Capitalism, unemployment and mass incarceration
January 11, 2012
As we go to print, the Occupy arrests counter has reached 5,861. Nearly every Occupy site in cities across the country has been evicted and blockaded—mostly under the direction of Democratic Party mayors in coordination with federal authorities.
If arrests on this scale had taken place in Syria or Iran—countries whose governments the U.S. government wants to subvert and overthrow—the leading corporate newspapers would be running front-page sympathetic articles and crafting the most sensational headlines based on nameless sources and unverified speculation.
But on a social movement just a phone call or short drive away, they have either fallen silent, distorted the movement’s message, or called for a more rapid crackdown.
The nationwide assault on civil rights and civil liberties carried out by U.S. police and other security forces receives no such critical evaluation. This was made clear in the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention without due process of any person (including U.S. citizens) deemed terrorist suspects. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Democratic Party White House. What was missing from the bourgeois coverage, which discussed the “potential” for civil rights abuses, was the extent to which the national security state is already a dominant feature of our society.
Look at the staggering incarceration rate which has made the United States the world’s largest jailer. Look at the 700,000 people who were stopped and frisked by NYC police officers last year—85 percent of whom were Black or Latino. Look at the over 1 million people deported under the Obama administration.
The individual cases of cops gone wild, which the capitalist media runs as oddity, just give a face to these trends. There’s the African American teenager deported to Colombia on a case of “mistaken identity”—putting a spotlight on the deportation-crazy immigration system. There’s the 5-year-old in small Charlton, Mass., who was visited by police because of overdue library books. There’s the 13-year-old in Albuquerque handcuffed and arrested for “burping audibly” in gym class, a reflection of the militarization of public schools. There’s the practice of the Atlanta police, now facing scrutiny, of conducting full cavity searches on public streets.
We could list incidents like this all day. Excessive force has become the norm. Far too often, once the heavily-policed students turn into adults, such encounters with the state end with them injured, tasered or killed. Black and Latino men are the prime targets, but hardly the only ones.
These stories reflect not just a security culture run amok, but the tendency of modern capitalism to address its economic contradictions through force and mass incarceration. Under the three heavy blows of neoliberal policies, automation and a depressed economy, tens of millions have been cast out of the productive operations of the economy altogether. They have become in the eyes of Wall Street “surplus workers.”
The phenomenon of surplus workers confronted capitalism in Europe. The solution then was to ship these surplus populations to North America and Australia to colonize new lands in the first phase of capitalist globalization. Today, the prisons are the dumping grounds for millions of working class people who the capitalists don't need in the process of normal production. Once incarcerated and having lost all rights to unionize or protest, however, these same "surplus workers" are employed by the Prison-Industrial Complex as virtual slaves.
A massive police-industrial-complex has developed to manage this “surplus” population, which has been historically concentrated in Black urban communities, but increasingly includes wider sections of the population. The Occupy movement, and the response of the state, demonstrates these trends.
On Jan. 14, there will be an important “Jobs, Not Jails” march and rally in Washington, D.C. It comes as new groups of students have started to organize against mass incarceration. This is an opportunity for the Occupy movement to link its own struggle against repression with the mass incarceration and police harassment of oppressed communities.
It also is an opportunity to raise what kind of system we want. Capitalism’s trend is towards “jails, not jobs”—to reverse that means raising a vision of a different type of society.