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Mass Incarceration and Capitalism


With no public acknowledgement of the irony the U.S., the ‘land of the free,’ has both the highest incarceration rate in the world and the largest overall prison population. The dominant public perception appears to rest at the local level: the state has the right to prohibit socially destructive acts; people commit socially destructive acts and they are put in prison. Left largely unconsidered is the nature of the democratic capitalist state that claims this right to incarcerate. American history places it squarely in the service of economic interests. The country was founded on genocide and slavery. Western political theory frames these as ‘political’ acts. Genocide against the indigenous population was / is framed as military conflict. Slavery in theory ‘ended’ with the Civil War. But both of these also had profound economic impacts. Much as the enclosure ‘movement’ in Britain produced a ‘criminal’ class of peasants ‘freed’ from formerly collective lands, the American genocide against the indigenous population resulted in imposition of European ‘property’ relations where ‘property’ had never before been conceived. As far back as the philosopher Aristotle slavery was framed as the right of conquerors over the conquered whereas the labor expropriated from slaves in America supported a self-perpetuating plutocracy that today finds the descendents of slaves overwhelmingly populating U.S. prisons and the descendents of slave ‘owners’ as a class immune from prosecution for its own socially destructive acts and in position to profit from the system of mass incarceration.

Likewise, the history of race ‘relations’ in the U.S. doesn’t reduce to singular explanations. But it does tie broadly to Western imperial history, to British, European and American strategies of colonization, subjugation and economic expropriation begun in the seventeenth century that by degree continue today. The kidnapped Africans forced into slavery in the U.S. were used to feed a global system of capitalist trade and they served as human ‘currency’ as chattel property. The self-serving storyline that capitalism ‘replaced’ slavery with ‘free’ economic participation ignores the role expropriated slave labor played in capitalist trade and capital accumulation and it requires an anti-historical notion of ‘free’ economic participation that ignores the strategies of economic coercion that followed the nominal end of slavery. Designated three-fifths a person in the U.S. Constitution to accrue political power to slave ‘owners,’ slaves accrued political power to the institution of slavery as system of labor expropriation as well. A century or more of theoretical argumentation on both left and right notwithstanding, slavery was a capitalist institution that fed nascent global capitalist trade. And its residual in post Civil War strategies of racial repression, suppression and economic exploitation relate by degree to current capitalist imperialism in other former colonies. The racist, classist prison system in the U.S. is fact and reified metaphor for this ‘internal’ history and for the breadth and reach of the capitalist imperial relations behind the concentrated fortunes today so in evidence in the West.

Readers here likely know some or all of this history but most Westerners appear to have little to no knowledge of it. To most the question back is: how can a system of public safety, ‘crime’ suppression, be a strategy of social repression? Part of the disconnect lies within the very idea of crime as it is socially circumscribed through the anti-historical precepts of capitalist democracy. If ‘the West’ is capitalist and democratic then all social acts are ‘freely’ undertaken. Social history and material need are irrelevant because ‘we’ all have the same opportunity to react to existing circumstance in the present. Readers may see the outline of the ‘opportunity society’ of right-wing fantasy here. Within this frame the fact that per capita rates of incarceration in U.S. states are between five and ten times higher for the descendents of slaves than for the descendents of slave ‘owners’ must indicate innate qualitative differences, as must the relations of income and wealth distribution to this same residual of history. But if ‘crime’ were defined as the willful causing of social harm to others how could these overlaps of history: slavery, social repression, economic expropriation, and incarceration, not be crimes? As Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Kahlil Gibran Muhammad and other great historians of social tragedy before them have noted, the Western narrative of ‘crime’ ties closely in history to strategies of economic expropriation and social repression against nominally ‘freed’ slaves and their descendents following the end of the Civil War. And it ties as well to British social theories of ‘crime’ used to explain the sudden appearance of a large peasant class dispossessed by the enclosure of formerly collective lands.

But this history of race in America is particular as well. It can’t be reduced to Marxian notions of class alone because the social persistence / insistence of race is more than just economic. And to reduce the history of race ‘relations’ to economics within the circular precepts of capitalist democracy is to misrepresent systematic repression as missed ‘opportunities,’ as the otherwise included who only coincidentally share relation with ‘external’ imperial subjects in social outcomes but who nevertheless join the ‘us’ when it comes to paying taxes and fighting and dying in imperial wars. While specific social technologies like race-based drug laws enforced using race-based policing are the mechanism that ‘explains’ the current massively disproportionate incarceration rate for blacks, browns and indigenous peoples, drug laws were used for a century prior in strategies of targeted social repression. The near instantaneous conversion of the U.S. penal population from white to black following the Civil War restored the economic relations of coerced expropriation outside of explicit chattel title. ‘Convict leasing’ was the conversion mechanism that tied ‘the law’ as tool of social repression to the economic expropriation that fed post-war capitalist relations. Capital ‘formation’ in the West included the aggregation of the expropriated labor of slaves, the exploited ‘resources’ that accrued from genocide against the indigenous population and from the place of these in the global system of capitalist trade. Race doesn’t reduce to class but it does find broad analog in Western imperial relations.

The prior history of drug laws used as tools of targeted social repression ties the wholesale revival of the practice around 1980 to a fundamental shift in political economy begun in the 1970s and brought to full fruition with the election of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan used racial division as a political tactic with his ‘Southern strategy.’ But as was made evident in the ascendance of high capitalist political economy following his election, revival of the social mechanisms of economic expropriation was the ultimate goal of ‘winning’ politically. The bi-partisan looting of the Savings and Loans and epic of pirate capitalism through ‘investment’ banking in the 1980s were the most visible strategies of this renewed ‘internal’ economic expropriation. As it was reconstituted in penal practice the ‘tough on crime’ public stance was clearly intended to use ‘the law’ for social repression— it is hardly a coincidence that the massive increase in incarceration rates for blacks, Latinos, indigenous populations and poor whites occurred as the ‘culture’ of absolute impunity for the connected wealthy assumed its place in the social order. For looting the S&Ls (Savings & Loans) a thousand ‘white collar’ criminals went to prison. For misrepresentations and fraudulent accounting in the ‘dot-com’ boom and bust a few analysts were driven from the industry. And for the industrial-scale looting of the housing boom and bust and related economic and financial catastrophes the culpable malefactors on Wall Street were given trillions of dollars of public money and saw their ‘businesses’ fully restored—by a liberal, black Democrat President. Meanwhile, from 1980 forward, the incarceration rate in the U.S. increased seven-fold and was overwhelmingly populated by the descendants of slaves, the remaining indigenous population and Latino refugees from American imperial ‘adventures.’

The ‘commonsense’ character of fighting ‘crime’ seeks its legitimacy in the everyday facts of socially destructive behavior. Rape, murder and pillage are socially destructive acts. Their ‘legitimate’ use as state tactics in the expression of state power requires overlooking the imperial-economic context in which they are used. The U.S. murdered three-and-one half million Vietnamese (Robert McNamara’s count) in the Vietnam War, almost entirely in the years after the war was known to be a lost ‘cause’ by American political ‘leadership.’ Over a million Iraqis were killed to ‘liberate’ Iraq’s oil for Western oil companies. The military culture of rape ties to both military and imperial history across millennia. The apparent inability to successfully prosecute rape in the U.S. military illustrates both the role of the military in social repression and the use of targeted violence as a tactic of empire. And ‘theft’ simply restates the imperial role imposed property relations have on current economic distribution. The ‘free’ land that was ‘America’ required genocide against the indigenous population to make it ‘free.’ Economic taking through the use of social asymmetries is the basis for the preponderance of capitalist ‘wealth.’ The careful circumscription of ‘crime’ as the socially destructive behavior of poor, black, brown and indigenous people finds its reciprocal in the absolute impunity and immunity from prosecution the rich and connected have for their socially destructive behavior. Without public expression of irony the investment bank Goldman Sachs is today partnering with non-profit agencies to reduce ‘crime’ committed by poor youth of color when it could to better effect open its own books to prosecutors and have some fair portion of its employees arrested and prosecuted for their own socially destructive behavior.

This same premise of capitalist democracy that frames all acts as ‘freely’ undertaken has Central and South American peasants whose indigenous economies were destroyed through engineered displacement / replacement by American industrial agriculture ‘freely’ migrating to the U.S. to labor as a ‘special’ class of labor that subsidizes American food prices and industrial farm ‘profits.’ Chinese laborers who manufacture products for export to the West for Foxconn live fifteen to a room, share one bathroom to three rooms (45 persons) and routinely work fifteen hour days for subsistence wages. Unicor employs fifteen percent of the Federal prison population in the U.S. to manufacture goods for the Federal government for pennies an hour. And in the much larger state prison system prisoners manufacture goods for multi-national corporations like Wal-Mart, IBM and Microsoft for the same pennies an hour. While this is hardly news to those paying attention, the implication is that most of the good citizens of Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland, East St. Louis etc, have political and economic interests more closely aligned with the poor citizens of Venezuela, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, etc, than with the Western capitalists—bankers, industrialists and for-profit militarists, who are their nominal fellow ‘citizens.’ Philadelphia, reportedly the poorest large city in the U.S., was a dumping ground for slaves when they became too old to work and it was a major stop on the underground railroad that moved fleeing slaves from the South. Today it resembles post-War Iraq in the sense that the strategies imposed by empire— privatization of public functions, expropriation of city resources by connected insiders and race-based laws and policing that feed a conspicuously racist system of mass incarceration, are used against a population of nominal ‘citizens.’ The incarcerated can have their children taken from them through forced adoptions and are forced to pay for part of their incarceration with money their incarceration assures they don’t have. When tied to the ‘external’ relations of capitalist imperialism what is illustrated is that exploitation and expropriation are by degree, not type.

Framed differently, the distribution of income and wealth, and with it social power, ties to strategies of social legitimation and repression reconstituted in the institutions of global capitalism. The incarcerated ‘deserve’ to be exploited because of their ‘criminal’ behavior. ‘Illegal’ immigrants ‘deserve’ to be exploited because they ‘are in this country illegally.’ And the rich deserve their wealth because ‘equals’ freely undertake all acts in capitalist democracy and wealth is therefore ‘proof’ of economic contribution. The historical relation of actual outcomes to imperial ‘place’ finds wholly unrelated ‘explanation’ through backward induction, through taking factual distribution and running it through the precepts of capitalist democracy to develop theoretical explanations against all knowledge and history. Theories of social, cultural and genetic ‘difference’ are developed to relate the Western concept / precept of ‘freedom’ to factual outcomes that otherwise tie miraculously, inexplicably, with correlation = 1, to imperial history. Conspicuously racist blather like difference in quantum of ‘intelligence’ put forward by Murray and Herrnstein in ‘The Bell Curve’ tie to ‘legitimate’ capitalist (Western) economics and progressive ‘scientific’ analyses / explanations of ‘criminal’ behavior as imperialist apologetics put into service to legitimate capitalist social relations. Progressive ‘science’ is reconstituted in judicial and police practice through tight circumscription of the types (and targets) of crimes the police concern themselves with. No crimes were committed in the last decade by Wall Street because within the frame of capitalist democracy concentrated wealth is self-legitimating and in institutional practice because the definitions of ‘crimes’ function as tools of social repression. George W. Bush launched an illegal war as defined by international treaties to which the U.S. is signatory and caused the deaths of a million or more Iraqis but will never serve a day in prison while black or brown youth caught with a bag of weed might spend years in prison. So, does America want to ‘have a conversation’ about crime?

To be clear, and to pre-empt undue liberal-progressive hand wringing on the matter, this isn’t an issue of ‘fairness,’ the quasi-theocratic Western conceit of ‘balance’ in social outcomes, because such never has been and never will be the case. Conversely, with slavery and genocide being the preponderance of U.S. history and current circumstance the continued exploitation and repression of the descendants of those on the wrong side of this history, when precisely will ‘fairness’ come into being? And more specifically, how would it be retroactively applied to those who lived and died on the wrong side of the imperial divide? Mass incarceration is social struggle for the living in the present. Its ties to slavery and Western imperialism past and present requires a base state and ongoing political economy of social justice before discussion of ‘solutions’ to socially destructive behavior are more than neo-imperialist blather. Sure communities of color deserve to be protected from violence. But racist policing and mass incarceration are tools of violence, not protection from it. Where is discussion of protection from the violence of economic exploitation, immiseration, political and economic exclusion and from external strategies of social legitimation that pose these outcomes as ‘self-inflicted?’ When tied to the contrived conceit of ‘equal opportunity’ the revival of mechanisms of social repression has communities blaming their own members for outcomes directly related to imperial history. Slaves weren’t responsible for the conditions of their enslavement. The conditions were externally imposed. The big lie in the U.S. is that ‘freedom’ from economic exploitation and social repression was ever granted to slaves and their descendants. Is it an accident that mass incarceration began just as the Civil Rights movement was bearing fruit for its participants? Race in America is a special class. But it shares history and social outcomes with several centuries of capitalist imperialism in South and Central America, Asia, the Middle East, India and China, etc.

With over two million people in federal, state and local prisons and another five million whose lives are tied to the U.S. penal system a social emergency has been created. The preponderance of those affected share relation through Western imperial history and its residual embedded in current social relations. Slavery was at its core an economic institution, a system for forcing people to labor for others. The near instantaneous creation of a system of ‘freely’ coerced labor through convict leasing places the law, the social mechanisms of its enforcement and incarceration as ways of continuing the economic expropriation of slavery outside of explicit chattel relations. To add insult to injury, by claiming an end to slavery while maintaining the mechanisms of social repression and economic expropriation the onus for claims of social legitimacy was shifted to the repressed and exploited. This finds its contemporary expression in long immiserated communities being blamed for their own immiseration, in long excluded communities being blamed for their exclusion and in long repressed communities being blamed for their own repression. The question of whether or not prison labor is a reconstitution of slavery leaves aside the global strategies of economic coercion and expropriation that are related by degree. The claim of capitalist democracy that all labor is freely undertaken (and compensated according to its economic contribution) is a fundamental premise of capitalism. Explicit and implicit strategies of coercion put a lie to this base conceit. The effect, again, is that working class and poor Americans have political and economic interests more clearly aligned with the people of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bangladesh and Vietnam than they do with the American political establishment. The late President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, understood these broader relations as did the Black Panther Party when it formed international coalitions. If there is any hope for ending mass incarceration it is likely to be found in these broader coalitions.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics will be published by CounterPunch / AK Press this Spring.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist.

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