The Rise of the Prison State
The state is balancing its budget on the backs of the poor, the unemployed, and black and brown people. Welcome to the predatory state, a neoliberal nightmare.
In Carceral Capitalism, out this month from Semiotext(e), Jackie Wang writes lucidly and persuasively about America’s criminalized subjects, whose bodies, physical environments, and futures are all subject to the increasing control of state and corporate power. For Wang, a prison abolitionist, poet and PhD student at Harvard University, understanding the relationship between neoliberalism and carceral control requires us to look far beyond the realm of the private prison, an example of corporate corruption that has been championed by mainstream progressive media at the expense of examining municipal carceral structures. Wang makes connections between elements of carceral capitalism in much more expansive terms in this series of essays, by examining how racialized subjects relate to the state in times of austerity, and the processes of criminalization and exploitation states rely on to survive. She’s interested in exploring and disentangling what lies at the “the nexus between neo-conservative policy, social disinvestment, and prison expansion” – to build a deeper understanding of the interrelations between governance, and the neoliberal and carceral state.
Building on Wolfgang Streeck’s argument that “the tax state (i.e. the postwar Keynesian welfare state) has evolved into the debt state (which authorizes austerity)” Wang begins by arguing that we are currently witnessing the emergence of what she refers to as the “predatory state.” Over the last few decades, and with increased intensity since the 2008 financial crisis, we’ve seen the continued implementation of neoliberal policies, including further cuts to the tax base, financial deregulation, the privatization of public assets, and continued state withdrawal from the provision of social goods. As Wang sees it, cities and states are increasingly struggling to pay the bills, while public debt (for example, ownership over bonds) is becoming financialized, controlled by an ever-smaller percentage of wealthy Americans. This shift, according to Wang, is “de-democratizing” in that “government bodies become more accountable to creditors than to the public,” and increasingly seek to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor, the unemployed, and black and brown people.”
Wang cites what occured Detroit as a key example. Over the early 2000s, Detroit’s debt became increasingly financialized, so when interest rates plummeted after the 2008 financial crisis, the city began losing money. By 2013, the city declared bankruptcy, prompting a battle over who it would pay back first – for example, whether it was more pressing to honor sums owed to corporate banks (the institutions that had enabled the city’s poor financial planning) or Detroit’s pensioners. “When Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the [Emergency Manager] prioritized the interest of finance over the interest of the people, and harsh austerity measures were implemented with the goal of eventually making Detroit solvent,” explains Wang. In her view, the neoliberalization of state finance is directly tied to the draining of resources from “those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of government services” – and all for the benefit of big banks and financial institutions.
Another attribute of the predatory state, Wang argues, is that resource extraction and state violence go hand in hand, with logics and processes that build and feed off each other. In August 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed a black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. Local residents and supporters from across the country converged at Ferguson to protest Brown’s murder and the grand jury’s subsequent decision that November not to indict Wilson. The Department of Justice, which investigated the city’s police department after the killing, released its report in March 2015, and found that black residents were far more likely to be targeted by the police for traffic stops, municipal violations (like having an unmowed lawn) and other citations (like “failure to comply”). Although Ferguson is about a third white, in the two years prior to the report’s release black people accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops and 90 percent of tickets. This “municipal indebtedness,” as Wang terms it, “is a form of extraction that funds the very government activities that are engaged in expropriating from black residents.”
In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed 24,532 warrants to residents – an average of three arrest warrants per household – a phenomenon mirrored in many other majority-black jurisdictions around St. Louis. These predatory policing practices transform public spaces into carceral ones, argues Wang, and she anticipates that technological innovations will only further enable the spread of carcerality into society at large. “It is even possible,” Wang writes, “to imagine a future where the prison as a physical structure is superseded by total surveillance without physical confinement.” In her chapter on algorithmic policing, Wang examines how police forces have integrated what they claim are “neutral, biased and rational” approaches into their decision-making – like determining which blocks should be under heavier police patrol and during what times of day. For instance, beginning in the early 2010s, police departments in Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities across the country have implemented statistical models to identify crime “red spots” (high crime zones) in a city and then assign more police to those locations.
Wang argues that these relatively new policing strategies – a result of collaboration between local police forces, Silicon Valley, universities, and other institutions – are designed to allay the public’s present crisis of confidence in the police. The spate of nationwide protests that accompanied the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement four years ago brought the issue of police misconduct and racism into mainstream consciousness, and incited more popular demands for reform. As the BLM movement gained momentum, many were attracted to the data-driven (and, therefore, they mistakenly assumed, “color-blind”) patina of predictive policing technologies, touting them as an ideal solution to racist policing.
The American public’s desire to anticipate future harms and protect themselves from the chaos of life also makes promise of predictive policing alluring to many of us, says Wang. But the idea of being able to anticipate and thereby prevent crimes is an inherently flawed one: crime has always been racialized, so building statistical models on existing data will never produce a “neutral” outcome, and a vision of the world as already equal will obscure the real violence that emanates from our racist, carceral state. What’s more, just as with the expansion of the predatory state, the shift towards algorithmic policing leads to an inevitable blurring of life inside and outside of prison walls. The state will have an ever-greater knowledge of our daily movements, activities and relationships – potential data sets that could be analyzed for theoretical threats, and further erode the privacy that previously insulated (some of) us from the coercive reach of the law. Wang writes, “It is important that we pay attention to this paradigm shift, as once the ‘digital carceral infrastructure’ is built up, it will be nearly impossible to undo, and the automated carceral surveillance state will spread out across the terrain, making greater and greater intrusion into our everyday lives.”
Since the carceral state has been embedded in America’s cultural self-conception and mythology (tech, innovation, exceptionalism, and so on) and the way the state conceives of its own role (policing, prisons, poverty control rather than eradication), it touches us all in increasingly direct ways, but Wang has a particularly painful, personal stake in the conflict. In 2004, her then 17-year-old older older brother was arrested and subsequently sentenced to life without parole. After his initial sentencing, the Supreme Court decided in the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama that juveniles could not be subject to mandatory sentences of life without parole, theoretically providing an opportunity for some people locked up as kids to be released. Her brother was eventually granted a resentencing hearing but accepted a forty-year a plea deal instead.
What I find particularly compelling about Carceral Capitalism is how Wang weaves together dense social theory with personal narrative and creative text. It’s clear that for Wang, the question of the carceral state is a deeply personal one – the investment in her ideas is driven by moral, intellectual, and theoretical concerns, but also a real sense of pain. At times, she is able to communicate her and her family’s experience in a way that feels visceral and raw – something that is rare but so important in scholarly work about prisons. “How does someone experience the passing of time when he is condemned to live out his entire adult life in prison?” she asks the reader in the latter half of the book.
“The insistence on innocence results in a refusal to hear those labeled guilty or defined by the state as ‘criminals,” writes Wang in “Against Innocence,” an essay that appears near the end of the book (it was initially published in 2012 in Lies: A Journal of Materialist Feminism). In this essay, Wang points out that the black people most commonly exemplified as victims of police violence are those more easily cast as “good” or “innocent”: people who were unarmed, who were loving fathers or partners, who engaged with law enforcement in a respectful or decorous manner. The most expedient way for people of color to demand protection from racialized state violence erases or invisibilizes any linkages to blackness, which racist American norms associate with criminality and wrongdoing. “When we rely on appeals to innocence, we foreclose a form of resistance that is outside the limits of law and instead ally ourselves with the state,” Wang writes.
Wang’s book is primarily focused on black experiences under American carceral capitalism, and I found myself wondering, as I read, how her ideas might also be applied to the prosecution and targeting of Muslims. In the past decade it’s become more commonplace for anti-prison and police organizers to explicitly debate the politics of innocence – for example, Black Lives Matters activists have pushed back against journalistic narratives that link police murders of black people to their criminal records. There are tensions amongst activists about how and when to push for reforms, and whether solutions proposed by police and city agencies – e.g. police body cameras – will actually address the roots of police violence. These conversations, though, have rarely touched upon how the public speaks about and conceives of alleged terrorists and “extremists.” “Good” Muslims are ones who are unthreatening, who see themselves as proud Americans, who don’t ascribe to anti-Zionist politics or more militant forms of anti-imperialism, who don’t make white Americans feel uneasy, uncomfortable, or unsafe. But such requirements only enforce the logic that it’s the state’s responsibility to protect (white) society from “bad” Muslims. Most progressives and liberals are firmly rooted to the premise that “we” ought to be protected from the Muslims who seek to do us harm, that the question isn’t whether counter-terrorism policies should be implemented, just if the FBI, CIA or NYPD have gone too far. Rejecting a politics of innocence in the context of the War on Terror means refusing to accept state violence as less harmful than other forms of political violence – and beginning from the premise that if US foreign and domestic policy are the principal drivers of acts of terror, the US national security state certainly can’t be the solution.
In Carceral Capitalism, Wang aims to “draw attention to the ways in which the carceral techniques of the state are shaped by – and work in tandem with – the imperatives of global capitalism,” and at that she succeeds. Although the book’s employment of Marxist and critical theory is complicated to the point of making the text inaccessible to the casual or non-academic reader, Wang’s analysis provides an important intervention into the often-narrow way that progressives and liberals have conceived of the prison industrial complex in a neoliberal era. It’s not private prisons that are the issue, but how criminality, race and punishment are bound up with late capitalism and the state’s desperate drive to accumulate security and capital.
Nor could the book be timelier. President Trump’s greatest success thus far have been implementing his neo-conservative agenda; it seems inevitable that his promise to restore “law and order” to the United States will erode some of the small gains made in criminal justice reform in recent years. While his inauguration has in many ways sparked political resistance and dissent, it’s also narrowed (or distracted) the scope of the progressive public’s focus back to specific ‘evil’ corporations and people – Trump and his cabinet of devilish billionaires, the booming private prison industry, and so on. Carceral Capitalism helped me understand how we’ve arrived at this moment, but also what might lie ahead – it’s a chilling reminder of just how vulnerable we are to the ebbs and flows of the carceral state. Wang’s expansive analytical vision is an important antidote to the present political moment and a crucial read for anyone invested in abolitionist politics and praxis.