Workforcing — Captive Labor and the New Slavery

Paul B. Hartzog
Jun 21, 2018 · 8 min read

As a futurist, one of the primary tasks of the job is to look for patterns. In particular, this frequently means looking for patterns where no one else is looking for them. Sometimes it means finding patterns that are truly frightening, and sometimes you have to give voice to those patterns because of a moral obligation and despite the risks of doing so.

While the USA is madly scrambling to deal with immigration and government policy, I noticed a pattern that I believe is a key to understanding what is really going on. Herein I will explain this pattern, which I’m calling “Workforcing,” but I’m going to err on the side of brevity rather than deep research because I believe that time is of the essence in this case.

“Sometimes you have to speak because you feel the moral obligation to say something, not because you have the ‘scientific’ certainty that you are saying it in an unassailable way.”

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality : Essays, 1st ed. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, p. xii).


In other words, the intersection of global labor patterns, robotization, artificial intelligence, climate change, market & capital failures, etc. produces a crisis in which the forces of capitalism must go to extreme lengths to exploit the maximum value from the existing sources of labor. Furthermore, where existing sources of labor fall short, capitalism must seek out new sources of labor using new techniques that mimic the methods previously used for the capture and enslavement of victimized and criminalized populations throughout history — methods which are no longer legally available due to the abolition of slavery, and the rise of child labor laws, human rights, and other documents of human liberation and security.

Basically, for any given target population, you

  1. create a for-profit workcenter
  2. criminalize a group of people, through their activities, conditions, or status
  3. construct a pipeline by which the criminalized become indentured

These for-profit workcenters can then be (and already are being) readily supplied with captured labor (which is even cheaper than cheap labor). In a nutshell:

  • For-profit prisons => to be filled with criminalized citizens
  • For-profit immigrant centers => to be filled with criminalized immigrants
  • For-profit refugee camps => to be filled with climate refugees
  • For-profit workhouses => to be filled with the unemployed
  • For-profit homeless shelters => to be filled with the homeless
  • For-profit student centers => to be filled with debt-burdened graduates
  • For-profit orphanages => to be filled with children
  • etc.

First, in any complex adaptive system population there are 2 key population dynamics:

  • If there are too few elements then the population will plummet due to incoherence between the parts.
  • If there are too many elements then the population, facing resource limits (carrying capacity), will decrease to the stable equilibrium, which represents a saturation point for that system or ecology.

(For a deeper look at those dynamics see my article Not Too Many, Not Too Few: How To Understand Ecology Carrying Capacity)

So, as each new type of center becomes saturated, it becomes necessary to create new centers, new types of criminals, and new pipelines.

Second, the collapse of the global economy produces both the economic and social conditions to deploy this pattern in a variety of target sectors.

If you are now curious, a longer explanation follows.


It’s no secret that for-profit prisons are big business. It’s also no secret that the school-to-prison pipeline effectively funnels marginalized and disenfranchised populations into those prisons at a frightening pace.

To achieve these goals, what is necessary is

  • to continue criminalizing more and more kinds of activities, as well as
  • to issue harsher sentences to extract maximum value per sentence

It begins with inmates cleaning up highways, and continues with inmates working as cheap labor in Nike factories or Wal-Mart centers. It ends with inmates cleaning up oil spills and being made complicit in covering up the excesses of the very system that has captured them.


Immigration is a little trickier to handle. First, you have to “criminalize” immigration. Some forms of immigration are always legal according to international law (e.g. political asylum), but a nation-state’s acquiescence to international law is always voluntary. There is no supranational world government or authorized use of force at the level of nation-states. Nation-states’ relation to each other is an anarchical one and all influence is peer-to-peer using horizontal sanctions and actions, not enforcement by a global government that is “above” national sovereignty.

Consequently, any recognized global agency above the nation-state must be renounced and participation must be revoked. Since there are no political agencies above the nation-state, then the concern must be with moral agencies above the nation-state, i.e. those institutions that carry moral weight within the global community. The United Nations, and in particular its moral bodies, such as those on human rights or the rights of children, must be renounced. As has happened, the USA has to withdraw from human rights at the UN level in order to proceed with its for-profit labor agenda.

In addition, it will be necessary to over-prosecute the affected populations, in order to pass reforms that will, at the time, seem to be reductions in cruelty but will, in actuality, be expansions of the power being used against them and will further strip them of any recourse or escape from their criminalized status. In the case of immigrants, ending the child-abuse and cruelty of family separations while actually passing legislation to detain immigrants indefinitely is an example.


Climate change will displace billions worldwide. Most obvious, it will displace populations as a result of changing physical environments — rising sea levels, increasing weather volatility, tornados, hurricanes, droughts, water pollution, soil depletion, etc. Less obviously, those changes will create both social and political upheavals, clashes between populations over remaining resources, which will, in turn, create a secondary class of refugees.

Refugee camps are nothing new, but the new development will be to trade refugee labor for the privilege and resources necessary to stay in the new camps. For many, there will be no choice but to agree, for there will be no home to return to.

The Unemployed

Receiving unemployment benefits already entails a plethora of conditions. You have to have worked a certain amount and contributed to the system. In some states there are exclusions for people who only worked part-time or have other sporadic income. In addition, you have to document your time job-seeking (you must be constantly seeking a job, rather than figuring out what to do next, or learning a new skill, etc.)

The only really relevant point is that the unemployed need assistance, and so they are another population ready to be captured and put to work. In order to receive assistance you might have to work for a reduced amount at a workcenter. It’s not a large leap.

The Homeless

The homeless are yet another population-in-waiting ready to be pipelined. The homeless are already discriminated against, subject to frequent illegal search and seizures, and constantly charged with falsified claims and kept mired in paperwork and court dates. (Homeless people are falsely charged disproportionately relative to other populations). In most instances the charges are dropped, and yet the harassment continues.

It is not a stretch to consider workhouse-like dormitories, where, in exchange for shelter, people are required to trade their labor in unfair conditions. All that is required is to further criminalize nomadism, loitering, vagrancy, and other activities, while at the same time, increasing efforts to police those activities and constructing the pipelines that funnel them to the dormitories.

The Rest

Obviously, there is no shortage of target populations that this pattern could be used against. I have listed several others at the beginning of this article: students, children.

Students (or parents of students) driven into debt by outrageous educational costs are a population ripe for exploitation. There are already programs that will “forgive” student debt in exchange for teaching or other educational work for a period of years. (The use of the term “forgive” is instructive here as it illustrates the way in which the language is crafted to place the moral authority on the side of the “forgiver” and to, in effect, blame the debtor for the existence of systemic conditions which forced them into debt in the first place).

Women are particularly vulnerable. Many of them double as caregivers and single parents. It is no surprise then that a systematic repeal of protections for women in the workplace has begun.

Schools could become another target population. The consistent dismantling of public education creates both the opening for private education (which will increase student debt) but also an opening for a new kind of public “school” where education is traded for labor either during the educational process or through a contract to work later upon graduation — the school-to-workforce pipeline?

Finally, as economic conditions worsen, many households require more than 2 income earners in order to make ends meet. Teenagers who can work are increasingly doing so. They are also vulnerable to this process in a particularly insidious way where teens of working age are driven into workforcing simply to save their aging parents from eviction or poverty or worse.

Workforcing — A Compassionate Final Solution?

To reiterate the process:

  1. create a for-profit workcenters
  2. criminalize groups of people, through their activities, conditions, or status
  3. construct pipelines by which the criminalized become indentured
  4. When systems saturate, identify new target populations and repeat

The worst part of all of this is that with a little media savvy any political agenda of workforcing can be promoted as compassionate solutions to sweeping crises. Government can appear to be providing food, shelter, clothing, and employment, while simultaneously increasing the range of abuses and expanding the categories of non-persons who will remain outside of any humane system of legal political redress.

In this sense, workforcing could be viewed as even worse than extermination. You cannot get blood from a stone, and you cannot get work from a corpse. But with the right conditions and the right ontology you can extract the maximum of work from a criminalized population, with little political risk, simply by stripping them of their human status, and thereby their rights.

Admittedly, this entire essay may seem preposterous. However, we’ve seen the situation in the USA become more and more preposterous every single day. A year ago, a month ago, a week ago, no one could imagine things getting worse. Social media is full of cries of “Preposterous!” And yet here we are.

We only need to think something is preposterous when we are faced with a situation we cannot understand, a happening in which we can identify neither rhyme nor reason, no pattern. I am an optimist at heart, perpetually, and I believe very strongly that the new cooperative world that is emerging between individuals and groups all over the world and in local communities is going to win out in the end. But in the meantime, the old world is collapsing, and we must do our level best to minimize the suffering that is caused by that collapse. It is my sincere hope that by illuminating this pattern, and the possible goals behind it, that we may find the levers by which to act humanely and compassionately for the benefit of all.

If not, then soon we’ll be further down this path to totalitarianism, marginalization, criminalization, and oppression, and still we will cry “Preposterous!”


(thx to various anonymous persons who assisted with this article).


This is just a bucket for things I put on Medium that don’t fit into my other buckets. The term “culturing” brings to mind both growth in a petri dish as well as forays into contemporary culture, so…

Paul B. Hartzog

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Futurist on politics, economics, complex systems, networks, cooperation, & commons, or “that CommonsWealth guy.”



This is just a bucket for things I put on Medium that don’t fit into my other buckets. The term “culturing” brings to mind both growth in a petri dish as well as forays into contemporary culture, so…

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