Capitalism and Crisis: Creating a Jailhouse Nation

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.

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

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

  • “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

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
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

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
    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.

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.

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

Author: David Gilbert

News Service: Monthly Review


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