Civil Society and Mass Incarceration

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union. We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

Christopher Glazek[1]

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduced the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

W.E.B. Du Bois[2]

Although largely a non-existent issue in dominant political discourse, opposition to mass incarceration has long been a cause of the radical left and the Black Power movement. Thanks to recent liberal efforts, most notably Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow[3], and the rise of libertarian politics, concern over the massive expansion of our criminal justice system is slowly becoming a part of the discussion amongst the liberal intelligentsia.

I write mainly to make note of a somewhat remarkable article by Christopher Glazek recently published by N+1 magazine and an important historiographical essay by historian Heather Thompson. Glazek first surveys the landscape of American mass incarceration and then proceeds to make the case for the abolition of prisons. This radical call for prison abolition is a rare gesture to the Black Radical Tradition that is undoubtedly foreign to most of N+1’s largely white and overeducated readership.[4]

Although the article is for the most part a familiar summary of the brutality of the American prison system, Glazek seeks to shake readers out of their moral complacency by highlighting a few stunning facts. For example, he cites a Justice Department report stating that there are 216,000 victims of rape within America’s prison system. “That’s 216,000 victims,” Glazek explains, “not instances.” (his emphasis) Rape is so widespread throughout US prisons that men now account for the majority of rape victims in this country.

Heather Thompson’s analytical synthesis of mass incarceration provides us a scholarly antecedent to Glazek’s call to action. While recounting many of the same facts, Thompson goes a step further to make the case—convincingly, in my view—that mass incarceration has had profound repercussions largely ignored in popular and scholarly literature. She argues that rather than being symptomatic of deindustrialization and cultural politics, mass incarceration itself altered postwar US politics and urban political economy. From the militarization of police departments to the deterioration of public health, Thompson illustrates how there are few areas of private and public life that haven’t been affected by mass incarceration.

Like Glazek, Thompson makes clear that the consequences of mass incarceration are unevenly spread out amongst the population. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, about 40 percent are Black. A large portion of this mass incarceration of Black people can be attributed to drug arrests. Yet Thompson cites studies conducted by National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse which show that, in fact, “white students use cocaine at seven times the rate of black students, use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students, and use heroin at seven times the rate of black students…[Whites] between the ages of twelve and seventeen were also ‘more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth.’” Lastly, according to these same studies, there is an inverse relationship between the aforementioned facts and conviction outcomes: Blacks “of every age ‘were more likely than whites to be committed to prison instead of jail, and they were more likely to receive longer sentences.’”[5]

Thompson’s article is refreshingly well written and deserves to be read in full for its many insights but one paradigmatic example gives us a glimpse into her general argument. Consider what Thompson calls the “criminalization of urban space,” defined as “a process by which increasing numbers of urban dwellers—overwhelmingly men and women of color—became subject to a growing number of laws that not only regulated bodies and communities in thoroughly new ways but also subjected violators to unprecedented time behind bars.”[6] This process of criminalizing Black and Brown space not only results in political and economic injury to those communities, but it intensifies the cultivation of white privilege as well. These convicts are often relocated to large prisons located in virtually all white rural areas, thereby inflating the census figures of conservative white rural districts populated by disenfranchised black bodies.[7] This of course results in overrepresentation of conservative white districts and underrepresentation of Black urban areas, which in turn plays an important role in depriving these spaces of state resources and political representation. Glazek augments this argument by pointing out that of 500,000 correctional officers employed by the criminal justice system, a majority live in white rural areas, further inflating local populations.

The array of problems resulting from mass incarceration as described by Thompson and Glazek naturally leaves one searching for solutions. Rather than invoking the need for prison reform, Glazek calls for its abolishment. His advocacy, however, is not to be confused with utopianism. Glazek does not claim that legalizing drugs will virtually eliminate crime or that there is a simple moral calculus that clearly favors prison abolition. Instead, Glazek demands that progressives make sacrifices. Among these sacrifices are accepting a higher crime rate, relaxing or eliminating gun control statutes, and, most critically, a “massive expansion of death penalty.” (his emphasis) These “sacrifices” provokes two fundamental levels of critique—one empirical and the other ontological.

At the most base, empirical level, Glazek’s demands on the death penalty and gun control rely on faulty premises. Although Glazek makes a cogent argument demonstrating that gun control laws disproportionately and unfairly affect Black gun owners, his argument against gun control measures is grounded in pragmatic and existential claims: “you’ll have a hard time convincing anybody that we should abolish prisons and take away the community’s ability to defend itself.” One would expect Glazek to cite some of the literature on gun ownership—however contested or polemical it may be—to demonstrate that a proliferation of gun ownership increases safety in communities, but his unsubstantiated claim is stated as fact.

On the issue of the death penalty, it is alarming to see someone who is so cognizant of the rampant racism on which the criminal justice system is predicated on so readily drop his critical approach when it comes to the matter of state sanctioned murder. In fact, racism’s rendezvous with the criminal justice system does not suddenly end at the death chamber: for example, in Philadelphia, black people are four times more likely to receive the death penalty than white people for committing similar crimes. From 1976 to 2010, The Economist notes that of the 1,226 executions, 1,010 of them have been in the south and a majority of “these executed have been black.” The south is of particular importance to this story. The Baldus Report on the state of Georgia highlights the moral scandal of the death penalty. Alexander sums up the report’s findings: “Georgia prosecutors…sought the death penalty in 70 percent of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19 percent of cases involving white defendants and black victims…[Even] after accounting for thirty-five nonracial variables, the researchers found that defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants charged with killing blacks.”[8] How will a “massive” expansion of the death penalty do anything to improve the lot of those communities most adversely affected by mass incarceration to begin with? This is the wrong question to ask, for this is not Glazek’s main concern, which leads us to the question of political ontology.

The ontological critique requires us to turn to Antonio Gramsci and his foremost critics in the Afro-pessimist movement. As a self-identified progressive, Glazek situates himself amongst radicals in proposing a fundamental transformation of how society is ordered. Similarly, although much more implicitly, Thompson’s trenchant critique of mass incarceration is in effect an indictment of the constitution of justice in the US. These critiques go deeper than liberal calls for “reform” or an end to racial profiling. Utilizing Gramsci’s lexicon, Glazek and Thompson are engaged in a war of position—a protracted struggle to create an oppositional “common sense” across cultural (N+1) and pedagogical (academia) institutions within civil society in order to develop an effective counter-hegemonic discourse.

Although Gramsci’s political theory produces many insights, particularly in the realm of cultural critique, and has (somewhat) reduced Marxism’s affinity for economic determinism, his key analytical contribution—the concept of hegemony—relies on tenuous presuppositions. As Frank Wilderson indicates, the three pillars of Gramsci’s hegemony are influence, leadership, and consent. In other words, hegemony “is the influence of a ruling social group, the leadership of ideas, of an ensemble of questions such as ‘meritocracy’ and ‘individualism’; and it is the subalterns’ spontaneous consent to be lead by the ruling group’s ensemble of questions.”[9] Wilderson argues that the moral architecture of the hegemonic/counter-hegemonic discourse dialectic presupposes inclusion within civil society. Wilderson categorical rejects the dialectical framework and instead understands white-Black antagonisms as structural and grounded in negation. Wilderson asks, if even the subaltern has consented to be led and influenced by ruling class ideas, what does one make of the black subject[10] that is not only systematically excluded from civil society through mass incarceration and disenfranchisement but also subject to gratuitous state violence? The black subject never consents to civil society’s justification for a rabidly exclusionary justice system. In other words, Wilderson posits that the political ontology of the black subject is that which sits outside of civil society and, furthermore, its continued exclusion is the very basis for civil society’s existence; the white suburbs sleep peacefully knowing that ‘criminal elements’ are locked up and stripped of their ability to exist just as the south found comfort in vagrancy laws which put newly freed (“dangerous”) former-slaves back under white control.

Wilderson’s larger argument about Black political ontology is problematic in its own right (to say the least), but he raises important questions about Black people’s relationship to civil society and the constitutive elements of liberal order.[11] While Glazek and Thompson’s essays are in many ways steps in the right direction, there remains a need to develop systematic critiques of both political and civil society that can lay the groundwork for a truly emancipatory movement. Glazek’s article in particular is flawed in its limited conception of liberty. Implicit in his call for abolition is an understanding of freedom as non-domination or, to use Isaiah Berlin’s phrase, negative liberty. Glazek assumes that by abolishing a state system that “controls and defiles” bodies and by removing regulations on citizens’ ownership of lethal weapons imposed by the state, one can increase liberty and thereby help fulfill the promise of the US polity. This, however, is an impoverished conception of liberty. What Glazek reveals in his advocacy for a mass expansion of the death penalty is an unwillingness to confront the underlying structural racial antagonisms of the state and civil society. Until these antagonisms are acknowledged, advocacy for prison abolition will merely be another liberal call for circumscribed liberty.


[1] Christopher Glazek, “Raise the Crime Rate,” N+1, January 26, 2012.
[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press: New York, 2010.
[4] For more on this rich tradition, see Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2nd ed., 1999.
[5] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History, December 2010 p. 709.
[6] Ibid., p. 706.
[7] Ibid., p. 733.
[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press: New York, 2010, p. 107.
[9] Frank B. Wilderson III, ed, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, (Duke University Press: Durham, 2010), p. 52. Also see Wilderson, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Wither the Slave in Civil Society?” We Write, January 2005, 2 (1).
[10] It should be noted that Wilderson rejects the notion of Black subjectivity. To him, the Black is a non-subject without agency in civil society.
[11] For a critique of the “Afro-pessimists,” see Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism, Vol. 50. No. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 177-218 and In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003). For a rebuttal, see Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions Journal, York University: Toronto, Issue 5 (Fall/Winter 2011).

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