On Capitalism and Mass Incarceration
October 22, 2020
Strawmen of the Standard Story
In April 2019, New York State passed bail reform without much fanfare beyond local government and criminal justice reform circles. The final bill eliminated cash bail for about 90 percent of arrests statewide, while giving judges the discretion to set bail for domestic violence or sex-related charges. It also allowed judges to set nonmonetary conditions of release, including pre-trial supervision. In other words, the reforms involved compromises that maintained and even expanded carceral supervision outside of jails, but were well-designed to significantly reduce the number of people locked up pre-trial in county and city jails across the Empire State. Broome County, home to the small deindustrialized city of Binghamton, has for years been the county with the highest jail incarceration rate in New York. It is a county where crime has been falling for 20 years as the number of people locked up in the county jail has been increasing, with a number of horrific deaths in the jail over the past decade. Within two days of the new bail reform taking effect, the number of people incarcerated in the Broome County jail dropped around 20 percent.
In the months before New York’s bail legislation went into effect, stories emerged of a Long Island District Attorney touring the state, instructing his colleagues on how to subvert the new law in order to jail people who would otherwise be released under the coming reforms. And in the days following January 1, 2020, the local carceral state and its allies went on the offensive, fearmongering in the press. Conservative politicians spoke of blood on hands, and of bleeding-heart liberals siding with evil criminal forces against victims. In February, uniformed police from across the state filled the capitol building in Albany in a show of force to call for a repeal of the reforms.
As the reactionary forces of property conjured another crime-scare — evidence be damned — the self-proclaimed progressives, Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio, backpedaled, making noises about needing to consider “dangerousness” when setting bail. Even during the decades of prison expansion, when New York was building 39 new prisons in rural parts of the state between 1982 and 2000, judges in New York were precluded from taking the vague and amorphously defined concept of public safety into account when imposing pretrial detention on poor people.
As protests against police violence erupted around the state in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, “Back the Blue” rallies – in support of the police and against bail reform – blossomed like noxious and highly-cultivated garden plots from Long Island to Albany. This election season, Republican politicians in New York are running on a racist “law and order” platform, with the explicit endorsement of the police and Border Patrol. Crime has been decreasing for decades in New York State, but incarceration rates, and police and corrections budgets, are not natural phenomena that respond to statistics. Political elites, however, do shape ideology and manufacture fear in order to maintain the status quo.
The growth of the carceral state – federal and state prisons, county and city jails, Federal detention centers, police budgets, electronic surveillance, prosecutors’ offices, etc. – has proceeded apace across every political scale in the United States despite falling crime rates. And yet the specter of the dangerous criminal, summoned again by a practiced and regrouped coalition of police and their erstwhile allies in the media, haunts even the most milquetoast attempts at undoing mass incarceration. How did we get here? Why are there so many people locked up in the U.S.? And how can we better understand mass incarceration so that we might tear it down and create new relationships that foster and sustain human life?
In a recent article published in Catalyst, John Clegg and Adaner Usmani gesture at some of these questions, arguing that mass incarceration in the U.S. was a response to the increased crime of the 1960s, which was “incubated” by urban mid-century immiseration, itself “the result of two particular features of American modernization: first, the unique character of its agrarian transition; and second, its distinctive fiscal and political geography, which inhibited cross-place redistribution.” In other words, according to Clegg and Usmani, mass incarceration in the U.S. was the result of the massive post-World War II rural-to-urban migration which was exceptional in that it occurred during a period of deindustrialization. “In a sentence,” according to the authors, “the story of American mass incarceration is the story of the underdevelopment of American social democracy.”1Clegg, John, and Adaner Usmani. “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration.” Catalyst 3, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 11, 44.
Clegg and Usmani seek to correct what they describe as the “standard story” of mass incarceration. In doing so they make a number of mischaracterizations of prior scholarship in order to claim novelty status for their research. The result is a view from 35,000 feet, a correction to strawman arguments concocted by Clegg and Usmani in order to then “correct” them.2In so doing, Clegg and Usmani, intentionally or not, serve to dissuade potential readers from engaging the actual scholarship on the topic. As a Jacobin interview with Usmani emphasized in its headline, “Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong.” Their clickbait-focused efforts serve to discourage further inquiry into a complex topic. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the scholarship emphasizing the relationship between racism and class oppression is disregarded with particular fervor. “Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong: An Interview with Adaner Usmani,” March 17, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/mass-incarceration-racism-carceral-state-new-jim-crow.
This standard story in need of correction, according to Clegg and Usmani, is “that mass incarceration is a system of racialized social control, fashioned by a handful of Republican elites in defense of a racial order that was being challenged by the Civil Rights Movement.” In contrast to this caricature, they put forward what they consider to be their alternative thesis: “American penal policy at the local level is the result of the underdevelopment of American social policy at the federal level.”3Clegg, John, and Adaner Usmani. “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration.” Catalyst 3, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 11. According to the authors, this relative lack of welfare state capacity in the U.S. then produced violent crime, which in turn produced an outcry of support for punitive political solutions. As they put it, “the punitive turn in criminal justice policy was not brought about by a layer of conniving elites, but was instead the result of uncoordinated initiatives by thousands of officials at the local and state levels.”4There are a number of key points that Clegg and Usmani get right, or at least mostly so. It is true – as many others have noted as well – that the federal government receives a relatively outsized amount of attention when compared to the local and state systems of penal power, through which most people are policed and caged. However, the idea that this broader political current was without coordination misses a number of things about the historical context – chief among them being the shaping of law and order ideology and tough on crime politics. On the relative overrepresentation of the federal system, see: Pfaff, John F. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration – And How to Achieve Real Reform. New York: Basic Books, 2017. On the relationship between federal and state-level carceral policies see: Platt, Tony. Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States. First edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019. Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly. Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America. Politics and Society in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. We disagree with this characterization and their methods, on a number of counts.
First, Clegg and Usmani’s analysis of the existing scholarship is misleading. And their solution to mass incarceration – that a stronger welfare state should be fashioned magically from an unspecified “balance of class forces” – elides the actual history of struggle for an expanded welfare state in the United States. We agree that a vibrant social welfare state would have undermined the nascent system of mass incarceration. But instead of enumerating the social movement struggles for a broadened welfare state in the 1960s –and how they were stifled – Clegg and Usmani resort to nebulous comparisons with European welfare states. As Usmani described in an interview about the article, repressive penal policy is a response to “underdevelopment of social policy in the United States.”5“Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong: An Interview with Adaner Usmani,” March 17, 2020.https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/mass-incarceration-racism-carceral-state-new-jim-crow. In his estimation, this resulted from the “underdevelopment of the American labor movement.” Usmani’s whimsical answer imagines a possible history of the U.S.-as-European-style social democracy. The actual history of struggles for a robust welfare state can help move this analysis beyond a fantasy in which the U.S. might instead have become Sweden.
Parsing Race and Class
Clegg and Usmani assert that prior scholars have been inattentive to the economic and class character of the U.S.’s penal system. To make this claim, they analytically separate race from class, and then proceed to treat each as a distinct and relatively static category. Their argument is that mass incarceration is “typically understood as a system of race-based social control,” and that “partisans of the standard story” have ignored the role of class. This accusation reveals the authors’ misreading of Marxist theorizations of race. And it underscores the authors’ adherence to bourgeois scientific categories, which precludes a dialectical analysis of the actual balance of class forces. In a recent review of scholarly literature on the topic, Aviva Chomsky recently noted, “Given its disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color, virtually all studies of the carceral state see the intersections of race and class as central to its nature.”6Chomsky, Aviva. “Histories of Class and the Carceral State: A Response to Paul Durrenberger and Dimitra Doukas.” Dialectical Anthropology 42, no. 1 (March 2018): 33–50. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-018-9488-7. We agree.
Clegg and Usmani’s claim – that class is essential to understanding mass incarceration – amounts to a repackaging of a widely understood fact as revelatory insight. And while they title their article, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” they never delve further into class in a Marxist or even critical sense. Instead, they use educational attainment data as a proxy. They note that a large proportion of people who are imprisoned have low levels of educational attainment. Class, for Clegg and Usmani, is a demographic category that can be observed through a given dataset. Instead, we understand the penal system to be a key component in the entirety of capitalist social relations.
Policing, prosecution, and imprisonment secures the relations of private property. This insight has been core to the long tradition of Marxist analyses of incarceration. It was a chief concern for Marx and Engels, serving as a catalytic force in their analysis of political economy. “Class struggle first presented itself to Marx’s serious attention as a form of crime,” the historian Peter Linebaugh has emphasized.7Linebaugh, Peter. “Karl Marx, The Theft of Wood, and Working Class Composition: A Contribution to the Current Debate.” Crime and Social Justice, no. 6 (Fall/ Winter 1976): 5–16. Engels described police as engaging in a “perpetual war” with the proletarians of Manchester in the 1840s.8Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Edited by V. G Kiernan. New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books, 1987. Police today serve kindred functions – structuring the accumulation of capital, controlling public space, regulating labor relations.9Bell, Monica C., Anti-Segregation Policing (May 26, 2020). New York University Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:https://ssrn.com/abstract=3610953. LeBrón, Marisol. Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019, 11-18. Schrader, Stuart. “Harm of Law.” Art Forum, June 2020.https://www.artforum.com/print/202005/stuart-schrader-82829. And in all of these relations we can see the penal state as a key institution manufacturing racial meaning. In the U.S. capitalist society, surveillance, policing, prosecution, and imprisonment materialize racism and therefore race. Police determine who can exist on which streets and when; who can protest and how; who is deemed threatening. A racial, classed, and gendered calculus of whose lives matter structures every encounter between police and the policed.
Many scholars have contributed this tradition of Marxist analyses of the penal state, seeking to assess what role policing and imprisonment play in a given historical moment. Understanding the penal state in this way can catalyze the social forces necessary to alleviate and eliminate its power. Ruth Wilson Gilmore made the argument about the agrarian transition and underdevelopment of the U.S. welfare state – which Clegg and Usmani present as their original contribution – over two decades ago. But Gilmore has also warned against the reductive analyses that Clegg and Usmani caricature the whole field as comprising. As she notes, “‘mass incarceration’ has, unfortunately but for understandable reasons, come to stand in for ‘this is the terrible thing that happened to Black people in the United States.’ […] And insofar as ending mass incarceration becomes understood as something that only Black people must struggle for because it’s something that only Black people experience, the necessary connection to be drawn from mass incarceration to the entire organisation of capitalist space today falls out of the picture.”10Petitjean, Clément. “Prisons and Class Warfare: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore.” Verso Blog, August 2, 2018.https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3954-prisons-and-class-warfare-an-interview-with-ruth-wilson-gilmore. The goal for Gilmore, and others in this Marxist tradition, is to understand the social totality in all its complexity, not to reify class by controlling for “race,” by which the authors mean the on-hand racial categories of a given dataset.11Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore – following Stuart Hall – have called this “low-flying economism. See: Gilmore, Ruth and Craig Gilmore. “Restating the Obvious.” In Indefensible Space : The Architecture of the National Insecurity State. New York: Routledge, 2008, 142. Marx dismissed it as “the path historically followed by economics at the time of its origins,” instead favoring a method of political economy that apprehended, “the rich totality of many determinations and relations.” Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. London; New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
Unfortunately, racism in society can’t be manipulated as if it were simply another variable in a spreadsheet, which is why parsing the “economic” from the “racial” in an analysis of 20th Century U.S. society proves to be such a vexed endeavor. For example, in 1963, who are we to assume represents the “labor movement” that is fighting for the social policy that Clegg and Usmani say was needed to prevent mass incarceration’s ascent? Is it AFL-CIO leader George Meany? Meany had recently censured and threatened the expulsion of leading Black trade unionist A. Philip Randolph from the union federation’s Executive Council for Randolph’s condemnations of racism. Or, is the labor movement better represented by the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) as they organized the March on Washington, demanding a federal jobs guarantee, an end to police brutality, and more than a $15/ hour minimum wage? The AFL-CIO meanwhile, had been attempting to undermine NALC at every turn. While Clegg and Usmani naturalize the underdevelopment of the labor movement, they do their best to ignore the overdevelopment of U.S. racism, when in many ways the latter caused the former.
Meanwhile, for Clegg and Usmani, “race” and “class” operate as transparent, relatively static, and apolitical categories. Yet this analytical separation is key to what they offer as an urgent insight, one that they allege has been lacking in the existent scholarship: that class is central to mass incarceration, and deindustrialization and agrarian transition affected the balance of class forces in the U.S. Even a haphazard perusal of literature on histories of policing and imprisonment would reveal their claim to novelty as baseless.12See for example: Harring, Sidney L. Policing a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915. Second edition with new introduction. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2017. Center for Research on Criminal Justice. The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U.S. Police. Second Edition. Berkeley Center for Research on Criminal Justice, 1977. LeBrón, Marisol. Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019. Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Camp, Jordan T. Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016. Schrader, Stuart. Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. American Crossroads 56. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019. Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. De Giorgi, Alessandro. Re-Thinking the Political Economy of Punishment: Perspectives on Post-Fordism and Penal Politics. Advances in Criminology. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007. Camp, Jordan T., and Christina Heatherton, eds. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. London ; New York: Verso, 2016. Donner, Frank J. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s 2007 book Golden Gulag is the most useful and grounded historical materialist analysis of the so-called economic origins of mass incarceration in the United States. Gilmore situates the California prison boom post-1970 in the context of the shifting global political economy, the changing organic composition of capital, the evolving political constraints on the municipal bond market, and the legal and extra-legal (bureaucratic) struggles over state power and capacity. Her analysis ties mass incarceration to the agrarian question in the U.S. South and then the San Joaquin Valley, and places mass criminalization within a discussion of the falling rate of profit and post-war capitalism. Gilmore also shows how mass incarceration in California has been a project of spatial crisis resolution, producing and reproducing agrarian and industrial regions into new formations and relationships.
Golden Gulag is historically and geographically specific while serving as a methodological guidebook, one with which Clegg and Usmani’s analysis – with its orientation toward bourgeois scientific categories and neoclassical economics – cannot engage. The authors do cite Golden Gulag, in a throwaway footnote, as a “structural account,” but in their rush to distinguish themselves from the partisans of the so-called “standard story,” they ignore much of the substantive Marxist scholarship on the role of prisons and incarceration in the reproduction of capitalist social relations. What they offer instead is a sort of mirror image of a caricatured liberal argument about racism having created mass incarceration, without a discussion of what racism is materially. Gilmore’s definition of racism as the “state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” is key to analyzing both the origins and changing concrete conditions of mass criminalization without having to try and explain away reality.13Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007: 28). Yet Clegg and Usmani, to paraphrase Marx, remain captive to economic and social categories as they find them.14Marx, Karl. Theories of Surplus-Value, Part III (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971: 254). Or, to paraphrase Engels, where Clegg and Usmani see a solution – in the categories of race, class, and crime – Marxist scholars of incarceration see only the problem.15Engels, Frederick. “Preface to the first edition of Capital, Volume II, 1884. In Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume II (New York: Penguin Books, 1992, 97-98).
BUT WHAT ABOUT CRIME?
Clegg and Usmani claim that “crime, and not the conflict over civil rights, drove the public’s attitudes towards punishment.” This analytical distinction is nebulous at best. In the political imagination of the period, crime was tangled together with civil rights and anti-communism. As historian of policing Stuart Schrader has emphasized, “Law and order as an ideology and an epithet was always anti-communist, always political.”16Schrader, Stuart. Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. American Crossroads 56. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019.
For 1960s policymakers – operating during the Cold War – crime, civil rights, communism, and the looming expansion of the welfare state were braided together.17Camp, Jordan T. Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016. Hinton, Elizabeth Kai. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Harvard University Press, 2016. Murakawa, Naomi. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Schrader, Stuart. Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. American Crossroads 56. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019. In May 1968, when Arkansas Senator John McClellan argued on the Senate floor for the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, a watershed piece of federal crime policy, he invoked popular fear of the civil rights movement and the Poor People’s Campaign.18For more on the importance of this law, see: Malcolm Feeley and Austin Sarat, The Policy Dilemma: Federal Crime Policy and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980); Vesla Weaver, “Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy,” Studies in American Political Development 21, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 235–65; Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Elizabeth Kai Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). McClellan quoted the Southern Christian Leadership’s Conference’s James Bevel’s demands for economic justice – guaranteed jobs or income – and argued that the new crime bill was needed to stymie this movement. “Senators should understand they are not requests, they are demands…Force, intimidation, and coercion, if it becomes the process by which we govern ourselves in this country, will destroy our liberty and force an end to the sovereignty of government,” McClellan warned. To arrest this movement, McClellan sought to increase the federal, state, and local capacity to criminalize the multiracial working-class.19Stein, David. “Containing Keynesianism in an Age of Civil Rights: Jim Crow Monetary Policy and the Struggle for Guaranteed Jobs, 1956-1979.” In Beyond the New Deal Order: U.S. Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, edited by Gary Gerstle, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Alice O’Connor, 1st edition. Politics and Culture in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019, 135-136. 114 Cong. Rec. 12963–64 (May 13, 1968) (statement of Sen. John McClellan). As the Poor People’s Campaign camped on the Washington Mall in the Spring of 1968, crime and civil rights were not meaningful distinctions for those on Capitol Hill.20At a different jurisdictional scale, see: Berger, Dan. Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 20-48. Even President Johnson’s former Attorney General emphasized this point just months after leaving office. In an introduction to a book on the 1968 law, he wrote: “The problem [of crime] took on political overtones as a result of the attention given to ‘law and order,’ to civil-rights activities, ghetto riots, radical student demonstrations, and the growing number of anti-Vietnam acts of protest.”21Harris, Richard. The Fear of Crime. Praeger, 1969, 7.
But even if we were to ignore these statements from policymakers and agree with Clegg and Usmani’s claim that crime and civil rights could be teased apart in public opinion data, they fail to account for how public attitudes translate into public policy. They write, “In reaction to soaring crime rates, the American public, white and black alike, demanded redress from the state.” Public opinion, however, doesn’t shepherd legislation through the Senate; Senators do. Why and under what conditions politicians respond to public opinion matters. For example, public opinion has regularly supported measures to decrease unemployment, yet legislative coalitions are not forged by mere public opinion. In 1944, buoyed by mass social movements, 2 out of 3 people wanted the federal government to provide jobs for all. The 1945 Full Employment bill passed the Senate 71-10, before being stifled in the House by Mississippi’s William Whittington and Alabama’s Carter Manasco.22Stein, David, Dean Baker, and Sarah Rawlings. “The Full Employment Mandate of the Federal Reserve: Its Origins and Importance.” The Center for Economic and Policy Research; Fed Up; The Center for Popular Democracy, July 2017. Perhaps Clegg and Usmani would have us believe that these Jim Crow politicians just didn’t read the polls. Right now, 55% of voters back Medicare for All, yet Joe Biden has warned he would veto such a bill.
Polling does not mean a legislative coalition is going to coalesce at whatever jurisdictional scale to do something about a demand. Nor can public opinion be treated as a simple statistical fact, unmediated by political elites – especially as it pertains to crime and drugs, which have long been a means of discussing racism and thus capitalist class relations.23Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. In order to reduce spending, the Reagan administration sought to actively cultivate public opinion and incorporate the media into the War on Drugs. As Frederick Ryan, Jr., future publisher of the Washington Post and then an assistant to the President, wrote in a memo on drug policy: “We must shift the debate from the cost that the federal government is willing to pay, to an emphasis on the role that all Americans must play.”24Ryan Jr., Frederick. “Memorandum for Donald T. Regan Regarding Private Sector Involvement in Drug Initiatives,” August 13, 1986. W. Dennis Thomas Files, Box 12, Folder: Drug Initiative (1). Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Digital Library Collections.https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/digitallibrary/smof/cos/thomas/box-012/40-561-7259862-012-001-2019.pdf. The media was among the key private sector organizations upon which the Reagan administration relied to fight its war on crime.25Scholars have documented many other instances of this broader phenomenon. See: Reeves, Jimmie, and Richard Campbell. Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. LeBrón, Marisol. Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019, 19. Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 1., vintage books ed. New York: Random House, 1992, 281.
Further, bourgeois elites, not polling, were catalytic forces in the Reagan administration’s crime strategy. Reagan’s first entrance in the War on Drugs, which Clegg and Usmani rightly downplay, was propelled by a local Miami Chamber of Commerce.26Clegg and Usmani appropriately follow some lessons of past scholarship, including that the War on Drugs is not the sole cause of mass incarceration. Those held on drug charges comprise about one-fifth of people in prisons and jails. The New Jim Crow has appropriately been criticized for its relative over-emphasis on drug criminalization. However, on the ground there was not a clean break between drug offenses and those categorized as property or violence — they were, and still are, interlaced. See: Pfaff, John F. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration – And How to Achieve Real Reform. New York: Basic Books, 2017. Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020.” Prison Policy Initiative, March 24, 2020.https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html. The organization created Miami Citizens Against Crime, which was led by the owner of the Knight-Ridder News Organization. The group wanted to juice tourism and prevailed on the President to create the South Florida Task Force – the opening salvo of his drug war.27Stein, David. Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929-1986. University of North Carolina Press, Forthcoming. Yet, Clegg and Usmani would have us believe that public opinion on crime is not influenced by ideology or powerful political actors. As they write, “The public panicked not because political entrepreneurs emerged, but because crime rose precipitously.”28Even FiveThirtyEight portrays a more complicated view of the relationship between ideology and perceptions of crime. See: Koerth, Maggie, and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux. “Many Americans Are Convinced Crime Is Rising In The U.S. They’re Wrong.” FiveThirtyEight, August 3, 2020. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-americans-are-convinced-crime-is-rising-in-the-u-s-theyre-wrong.
It would be foolish to believe that violent crime plays no role in the penal system, and Clegg and Usmani correctly emphasize that the homicide rate spiked after 1960. But the error of disregarding violent crime would be exceeded by the error of believing that crime is a simple relation of law-breaking, which police then respond to with scientific precision, or assuming that it can be disaggregated from its racially and economically segregated geographic context. Crime – fear of it and political responses to it – is not a transparent, apolitical category. As Stuart Hall and his coauthors noted in their classic account of law and order in Britain, “Statistics – whether crime rates or opinion polls – have an ideological function: they appear to ground free floating and controversial impressions in the hard, incontrovertible soil of numbers.” Moreover, they questioned the strategic deployment of crime statistics, emphasizing that “public anxiety about particular ‘highlighted’ offences also leads to ‘over-reporting.’” Further still, they reminded that “crime statistics are based on legal (not sociological) categories.”29Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State, and Law and Order. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1978.
Of course, those legal categories still matter. The places and people who have experienced organized abandonment by capital – and the loss of jobs, decent schools, and adequate healthcare – face down myriad harms, from asthma to assault.30Lambert, Léopold. “Making Abolition Geography in California Central Valley WIth Ruth Wilson Gilmore.” The Funambulist, January-February 2019. https://thefunambulist.net/making-abolition-geography-in-californias-central-valley-with-ruth-wilson-gilmore. Harvey, David. The Limits to Capital. New ed. London: Verso, 1999, 397. Dillon, Lindsey, and Julie Sze. “Police Power and Particulate Matters: Environmental Justice and the Spatialities of In/Securities in US Cities.” English Language Notes 54, no. 2 (September 1, 2016): 13–23.Dillon, Lindsey, and Julie Sze. “Equality in the Air We Breathe: Police Violence, Pollution, and the Politics of Sustainability.” In Sustainability: Approaches to Environmental Justice and Social Power, edited by Julie Sze. NYU Press, 2018. While most crime indices only express the latter, the former is important. Having your wages stolen, whether by a boss or someone else, is all the more deadly when the price of your inhaler is spiking.31It’s noteworthy as well that wage theft outpaces robberies in terms of financial impact. While Clegg and Usmani might believe that this is due to a lack of policing, we argue it has everything to do with policing under capitalism. Eisenbrey, Ross. “Wage Theft Is a Bigger Problem Than Other Theft — But Not Enough Is Done to Protect Workers.” Economic Policy Institute, 2014.https://www.epi.org/publication/wage-theft-bigger-problem-theft-protect/.
None of this diminishes the real harm of assault or other forms of criminalized violence. Clegg and Usmani claim that “Critics of mass incarceration often ignore crime because they worry that acknowledging it would be to blame mass incarceration on individual choices.” But this is simply not true. Organizations like the Creative Interventions, among myriad others, have worked for years to address violence without retrenching mass incarceration – a set of practices that Marisol LeBrón has described as “security from below.”32LeBrón, Marisol. Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019, 202-231. LeBrón, alongside historians like Simon Balto and Max Felker-Kantor, similarly document grassroots struggles that used a variety of tactics to address violence in their respective studies on Puerto Rico, Chicago, and Los Angeles.33Felker-Kantor, Max. Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018, 211-215. Balto, Simon. Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Usmani, however, suggests that crime results from “under-policing and under-protection.”34This statement was made by Usmani alone in an interview about the article. Although we do not know if it is a view held by Clegg as well, it does harmonize with his analysis in past writing. See: “Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong: An Interview with Adaner Usmani,” March 17, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/mass-incarceration-racism-carceral-state-new-jim-crow. Clegg, John, and Robert Lucas. “Brown vs. Ferguson.” Endnotes, no. 4 (2015). We disagree. Instead, so-called under-protection results from the role of policing in capitalist society.
However, Clegg and Usmani highlight the scholarship of James Forman, Jr. and Michael Fortner to claim that “‘get tough’ politics became political common sense in black communities as well.” They write, “It is not clear, in other words, that an America shorn of anti-black animus would have been an America without any brand of law-and-order politics.” Woozy counterfactuals about a racism-free American history aside, the actual events that the authors gloss over were more complicated – a point made clear in Forman’s book where he foregrounds an “all-of the-above approach” that both sought to reduce crime via increased policing and harsh punishment and by addressing inequality.35Clegg and Usmani do acknowledge Forman’s analysis of the all-of-the-above strategy, yet they still conflate Forman’s evidence and arguments with “get tough” common sense. The words might be similar, but their meaning was different. See: Forman, Jr., James. Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. First Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, 12-13, 157. Murakawa, Naomi. “Mass Incarceration Is Dead, Long Live the Carceral State!” Tulsa Law Review 55, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 257-8. Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly. Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America. Politics and Society in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017, 96-97.
It is true that factions within Black communities have often decried under-protection and demanded a comprehensive set of remedies. These have run the gamut from self-organized patrols and crime hotlines; to jobs programs; to the easing of gang hostilities36This strategy was particularly threatening to local police and the FBI, and often undermined with significant aggression.; to demands for more responsive policing. Each of these demands has been rooted in the particularities of time, region, class, gender, and ideology – and, of course, inflected by which people have been empowered to speak for the “Black community.”37Fortner, Michael Javen. Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015, 136. Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly. Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America. Politics and Society in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017, 96-99. When such demands did seek increases in policing, it was often middle-class men, newspaper editorial boards, or ministers promoting this message.38See, for example: “Open Letter To PCP Dealers & Other Dogs!” The Los Angeles Sentinel, September 25, 1980. This does not make the call for more police illegitimate, but rather, a specific one that is often audible given the position of its speakers within an ideologically fragmented (and often racially segregated) polity.39Connolly, N.D.B. “Games of Chance: Jim Crow’s Entrepreneurs Bet on Law and Order.” In What’s Good for Business: Business and American Politics since World War II, edited by Kim Phillips-Fein and Julian E. Zelizer. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. This approach should also be seen within the wide-ranging struggles of Black activists for a responsive and equitable government: for decent schools, roads, and broader government infrastructure. It was a response to malign neglect from white supremacist state institutions.
None of these complexities should be surprising. One of the coherent threads of Black political history is the search for safety from violence – racist, economic, environmental, and interpersonal. But calling for safety from violence and fashioning myriad strategies to achieve it should not be confused with “get tough” politics as practiced by legislators.40This is a key distinction that Clegg and Usmani could have gleaned from, among other texts, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America. As Kohler-Hausmann notes, “‘Getting tough’ aggrandized the views of people with cultural, political, and economic capital.” See: Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly. Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America. Politics and Society in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 5. (Nor does it mean that those calls drove the votes in legislatures or the broader policy agenda.) When researchers take the time to listen to the tone of the political demands, rarely do they appear as simply ‘get tough’ political common sense. Balto’s work is exemplary in this respect. “The sheer breadth of ways that citizens fought for a more responsive police system, more humane treatment, and a safer community is so expansive that it is impossible to capture all of it,” he writes.41Balto, Simon. Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 226. Among other political groups and organizations that Balto documents is the Black Crime Commission, dedicated to halting crime in Black Chicago. But they framed their agenda as seeking to compel law enforcement to “truly serve and protect human rights, not property rights.”42Balto, Simon. Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 234-35. Though this group wanted to eradicate crime, this is hardly equivalent to “get tough” politics. Clegg has made similar elisions in his earlier writing on Black politics, such as when he alleges that “many policy proposals from Black Lives Matter activists merely amount to some version of ‘more black cops.’”43Clegg, John, and Robert Lucas. “Brown vs. Ferguson.” Endnotes, no. 4 (2015). The example that Clegg uses to support this claim is a quote from a Colorlines article in 2015, which Clegg truncates to “more black cops.” The quote in the original interview was: “I know it’s the most hated position in the world right now, but one of the things that could [also] be a big change is to have community leaders actually be police officers and set the law enforcement policies—if we’re going to have police, that is. We already have community leaders that can de-escalate conflicts in the neighborhood, but what if that was supported by a policy agenda?” Shahid, Waleed. The Interrupters, Colorlines, 14 August 2015. [italics added] Furthermore, it is important to delineate what the goal is when victimized people seek safety – their vision is rarely restricted to punishment.44Sered, Danielle. Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair. New York: The New Press, 2019, 29.
Forman’s book shows that regardless of the specific demands for freedom from violence, more police has generally been the only thing on offer. As Balto has said of Chicago, “when we look at the black community’s repeated struggles to receive effective and fair police policies for their neighborhoods, whether in the 1920s or the 1940s or the 1960s (or the 2010s), what we see is little beyond frustration.”45Balto, Simon. Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 8. In contrast to Usmani’s claims, this has not been a problem of too little policing. While Usmani frets about violent crime and so-called “under-policing” in St. Louis, lawyer, writer, and activist Derecka Purnell describes policing in her Black neighborhood of St. Louis as a “placebo.” Although people in her neighborhood called the police incessantly, “police couldn’t do what we really needed,” she writes. “They could not heal relationships or provide jobs….When the cops arrived, I was silenced, threatened with detention, or removed from my home.”46Purnell, Derecka. “How I Became a Police Abolitionist.” The Atlantic, July 6, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/how-i-became-police-abolitionist/613540/.
Harm, whether criminalized or otherwise, is real. But policing and imprisonment deepen it, destabilizing families and neighborhoods, destroying lives. Yet, Usmani suggests that abolitionist efforts to scale back the power of policing and prisons “makes much less sense in the world in which we live.”47“Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong: An Interview with Adaner Usmani,” March 17, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/mass-incarceration-racism-carceral-state-new-jim-crow While Usmani assesses under-protection of Black people as a problem of under-policing, we view it as a result of the overprotection of property in a racist, patriarchal, and capitalist society. This is a lesson deepened by viewing the world where George Floyd is murdered over an allegedly forged $20 bill and Breonna Taylor is murdered as police seek to clear her neighborhood for gentrification.48Beck, Brenden. “The Role of Police in Gentrification.” The Appeal, August 4, 2020. https://theappeal.org/the-role-of-police-igentrification-breonna-taylor/.
The Balance of Magical Forces
Clegg and Usmani ask “why did the state respond to this crisis with police and prisons rather than with social reform?”49Clegg, John, and Adaner Usmani. “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration.” Catalyst 3, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 11. Their answer? The “balance of class forces.” Analyzing the balance of class forces is a method – one we share – yet the invocation of the balance of class forces is not an answer in itself, and Clegg and Usmani neglect to outline what these class forces were.
Instead, they dream up an imagined social democracy of the 1960s without attending to how it would be constructed. They valorize President Kennedy and President Johnson, while acknowledging what John Kenneth Galbraith decried as the “reactionary Keynesian” impulse in the Kennedy-Johnson administration.50They misattribute the term, however, to Doris Kearnes Goodwin. But this decision – to use tax cuts instead of jobs programs to stimulate the economy while ignoring rising Black unemployment – was decided already, when Kennedy selected Walter Heller to run his Council of Economic Advisors. Heller pushed the 1962 and 1964 tax cuts to stimulate demand and respond to cyclical unemployment. The 1963 March on Washington and the 1966 Freedom Budget (toward which Clegg and Usmani gesture) were responses to widespread Black unemployment, about which Kennedy and Johnson were ambivalent. When A. Philip Randolph pressed Kennedy on the jobs demands from the March on Washington, the president told him that Black people should do what Jews had done to advance in the economy: study hard. When Willard Wirtz of the Labor Department asked Johnson for jobs programs to be put in the War on Poverty, the president stared at him blankly and refused to even dignify it with a response.51Yarmolinsky, Adam. Oral History Interview with Adam Yarmolinsky. Interview by Michael L. Gillette, October 21, 1980. The Miller Center, University of Virginia, 4-5. Stein, David. Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929-1986. University of North Carolina Press, Forthcoming.
Clegg and Usmani claim later that 1960s liberals tried to address crime with root causes by stating that “In the 1960s, federal expenditures on social programs grew far more than federal expenditures on police, prisons, and the courts.” But this data point really only shows that the Great Society, especially Medicare and Medicaid, were transformative and expensive social programs – not that liberals tried to address crime at its roots. And this comes right after they say – correctly – that social spending would be necessary at a tremendous magnitude, one not pursued, let alone implemented, by liberals.
So, who were these liberals and where do they fit in the balance of class forces? Again, we get scant concrete analysis, along with hazy appeals to the Kerner Commission report, and to a social democracy that “should-have-been.”52One of the key researchers for the Kerner Commission report has recently commented that “before we dove into the mass of data coming back from riot cities, and before we took a stab at making sense of it all, top staff directors had already settled on what the Kerner Report was to say.” And further, he confirms scholarship on the Commission that the Report was largely an effort to smooth factions within the group – between those pushing greater social welfare expansions and those pushing more carceral expansions. See: Shellow, Robert Scott, Michael C. Dawson, David O. Sears, David Boesel, and Gary T. Marx, eds. The Harvest of American Racism: The Political Meaning of Violence in the Summer of 1967. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. It was hoped by its authors that the Freedom Budget would be pursued legislatively by Senators Jacob Javitz and Bobby Kennedy. But that plan had limited efficacy due to the timing of the Freedom Budget and the Republican victories in the 1966 elections. By January 1968, the Freedom Budget was being ignored on capitol hill by liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action – a choice that provoked so much ire from the Freedom Budget’s lead author, Leon Keyserling, that he resigned from the organization.53Keyserling Resigns as Vice Chairman of ADA.” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1968. Keyserling, Leon H. “Letter to the Board of Americans for Democratic Action,” January 29, 1968. Box: 61, Folder: 8. Albert Glotzer Papers, The Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University. So, yes, social spending did increase in the 60s – Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid, and all the rest. But there was no substantive legislative effort to address the root causes of crime with social welfare policy.
Further, social welfare spending in this period ran into a specific class force – the racist and patriarchal roadblocks of a Jim Crow Congress. The most powerful person in Congress at the time was Arkansas’ Wilbur Mills, who controlled the House Ways and Means Committee. When Johnson lobbied Mills for an income tax increase, Mills responded by demanding a cap on federal money for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Why? Mills told the President, “across town from my mother in Arkansas a Negro woman has a baby every year. Every time I go home, my mother complains. She’s now got eleven children. My proposal will stop this.”54Califano, Joseph A. Governing America: An Insider’s Report from the White House and the Cabinet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981, 350. Any dreamy appeal to social democracy that disregards racism and patriarchy ignores the concrete history of the balance of class forces in and beyond the United States.
Clegg and Usmani also take pains to both dismiss the role of racism and naturalize it. They suggest that white flight simply amounts to capital flight, a result of plant locations and “America’s peculiar fiscal geography.” This separation is fictive. The U.S. racial apartheid system of housing is a result of redlining, as well as unequal access to credit and labor markets. Efforts to undermine this regime were met with violence. Racist defenders of that so-called peculiar fiscal geography bombed homes of Black families from Cleveland to Chicago to Long Island.55Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 78-79.
In addition, one wonders who exactly controlled investment and plant siting decisions in the 1950s and 1960s – certainly not Fannie Lou Hamer. Clegg and Usmani’s erasure of the role of redlining is oddly similar to that of George Romney’s as he left his position leading the Department Housing and Urban Development. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has explained that in the case of Romney, this style of mystification operated as a “historical sleight of hand.” As Taylor and many others have shown, it was redlining that “contributed to the out-migration of white taxpayers and businesses that abandoned the city for lower taxes and land on which to conduct business on cheaper terms.”56Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 223-224.
Clegg and Usmani also note, in the passive voice, that as a result of capital flight, “overcrowded schools lost funding.” But this reasoning does not attend to the struggles to desegregate education, nor to the white terror deployed to resist it. For example, Richmond Judge Robert Merhige, as a result of his rulings in favor of desegregation, faced daily violence. As legal scholar James Ryan described, “by the middle of the [1970s], he required twenty-four-hour protection by U.S. marshals. Segregationists spat in his face, threatened his family, shot his dog, and bombed the cottage on his property where his mother-in-law lived.”57Ryan, James E. Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. In Michigan, when a judge established a districtwide desegregation plan for the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, members of the local Ku Klux Klan responded by bombing ten of the town’s school buses.58Delmont, Matthew F. Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. American Crossroads 42. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016, 145.
Considering their investments in the category of violent crime, Clegg and Usmani seem curiously serene about the practices that upheld segregation. They would instead have us believe that such tactics are simply “caste-based remedies [of exclusion],” and that “such strategies were rational, even if suboptimal in the long run” – effectively rationalizing and apologizing for racism. Efforts to ameliorate what Clegg and Usmani describe as the peculiar fiscal geography go unacknowledged, and they mystify the racism that determined said fiscal geography. They also fail to mention busing, metropolitan-scale school funding, or the Supreme Court’s 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision prohibiting desegregation unless school district lines were created with racist intent. There were – and are – little Little Rocks scattered across America: ramparts protecting white capitalist investments in apartheid schools, workplaces, and houses. And these fiefdoms were defended with both vigilante and state violence.
Such disinterest in the daily activities that upheld the U.S. apartheid structure is part of a pattern of passive voice construction that occurs in their article. There are precious few actors in Clegg and Usmani’s analysis. They write, ”American cities in the 1960s were characterized by the collision of two sets of facts, one stable and one changing. On top of an existing pattern of racial discrimination and the economic exclusion of African Americans came the transformation of the urban economy, the continued urbanization of Southern blacks, and middle-class flight.” What happened to the “urban economy”? For all their supposed focus on the economic, there is very little analysis of capitalism. Urban labor markets, they say, were simply “deteriorating.” But redlining, balance of trade problems, the stagflation crisis, the Federal Reserve’s high interest rate policy, these don’t come up in their narrative. Nor do efforts to mitigate these economic circumstances, such as the Comprehensive Employment Training Act – which at its height provided public service jobs for upwards of 750,000 people – or the efforts of Coretta Scott King and the Full Employment Action Council to expand the public sector via a federal job guarantee. Instead of class conflict over the role of the state during the ascent of neoliberalism, we get “a collision of two sets of facts.” This is pretty thin gruel as far Marxist analysis goes.
Mass incarceration can’t be solved by simply bemoaning a lack of social democracy. Rather, it must be confronted through political struggle. Clegg and Usmani are correct to point out that the growth of prisons and jails over the past four decades has been, in a sense, an austerity measure. Gilmore made this point years ago, and took it much further, in her analysis of California and with her theorizations of “the antistate state.”59As Gilmore writes, “A new kind of state — an antistate state — is being built on prison foundations. The antistate state depends on ideological and rhetorical dismissal of any agency or capacity that ‘government’ might use to guarantee social well-being. Beginning with the premise that social wages in the shape of tax dollars belong to all of us, inasmuch as we produced them, people can organize at some political-geographic levels to take charge of resources and turn them to life-enhancing use.” Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007. She also helped build coalitions like Californians United for a Responsible Budget, whose member organizations have been fighting for decades to redirect spending from the carceral state to the welfare state while expanding the latter. As Clegg and Usmani rightly note, there is only so much welfare state capacity that state and local budgets have – but movements must be built in specific political geographies.
The protest movements of the past five months show that there are broad constituencies fed up with mass incarceration and oppressive policing, who see racism as a part of increasing immiseration, and who may be prepared to fashion something else. These actions are registering in debates about public budgets – which are debates over the futures that those budgets produce. But one thing is clear: the carceral state will have to be unmade through struggle, through abolition. In that journey, political analysis is key; analysis that takes racism seriously as an integral feature of capitalism. As the case of New York’s bail reform indicates, there is a dialectical motion to these power struggles. Those with a stake in the status quo will seek to undermine even modest reforms. We agree that redistribution will be key to ending mass incarceration. Any attempt to get there, however, must go past Rubik’s Cube socialism and jaundiced history and consider the world as it is.