Through reflections, prose-poems, and conversations with living and dead revolutionaries, Jackie Wang dissects the American prison system.

Dominique Routhier
Published date: September 12, 2018

Carceral Capitalism

Jackie Wang

Semiotext(e), USA

Jackie Wang’s original book Carceral Capitalism is one of the most readable among recent criticisms of the American prison complex, where 2.3 million people are kept in involuntary containment and 4.7 million people are under deferred sentences, on parole or in other confined conditions. Wang’s analysis of the world’s biggest carceral system begins from the observation that the enormous growth of the prison sector in the last four decades has been almost inversely proportional to the downscaling of the workforce in American industry as a consequence of automation and outsourcing. «As the US de-industrialized and the welfare state was gutted (a process that started in the 1970s), the solution to the problem of what to do with the unemployed people who had migrated to cities to become industrial workers — as well as the mentally ill people housed in hospitals that were shutting down en masse – was racialized mass incarceration.», she writes.

The superfluous bodies of society

The distinctively American «solution» to the long-lasting crisis of capitalism with falling profit-rates and «secular stagnation» since the early seventies, ended up being a mass-disposal of the so-called «surplus population» of which a disproportionate part belongs to the black segment of the population or other non-white groups. The 1980s became the period where the expansion of prisons really set in, not least in the wake of the Reagan administration’s «War on Drugs». The prison statistics clearly bear witness to how this period of Reaganomics contributed to filling up many of the recently constructed prison cells with superfluous – and often fractious – bodies.

Wang zooms in on Detroit – formerly the heart of the automotive industry – as a striking example of how the decline in production led to a dramatic depopulation and with it a collapse in the city’s tax revenue (partly caused by racist real estate policies and «white flight»). It’s no coincidence that Detroit in 1967 saw some of the most violent of the so-called race riots – the «long, hot summer» of 1967 – where the government for the first time deployed its armed forces against its own civilians as the police force proved unable to contain the riots. This episode led to a militarisation of the police, the consequences of which can still be seen today.

Criminal ahead of the crime

But even if the raw brutality of the police, which the Black Lives Matter movement has brought back into focus, still makes itself felt in the US, Wang’s point is that something is about to change in the way the population is being controlled. Brute force is being supplemented with a «softer» power. Historically, Detroit acted as a testing ground for an expanded repertoire of carceral capitalism’s tools for coercion. One of these was the creation of new kinds of credit and debt, tested in a Detroit struck by crisis after it’s real estate market crashed. This became a prototype of the high-risk asset speculation that appeared around the time of the 2008 crisis and which is considered to have been a major factor in the collapse of the American real estate market and the ensuing economic crisis. Another «technique» illustrating the evolution from the «old Detroit of RoboCop» to new computerised law enforcement is the GPS ankle bracelet: If the prison wall is a simple imprisonment tactic, the bracelet is indicative of «a future where the prison as a physical structure is superseded by total surveillance without physical confinement» – prison without walls.

«The book is made even better by not being another academic monologue.»

In the same way, Wang explains, the new algorithmically based and «preventive» policing methods, such as the deployment of PredPol, a software that guides police forces to places where the occurrence of criminal acts statistically is assumed to be higher, is a technique that frames bodies in a certain «criminal optic» even before any criminal act has taken place. Simply by being present in an area plagued by crime becomes a marker for criminality, and your neighbourhood, even in a presumably «colour blind» algorithm, becomes a clear proxy for race. The method is anything but neutral but rather steeped in structural prejudice, which is built into the systems. The credit-score reports of the banks and the patrolling patterns of the police have a common tendency to operate with a certain level of systematic racial and gendered bias.

Personal perspective

Carceral Capitalism delivers a solid and original analysis of how profit, police, and power strategies are intertwined in late-capitalist society. The book is even better for not being yet another academic monologue claiming to provide us with a new comprehensive and superior analysis of capitalist society. It is written from a vantage point far above the writing subject (in this case a «queer woman of colour») and the weight of everyday life: «There is a political knot at the center of my life, a point of great density around which orbit my questions about the world and how it is structured. To address the questions without speaking of the event that gave rise to them would conform with the comportment expected of an intellectual.» It is her older brother’s life sentence from early youth that ripples through this mix of analysis – at once both wonderful and sad – with personal reflections, prose-poems and «conversations with revolutionaries, dead and alive». In the afterword appropriately titled «Carceral Ripples», perhaps the most powerful chapter in the book, Wang soberly notes: «We were teenagers when he got locked up / And now he’s balding.» Sometimes it seems that one sister’s critical perspective resonates stronger than a thousand political manifestos.

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