Historical Shifts in the Ideology of Work: From Artisanship to Prison Labor and Back

Valerie Reynoso | Labor Issues | Theory | June 13th, 2019

A craft fair in Cuba.

The ideology of work has shifted through time by material changes imposed by capitalism-imperialism, an ongoing process that forms the condition of the working class and the social order that indoctrinates them. James R. Farr, Catherine W. Bishir, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, William Morris and Erin O'Connor are authors who have explored the relationships between work, history, and people. The historical shifts in the ideology of work are rooted in class struggle, in the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeoisie (capitalists), reminiscent of the former synthesis between the serf and feudal lord. Work becomes a practice of resistance when the proletariat realizes its socioeconomic value and moves toward seizing the means of production from the bourgeoisie. But before this can happen, workers must experience an ideological awakening of sorts - something that creates the realization that our constant struggle to survive under a system of wage labor is not only unnatural, but is an artificial arrangement made by a very small percentage of people who seek to make a perpetual fortune from our exploitation. In doing so, we must also recognize the various and ever-shifting forms of labor that we are systematically coerced into. Breaking from this coercion is the key to our liberation.

Lessons in Assimilation

The key concepts from Bashir's Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina are slavery, race, class, gender, and segregation. These concepts are engaged with the empirical experience at hand of Black artisans given that their professions were informed by their race and socioeconomic status, or was part of their oppression if they were enslaved. In the Bishir text, details are given on a free Black plasterer and brickmason named Donum Montford who was forty years old in the year 1810, a master craftsman with apprentices for children and a slaveowner who also owned real estate and was qualified to vote. Montford had lost a diamond tool with a monogrammed handle that was used to score precise lines to cut and install windowpanes as part of his trade[1]. Ownership of craft tools was central to artisan identity and following 1776, it was common for urban white craftsmen to brandish their craft tools as a symbol of their elevated socioeconomic status and to display patriotism. New Bern, the town where Montford lived, was considered to be a hub of opportunities for Black artisans and racial integration between white and Black artisans in the workplace.

In this given context, craftsmanship was being implemented to the benefit of the white supremacist social order through which upwards social mobility necessitates the subordination of the lower classes. Montford is emblematic of a Black free man who had become assimilated into the bourgeois class. He became essentially an enemy to his own people via aligning with the white bourgeoisie through usage of artisanship, ownership of private property such as real estate, and becoming a slave master himself, despite having been enslaved for approximately half of his life. The importance of craft tools to socioeconomic status of craftsmen informs Montford's bourgeois assimilation, seeing that he had a diamond-head tool monogrammed with his name, a practice that has been prized and rooted in colonialism from the US partition from Britain, despite the figures of the US revolution having been colonizers and enslavers as well. This also plays into respectability politics, since in order to fully fit Anglo-Saxon constructs of masculinity as a formerly enslaved and Black man, having a prized craft tool would make Montford seem more respectable and "manly" in the eyes of white craftsmen.

Montford's elevated socioeconomic status as a Black free man is also an instance of bootstrap theory. Bootstrap theory posits that if one simply works harder, they can achieve their goals, and an inability to achieve this goal is a product of individual failure rather than systemic oppression. This rhetoric is idealist and anti-materialist, as it implies that changing one's attitude in itself will elevate one's socioeconomic status when this is not the case under capitalism-imperialism due to racism, classism and other discriminations that make it nearly impossible to shift the status quo unless one is already categorized as a first-class citizen. Montford being a wealthier, free Black man who was also a slaveowner was the standard held for African-American craftsmen and enslaved persons during that time period; that poor and enslaved people can simply work their way out of slavery and excel to the point where they, too, can become an oppressor who maintains the capitalist-imperialist social order through their capitalist conception of work.

Bootstrap theory and justification of capitalism-imperialism is also found in the section titled "Artisan Trades in Wartime" of the Bishir reading. Bishir details that the liberated city of New Bern had provided Black artisans with profitable employment opportunities in catering to soldiers and refugees during wartime with limited competition from whites. Cooks, gardeners, butchers, drivers, housekeepers and barbers also experienced an augment in their earnings during the war. Skilled workers took advantage of every new opportunity to advance their business and increase their wealth [2]. This example Bishir provides demonstrates that the income of the Black working class was reliant on industries that imperialist wars spearheaded by the U.S. necessitated. Similar to Montford, this instance is also emblematic of bootstrap theory given that Black people were inciting themselves to accumulate more wealth by working more, which is not always realistically the case as poor people usually work without any significant increase on the socioeconomic ladder due to capitalism-imperialism.

Understanding the Layers of Proletarian Exploitation

Capitalism-imperialism produces hierarchies reliant on exploitation and submission, which disproportionately affects proletarian women and children. Moreover, Marx and Engels believed that women and children were being used as tools for more capital for the bourgeoisie. In Engels' The Origin on the Family, Private Property, and the State, he argued that the subordination of women is a product of social relations, as opposed to biological disposition, and that efforts made by men to achieve demands for control of women's labor and sexual faculties had become institutionalized in the nuclear family. Engels stated that the shift from feudalism to private ownership of land had a great impact on the status of women, given that women who do not own land, nor means of production, are enslaved and obligated to work for landowners in a system founded on private ownership [3]. Capitalism has separated private and public spheres and has provided disproportionate access of waged labor to men. The gender oppression of women is directly related to class oppression given that the institutional relationship between men and women is comparable to that of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; the former profits off of and benefits from the systemic oppression of the latter under capitalism and patriarchy.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argued that the societal position of women could be used to indicate the development of society as a whole. He stated that new social relations based on individuals seeing each other as valuable in themselves, as opposed to only worth what one individual can provide to another, would have to be formed in order for society to transcend from its capitalist form [4]. Women, especially nonwhite women, would be particularly important in this regard given that they are a marginalized group in virtually all societies. In Marx's Capital, women and children are rendered valuable under capitalism since they can be pressured and obliged to work for less - which then results in more capital gain for the upper class [5].

The condition and perception of the feminized and racialized proletariat is also informed by the science of dialectical materialism throughout history. The Marxist concepts of dialectical materialism and historical materialism may accurately describe the situation of colonized people through analyzing previous historic events that led to the present, even in a so-called post-colonial world. Dialectical materialism refers to the objective reality independent from the mind and spirit; it describes the tangible consequences of class struggle and life under a capitalist system. Historical materialism refers to the idea that all forms of social thought and institutions are a reflection of economic relations modified by class struggle. Karl Marx incorporates these ideas into his text Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In this text, Marx analyzed the development of the 1848 revolution in France through usage of historical materialism. He had written this book with the purpose of explaining how the 1848 revolution in France led to a coup headed by Louis Bonaparte in 1851.

In Brumaire, Marx states that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living" [6]. Today, globalization necessitates the constant expansion of markets in search of infinite profit extracted from the finite resources of the planet and its populations. Due to this, the bourgeoisie must settle everywhere and expand its empires in the name of capitalism-imperialism, and perpetually exploit low-cost labor from the underclass and the Global South in order to do so.

Historical materialism also insinuates that history is a movement of ideas and the unfolding of the relations of production. History is the expansion of the natural, which cannot exist outside of external modifications of it in order to turn it into capital. The material is always embedded in the relations of production and all relations of society are modified by class struggle. As stated by Marx in Brumaire, "History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce" [7]. History is a spirit that unfolds as a phenomenon, the continuous synthesis and antithesis of ideas that accumulate through time.

Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts illustrate how the worker under capitalism suffers alienated labor and exploitation from the bourgeoisie. In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx specifies that the worker under capitalism suffers from three types of alienated labor: alienation from the product, where work is experienced as torment; alienation from our own humanity as we produce blindly, not in accordance with ourr truly human powers; and alienation from other people, where relation of exchange replaces satisfaction of mutual need. Marx showed how the economics of the bourgeoisie are derived from the presence of alienation and that people reinforce their own structures of oppression. Therefore, we must have an urge to move beyond said condition and take control of our destiny in order to eradicate the bourgeoisie from power [8]; this is the moment when work is realized as a practice of resistance.

Domination attains submission from its subjects not only through oppression, but it also requires a resistance, a reaction, signifying that the domination is undesired and exploitative in the eyes of the marginalized. Classism is organized by violence under capitalism, which James R. Farr details in his book Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914. In this text, he explains that "Violence and conflict often functioned as means to make inclusion and exclusion in these groups clear" [9]. Farr emphasizes that violence is used to keep the workers in submission and deter them from disobedience. The motif of worker mistreatment is emblematic of how workers, especially workers of oppressed backgrounds, are rendered mediums for ongoing exploitation; hence, dehumanized under a capitalist-imperialist system that does not value our lives. This deterrence enforces proletarian support for the capitalist social order that oppresses us and prevents us from transforming our work into a form of resistance.

This relates to the points made by William Morris and John Ruskin in the Preface to The Nature of Gothic, where Morris states "For the lesson which Ruskin here teaches us is that art is the expression of man's pleasure in labour; that it is possible for man to rejoice in his work, for, strange as it may seem to us to-day, there have been times when he did rejoice in it" [10]. The pleasure of the proletariat in their labor is desensitized under capitalism, which turns labor into an experience of torment, as Marx claimed, driven by the sole purpose of producing more capital for the bourgeoisie to extract. As stated by Erin O'Connor in her yet to be published "Breathing Work: Time, Space and The Vessel in Glassblowing," "The way we understand "body" is via the objective perspective of the sciences…If accepted as the first and most important site of the "education" of the individual, the body became much more than a sum of its natural functions; it was a set of relations - habits, gestures, expressions, etc. - a system of meaning, sculpted by society" [11]. As the body of a worker goes beyond its biological component, it is informed by social constructs that are artificially implemented by capitalist society. The labor alienation of the worker reduces us to a vessel through which the upper class obtains its profit. Despite this, as Marx said, the proletariat can move beyond capitalist exploitation and seize the means of production, which necessitates an expansion of awareness that goes beyond individualism and the single existence of a worker.

Modern Prison Labor

An example of labor and craft movement that directly ties to the readings by Marx and Farr is contemporary studio craft in US prisons. Prison labor is argued to be a form of modern slavery due to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery with the exception of usage as a punishment for a crime. This loophole has been implemented within the US prison industrial complex, particularly in regards to furniture artistry. Two popular arguments made about prison labor is that it is a way for incarcerated people to learn valuable skills to enable them to contribute to society once released, or that it is a means to exploit incarcerated people. Some prisoners in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are not paid at all for their labor in government-managed facilities. In addition to this, the national average for the lowest wage incarcerated people receive for prison labor is 14 cents per hour [12].

Prison labor and craft is an important factor in the US economy, yet incarcerated people are typically paid either minimum wage or well below it. Prison labor has no real substance in granting incarcerated people useful skills but is only another force of opposition. Many of the incarcerated people have claimed that the work has no value for them besides the possibility of a shorter sentence. Even to those prisoners who are actually learning useful skills, the reintegration process can be intimidating. Some states uphold policies that bar ex-convicts from obtaining licenses for skills they learned in prison. For instance, there was a New York State prisoner who applied for a barber's license but was denied because "owing to state law, La Cloche could only practice his trade … if he remained behind bars" [13]. The skills La Cloche learned had been confined by a policy that is practiced by several US states, which renders skills gained from prison labor useless outside of prison. This undermines the presumption that prison labor is valuable to the incarcerated. On the other hand, prison labor is indeed valuable to capitalist institutions, seeing that "Virginia Code § 53.1-47… stipulates that all 'departments, institutions, and agencies of the Commonwealth' supported by the state treasury must purchase 'articles and services produced or manufactured by persons confined in state correctional facilities'" [14]. Prison labor can only do this because it exploits its incarcerated people. In addition to this, incarcerated people make a low wage in the Commonwealth of Virginia by earning $0.55 to $0.80 an hour [15].

Farr argues that work was often tied to moral systems of authority. Likewise, it has also been argued that prison labor and craft often gain psychological authority over incarcerated people - as Marx also contests, when he details that labor alienation of the worker reduces them to a vessel for the bourgeoisie to exploit. Farr believes that while labor relations differ depending on the type of workplace, control of the labor market emerged as the most issue dividing masters and journeymen [16]. Similarly, prisons tend to deduct costs of living from wages so that many of their incarcerated people earn cents per hour.

The impact of prison labor and craft on social change is that conviction results in social death for formerly incarcerated people: "To be sentenced to prison is to be sentenced to social death. Social death is a permanent condition. While many people integrate themselves back into the society after imprisonment, they often testify that they permanently bear a social mark, a stigma" [17]. This ensures a life filled with detriment for incarcerated people, especially those who are non-white. In August 2018, incarcerated people across the US initiated strikes to protest poor conditions and exploitative labor practices that many of them considered to be "modern slavery". According to the NAACP, over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US, which is an increase of 340% compared to 1980 [18]. With the rise of incarceration, prison violence, sexual violence and other issues have also increased. Protesters addressed these issues in their demands. Additionally, incarcerated labor is used to manufacture furniture and other assets with an hourly wage of between 33 cents and $1.41, provided by the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA) [19].

Private prisons are a billion-dollar industry, which exploit prisoners who are predominantly non-white for profit. These prisons are run by private companies and have been on the rise since the mid-1980s, especially following the crack epidemic during the Reagan administration. Over half of US states as of 2017 depend on for-profit prisons in which approximately 90,000 inmates are held each year [20]. Incarcerated people are paid slave wages: "Wages are a direct consequence of estranged labor, and estranged labor is the direct cause of private property. The downfall of the one must therefore involve the downfall of the other" [21]. Labor alienation and modern prison slavery, the productivity of the incarcerated craftsmen, is solely based on accumulating capital for the bourgeoisie.

Artisanship as Subversiveness

Despite the modern prison scenario, craft and other forms of artisanship can represent radical forms of labor and engines of social movement because, historically, they have been initiated in direct resistance to the status quo imposed by capitalist society. An instance of this is the usage of guilds in Medieval Europe. Guilds formed a central component in a theoretical system that arose in the late Middle Ages which historians label corporatism. Corporatist theory of the 14th Century intertwined with the demographic and economic forces to solidify a political and juridical system that would function until the 19th Century. Corporatism was informed significantly by confraternity associations, which was also the means through which craft guilds were established. The confraternities included work activity as their association developed despite the social security, morals, political identity and sense of place being the most paramount aspects provided to its members [22].

Jurists from the 12th and 13th Centuries alluded guilds to the collegium of the late Roman Law and enabled constituted authority to form and regulate this. As a result, the jurists had imposed a Roman legacy of hierarchical political authority onto the guild organization. Despite this, guildsmen continued to adhere to their theoretical legacy of autonomy stemming from the Germanic custom of sworn, voluntary association and self-governance. Although medieval guilds continued to serve their main purpose as mutual aid societies, their connotation to governance and regulation of economic aspects also grew [23]. Johannes Althusius of Emden, author of the "Systematic Analysis of Politics" which was first published in 1603, was a German Calvinist who incorporated economic exchange into the moral foundation of guild values. He elaborated that exchange is rooted in mutual need and thus, reciprocity is vital to exchange [24]. Following France and Prussia, Germany was most associated with corporatism with its "hometowns" populated by less than 10,000 citizens [25].

Leather shoe cups are usually associated with craft guilds in which members would pass the cup in a circle to drink in allegiance to the guild. Jobs such as shoemaking were associated with men, hence the usage of shoe cups as a symbol of allegiance to the guild is akin to a reinforcement of a rite of passage into this representation of proletarian German brotherhood. This also interrogates authority in light of the Roman legacy of hierarchical political authority onto the guild organization, which the guildsmen, and particularly the German ones, would reject by continuing to adhere to their Germanic custom of sworn, voluntary association and self-governance.

German guilds that used leather cups also represented self-authority, self-determination, and autonomy in the face of growing Roman influence and the incorporation of guilds into societal hierarchies and classism. The act of sharing the drink is representative of the main function of guilds as a structure that upholds mutual aid. It was marked by Calvinist influence inspired by the teachings of Emden, since the exchange of the leather shoe cup among the guildsmen is emblematic of reciprocity.

In the Middle Ages, European societies were marked by the idea that life was a struggle over classification, over accession to or preservation of a hierarchical status, especially given the growing influence of Roman and Calvinist thought on their societies. The hierarchical status of artists and craftsmen was represented by their position through a guild, which represented their securing of communal living as well as formed their social identity in relation to their place in the social order [26]. The leather cup represented the guildsmen's collective identity as craftsmen and celebration of their role despite their pending degradation in Medieval society, where they were eventually doomed by the classist hierarchy.

Ultimately, the historical shifts and evolution of work is informed by class struggle and the historical-materialist process. Work becomes a practice of resistance in the moment when the proletariat realizes they are alienated from their labor and begin to go against the capitalist social order. Craft and artisanship, especially those that operate on the fringes or in the so-called underground market, are radical forms of labor and initiate social change because they reject the parameters of systemic exploitation set up by the capitalist system. Such work can serve as both a catalyst and a supplemental force of class consciousness.


[1] Catherine W. Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 . University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Friedrich Engels, The Origin on the Family, Private Property, and the State ( Hottingen-Zurich: 1884).

[4] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Paris: 1844).

[5] Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Verlag Von Otto Meisner, 1867).

[6] Karl Marx, "Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," Die Revolution, No. 1 (1852).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Paris: 1844).

[9] James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[10] William Morris, "Preface to The Nature of the Gothic by John Ruskin" (1892).

[11] Erin O'Connor, "Breathing Work: Time, Space and The Vessel in Glassblowing" (2017), pp. 5.

[12] Daniel Moritz-Rabson, "Prison Slavery: Inmates are Paid Cents While Manufacturing Products Sold to Government," Newsweek, August 28, 2018.

[13] David R. Jones, "Ex-Prisoners and Jobs," GothamGazette, May 24, 2006.

[14] Katherine Smith, "Smith: Sleeping on Exploitative Prison Labor," The Cavalier Daily, April 19th, 2018.

[15] Ibid.

[16] James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[17] Joshua M. Price, "Prison and Social Death," Critical Issues in Crime and Society. Rutgers University Press (2015).

[18] Emily Moon, "Modern Slavery: The Labor History Behind the New Nationwide Prison Strike," Pacific Standard, August 22 nd, 2018.

[19] Daniel Moritz-Rabson, "Prison Slavery: Inmates are Paid Cents While Manufacturing Products Sold to Government," Newsweek, August 28, 2018.

[20] Valerie Reynoso, "The Politics of Mass Incarceration," Counterpunch, October 12, 2017.

[21] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Paris: 1844).

[22] James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 20.

[23] Ibid. pp. 20.

[24] Ibid, pp. 24.

[25] Ibid. pp. 31.

[26] Ibid. pp. 22.