We humans often delude ourselves with the idea of progress while continuing to make the same mistakes. We developed advanced technology and then fought the most destructive and cruel war in the history of the world, the Second World War. We invented chemicals and drugs, but not always the wisdom to use them. Our species became prosperous and then destroyed its families. People, organizations and societies are often inept at making the best decisions. Our wars, upheavals, environmental problems and financial crises display the persistent follies of the human species. “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations and ages it is the rule.”
The longest delusion of the twentieth century grew out of the idealistic desire to stop the exploitation of labor, free oppressed workers and peasants, abolish capitalism, stop wars and create a workers’ paradise while the state and religion gradually withered away. Instead of creating better conditions, the Russian Revolution of 1917 ushered in massive oppression, turmoil and famine. Within 40 years, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin created the largest system of slave labor in history. Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn brilliantly described this state slavery, including the personal selection of naked female slave laborers as bedmates for Soviet Interior Ministry slave buyers and their associates. Slaves of the Soviet state received far worse treatment than did slaves in the Old South. For exposing the tragedy, horror and cruelty of Soviet slave labor camps in books like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in 1970. Slave labor systems arose in other communist nations, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Eastern European communist regimes and Red China. Many millions of Chinese died in forced labor camps under Mao, who numerically surpassed the slave holdings of Stalin and Hitler.
During a 12-year delusion, Nazi Germany created millions of state slaves. Like the Soviets, the Nazis worked “enemies of the people” as slaves and intentionally worked many to death. The Germans executed those unfit to work early in the process. For the Hebrew people, this was at least their third enslavement after two earlier enslavements described in the Bible. Historians know more about the Nazi slave labor system than we do the Soviet counterpart, because the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, physically discovered their work and death camps and learned much from Holocaust survivors, who were then free to speak. While Stalin let up on mass arrests and deportations during the Second World War, Hitler insanely killed more workers during Germany’s acute wartime labor shortage. Soviet and Nazi slave laborers were abused as punishment for political, religious, racial, military and ethnic status, not utilized efficiently or with complete dedication to economic production. The Soviet, Nazi and Red Chinese slave labor systems each enslaved over 10,000,000 people. Twentieth century dictatorships did not value the lives of their state slaves.
Today, China incarcerates with or without trial some three to five million dissidents, slackers and criminals in a vast network of reform-through-labor or Laogai camps. Despite international agreements barring prison-made goods from entering the United States, products made by unpaid forced labor find their way here. Product components made in Laogai camps pass undetected. Many internet sales conducted in English link to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. According to the Laogai Research Foundation, prisons produce large profits for the Chinese government.
The world abolished the international slave trade once and now sees it resurrected under the euphemistic name of “human trafficking.” The International Labor Organization estimates there are at least 12.3 million people in forced labor, bonded labor and commercial sexual servitude worldwide. By some estimates, there are 27 million enslaved people in the world. E. Benjamin Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous, spent four years visiting a dozen countries where this ugly species of modern day slavery flourishes. More U.S. states now specifically prohibit human trafficking. Prosecutions are on the increase in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The U.S. State Department, through its Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, now formally “names and shames” other nations who practice and condone the modern day slavery of human trafficking. While the United States points the finger of blame at other nations regarding human trafficking, it keeps a record number of its very own new age slaves.
Slavery dies hard and re-appears in different forms through time. That’s because it’s more than a single institution. Societies develop from the equality of hunter-gatherers to organized social stratification, inequality. Human civilization always results in wealth and power differentials. Disparities in political, legal, financial and military power allow the strong to dominate or enslave the weak through various means and for different reasons.
Slavery and criminal punishment have many things in common. Each keeps people in low social strata. Criminal punishment in various cultures resulted in forms of slavery. In different Western legal systems throughout history, the punishments used to control slaves eventually made their way into criminal laws applicable to everyone.9 Penal servitude and slavery were in some cultures practically indistinguishable. Chattel slavery was usually milder than galley slavery, penal servitude and convict leasing, because the slaveholder had a direct investment in the life of the slave rather than merely the use of labor for some years. A delusion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, originating as a humanitarian movement, was the idea that people would get better with time if placed in cages or cells. This misconception brought about yet another form of slavery, which is now more prevalent in the United States than in any other country.
We have not reached the final chapter of American slavery. We abolished slavery, we thought, and then developed a new form of slavery. Antebellum chattel slavery is gone, but new age American slavery, mass incarceration, is much worse. We are not accustomed to thinking of prisoners as “slaves,” but in all the basic ways, they are state slaves. Although not strictly chattel, prisoners owe absolute obedience, have no physical freedom and little status, enjoy few rights and remain subjugated or abused for many years, in prison and after their release. The United States has gone from an agrarian, paternalistic, personal form of private enterprise slavery to the socialized, impersonal, institutional, mass state slavery through incarceration inside hard surfaces, directed from Washington, D.C. and 50 state capitals. The twisted world of modern mass incarceration, state slavery, is new age slavery. New age slaves deserve their bondage, but do not “work like slaves.” In fact, American prisoners are the largest group of full-ride welfare recipients in the world today. And they are not being rehabilitated. Change will come, because our economy and our prisons are at the breaking point.
The United States has 5% of the world’s prisoner and 25% of the world’s prisoners. We are supposed to be the land of liberty.