As we write this,
thousands of inmates across California–spearheaded by an organized bloc
in the Pelican Bay secure housing unit (SHU)–are refusing meals and
risking their bodies and lives in the struggle to reform the atrocious
conditions prevalent across the state penitentiary system. But this
struggle is about more than reforming incarceration and improving
conditions: the hunger strike speaks to the struggle for revolutionary
change across society as a whole an offers a preliminary glimpse of the
new world gestating in the hellish bowels of the old.
Lumpenization and Unemployability
In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois
emphasized the ?strategic? position of the Black slave, one which made
possible the ?general strike? of deserting slaves that would both
transform the Civil War into a war for abolition and ensure a Northern
victory. Black workers, ?the ultimate exploited,? represented the
?founding stone of a new economic system?: on them it stood and by their
autonomous action it would come crashing down.
A century later, this picture had changed, and Black
Panther founder Huey Newton took the seemingly contradictory position
that Blacks were both central to and increasingly unnecessary for
economic production in the United States. In 1967, hehadwritten
of Black Americans as both the ?oil? without which the U.S. war machine
?cannot function? and as the ?driving shaft? of that same machinery:
?we are in such a strategic position in this machinery that, once we
become dislocated, the functioning of the remainder of the machinery
breaks down,? he insisted. Black Americans, in short, ?can, because of
their intimacy with the mechanism, destroy the engine that is enslaving
the world.? But just four years later, Newton would document a growing
distance between these former slaves and the ?machinery? of the U.S.
economy: ?blacks and third world people,? he argued, had become
displaced from their central economic function, and were increasingly
rendered what he called ?the unemployables.?
But for Newton, this declining economic position of the Black population did not correspond to a declining political importance.
Instead, these ?unemployables?–which he used as synonymous with the
controversial concept of the lumpen–would become, by virtue of sheer
numbers, a new revolutionary agent capably of overthrowing U.S.
The [revolutionary] thrust will come from the
growing number of what we call the ?unemployables? in this society?The
proletarian will become the lumpen proletariat. It is this future
change–the increase of the lumpen proletariat and the decrease of the
proletariat–which makes us say that the lumpen proletariat is the majority and carries the revolutionary banner (?Intercommunalism?).
Were these two arguments in contradiction with one
another, or was this shift simply a reflection of momentous economic
transformation and the increasing ?unemployability? of many poor
Americans, specifically people of color and even more specifically the
Black population? Have communities of color been increasingly
?lumpenized? as Huey predicted?
Since he wrote these words, much has changed.
Politically, the Black Power movement was decapitated and slaughtered
through COINTELPRO orchestrated repression, only to be replaced with the
spontaneously emerging self-defense units later known as ?gangs.?
Economically, de-industrialization accelerated and, in search of low
wages and an unprotected labor force, capital began to flee en masse to
both the Global South and the South of the North (the U.S. South).
Increasingly ?unemployable? but still needing to eat, poor and
especially Black communities took the only work available: what Mike
Davis has called the ?South American re-employment plan. Steel was
traded for heroin, later Chrysler for crack, and more generally, the
point of production was displaced, in the words of Eldridge Cleaver, by
This broad trend toward the increasing
?unemployability? of the Black population is visible not so much in the
official unemployment data with which we are barraged on the daily, but
in what lies behind and is obscured by that data.
Officially, the Black unemployment rate today is 16% (23% if
underemployment is included), which is catastrophic enough, were it not
for the fact that this number massively underestimates the reality of
the present crisis and the historic tendency toward unemployability.
This is because official unemployment figures only include those looking for work, and a ?true? unemployment rate is often double what the official data shows.
The media today is rife with both sob stories of thosewhohave ?givenuplooking?
and the obligatory (ideological) success story of those who had once
?given up? but have now made a triumphant return to the work force. But
is there reason to think that Black folks have ?given up? more than
their white counterparts? Is the current spike in counted and uncounted
Black unemployment simply a product of the crisis, or does it represent
the deeper tendency Huey Newton identified 40 years ago?
Enter the Carceral State
One thing has clearly changed in the 40 years since
Newton penned his words, and as unemployment rates–white and
Black–have periodically spiked and declined: the birth of the carceral
state and the economic and political strategy of mass incarceration. And
the implications of this transformation are pivotal: From the 70s to
the 90s, the prison population more than tripled, reaching nearly
850,000 in 1992. And from the 90s until now it has ballooned to roughly 2,300,000 people, with Blacks makingupwellover 40%.
You can?t look for work if you?re locked up. This might sound obvious, but the implications are staggering: it means that nearly a million Black
people, mostly young men, aren?t counted in the unemployment figures
(which count 2.8 million unemployed Blacks). And even when released,
it?s damn near impossible to get work, especially for felons and
parolees (according to Demico Booth, author of Why Are So Many Black Men in Prison?, 1.5 million Black men alone are in prison with 3.5 million either currently or formerly on parole). As Michelle Alexander, authorofTheNewJimCrowrecentlyputit:
?More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or
parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.? This is
no coincidence: it was precisely as a result of the Black Power
movements and the threat of unified political action that it represented
that mass incarceration emerges as a replacement for slavery and Jim
Crow, with legal lynching replacing its previous extra-legal forms.
In this context, it?s not surprising that some might
?give up? and look for alternative forms of employment. In other words,
the growth of mass incarceration masks a very real tendency toward
?unemployability,? and prisons have become warehouses for containing
this rebellious class. And not just containing: with their coerced and
underpaid labor and forced consumption of overpriced goods and services
(commissary, jacked up phone rates), these warehouses also provide the
basis for a new form of what Marx called ?primitive accumulation,? in
which capitalists make a killing, literally. And all the while, even
official unemployment rates skyrocket, informal labor–from everyday
hustling to the drug trade–become increasingly the norm, and this
process of lumpenization extends to the very heart of the economy
itself: the massive influx of migrant workers–which capitalists prefer to keep illegal (and therefore cheaper and unprotected)–is but the flip-side of this process.
What does this mean for resistance? If Huey Newton,
Bunchy Carter, and the Black Panthers placed an emphasis on organizing
among the lumpen ?unemployables,? then this organizing must now
transcend prison walls. And if Eldridge Cleaver located these
?unemployables? and their action primarily in the street as opposed to
the factory, then we must today–in the era of mass incarceration–add
another location for resistance: the pen.
?Victory or Death!?
Despite its laid-back image and unearned reputation
for social consciousness, California has long represented a spearhead of
this process of mass incarceration (as has Georgia, siteofaprisonstrikelastDecember).
Holding nearly 150,000 (in only the state facilities), conditions in
the severely overcrowded California prisons have reached the point that
the United States SupremeCourtrecentlyupheldalower-courtruling that even being sentenced to prison in California constitutes a ?cruel and unusual punishment? and is thus unconstitutional
(In his dissent, Antonin Scalia called the decision ?perhaps the most
radical injunction issued by a court in our nation?s history.?) Years
ago, courts at different levels ordered the state to release nearly
50,000 inmates, leading then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to ship some
10,000 to other states. This is the immediate context of the Pelican
Bay hunger strike, but its implications are far broader.
On July 1st 2011, inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay launched a hunger strike withthefollowingfivedemands:
- An end to collective punishment, especially as relates to indefinite SHU sentences;
- an end to the ?debriefing? process by which gang status is determined (and SHU sentences issued);
- compliance with federal rulings with regard to long-term solitary confinement;
- provision of adequate and nutritious food; and
- provision of constructive programming and privileges, especially for those with long-term SHU sentences.
After initially denying mass participation in the hunger strike, CaliforniaPrisonofficialsadmitted that some 6,600 inmates across the state were refusing meals. A small number, like ChadLandrumofthePelicanBaySHU–who was already suffering from liver disease and diabetes– have chose to strike ?indefinitely? victory or death!?
In an interview, Manuel La Fontaine of AllofUsorNone describes to us the immediate motivation of the strike and the inhuman conditions of the SHU:
The purpose of the SHU is to control people that are
beyond control. Dignity is the last thing that a person has in prison
and the SHU is designed to take that away from them. It may not be
considered torture if you?re put in the hole for 30 to 60 days, but 20
to 40 years in a tiny room with no contact with anyone, no one to touch
you, no one to speak to– is torture.
as a sign that the system of mass incarceration is malfunctioning, La
Fontaine insists: ?We don?t have a broken system in America. It works
very well and has been very effective for people that have property and
that make money from the prison-industrial complex. Yet people that have
been expendable are paying the price.?
Glimpsing the New World
If Du Bois emphasized the economic centrality
of slave labor, he nevertheless insisted that ?the true significance of
slavery? to the United States had more to do with the abolition of race
as a structure of inequality: an abolition to which the working classes
hold the key. A ?strategic? class is thus not merely the class located
closest to production, but also that which has an intrinsic
knowledge–gleaned from everyday activity–of the inner functioning of
the system as a totality (a knowledge which Du Bois showed to be
military as well as social). It was precisely in an effort to celebrate
this very same sort of informal, everyday knowledge and the political
self-activity of the masses it generates, that C.L.R. James famously
wrote in 1956 that ?EveryCookCanGovern.?
In this day and age, when the economy is increasingly
lumpenized, when an increasing proportion of Black Americans, not to
mention Latinos, immigrants, and poor, are relegated to hustling to
survive at the margin of the law–who could deny that it is these very
same ?unemployables? who are best able to grasp the totality of
capitalism in the United States? And who among this sector understands
the reality of the system better than today?s ?ultimate exploited,?
those deemed so uncontrollable and so expendable as to be locked away
for 22 ? hours a day in windowless 8 by 10 foot cells?
But this is not to say that those involved in the
California hunger strikes do not embody some deep and troubling
contradictions, that some of them might be white supremacist, sexist,
homophobic, egoistic, and prone to violent behavior. The so-called
?lumpen? has been, since Marx, denigrated as deviant, violent, corrupt,
and as embodying all that is negative about the world we are attempting
to bury. But while Marx was attempting to protect the working class from
any association with the lumpen ?mob,? later Marxists like C.L.R. James
rightly argued that this duality, this contradiction between the old
world and the new, is something which cuts right to the heart of the
working class as well, explaining its potential to be either revolutionary or reactionary, and it is this contradiction that–in a more acute form–cuts to the heart of the caged ?unemployables? as well.
Central among these contradictions in the United
States is white supremacy, and here the concrete demands of the hunger
strikers should not conceal the fact that their very actions call into
question the racist logic of imprisonment. In fact, as Dylan Rodriguez
recently argued, the very same gang certification and debriefing
procedures that land inmates in the SHU, and which the striking inmates
are protesting, exist to uphold the ?logic of segregation? that
underpins our society as a whole (?For the Hunger Strikers at Pelican
Bay…? July 13th 2011). In other words, the ?debriefing? process is a
process of control that, under the guise of gang prevention, serves to
uphold segregation and prevent joint struggles among white, Black, and
Latino inmates. For La Fontaine, ?It behooves the prison industrial
complex to keep the system going by maintaining divisions,? and the
guards often justify formal segregation by themselves planting rumors
and stoking racial conflict: ?They also tell white, black, brown people
that others are up to something. Then when things get out of control,
they create the SHU to control people.?
In their self-organization, the hunger strikers have
already begun to rupture these structures of segregation. As Marilyn
McMahon of the American Friends Services Committee, who has served to
mediate between prisoners and state officials, has revealed, the 11-member leadership team heading up the strike comprises 4 major racial groups and a cross-gang alliance. AccordingtoMollyPorzig
of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, ?these prisoners
are in solidarity with each other across hundreds of miles, in
situations where basic communication is denied, and across racial lines
often used to divide prisoners.?
This cross-racial alliance is no mistake: as La
Fontaine puts it, ?After decades of prison manufactured racism prisoners
have no choice.? In other words, the very conditions demanded by the
primitive accumulation system of mass incarceration have the effect of
politicizing those who suffer under the weight of that system, and
central to this process is overcoming racism, segregation, and
institutionalized white supremacy:
Leaders, people who understand themselves and their
history transcend racial lines. Prisoners in SHU have transcended that
and are demanding human rights? The minute that people begin to think of
the conditions of their confinement, the conditions that led the
majority of people to be in prison, they become revolutionary, they
While noting that the racial unity within the Pelican
Bay hunger strike is currently tactical, and that simply working
together doesn?t mean that those involved have necessarily abandoned
their white supremacy, Ed Mead–a former political prisoner and
notes that ?the level of oppression reaches a certain point in which
people must work together. The prison is a microcosm of society but far
more intense.? This pressure and this need to work together under more
?intense? conditions has the potential to speed personal
transformations. In other words, while the process of organizing for
change in prison requires what are initially tactical alliances, such alliances have the potential to quickly become much more than merely tactical.
As La Fontaine puts it:
People that are alone in prison, that have only
books to read and time to think become more in tune with who they are,
they stop playing Crip, Blood, Aryan Brotherhood and instead say I am an
African king, my heritage is that of Irish workers; when they recognize
that, the minute they recognize that, they become revolutionary. The
guards can?t recognize that and say what the fuck, you are a prisoner.
The prisoners talk to others, other prisoners may not be like them, but
they say read this book, study this and people transform and then the
guards see them as a threat.
Their uniform treatment by prison officials can
provide the pressure necessary to generate unified consciousness. In the
context of the Algerian Revolution, Frantz Fanon wrote of how active
participation in the struggle could allow the lumpen to be
?rehabilitated in their own eyes and in the eyes of history,? shedding
their reactionary ideological relics while embracing a new humanity, and
while the jury remains out on the Pelican Bay hunger strike, this of
course is the hope.
A ?Convict Race??
In his reflections on the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising,
which successfully crafted inter-racial unity to a degree seldom seen
before, a unity embodied in graffiti referring to the ?Convict Race,?
Staughton Lynd asks a crucial question: ?How, if at all, can this
experience of prisoners overcoming racism be extrapolated? What is the
relationship of prison resistance to the wider movement for social
change?? But while Lynd correctly rejects the idea that white workers
will simply volunteer to abandon their privileges, and while he
recognizes the differences that separate prison experience from broader
working-class experience, we feel that he nevertheless falls back too
easily on the claim that ?Workers become socialists in action, through
experience.? True, but the entire history of the U.S. working class is a
testament to the fact that simply bringing workers together under the
old slogan ?Black and white, unite and fight? will not itself eradicate
the wages of whiteness, wages which Du Bois shows to be both material
How far and how hard do white workers (or lumpens)
need to be pushed in order to abandon white supremacy? Despite efforts
by prison officials to stoke racial resentment, those risking their
lives in the Pelican Bay SHU and elsewhere show us that imprisonment
already provides a hard push, much harder than anything that white
workers will experience on the outside (although Huey Newton hoped that
the expansion of the condition of unemployability would force white
workers to join their Black brethren in the struggle). We need to be
careful then, not to overstate the implications of race relations in
prison strikes for working-class relations outside the walls. Of course,
white workers will abandon white supremacy if their lives absolutely
depend on it, but what if their lives don?t depend on it?
But more importantly than this, we believe that Lynd
has the question backwards to begin with: the question is not what
prison rebellions can teach us about fighting white supremacy outside (i.e. in the ?real? world of the working class), but how these insurrections within the prison system themselves constitute a leading sector, a spearhead striking at the very heart of late capitalism in the U.S.
George Ciccariello-Maher is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University, and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.
Jeff St. Andrews is a freelance photographer, and can be reached at jeff.standrews(at)gmail.com, http://certaintyofbeing.wordpress.com.