FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Worm in the Apple

Image: Celebration erupts after the amendment is passed by the House of Representatives – Public Domain

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Slavery remains a punishment for crime; imprisonment is a continuation of slavery. That is the clause which in the view of Ava DuVernay and her many collaborators was weaponized to become a powerful legitimating tool of the segregation of the old Jim Crow, the convict leasing system, the new Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Her film is therefore called “13th.”

The story of criminalization, the film suggests, began after the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the story helps us see the similar process in the formation of working-class, and the divisions within it, elsewhere.

The English working class as a self-conscious historical force is said to have had its origin with the London Corresponding Society of 1792. The first page of The Making of the English Working Class proudly enunciated in its title the democratic principle of the L.C.S., “Members Unlimited.” But the membership was limited because we read on the same page that members were required to agree “that the welfare of these kingdoms require that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament.” Prisoners were thus excluded.

That’s why years ago, inspired by Malcolm X, many of us scholars studied crime and began to make the acquaintance of folks in prison. We learned that the story of capitalism and democracy began earlier. Criminalization was necessary to both. It is coeval with capitalism. It is parallel to capitalism. It is conterminous with the commodity form. In fact, criminalization belongs to the essence of capitalism.

The U.S. Constitution begins with a phrase borrowed from the Levellers, “We the people.” The Levellers during the English Revolution of the 1640s had also apparently advocated universal suffrage, or real democracy. Yet on closer examination this first democratic political party had qualified this grand ideal in ways similar to the L.C.S. or the 13th Amendment. The Levellers’ petition of January 1648 excluded from the franchise those who “are not, or shall not be legally disfranchised for some criminal cause, or are not under 21 years of age, or servants, or beggars.” Beggars didn’t work and servants had masters. Women, too, were silently excluded. The Levellers put emphasis on the “free-born Englishman” and for the next two or three centuries the figure of “the free-born Englishman” reigned supreme in the popular imaginary. But delinquency or criminality forfeited that birthright. Criminalizing was a weapon of state to deny people the vote.

My point is that criminalization has been a weapon against workers from day one. As a little litigious clause in a great amendment, or as a sly afterthought in Leveller petitions, or even as a limitation to “Members Unlimited” this kind of qualification to the meanings of freedom has been a nasty worm in the apple. Democracy was not for delinquents, the vote was not for those convicted in court. Freedom was not for all; slavery persisted. The state project of criminalization rots the orchard.

What the 13th Amendment did was consistent with more than two hundred years of working-class history. Slavery, servitude, and the poor are parts of, or aspects to, the class that is forced to work not for subsistence but profit, producing wealth for others. Watch the documentary film, the “13th” because it is a fundamental introduction to criminalization. Having done that, then we may with Eugene Debs ponder this thought, “While there is a soul in prison I am not free.”

Finally, we cannot shirk from the questions, what is crime? who are the real criminals? Freedom begins with our answers.

More articles by:

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s new book, Red Round Globe Burning Hot, will be published in March by University of California Press. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
December 11, 2019
Vijay Prashad
Why the Afghanistan Papers Are an Eerie Reminder of Vietnam
Kenneth Surin
Australia’s Big Smoke
Sameer Dossani
Ideology or Popularity: How Will Britain Vote?
John W. Whitehead
Who Will Protect Us From an Unpatriotic Patriot Act?
Binoy Kampmark
Interference Paranoia: Russia, Reddit and the British Election
Scott Tucker
Sure, Impeach Trump, But Let’s be Honest
Nyla Ali Khan
Homogenizing India: the Citizenship Debate
Thomas Knapp
Congress: The Snail’s Pace Race
Shawn Fremstad
Modern Family Progressivism
Joseph Essertier
Julian Assange, Thanks for Warning Japanese About Washington
William Minter
How Africa Could Power a Green Revolution
December 10, 2019
Tony McKenna
The Demonization of Jeremy Corbyn
John Grant
American Culture Loves a Good Killer
Jacob Hornberger
Afghanistan: a Pentagon Paradise Built on Lies
Nick Licata
Was Trump Looking for Corruption or a Personal Favor?
Thomas M. Magstadt
What’s the Matter With America?
Brian Tokar
Climate Talks in Madrid: What Will It Take to Prevent Climate Collapse?
Ron Jacobs
Where Justice is a Game: Impeachment Hearings Redux
Jack Rasmus
Trump vs. Democracy
Walden Bello
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
Binoy Kampmark
A Troubled Family: NATO Turns 70
Brian Horejsi
Citizens Are Never Trusted
Michael Barker
Self-Defense in the Civil Rights Movement: the Lessons of Birmingham, 1963
John Feffer
Soldiers Who Fight War
Howie Wolke
Willingness to Compromise Puts Wilderness at Risk
December 09, 2019
Jefferson Morley
Trump’s Hand-Picked Prosecutor John Durham Cleared the CIA Once, Will He Again?
Kirkpatrick Sale
Political Collapse: The Center Cannot Hold
Ishmael Reed
Bloomberg Condoned Sexual Assault by NYPD 
W. T. Whitney
Hitting at Cuban Doctors and at Human Solidarity
Louisa Willcox
The Grizzly Cost of Coexistence
Thomas Knapp
Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner
John Feffer
How the New Right Went Global — and How to Stop It
Ralph Nader
Why Not Also Go With “The Kitchen Table” Impeachable Offenses for Removal?
Robert Fisk
Meet the Controversial Actor and Businessman Standing Up Against Egypt’s el-Sisi
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Sri Lanka Continues Its Delicate Dance With India
Dahr Jamail
Savoring What Remains: Dealing With Climate PTSD
George Wuerthner
Bison Slaughter in Yellowstone…Again
Scott Tucker
Premature Democratic Socialists: Reasons for Hope and Change
Julian Rose
Polish Minister of Health Proposes Carcinogenic 5G Emission Levels as National Norm
Dean Baker
Coal and the Regions Left Behind
Robert Koehler
Envisioning a United World
Weekend Edition
December 06, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Eat an Impeachment
Matthew Hoh
Authorizations for Madness; The Effects and Consequences of Congress’ Endless Permissions for War
Jefferson Morley
Why the Douma Chemical Attack Wasn’t a ‘Managed Massacre’
Andrew Levine
Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail