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
January 21, 2020
Sheldon Richman
Warmonger Cotton Accuses Antiwar Think Tank of Anti-Semitism
John Feffer
Trump Makes Space Great Again
Patrick Cockburn
The US and Iran’s Perpetual Almost-War is Unsustainable – and Will End Badly
James C. Nelson
Another Date That Will Live in Infamy: 10 Years After Citizens United
Robert Fisk
Iran Will be Changed Forever by Admitting Its Great Mistake, Unlike the West Which Ignores Its Own Misdeeds
Dean Baker
Did Shareholders’ Benefit by Paying Boeing’s Fired CEO $62 Million?
Susan Roberts
The Demise of the Labour Party and the Future For UK Socialism
Binoy Kampmark
Janus-Faced on Climate Change: Microsoft’s Carbon Vision
David Levin
The Teamster Revolt Against the Hoffa Era
Victor Grossman
Defender and Spearheads
Russell Mokhiber
BS Public Editor and the Disease of Contempt
Tiffany Muller
Get the Money Out of Politics: 10 Years After Citizens United
Laura Flanders
Iowa is Not the Twitterverse
Graham Peebles
Education: Expanding Purpose
Elliot Sperber
Handball in Brooklyn 
January 20, 2020
Paul Street
Trump Showed Us Who He Was Before He Became President
Eric Mann
Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Ipek S. Burnett
MLK and the Ghost of an Untrue Dream
Mark Harris
Better Living Through Glyphosate? Spray Now, Ask Questions Later
Katie Fite
Owyhee Initiative Wilderness and Public Lands Deal Critique: Ten Years After
Thomas Knapp
A Loophole for the Lawless: “Qualified Immunity” Must Go
REZA FIYOUZAT
Best Enemies Forever: The Iran-U.S. Kabuki Show
Jeff Mackler
Worldwide Furor Sparked by U.S. Assassination of Iran’s General Suleimani
William deBuys
The Humanitarian and Environmental Disaster of Trump’s Border Wall
Binoy Kampmark
A Matter of Quality: Air Pollution, Tennis and Sporting Officialdom
James Haught
GOP Albatross
Jill Richardson
Why Do We Have School Lunch Debt at All?
Robert Koehler
Nuclear Hubris
Patrick T. Hiller
Instead of Real-Time Commentary, Eight Common-Sense Reason for Not Going to War with Iran
Charles Andrews
A Note on Carlos Ghosn and Global Capitalism
Jeffrey St. Clair
Some Trees: Los Angeles
Weekend Edition
January 17, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: No Woman, No Cry
Kathleen Wallace
Hijacking the Struggles of Others, Elizabeth Warren Style
Robert Hunziker
The Rumbling Methane Enigma
Frank Joyce
Will the Constitution Fail Again?
Andrew Levine
Biden Daze
Pete Dolack
Claims that the ‘NAFTA 2’ Agreement is Better are a Macabre Joke
Vijay Prashad
Not an Inch: Indian Students Stand Against the Far Right
Ramzy Baroud
Sealed Off and Forgotten: What You Should Know about Israel’s ‘Firing Zones’ in the West Bank
Norman Solomon
Not Bernie, Us. Not Warren, Us. Their Clash Underscores the Need for Grassroots Wisdom
Ted Rall
America’s Long History of Meddling in Russia
David Rosen
The Irregulators vs. FCC: the Trial Begins
Jennifer Matsui
The Krown
Joseph Natoli
Resolutions and Obstacles/2020
Sarah Anderson
War Profiteering is Real
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail