Information Capitalism’s Solution to Structural Unemployment: A (Prison) Laboring Neo-Lumpenproletariat

In Structural Unemployment and the Qualitative Transformation of Capitalism, Thomas A. Hirschl asks an important rhetorical question: “If electronics technology replaces labor, where will the jobs be in ‘information capitalism’?” (Hirschl 160). The short answer is, in Hirschl’s own words, that “there are no ‘safe’ jobs” (165). Yet in exploring his question at face value, it can be argued that prison labor represents at least one (admittedly cynical) answer to the dilemma of where jobs will be in the future. In fact, Stephen Colbert recently satirized inmate labor as an answer to structural unemployment in an episode of The Colbert Report

Noting how America has lost most of its good manufacturing jobs to offshore labor, Colbert asks, “How is the U.S. supposed to compete with countries where workers toil for pennies an hour?” He then proceeds to share the “success story” of UNICOR, a company that does 900 million dollars of business annually “right here in America” manufacturing everything from bedding and table linens to circuit boards and prescription eyewear. “How do they do it?” Colbert asks. “Volume. Also, prison labor.” Up until recently, Colbert notes, UNICOR was legally allowed to supply only to other government agencies, but those restrictions have since lifted. Colbert then plays an excerpt from a UNICOR advertisement touting the company as “the best kept secret in outsourcing.” Then, with his classic straight-faced delivery, Colbert wraps up the segment with the following consolation: “For all those who are worried about unemployed Americans who will now have to compete against cheap prison labor, don’t worry, you can apply for one of these great new UNICOR jobs by going to your local liquor store and submitting your application via shotgun. Folks, before you know it, you will have the right to remain employed for the next 10-20 years.”

In The Digital Advantage, albeit with far less comic relief, Jim Davis and Michael Stack arrive at a conclusion implicit in Colbert’s spoof, that is, we are no doubt witnessing the “end of the old social contract, and the beginning of what can only be described as a policy of genocide against the former working class … the end of welfare, prisons (or their digital surrogates of electronic ankle bracelets and other high-tech controls), and the death penalty implement it” (Davis and Stack 137). To be sure, as a ‘qualitatively new’ means of production, information capitalism has fostered the creation of a new and increasingly criminalized ‘underclass.’ In The Birth of a Modern Proletariat, Nelson Peery traces the origins of the term ‘underclass’ to the Marxian categorization of the ‘lumpenproletariat’ as those “beneath the working class” (Peery 299). For the most part, Hirschl politely refers to this new class as the ‘structurally unemployed,’ but elsewhere in Cutting Edge, members of the neo-lumpenproletariat are characterized as the “was-working class” (133), “economic dead weight” (168), even a “surplus population” (291).

Prison labor: the “best kept secret” in outsourcing.

Capital’s solution to this new underclass? The penal system, preferably a for-profit privatized one in which prisoners work for as little as 93 cents a day (Fraser and Freeman 2012). Contending that the United States “is witnessing a historic reversal in state policy,” Hirschl notes how “programs that preserve labor’s commodity status are being phased out in favor of programs that enforce social control” (Hirschl 168). In this way, the so-called ‘end of jobs’ has necessitated “sharp increases in public expenditures for the penal system, the police, and electronic surveillance systems” (Hirschl 168). Elsewhere in Cutting Edge, this shift in policy is referred to as the “cannibalization of the welfare state” (Witheford 212).

An inmate-operated call center.

Indeed, though it constitutes just 5% of the world’s population, the United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million people, or 25% of the world’s prisoners (Khalek 2011). Prison labor can, among other things, be viewed as an addition to the permanent ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed identified by Marx as a “central weapon of capitalist command over the working class” (Witheford 202). While Colbert specifically calls attention to UNICOR, it is in fact just one of many companies (including Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM) to which prisons sell or ‘lease’ inmate labor (Fraser and Freeman 2012). Aside from the obvious ethical dilemmas posed by subminimum-waged prison labor, this sort of exploitation has the effect of placing a downward pressure on wages, which has negative consequences for all workers.

“Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop labor,” writes one independent journalist, “the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens” (Khalek 2011). Thus, she argues, “The American labor movement must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work environment” (Khalek 2011). Surely, the plight of prison laborers ought to be included in the “proliferation and interconnection” of the “cycles and circuits of struggle” outlined by Witheford in Cutting Edge, for in isolation, he argues, any one movement “provides only a minor problem to corporate power” (Witheford 233).

The full future of jobs, including prison jobs, in information capitalism remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: just as medieval court jesters had a knack for speaking truth to power, modern-day comedians like Stephen Colbert seem to be more adept than mainstream or “real” journalists at critiquing institutions like the prison-industrial complex. Yet comedy, I would argue, can only go so far. It is only with the critical perspectives and rich history of struggles outlined in texts like Cutting Edge that one can truly understand the implications of information capitalism and ways in which its hegemony might be challenged.

Works Cited

Davis, Jim, Thomas A. Hirschl, and Michael Stack. Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

Fraser, Steve, and Joshua B. Freeman. “Locking Down an American Workforce Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American “Free-Market” Capitalism.” TomDispatch. 19 April 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175531/&gt;.

Khalek, Rania. “21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor.” AlterNet. 21 July 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://www.alternet.org/story/151732/21st-century_slaves:_how_corporations_exploit_prison_labor&gt;.

“The Word – Supply Chained.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central: 01 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Oct 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/419674/october-01-2012/the-word—supply-chained&gt;.

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