Against a Sociodicy of the American Prison

It was alarming to learn, after the publication of my first article in Counterpunch on January 19 and the flood of messages that arrived in response, how many bigots count themselves among this fine newsletter’s regular readers. Some were, curiously enough, right to point out that I had left the question of race entirely out of my assessment of the current situation of the US penal system. Reader John Kundrat, for example, observed that “the mean Black IQ is 85,” and wondered in light of this, “what hope is there of education let alone reeducation?”

I have long asked myself: why is it that only people of the most obviously unexceptional intelligence are so keen on carrying on about IQs? Why is it that not one influential author or scientist or artist or trendsetter of any sort, not one in the past 100 years of manic quantification of all human capacities, has ever laid one bit of faith in the numerical value attached to his or her own intelligence? Why is it only the self-congratulatory and irrelevant, neither well-educated nor innately good at anything, who are able to recite their test scores on command and who believe that Mensa truly attracts the best and brightest?

I for one am convinced that the IQ testing now offered free of charge at the New York Times Web page, with that banal and unsightly icon of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, is programmed to churn out a score of 120 -not quite genius, but nothing to be ashamed of- no matter how the test- taker responds to the questions. Its main purpose, which has evidently been achieved, was only to get people talking around the water cooler, and joining the new Tickle online personal network for which it serves as bait. All this talk, it seems to me, is what the late Pierre Bourdieu might describe as a distinctly middle-brow pastime, like Three Tenors concerts, pilgrimages to the Smithsonian, or a cozy Sunday morning with the Times.

Mensa, for its part, the self-advertised organization of geniuses, announces repeatedly in its promotional literature that it “is non-political and free from all racial or religious distinctions.” The protest is coughed up in advance of the accusation, as if they can hear it coming. And with good reason are they concerned. For however politically correct they may be in the awkward way they introduce themselves, a quick trip to the library would be enough to convince any yokel, no matter how small his forehead, that the IQs that bring Mensa’s members together are nothing more than a vestige of late-19th-century pseudoscientific racist conjury, deserving the same fate as craniology, or those custom-made tongs German colonial doctors in the bush outside Windhoek brought along to determine, in cold hard numbers and in the name of science, just how much larger African women’s breasts were than those back home.

Of course, Kundrat is minimally correct to observe, as he does, that any analysis of the US prison system today that does not mention race is irrelevant. And, for better or worse (or, more precisely, worse), the uses to which IQs and other convenient numbers are put are of central importance in understanding how the prison system and its government and media supporters use what look like cold hard facts in order to make the demographics of imprisonment look inevitable. Beyond this, IQs are of no interest. There are, though, some numbers that are of tremendous interest if we are genuinely concerned to figure out what’s going on in our prisons, and Loïc Wacquant, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has done a great job of communicating these numbers in his recent book, Prisons de la misère (the English translation, Prisons of Poverty, will be appearing later this year, as will another work, Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of Neoliberal Penality ).

However au courant he may be of all things American, though, Wacquant, a former student of Pierre Bourdieu, is, alas, French, and eo ipso whatever he may have to say is no doubt for many Americans disqualified in view of pedigree alone. I would like to think that this should not matter for readers of Counterpunch, but if there are racists among these, then why not defensive isolationists as well?

I myself, while firmly and happily planted in the Francophone world, continue proudly to display my American passport at border crossings and – during visits stateside without that de facto internal passport euphemized as a “driver’s license”- when purchasing booze. So I hope that I still have some American cred, and that in relating and affirming Wacquant’s primary theses I may help to nativize them, and thus help, as he insists must be done, to change the terms of the debate about prisons in the US.

Wacquant has argued that the emergence of a system of mass incarceration in the past 30 years, in which more than half of the prisoners are African- American even though these make up only 12% of the population, can be seen as the unforeseen outcome of the confluence of three independent factors. First, there were transformations in the system of social-welfare, most importantly the rise of workfare, which Wacquant identifies as a novel form of forced labor. Secondly, there were changes in the labor market, stemming, most importantly, from massive deregulation. Finally, there were changes in the penal field and in the broader culture, sketched out in my article of January 19, which brought it about that the criminal justice system lost its autonomy from the general political culture of the US, and in particular from advantage-seeking politicians and media.

The disastrous mixture of these three factors was aggravated by the simultaneous “collapse of the ghetto,” an institution which had dominated as the primary mechanism of ethnoracial domination from the early 20th century, and collapsed in part as a result of the protest movement of the mid-1960s, as well as of the simultaneous shift from an urban industrial economy to a suburban service-based one. During that large chapter of the 20th century, black ghettos were locked in a position of economic and social marginality, while, to the extent possible, thriving as communities replete with churches, some control of media, business associations, etc.

>From the late 1960s, Wacquant believes, the ghetto was transformed as it came to share more of the responsibility for “extract[ing] black labour while keeping black bodies at a safe distance” with the rapidly growing prison system. The ghetto and the prison effectively merged, with results now well known in American popular culture.

Pants inflation skyrocketed throughout the early 1990s, as word spread that belts were prohibited in prisons and that prison uniform bottoms were consequently prone to sagging. How much we can learn from fashion! As a teenager in the 1980s, I came of age in an era of denial, in which even the most hardcore members of the various countercultures, black and white -even Eazy E, Ice Cube, and fellow members of N.W.A, on the cover of their first twelve-inch in 1987- wore their tightly pegged pants as if in outward sign that we are all self-made, that the onus is on us to keep our pantlegs from getting out of control, and if we just follow this and similar simple rules, nothing, no matter how “structural,” can bring us down. Tellingly, Death Row Records was founded in 1991, the year I noticed that pantlegs were loosening (and thereby came to learn that I had become, and would forever remain, sartorially out of the loop).

Fashions were coming to reflect what has appropriately been described as the “reality” of ghetto life. The prison was introduced into the landscape of the ghetto when the ghetto ceased to function effectively as what Richard Sennett calls an “urban condom” toward the end of the 1960s. A generation later, the prison showed up in ghetto music and fashion as a verisimilar reflection of what the ghetto had become, just as railroads and coal mines showed up in an earlier current of American folk music.

On the most pessimistic reading of this account of late-20th-century racial politics, one could suppose that it was precisely as a consequence of blacks having gained the freedom to leave the ghetto, as a result of the civil rights struggle, that something more coercively segregative had to move in to take its place. This is a rather bitter pill, as it makes the most laudable and progressive aspirations appear doomed in the face of a system built on rigid structural inequality, capable of adapting with new mechanisms for self-preservation whenever it comes under serious threat. But one would have to strain, it seems to me, to explain how the incarceration of African-Americans could have increased so much more rapidly in the past 35 years than that of other Americans, if the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the post-corrective era weren’t at least to some extent an epiphenomenon of a new social policy in the US fundamentally concerned with perpetuating the racial inequality that is coeval with the settlement of the new world.

What, in view of this evident determinism, is a progressive to do? As Wacquant recently insisted to me, it would be irresponsible to abandon the fight against the prison industry simply on the assumption that some other institution, perhaps even more sinister, would move in to fill its vacuum were it ever succesfully dismantled. The prison industry must be fought against, without illusions as to the true reasons for its existence, rooted as these reasons are in a long history that vastly predates the institution itself.

This is what it would be, as he insists must be done, to change the terms of the debate: to stop pretending that the growth of the prison system over the past few decades is a natural response to spontaneous changes for the worse in the habits of criminals, to stop pretending that the various numbers adduced to make the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks look inevitable are any more objective, any less subject to debate, than any other secretion of system-preserving ideology.

These numbers, IQ among them, all serve to constitute what Wacquant calls “sociodicy” (on the model of Leibniz’s neologistic “theodicy”), whereby a society seeks to vindicate itself against accusations that it is inexcusably unjust with the plea: but it could not be otherwise. Leibniz vindicated God with the peculiar argument that all this suffering and ugliness is an unavoidable consequence of the greater cosmic need for a vast variety of entities of vastly varying degrees of moral and aesthetic perfection. Let the plagues and earthquakes continue!

But the Baroque era is over, and with it, hopefully, the mad desire to discern order and meaning in all that looks, prima facie, like a chaotic and detestable travesty. Today, if it looks like a travesty, this may very well be because it in fact is one. Besides, Leibniz was concerned primarily to make cosmic sense out of the misfortunes about which we are powerless to do anything, all the things that are, as he might have said, in God’s hands. But society is in our hands, at least on a very broad understanding of that possessive pronoun’s reach, and so needs no vindication, but rather needs only, where deficient, change.

Or maybe I’m missing something that could easily be cleared up with an intelligence test. I confess I’ve never got around to this, and that a small and irrational part of me still buys into the modern mythology of IQ and fears the humiliation that would come with a mediocre score. I was thus delighted when Wacquant told me recently that he as well has “never taken an IQ test and [doesn’t] even know what it would look like.” Perhaps a kind member of Tickle or Mensa might write in to let us know.

JUSTIN E. H. SMITH teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He can be reached at: