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Capitalism and Crisis

Creating a Jailhouse Nation

Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in The Age of Crisis (Verso,1999), 320 pages, $25 hardcover, $15 paper.

David Gilbert is a long-time anti-imperialist activist. He is serving a life sentence on charges of participating, as a white anti-racist ally of the Black Liberation Army, in the 1981 Brinks expropriation and shootout.

By the time I was captured in 1981, the prologue to a life sentence, I had twenty years of movement experience—both above and underground—under my belt. So I thought I had a good understanding of the race and class basis of prisons. But once actually inside that reality, I was stunned by just how thoroughly racist the criminal justice system is and also by the incessant petty hassles of humiliation and degradation. As political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal aptly noted in Live From Death Row, there is a “profound horror…in the day-to-day banal occurrences…[the] second-by-second assault on the soul.” The 1980s became the intense midpoint of an unprecedented explosion of imprisonment.1 Since 1972, the number of inmates in this country, on any given day, has multiplied six-fold to the two million human beings behind bars today.2 Another four million are being supervised on parole or probation. The U.S. is the world leader in both death sentences and incarcerations. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of the prisoners.

The qualitative political change has been just as stark as the numbers: no politician who hopes to get elected can risk a charge of being soft on crime. Literally thousands of new repressive laws have been passed and law and order has become the battering ram for a broader right-wing offensive. The political importance of criminal justice is, as we say in prison, “obvious to a duck.”

What is far from obvious—in fact purposely obscured—are the real reasons for these dramatic and ultimately very damaging developments. It certainly isn’t a rational response to crime. Consider just a couple of the many telling but rarely mentioned facts: Western Europe and Japan, with about 1/7 our incarceration rate, maintain lower levels of violent crime. Throughout twenty years of mushrooming imprisonment here, U.S. crime rates continued to climb. The marked decline in violent offenses didn’t start until 1993—along with the fall in unemployment and the lower percent of males in the high-risk fifteen to twenty-four-year-old age group. Wholesale repression and incarceration are emphatically not real solutions. However, the political role of these themes make them burning issues for everyone concerned about social change.

Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America is an analytical gem, with many sparkling facets on key developments—from the advent of computerized, nationwide police files to tower guards shooting down unarmed inmates in California. This book does not take on the complex questions of the causes and cures for crime. Instead, its forte is laying bare the driving forces behind the burgeoning of the criminal justice system. Parenti’s starting point might seem far removed from police and prisons, but it proves compelling. It is the serious structural crisis of U.S. and world capitalism that emerged in the late 1960s. To put Parenti’s much fuller account into a nutshell, the very success of the post-Second World War glory days of capitalist growth proved to be its undoing. The extraordinary investment opportunities in rebuilding the war-ravaged economies of Europe and Japan resulted in highly productive competitors for U.S. industry. These developments ushered in a period of chronic overproduction, in which capitalism tends to produce more goods and services than can be profitably sold (given the limited purchasing power of most people).

At the same time, capital was hit with political changes within the U.S. The examples of civil rights and anti-war activism inspired growing worker militancy which resulted in rising labor costs, and a new environmental movement which led to expensive pollution controls. To summarize a complex international and domestic crunch by how it read on capital’s bottom line, average profit rates fell from a peak of almost 10 percent in 1965 to a low of 4.5 percent in 1974. And there was no prospect for a cyclical upswing out of this pit.

Parenti describes two major phases of capital’s counteroffensive. The first was the withering attack on radical movements and insurgent communities, including a counterintelligence program resulting, among other things, in the murders of some thirty members of the Black Panther Party. The real motive behind the law and order rallying cry is deftly revealed with a quote from the diary of President Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman:

[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.

The second stage entailed the sweeping economic restructuring that was kicked off by England’s Prime Minister Thatcher in 1979. It became the heart of the Reagan Revolution here and is still going strong today. Here’s how Thatcher’s chief economic advisor, Alan Budd, put it:

Rising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes… What was engineered—in Marxist terms—was a crisis in capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labor, and has allowed capitalists to make high profits ever since.

This opening salvo was followed by a raft of measures that could best be summarized as successively gutting the Great Society and New Deal social compacts, leaving labor in a weak bargaining position even in subsequent economic expansions.

These changes severely hurt the inner cities. First, capital, now more globally mobile, shifted some manufacturing to low-wage countries and regions within the U.S., eliminating many of the jobs that had provided at least a measure of stability for Blacks and Latinos. The new poorly-paid service jobs more likely went to immigrant workers, who could be intimidated with the threat of deportation. From the point of view of capitalist production, people in the ghettos and barrios became “surplus population” or “social junk.” At the same time, these stressed communities, with a history of militancy, were potentially “social dynamite”—a serious threat located near the city center, headquarters of the most profitable sectors of the new economy such as finance, insurance, real estate, and communications. Parenti sees the core of the anti-crime crusade as rooted in capital’s acute need to control and contain the ghettos and barrios and to create cordon sanitaires around the central business districts.

Second, capital’s campaign to wrest away many of last generation’s gains for U.S. workers posed a pressing political problem: the need to deflect rising frustration and anger away from the rulers. To do so, they recharged their “…trusted trope: race spoken through the code of crime and welfare.” In short, there is a complete correlation over the past twenty years between the greatest ever recorded shift of wealth from the poor to the rich and our skyrocketing prison population. The dual needs of containment and scapegoating are clearly expressed in the racial character of American justice. For example, African Americans are 13 percent of the illegal drug users but 74 percent of drug prisoners. Overall, the ratio of Black to white incarcerations is seven to one. The U.S. now imprisons Black males at four times the rate of South Africa under apartheid.

Lockdown America describes key aspects of the spectacular expansion of repressive powers over the period, in a writing style that combines analytical clarity with striking examples. Below are some of the areas covered:

  • Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Los Angeles created the first SWAT team in 1966. There are thirty-thousand such units today. SWAT’s serve as the vanguard of militarizing the police, with weapons such as assault rifles, armored vehicles, attack dogs, and helicopters—all too often accompanied by a commando mentality that makes all Black and Latino people the enemy. While providing some grisly examples of overkill, Parenti emphasizes the broader function of intimidating entire communities.
  • Anti-crime legislation. Lockdown America’s look at just a few provisions of recent federal laws, just a tiny sampling of the spate of state and federal acts, presents a breathtaking cascade of authoritarian measures that greatly expand police powers and stiffen penalties.
  • The criminalization of immigration. Parenti calls the new level of cooperation among various law enforcement agencies, and at times the military, at the U.S.–Mexican border “the most aggressive and totalizing police enforcement regime the country has ever seen.” The racism is patent to anyone who has gone through an immigration check point. Those with white skin are waved right through while those with brown skin are routinely stopped. The formidable increase in detentions, with people often held under the most wretched conditions, can’t begin to stanch the flow of immigration, itself driven by the economic forces of globalization. But the palpable threat of deportation is a powerful cudgel against labor organizing and complaints, while these victims of transnational capital are blamed for the loss of U.S. jobs. So, “…politicians get easy scapegoats; employers get docile labor….”
  • “Quality of Life”: The newest chapter in policing is the highly-touted “Quality of Life” and “Zero Tolerance” campaigns. In theory, the thorough crackdowns on minor offenses such as graffiti, open beer cans, and unpaid traffic tickets will nab potential felons and create a climate of compliance with the law. In practice, there have been increased complaints of police brutality as well as widespread ensnaring of young people of color into the justice system. The experiences of abuse and arrest are themselves strong predictors of future felonies. Thus these programs may well generate more crime in the long run, but they are very useful for creating a comfort zone for the higher echelons working in the central business districts.

Each of the above policies leads to more people behind bars. Parenti provides a quality chapter on the growing “prison industrial complex.” With about $40 billion per year being spent on building and running prisons, and over 500,000 full-time corrections employees, crime definitely pays for some sectors. Perhaps the most chilling example is the California correctional officers’ union. It has become the state’s second biggest lobbyist and spends millions on election campaigns. It was the driving force behind “three strikes” and over 1,000 other anti-crime measures passed in California since the late 1980s. But Parenti wisely avoids economic reductionism. Corrections budgets are nowhere near those for the military industrial complex and don’t play the same strategic role of subsidizing research for high-tech industries. Also, despite the impressive initial spurt of the for-profit sectors of private prisons and corporate use of convict labor, these are still a small fraction of the corrections complex and face major constraints to continued growth. While the pockets of pork-driven prosperity assert some influence, such vested interests are secondary to the needs and strategies of a ruling class responding to structural crisis.

While not attempting a detailed description of prison life, Lockdown America spotlights some of its more unsettling aspects, such as gang rivalries and rape. In addition to the horrible direct violence involved, the ever present dangers and antagonisms prevent inmates from uniting against oppressive conditions, which in turn fuel more frustration and internal violence. The very chaos the institutions create is then used to justify bigger budgets and more repression. The flagship of these trends is the proliferation of supermax prisons and special (or secure) housing units. The rationale is that these are needed for “superpredators,” but in practice they are also used against organizers, rebels, and “jailhouse lawyers.” These prisons-within-prisons are characterized by twenty-three hour a day lock-ups, intense electronic surveillance, almost no social interaction or programs, and brutal reprisals against defiant inmates. One couldn’t consciously design conditions better suited for fostering mental illness and anti-social, violent behavior.

A lot more could be added about the damage being done: severe HIV and hepatitis C epidemics; the high percentage of women prisoners whose problems started with sexual or physical abuse on the outside and who are then placed under the complete domination of male guards; the impact of sentences on convicts’ children, who thereby become five times more likely than their peers to eventually land in jail. At the same time, correctional programs that greatly reduce recidivism—most notably college education—are being dismantled behind the propaganda myth that our prisons are “country clubs.” Meanwhile, the police keep sweeping more young people—whether for “quality of life” misdemeanors or nonviolent drug offenses —into a corrections system primed for chewing up human beings and spitting out violent parolees. While counterproductive, in the long-run, against crime, this approach serves capital well. The key, in my view, is the political role of racial scapegoating. Parenti articulates it well:

As economic contradictions deepen, the racialized class Other—the immigrant, the urban mendicant, the cheats, the dark-skinned, the ‘thieves,’ and ‘predators’—looms larger than ever in the minds of the economically besieged middle and working classes. [Since] the corporate system will not and cannot profitably accommodate the needs of the poor and working majority, [politicians] necessarily turn to crime-baiting and racially coded demonology as a way of inciting, mobilizing, and diverting legitimate political anxieties toward irrelevant enemies.

The U.S. today is criminalizing an ever widening range of social problems. The government would rather militarize the police and build prisons than provide quality education, good-paying jobs, and a sound public health response to drug abuse. These trends, while ineffective on crime, serve to aggrandize police power. Even more importantly, the law and order mania has become an essential political arena of struggle for the left. Conceding the weight of public opinion to the bandwagon of racial scapegoating would only build the momentum and power of the grandscale criminals who rule over all of us.


  1. Most of the data cited in this review comes directly from Lockdown America. I’ve added data based on reports from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and from the Sentencing Project.
  2. The two million figure is for the number of persons behind bars on a given day. Because many people are in and out of county jails in a matter of months or even days, the number of persons in jailor prison over the course of the year would be several times larger than two million.
  3. Ann McDiermert, “Programming for Women Offenders and Their Children,” International Association of Residential and Community Alternatvies Journal 3:4 (September 1990) 5.

2001, Volume 52, Issue 10 (March)
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