would be incarcerated at much higher rates than whites. Blacks were picked up, hauled off and locked up for ridiculous crimes such as “vagrancy” (being homless or unemployed), loitering in public, speaking loudly in the company of white women or selling farm products after dark, to name only a few.

Once these people were matriculated into the prison system, they had effectively become slave laborers again. The state allowed convicts to be leased out to private corporations for little more than a pittance – convict laborers were rented out at monthly rates that represented a 50-80% discount over the wages paid to free laborers. They were forced to work in some of the most dangerous environments at the time, laying railroad and mining coal, and a significant percentage developed severe illness/injuries and died in the course of such work.

It is estimated that at least 9000 convict workers were murdered or died of “natural causes” over a few decades under this system alone. As one historian described it, the system was “brutal in a social sense, but fiendishly rational in an economical sense”. That is really the crux of the matter – the Southern plantation economy, as well as newly developing transport industries, was very dependent on extremely low-cost labor, in both an economic and psychological sense. Convict leasing proved to be even more profitable than slavery in many cases, since there was really no need to keep the workers healthy and alive for very long.

Many African Americans were also placed into peonage or “debt servitude”, despite the fact that the federal government made it illegal after the accession of New Mexico into the U.S and the Civil War. These blacks were typically accused of falsely owing money or trivial sums, given sham trials and quickly sold off by the courts into a privatized system of debt slavery. The peonage contracts contained horrifying terms, allowing the employer to trade, confine, whip and beat workers as long as the debt was deemed unpaid, which could practically last forever.

It was established that some of the wealthiest Alabama farmers had their own “justices of the peace” who would fraudulently try and convict blacks on charges of unpaid debts. The federal government launched an investigation into these practices, and an Alabama court convicted a few of the farmers of public bribes and illegal debt peonage. However, they were given minimum sentences and then pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt shortly after. Despite the investigation and state court ruling, this practiced continued in many Southern states for years after.

Another less explicit form of forced labor was sharecropping, in which the poor black farmers theoretically received a percentage of the profits from sale of a certain crop grown by them. However, these workers were forced to take out relatively large loans just to meet daily expenses and these loans sometimes carried interest rates upwards of 50% or 60%. At the end of day, many of these sharecroppers were treated just like slaves and received very little compensation for their work, besides the basic necessities of life.

It is probably quite obvious to most readers how all of these mechanisms of forced labor and debt slavery are still being practiced today and are only getting worse. The prison-industrial complex in the U.S. has become more extensive than ever, as the list of petty crimes for which people are incarcerated has grown longer (but still does not include corporate/banking fraud or political corruption at the highest levels). There are, of course, many serious offenders in the system, but the point is that it is becoming ever-easier for our modern “slavemasters” to blur the line.



Foremost among the petty punishment is for drug use and addiction, which, as Dr. Gabor Mate has insightfully explained (h/t El Gallinazo), are conditions that primarily develop from environmental influences at an early age (as opposed to genetics). The socioeconomic structures and growing wealth inequality embedded in our society, especially at this time of economic depression, places enormous amounts of stress on its poorest members and can literally re-wire their brains in ways that eventually lead them down a path of self-defeating drug addiction and associated behaviors.

U.S. Department of Justice – Prisoners in 2010


In 2009, the most recent data available, 53% of state prison inmates were serving time for violent offenses, 19% for property, 18% for drug, and 9% for public order or other offenses.


About half (51%) of federal inmates in 2010 were serving time for drug offenses, 35% for public-order offenses (largely weapons and immigration), and less than 10% each for violent and property offenses.

Instead of working to change our fundamental economic structures and mitigate the stress triggers, our society has sought to “punish” and “rehabilitate” these people by placing them in environments of unprecedented fear and stress, such as prison. Given the amount of money and resources poured into the “war on drugs” in the U.S. over decades, there is never any shortage of people that can be easily sucked into this prison complex and then become a part of an enslaved labor force. Maintaining prisons and their populations has become very costly to taxpayers, but that’s the whole point.

The growing and increasingly outsourced U.S. prison workforce is frankly a wet dream for private corporations, just like the convict leasing system was for Southern corporate elites. They have already been stripped of almost all their freedoms through the system of incarceration, and can be forced to work for a very low wages in poor working conditions, under very strict levels of order and discipline. This pool of enslaved labor exploded since the early 1970s, as shown above, and therefore has already been thoroughly exploited by private corporations for many years.




On top of that, the entire business of building and running both state and federal prisons has been in the process of being outsourced to private corporations as governments come under fiscal pressure. These private interests now have even more incentive to help state and federal governments maintain the currently elevated number of prisoners. In recent years, the annual percentage increase in prisoners has dropped off, but that’s a “problem” which can be easily solved by the powers that be. In addition to inevitable increases in crime rates associated with economic depression, the list of jailable offenses can simply be expanded along with their associated sentences, like they were for blacks after “Reconstruction”.

Right now, we have millions of people up to their eyeballs in housing and consumer debts, paying upwards of 20% interest on their credit cards and “payday loans”. It is an entrenched system that forces people to work longer hours for fewer benefits and wages over time. But, even as such, the titans of industry and owners of concentrated financial wealth are finding it difficult to squeeze enough blood from the stones. So what’s to stop the corporate elites and their political/judicial flacks from manufacturing debts out of thin air and exacting excessive wealth/punishment from those with debts owed?

In the follow up to this piece, we will look at the other ways in which the era of global indebtedness today has come to resemble that of the post-Civil War enslavement of African-Americans, except at a much larger scale. Is it really so unimaginable that an average lower or middle class American family, of all different races (although the racially-divided inequality of the past is still with us in many real ways), could find themselves in literal contracts of debt peonage, despite the technical “illegality” of such contracts at this time? What is the likelihood that laws will be re-written and/or ignored and how easy is it for the line between financial harassment/abuse and physical enslavement to simply disappear?

Home Forums Our Depraved Future of Debt Slavery (Part I)

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    National Photo Co. Former Slaves 1916 “Washington, D.C., Convention of former slaves. Annie Parram, age 104; Anna Angales, age 105; Elizabeth Berkeley
    [See the full post at: Our Depraved Future of Debt Slavery (Part I)]


    Ash, it takes cajones to bring our attention to slavery in our times when most people believe we live in a democracy with freedom and equal opportunity for all. Bageant comes to mind and his words about just pull yourself up by the bootstraps.
    On the week-end a conversation touched on building more prisons in Canada. My neighbour was wondering aloud about it as the crime rate in Canada is going down. ” Why is the gov’t building more prisons?” Excellent question. Why indeed. Privitization of the prison system is an earner.


    Slavery has been part of every civilization — until the age of fossil fuels. The British started using coal to fire the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century. They outlawed the slave trade in 1808. Colonel Drake’s first oil well in Pennsylvania was drilled in 1859. The Emancipation Proclamation came 4 years later in 1863. I don’t claim that fossil fuels ended slavery but they did make the (temporary?) end of slavery stick — at least for a while.

    You can’t have a hierarchical society with rich idle rentiers at the top without some way to produce a surplus. Slavery is apparently quite handy.


    As noted by Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” those convicted of drug felonies loose access to foodstamps, welfare, public housing and educational assistance (with some exceptions). So, a small time dealer can get busted for a felony drug offense spend several years in prison, get released and if his wife/partner and children are living in public housing, not only can he not live with them, THEY could be kicked out of their housing for letting him do so. And to top it off in many states he also is barred from voting.


    How did those slaves live so long under those conditions? Amazing. We live affluent lives and don’t even make it 80!

    Besides my firm conviction that all but 3 people in Congress should be in jail for life and joined by all the big bankster and corporate criminals, I believe that…

    Everyone imprisoned for non-violent or non-serious or non-damaging crimes (in other words they are not true menaces to the society or sociopaths) should be released. Our societies real criminals that are in prison should be made to work 8 hours per day M-F. And the work should not be for private interests it should be for the public interest (road work, litter clean up, etc.). If they refuse to work they are just given the barest of essentials for living so that they die off fast. There should not be any “white collar” prisons for white collar criminals that have been very destructive… they should have to labor as well. Plus, no TV or recreation for ANY prisoner. All the benefits of freedom need to be gone. Then and only then would people think twice before committing a crime… the recidivist levels would drop. Bring back the chain gangs. Let’s get real and let’s get tough with the people that hurt us and our society and out country.


    One point I forgot to mention. Just to show how illogical our government can be. It costs $80,000 per year to keep a person in prison! They get full dental and medical as well. Taxpayer’s money! Yet your average American is living on $30,000 per year!! Really makes sense. Just more government corruption, unworkability and fleecing of the taxpayer.


    1. Mega banks own the private prisons.
    2. Mega banks work with CIA to put drugs in front of our children and addicts.
    3. Mega banks launder the drug money.
    4. ATF gives cotnainer loads of drugs to mega bank sponsored drug gangs.
    5. DEA launders drug money.
    6. Government cuts deal with drug cartels to bring in tons of cocaine into America to put in front of our children – free and clear. All the while they grope your children and spouses and parents at the airport.

    All of these items are in the bankster stream media… I’ll be happy to point any article out if anyone is interested.

    Here’s a link to the article that led to item #6…


    Look it up – Sinaloa also received guns from the ATF through the “Fast and Furious.”

    These criminals use the drug war to…

    1. Profit immensely from incarcerating Americans and using their prison labor as slave labor.
    2. To wage wars against private property rights – they take your home, even if they plant the drugs.
    3. They make $100s of billions of dollars to fund their illicit and covert activities.
    4. They destabilize the nation – read up on their drug war 1.0 – The Opium Wars.

    the citizenry has to wisen up here or we are gonna get stomped on after the sheering has taken place.


    You mentioned that sharecroppers were poor black farmers. My wife’s ancestors were white sharecroppers in the south. There was” equal opportunity ” debt slavery. Not all issues have to be cast in black vs white.

    Robert 1

    Good post Ash, sensitive and timely.

    The graphs speak for themselves. As prisons became privatized, the number of inmates went up. I highly recommend the video “Prison Valley” for an overview of the situation in US prisons. See: https://prisonvalley.arte.tv/?lang=en

    You can sign in as a guest and need to “continue the journey” periodically or go back to video.

    The top 1% are suggesting that they privatize state prisons as a means to solve State debt problems. This is pure evil. Already the US has one of if not the highest prison population in the world.


    Ash – very, very well written. Thank you. I had read a few years ago that some corporations were using prison inmates for labour. I couldn’t believe it! A steady stream of cheap labour.

    And what the Black people went through is unconscionable.


    I’m so proud of this site for discussing this unmentionable subject. I can’t even write about prisions, I feel so strongly like shouting and ranting about it. The prisons for victimless crimes is one of the biggest travisties of our country and California is the worst of the lot.

    I’ve been working a bit in prison ministries and hope to somehow start some kind of halfway houses. Me, in my optimism, had been thinking that they’d have to start releasing more prison/victims due to the debt crisis, but I fear that the “private” companies will take over the prisons and start to make a profit from them. Think how competative prison labor will be against the cheap labor of young Chinese village girls.

    Grrr. Words cannot express my anger about this!!!!


    I had to be out of town last weekend due to work, but in my absence there was a day of action Feb 20 – https://occupy4prisoners.org/ Many people from Occupy Oakland converged on San Quentin the local state max security prison over in Marin Co. where the rich 1% of the Bay Area live. (I suppose it makes them feel secure to see that constant reminder of our police state protecting them.

    Here is a video of part of the demonstration in the village of San Quentin. I recognize the skyline and a couple of people in the audience.

    In Ohio prisoners staged a hunger strike on Feb 20 and then went on to extend it. After 3 days the result is that the warden has back pedaled on some repressive measures. I suspect they didn’t want a prison riot.


    One more thing. A local Oakland theater that supports the Occupy movement will be showing this film on Mar. 1. I plan to be there and may review it here.


    This website has a fine preview of it. Telling it like it is.


    What about all the slaves, inhumane sweatshop laborers, and child serfs in the third world who make a lot of our everyday goods? It’s all documented and when they’r busted for child labor (Kathy Gifford), they’re on the news all the time. Yet so one seems to care. Out of sight, out of mind. Everyone is happy buying their iphones, laptops, clothing, shoes, comforters, etc.

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