Book: Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang

‘The late Mark Fisher once famously said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The same could be said about prisons: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a world without prisons. […] Imagining and working toward a world without prisons—which is the project of prison abolition—would not only require us to fundamentally rethink the role of the state in society, but it would also require us to work toward the total transformation of all social relations.’

– Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism

In her recently-published book Carceral Capitalism, Harvard University PhD student Jackie Wang, explores the far-reaching implications of this new age of surveillance, suppression and incarceration, both as a student of African and African-American Studies, and as the sibling of someone given a Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) sentence at just 17 years old who, following a resentencing despite that original sentence being deemed unlawful, will be in his late-fifties by the time he is released.

As her field of studies would suggest, Wang’s work is informed first and foremost by the uniquely oppressive American carceral system, where black people comprise 13% of the total population but 40% of the prison population, and where 21% of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated despite the United States being home to only 4% of the global population.

In her examination of this issue, Wang decodes and demystifies a number of lesser-considered connections between economics, finance, technology, policing and incarceration, revealing not only how the monetised carceral state has become a logical (perhaps even necessary) evolution of previous models of oppression and exploitation such as slavery, disenfranchisement and segregation, but also how numerous elements of late capitalism place entire segments of populations at a disadvantage, leaving them susceptible to punishment such as financial penalties, surveillance, criminalisation and incarceration. In her own words: ‘The title of this book, Carceral Capitalism, is not an attempt to posit carcerality as an effect of capitalism, but to think about the carceral continuum alongside and in conjunction with the dynamics of late capitalism.’

As a result, the 5 essays, adapted multimedia performance and “conversation” that comprise Carceral Capitalism paint a comprehensive picture of the relationship between capital and carcerality.

First, Wang examines how the rise of credit and subsequent growth of the debt economy has created a system that leaves poor and working class populations at an economic disadvantage on both state and individual levels. She cites the selling of subprime mortgages to individuals who were unlikely to ever be able to repay them in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, student loans, foreign “investment” and development loans as examples of how the debt economy works to create perpetually-indebted subjects who can then be used for expropriation of capital long after the principal of their original debt has been repaid.

Wang also examines how “municipal indebtedness”—the increasing use of fines, penalties, fees and civil forfeitures by police and courts— has created a system of ‘racialized accumulation by dispossession’, ‘a moral framework that shapes our understanding of debt—whereby the creditor is framed as benevolent while the struggling debtors are viewed as lazy or irresponsible for defaulting on their loans. […] Not only does the credit system reinforce racial inequality, but moneylending itself is a racializing process, for it marks certain subjects as suitable for expropriation.’

The next essay follows this inquiry further, exploring how the use of municipal fees and fines by governments has created a ‘parasitic’ relationship between state and subject, some more literal than others; in one example from Perry County, Alabama, Wang tells of how a packed courtroom of people owing money were offered a $100 credit on outstanding debts if they donated a pint of blood to a blood drive outside the courtroom.

Wang also explores how municipal policing is largely a consequence of cuts to state and federal funding of police departments in the US, leaving local departments to their own devices regarding funding their operations. She then cites the US Department of Justice’s investigation into the murder of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in the city of Ferguson in 2014:

‘In 2013, municipal fees and fines accounted for 20.2 percent of Ferguson’s $12.75 million budget. The report, released on March 4, 2015, noted:

“The city’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. […] many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”’

Finally, Wang examines how this same system has been applied to entire cities such as Detroit, leading to ‘not the creation of livable spaces, but the creation of living hells […] When municipalities create a parasitic relationship to residents, they make it impossible for residents to actually feel at home in the place where they live, walk, work, love, and chill.’

Wang then examines the rise of “juvenile delinquency” hysteria in the 1990s Clinton Administration and how Princeton academic John DiIulio’s infamous essay warning on the impending threat of “juvenile superpredators” in 1995 created a racialized construction of ‘juvenile […] as predatory’, marking young, predominantly black populations as a ‘a calculable risk that must be preemptively managed’.

The word ‘preemptively’ is important in this context, as it moves the responsibility of the state from tackling crime to rooting it out at its inception. As Wang explains, ‘DiIulio’s clarion call was in response not so much to a crisis, but to a potential crisis. He and other 1990s political scientists and criminologists were effectively constructing a problem that the state was called upon to manage.’ By constructing young black people not as an active threat, but as one that must be preemptively stopped, the state was able to blur the line between juvenility and adulthood.

As a result, police and court systems become desensitized to the humanity of those subjects, leading to the justification of increasingly brutal and draconian methods of policing and punishment against groups afforded ‘the right to be punished as adults’, but with none of the privileges and rights that adulthood would otherwise afford.

Wang’s next essay, ‘“This Is A Story About Nerds and Cops”: PredPol and Algorithmic Policing’, examines the rising use of technology and PredPol (predictive policing). She examines how PredPol ‘draws on many of the tenets of the “police science” paradigm to solve two contemporary crises: the crisis of legitimacy suffered by the police and a broader […] crisis of uncertainty’.

By using computer algorithms and the ‘neutral science’ of technology, PredPol creates a method of policing that is not only marketable to both citizens and municipalities, but which glosses over the fact that ‘crime has never been a [race] neutral category’.

One method cited, for example, collated geographical markers of previous crime hotspots to provide a “predictive” method, indicating where and when there should be police presence in certain areas. However, this ostensibly “neutral” algorithm ‘glosses over the fact that using crime data gathered by police […] simply sends police to patrol the poor neighborhoods they have historically patrolled when they were guided by their intuitions and biases.’

Wang’s final essay, ‘Against Innocence: Race, Gender and the Politics of Safety’, explores how the politics and deployment of innocence in discussions about the death and suffering of those who die at the hands of police, as well as incarcerated people, problematizes our understanding of how legal systems work, and ‘appeal[s] to the white imaginary […] [reproducing] a guilt-innocence schematization that fails to grapple with the fact that there is an a priori association of blackness with guilt (criminality).’

Wang argues that though appeals to innocence are sometimes vital and necessary political activist strategies, they often ‘reinforce a framework that renders revolutionary and insurgent politics unimaginable’; in other words, by endorsing the guilt-innocence paradigm, we unwittingly legitimise the carceral system as it stands, obfuscating our understanding of systemic, structural racism and instead focusing our attention on explicit, individual acts of racist violence.

Wang examines how contemporary politics of innocence can be compared to the respectability politics of the civil rights era, the NAACP’s shift from understanding imprisonment as a structural, political issue in the ‘70s and ‘80s toward a ‘rhetoric of individual responsibility and a tough on crime stance’ by the early ‘90s, and connects innocence to the contemporary black exceptionalism and the “post-racial” myth by quoting French sociologist Loïc Wacquant:

‘the tenuous position of the black bourgeoisie in the socioracial hierarchy rests critically on its ability to distance itself from its unruly lower-class brethren: to offset the symbolic disability of blackness, middle-class Americans must forcefully communicate to whites that they have “absolutely no connections with any black man who has committed a crime.”’

Finally, Wang makes note of the role “White Space” plays in our ability to recognise and empathise with black death, noting how the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 occurred in a gated suburb—’spaces that are accessible to the white imaginary, which allows white people to narrativize the incidents in terms that are familiar to them’— and also how the reports on Martin’s death often subplanted his race with his youth, ‘a condition that white people can imaginatively access’. Thus, even in sympathetic coverage of black death, their otherness is eradicated, perpetuating the exclusion of blackness from the politics of innocence.

Wang’s response to this is to endorse a method of affirmation, recognising and affirming the anger, rage and reality of situations in a way that does not appeal to liberal imaginations and affirms the value of life regardless of innocence or relatability. She cites the 2011 London riots as an example of a moment where ‘many leftists and liberals were unable to grapple with the unruly expression of rage among largely poor and unemployed people of color, and they refused to support a passionate outburst they saw as disorderly and delinquent.’ She repeats a call to reframe these moments of “riot” as “rebellion”, and endorses a method employed by Maria Lewis of Occupy Oakland in recognising and affirming the justified anger and rage of those rebelling against a system that disenfranchises them:

AMY GOODMAN: Maria Lewis, what about some of the reports that said protesters were violent?
MARIA LEWIS: Absolutely. There was a lot of anger this weekend, and I think that the anger the protesters showed in the streets this weekend and the fighting back that did take place was reflective of a larger anger in Oakland that is boiling over at the betrayal of the system. I think that people, day by day, are realizing, as the economy gets worse and worse, as unemployment gets worse and worse, as homelessness gets worse and worse, that the economic system, that capitalism in Oakland, is failing us. And people are really angry about that, and they’re beginning to fight back. And I think that’s a really inspiring thing.

This method, Wang explains, ‘a) [affirms] the actions immediately, b) [refuses] to purify the movement by integrating rather than excluding the “violent” elements, c) [legitimizes] the anger and desires of the protestors, and d) [shifts] the attention to the structural nature of the problem rather than making moral judgements about individual actors.’ She concludes her chapter by referring back to Trayvon Martin, arguing that ‘when we build politics around standards of legitimate victimhood that require passive sacrifice, we will build a politics that requires a dead black boy to make its point. […] Rejecting the politics of innocence is not about assuming a certain theoretical posture or adopting a certain perspective—it is a lived position.’

The final chapter of Carceral Capitalism, ‘The Prison Abolitionist Imagination: A Conversation’, comprises a series of excerpts, quote and vignettes surrounding the ongoing fight for prison abolition in the US and beyond, including the quote at the beginning of this piece. It closes Wang’s intense and academic writing with a poetic and fluid reiteration of the same spirit presented throughout. Though the book is full of whole pages I wish I could quote from start to finish, it’s this chapter which communicates the enduring spirit of abolitionist thought most powerfully.

In many ways, the first two decades of this millennium have been largely characterised by an event that happened at its beginning. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, the politics of the west has seen the tendrils of state security apparatuses and private capital steadily intertwining, creating an all-encompassing, effectively-marketised model of perpetual imperial warfare both within and beyond the borders of our nations.

Last week was the 17th anniversary of 9/11. Next month, it will be the 17th anniversary of the War in Afghanistan. A year after that, enough time will have passed that a child born on the day of that war’s commencement will be old enough to serve in it. In fact, there have already been articles published on young soldiers “[following in their] father’s footsteps” and going to serve in a war that has gone on so long it can now be passed down through generations.

As that intangible war has raged on thousands of miles away, the atmosphere of perpetual terror and ratcheting-up of security measures has been used to justify increasingly draconian and oppressive measures being applied to domestic populations.

As Wang argues, despite the modern carceral system being a relatively recent invention, it has become so engrained within our imagination of society that we are scarcely able to imagine an alternative, but to do so is not merely a fanciful ideal for a radical left; it is vitally necessary if we are ever going to achieve the kind of just and humane society we aspire toward.

Though her writing is deeply-rooted in the unique struggles of black Americans in the crushing legal system of the United States, and it is vital that we do not obscure that particular struggle, one need only look at the litany of scandals surrounding the UK’s immigration detention centres, privately-run prisons and now the rising use of private policing forces in poor and working class communities in the UK to see how the issues Wang cites in Carceral Capitalism have a powerful resonance for communities around the world.

I’ll end with a quote she takes from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, in which an imprisoned person addresses their jailer:

‘You, not I, are the loser. He who lives on depriving others of light drowns in the darkness of his own shadow. You will never be free of me unless my freedom is generous to a fault. Then it would teach you peace and guide you home. You, not I, are afraid of what the cell is doing to me. You who guard my sleep, dream, and a delirium mined with signs. I have the vision and you have the tower, the heavy key chain, and a gun trained on a ghost. I have sleepiness, with its silky touch and essence. You have to stay up watching over me lest sleepiness take the weapon from your hand before your eye can see it. Dreaming is my profession while yours is pointless eavesdropping on an unfriendly conversation between my freedom and me.’

Carceral Capitalism is available now from MIT Press (buying options available)
Alternatively, request it at your local bookstore or library.


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