Saturday, March 5, 2011

Prisons, racism, Marx’s Capital and collective bargaining in Colorado: a letter from Steve Wagner

Steve Wagner, a fine philosopher, see here, wrote to me forcefully about my post on the New Jim Crow here:

"Dear Alan,

I didn't know H. R. Haldeman, or anyone else, actually said those words (in his diary, here). You and your comrades should be aware, however, that the move to incarceration is the subject of a landmark analysis, several years back, by Loic Wacquant. Idea:

Plantation slavery defines a major stage of Colonial/American history.
But then that ended, "leaving us with a major problem that needed fresh thinking."
Jim Crow defines a second major stage of Colonial/American history.
But then that ended, "leaving us with a major problem that needed fresh thinking."
Massive targeted incarceration defines a third major stage of Colonial/American history.

You undoubtedly get the idea... One implication is that, while (a) We need to end the incarceration; (b) This is a fight against the assembled force of history on this continent, so anyone who's not ready for a struggle on that order may want to go home; (c) If "all"(!!) that's done is ending the incarceration, then we can assume a next round of fresh thinking; and there is no guarantee at all that whatever they come up with won't be just as horrible.

Pass it on.

Due to an acquaintance (poor, Black, male, mid-20s) whom I tried to help out a bit, I have more observation of the prison system (Illinois, state prisons) than most people in my profession. What struck me is how thoughtfully — in a collective, and teleological way — the thing is designed from beginning to end. From where they put the prisons, to all the things they charge prisoners for, to how to get permission to visit, to how you have to phone A in order to find out that you need to phone B in order to..., to how long people are confined to their cells, to what services are available, to the visiting hours, to the lockers and vending machines in the visiting area, when/whether/how you can take a shower, who is permitted to visit at all, ..., ... — every last thing seems designed to inflict misery and helplessness on anyone who has anything to do with the system. Just for example, they like to put the prisons where a working person, or someone without child care, couldn't get to and from without losing a day's pay (or getting fired), even supposing they had a reliable car. And basically, previous contact with the prison system, a bust for weed or a revoked driver's license or assaulting/'assaulting' an officer or (name other things that happen to poor people) can/will get you barred from visiting — which, if you're poor and in the joint, can pretty much mean that no one you actually know can come see you. — I'll leave it at that — I didn't take notes, and anyway the study needs to be done by someone with the knowledge and time to do it right — but it's well beyond Foucault even, and would require someone trained in ethnography, microsociology, Symbolic Interaction. I kept being stunned by, "man, look what *else* they thought of..." There are security pretexts, for some of these things, but no security rationales — the thing is much deeper and more insidious than that, indeed, the more openly absurd the regulation or provision, the greater the psychological effect of complying with it. In this way our system strikes me as bearing a quite interesting relation to Stalinism.

Maybe people closer to prison issues know all this already. Even so it would be worth emphasizing.

My acquaintance is now back in prison, for getting into a bar fight. He'll be there a long while. Utterly stupid of him, but in a way I sympathize — where was he supposed to go on a Saturday night? — When he got out of prison, he was all but homeless; his one prospect of a more or less real job (he had looked hard), at minimum wage of course, was dashed when the manager of a sandwich shop, who wanted to hire __, was overruled by the owner who said that __ had a 'gang' 'look'. (He's never been near a gang, but at this point I wouldn't blame him.)

OK, enough for the moment.


Steve’s observation that imprisonment creates a feeling of helplessness in poor people, that it isolates them in a Kafka-esque maze of rules which never work out, which prevent people from visiting without enormous determination and willingness, perhaps, to risk a job, is novel and striking. 2 and 1/2 million people in the United States – 40 % of the world’s prisoners – are subject to their regimen. It is not a regime of solitude – though it breeds deep bitterness – but one of isolation.

Steve describes a young friend who went out to a party on a Saturday night, got into a bar fight, and was sent back into it. No, it was not smart. But personally, I understand the sense of anger and despair well enough. Even someone human enough to give you a break can easily be overridden by a chief boss, or warned away by the Justice System. When one is in the elite, one lives a charmed life; when one is outside the circle of light, especially when one is poor and black, one's life is systematically weighed down by booby traps and stones.

The story that Michelle Alexander tells of the young man whom she stonewalled as an ACLU attorney working on racism is, sadly, all too clear. See here. Particularly when one is young, there is just so much denial a human being can take.

Foucault's Discipline and Punish is a very important book in social theory. But he also entirely misses the eugenics movement - the center of American racism and Nazism - and its surprising darkness, down to torture and experimentation on prisoners (Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment, too, is a great book; there is also an SDS pamphlet at UCLA against the medical organization of psychosurgery and other experimentation on prisoners, "Stop the Violence Center," written by me, Jim Prickett and Humberto Bracho, which casts light on yet another aspect of these horrors - see here.)

On Steve’s first comment, a very good New Left Review article by Loic Wacquandt, an inventive sociologist at Berkeley, is here. The frightening point that comes from Steve’s letter is simply this. Those who have fed on racism like vampires shift from slavery to Jim Crow to ghettoization and incarceration. If we build a huge movement to defeat them – if this is “all” we do Steve says, and he does not mean to slight the “all” – the capitalists will find a new way to do it again. Racism as a form of divide and rule, as the antithesis of democracy and mutual regard, is the secret of a small number making ever more obscene profits while most others are pushed into poverty and degradation. That is a fundamental feature of the stage of American capitalism we are now in, including the bizarre isolation, for 2 and 1/2 million people in the prison sytem. Prison is a form of degradation and torture (see also the material above on medical experimentation). It means to suck the life out of people. That it does not so often succeed testifies to the strength of the human spirit.

The question Steve and Wacquandt raise is really the question of revolution. Capitalism is a system in which one can win reforms as in Tunisia, Cairo, Madison or Denver (we have already had two sizable labor rallies at the Capitol last Tuesday and Saturday). And one needs to press fiercely for reforms. Such struggles are what hold us back from the bottom – and for most of us in the United States, it is now visible from here…

This is the great innovation theoretically in Marx’s Capital (1867). Capital alters the definition of subsistence (what workers receive in socially necessary labor-time) for their labor power to something that has not only a bare physical component, but a social component – something determined by class struggle. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx had shared the view of the Ricardian socialists (socialists who were followers of the great economist David Ricardo) and Ferdinand Lassalle (the German Social Democratic leader) that there was an “iron law” of wages, that wages must decline to bare physical subsistence.

On the Manifesto’s view, unions and strikes, even though the Manifesto rightly urges them, make little sense. For one cannot push wages up by class struggle for any sustained period. But Marx believed in the "real movement" by which he meant precisely that when ordinary people fight back against oppression, they can learn the lessons of radical democracy and create new possibilities (see my Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens). This is also, for example, the creativity of democracy from below in Cairo and Tunisia.

In Colorado last Saturday, we had a big demonstration of over 3000 people at the State Capitol in support of workers in Wisconsin. One of the speakers said that deindustiralization in America was the result of Republican economic policies. True enough, but Bill Clinton and NAFTA, as many in the audience realized, also contributed (Terry Lauchner, a vet, an anti-Iraq war activist, and a hospital worker, standing next to me, and I just laughed; many other people groaned).

Governor Hickenlooper, the Democrat, is not attacking collective bargaining like Scott Walker. But he does not have to, since there is no guaranteed right of public bargaining for state and federal workers in Denver or Colorado (there is collective bargaining, at the moment, in Commerce City - a Dickensian name if ever there was). To fight for collective bargaining is a big issue, right here in Colorado as well as across the country. The Republicans with the acquiescence of many Democrats fight to destroy unions among public workers (1/3 of public workers are organized; less than 7% of workers in the “private sector). This is the fascist aim (the father of the Koch brothers was a John Birch society enthusiast): to destroy all unions. Since unions provide a very minimal couterpoise to companies and sometimes fund decent candidates (Democrats), the aim is also transparently to destroy any opposition party. "Citizens United" was a fascist decision by the Supreme "Court", and its consequences, unless stopped by mass revolt, are unfolding at a frightening pace (the Kochs, through Karl Rove, etc. can just buy elections and shift American politics, to smash collective bargaining, remarkably to the anti-democratic Right).

But as ordinary people fight back, defending democracy and learning from the Arab uprisings, why not extend collective bargaining throughout the country among government workers (wherever it is lacking ), and further, use this as a pivot to reorganize all workers? Many of the parents in Wisconsin, in the rally of 125,000 last Saturday, are probably good candidates to join, and the large nonviolent demonstrations there, resisting Governor Walker’s provocations (see the interview with the blogger who pretended to be David Koch and got the Governor to talk and talk…).

The Right uses the demoralization of many workers to build resentment. Pay no attention to Wall Street, these reactionaries advise; despise teachers and policemen and snow removers and believe that they are high paid, have fancy pensions; tear them down. Mike Schwartz and Laura Flanders both conjure an amusing story about this tactic: “A unionized employee, a tea party member and a corporate CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches for the plate and grabs 11 cookies and turns to the tea party member and says 'Look out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.' Tea partiers, take note: you are being played...

Prominent men and women without compassion, Goldman Sachs, AIG, the Koch Brothers and union-smashing – fascist -politicians like Governor Walker, Christie, Daniels, Kasich along with Democrats like Cuomo and Hickenlooper, laugh at the impoverished and divided all the “way to the bank.”

But most people respond to the stories of public workers. At the rally Saturday, there was a great showing of workers from all unions; I spoke with a young women in an IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] jacket, teamsters and many others. It was amazing to walk through the crowd – I came in a little late and passed about 1,000 people whom I didn’t know until I found Terry. At the rally, earlier in the week – a thousand people total - I knew many people from the antiwar movement and students/teachers. Even on Tuesday, there was a bigger turnout of workers than at any State Capitol rally before in Colorado except about immigration (there were 75,000 people at the State Capitol on May 1 four years ago). Saturday, however, was triple the number and many more workers than Tuesday.

Following Engels’ Condition of the Working Classes in England (1845), Marx supported unions and strikes; these, he thought, would evolve into political organizations, fighting for the vote – like the English Chartists – and the 10 hour day. With organizing for internationalism - standing up for the most oppressed people, regardless of nationality - and the goal of an egalitarian society (the abolition of classes), Marx thought such working class movements could become radical.

Wacquant’s reasoning is also clear enough on this, as is the elite campaign to smash collective bargaining for public sector workers and to discredit teachers. The union movement can win temporarily, and we could have a big movement from below about the racism of the New Jim Crow. Further, the latter would be a great way to cut the budget; even Governor Hickenlooper is in the Denver Post Wednesday for considering shutting a prison in southern Colorado to close the deficit. He is backing off because jobs would be lost. A democratic movement from below must take the money spent by the elite on militarism and the police state, and shift it into education and green jobs (at a minimum). Those who look at these budgets can see that there is not only where the money is; it is also where the aggression, murder, torture and racism are (those who want to steal from social security, even otherwise intelligent people like Andrew Sullivan, need to use their eyes...). But a big movement could press otherwise unwilling leaders to deal with "the deficit" decently...

As we have seen with the fall of the Soviet Union (a state capitalist outfit, but appealing to some radicals here and elsewhere), capitalism, left to its own devices, increasingly uses the government to drive workers to the bottom. The society the Republicans want and the Democrats will cave in to without mass pressure from below is Pottersville in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or that of the unreconstructed Scrooge of a Christmas carol. The rest of the first volume of Capital shows why this is true. Workers and others can win important gains by fighting back from below, but without a movement to extend political equality into much more economic equality – to restrict differences of wealth and make it impossible for the rich to dominate the government and use it against most people (oligarchy, a regime against a common good), these gains will be eroded. Capitalist accumulation uses mechanization and investment abroad to erode and reverse the gains of workers. Detroit is a symbol of this, previously the world center for auto manufacturing, a place where black workers from the South could come and get decent jobs (however horrifying the racism and oppression). Now it is a wreck, the formerly great United Auto Workers toothless. There is no long-term security for ordinary people short of a movement to change the terms of social cooperation (communism, the beloved community...), to make it impossible to erode people’s livelihoods without providing retraining, public education through college for children, universal health care…We need both the reforms of post-World War II Europe and something much stronger in terms of redistribution.

As Steve’s letter suggests, racism – divide and rule, including divisions between workers and prisoners – is the secret of capitalist domination. In Marx’s idiom at the end of Chapter 10 of Capital on the working day, “labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. The New Jim Crow, the police state, extending its reach further and further into American life, will have to be broken for such a movement for a common good to succeed.

Interestingly, this is what Martin Luther King saw clearly in the last year of his life. He had a sense that he was going to be killed for speaking out against the Vietnam War – recall his last speech on the night of April 3, 1967 in Memphis - and his mind focused on a nonviolent mass movement from below among poor people. He spoke prophetically (see Vincent Harding’s poetic account, The Inconvenient Hero, Orbis Press, King's remarks here about inequality and here and here about Vietnam). His words are as true now in the novel thrashing of American militarism murdering 9 little boys gathering wood in Afghanistan two days ago, making ever new enemies, moving at a glacial pace into deeper and deeper defeat, as when he said them. It is special and rare thing, after one’s martyrdom, when one’s words, day by day, grow in resonance, name what is before us and the answer to it with compassion and precision.

Published on Friday, March 4, 2011 by
The Cost of US Terrorism in Afghanistan: Incalculable
by Kathy Kelly

Recent polls suggest that while a majority of U.S. people disapprove of the war in Afghanistan, many on grounds of its horrible economic cost, only 3% took the war into account when voting in the 2010 midterm elections. The issue of the economy weighed heavily on voters, but the war and its cost, though clear to them and clearly related to the economy in their thinking, was a far less pressing concern.

U.S. people, if they do read or hear of it, may be shocked at the apparent unconcern of the crews of two U.S. helicopter gunships, which attacked and killed nine children on a mountainside in Afghanistan’s Kumar province, shooting them “one after another” this past Tuesday March 1st. (“The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting.” (NYT 3/2/11)).

Young laborers, wanting to help their families survive, mean no harm to the United States. They’re not surging at us, or anywhere: they’re not insurgents. They’re not doing anything to threaten us. They are children, and children anywhere are like children everywhere: they’re children like our own.

Four of the boys were seven years old; three were eight, one was nine and the oldest was twelve. “The children were gathering wood under a tree in the mountains near a village in the district,” said Noorullah Noori, a member of the local development council in Manogai district. "I myself was involved in the burial," Noori said. "Yesterday we buried them." (AP, March 2, 2011) General Petraeus has acknowledged, and apologized for, the tragedy.

He has had many tragedies to apologize for just counting Kunar province alone. Last August 26th, in the Manogai district, Afghan authorities accused international forces of killing six children during an air assault on Taliban positions. Provincial police chief Khalilullah Ziayee said a group of children were collecting scrap metal on the mountain when NATO aircraft dropped bombs to disperse Taliban fighters attacking a nearby base. “In the bombardment six children, aged six to 12, were killed,” the police commander said. “Another child was injured.”

In the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan, Zekirullah, a young Afghan friend of mine, age 15, rises at 2:00 a.m. several mornings each week and rides his donkey for six hours through the pre-dawn to reach a mountainside where he can collect scrub brush and twigs which he loads on the donkey in baskets. Then he heads home and stacks the wood - on top of his family’s home – to be taken down later and burned for heat. They don’t have electrical appliances to heat the home, and even if they did the villagers only get electricity for two hours a day, generally between 1:00 a.m. – 3:00 a.m. Families rely on their children to collect fuel for heat during the harsh winters and for cooking year round. Young laborers, wanting to help their families survive, mean no harm to the United States. They’re not surging at us, or anywhere: they’re not insurgents. They’re not doing anything to threaten us. They are children, and children anywhere are like children everywhere: they’re children like our own.

Sadly, more and more of us in America are getting used to the idea of child poverty – and even child labor - as our own economy sinks further under the burden of our latest nine years of war, of two billion dollars per week we spend creating poverty abroad that we can then emulate at home. Things are getting bad here, but in Afghanistan, children are bombed. Their bodies are casually dismembered and strewn by machines already lost in the horizon as the limbs settle. They lie in pools of blood until family members realize, one by one, that their children are not late in returning home but in fact never will.

In October and again in December of 2010, our small delegation of Voices for Creative Nonviolence activists met with a large family living in a wretched refugee camp. They had fled their homes in the San Gin district of the Helmand Province after a drone attack killed a mother there and her five children. The woman’s husband showed us photos of his children’s bloodied corpses. His niece, Juma Gul, age 9, had survived the attack. She and I huddled next to each other inside a hut made of mud on a chilly December morning. Juma Gul’s father stooped in front of us and gently unzipped her jacket, showing me that his daughter’s arm had been amputated by shrapnel when the U.S. missile hit their home in San Gin.

Next to Juma Gul was her brother, whose leg had been mangled in the attack. He apparently has no access to adequate medical care and experiences constant pain. The pilot of the attacking drone, perhaps controlling it from as far away as Creech Air Force Base here in the United States, knows nothing of this family or of the pain that he or she helped inflict. Nor do the commanders, the people who set up the base, the people who pay for it with their taxes, and the people who persist in electing candidates intent on indefinitely prolonging the war.

But sometimes the war is like it was this past Tuesday March 1st. Sometimes the issue is right in front of us – as it was to those helicopter crews - it’s up close so there can be no mistake as to what we are doing. According to the election polls we see the cost of war, dimly, but, as with the helicopter crews, it doesn’t affect - or prevent - our decisions. Afterwards we deplore the tragedy; we make a pretense of acknowledging the cost of war, but it is incalculable. We can’t hope to count it. We actually, finally, have to stop making people like the nine children who died on March 1st, pay it.

Kathy Kelly, a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

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