- The common leftist explanation for this is “the prison-industrial complex,” suggesting that the buildup is largely privatized and has been driven by parasitic corporate lobbying. But the facts don’t support an economistic explanation. Private prisons only control 8 percent of prison beds. Nor do for-profit corporations use much prison labor. Nor even are guards’ unions, though strong in a few important states, driving the buildup.
I also thought this was interesting:
- In other words, among the important things criminal justice does is regulate, absorb, terrorize, and disorganize the poor. At the same time it promulgates politically useful racism. Criminal justice discourse is the racism circus; from courts to reality TV it is the primary ideological site for producing the false consciousness that is American racism.
Why is racism false consciousness? Because it divides the working class and causes people of all races to misunderstand their real material conditions. It creates, via racialized scapegoats, pseudo-explanations for poverty and exploitation, deluding and frightening downwardly mobile voters.
Most important, the criminal justice crackdown and overuse of incarceration allows capitalism to have the positive effects of mass unemployment (lower wages due to an economically frightened workforce) without the political destabilization that mass poverty can bring. Unlike a robust social safety net, incarceration and militarized policing absorb the poor and working class without empowering them or subsidizing their rebellion, as was the case during the sixties and seventies.
Unlike the soft forms of social control — meaning the ameliorative and redistributive welfare programs of the Great Society — the new model of social control does not come with dangerous notions of “equality” and “social inclusion.”
Today, the poor are thoroughly locked down, as is our political imagination about what poverty means. Law enforcement has moved to the center of domestic politics; state violence is perhaps more than ever a constant, regular, and normal feature of poor people’s lives.
Simply stated, capitalism needs poverty and creates poverty, but is simultaneously always threatened by poverty. The poor keep wages down, but they also create trouble in three ways.
First, their presence calls into question capitalism’s moral claims (the system can’t work for “everyone” when beggars are in the street). Second, the poor threaten and menace the moneyed classes aesthetically and personally simply by being in the wrong spaces. Gourmet dining isn’t quite the same when done in the presence of mendicant paupers. And finally, the poor threaten to rebel in organized and unorganized ways as they did in the sixties and seventies.
Capitalism will never escape these contradictions. The best it can do is manage them with criminal justice, the ideological racialization of poverty, and the geographic segregation of the poor.