Lockdown America in 22 Minutes

By Christian Parenti

In 2001, Christian Parenti, author of the excellent Lockdown America: Police And Prisons in the Age of Crisis, delivered a talk at the Stop The ACA(American Correctional Association) conference. His talk is about the thirty year explosion in prisons in the United States. A rough transcript is included below the mp3.
[ MP3: Christian Parenti's Lockdown America ]

[ROUGH Transcript]

Thanks for that kind introduction. And thanks for the great talk, Ramona. (To the audience)Thanks for getting up so early.

So what I'm going to talk about just briefly, is to try to get at, is to connect prisons to the larger society we live in, which is capitalist society, and to connect police and state repression in prisons to capitalism as a whole system. As opposed to just critiquing it from the point of view of specific corporate interests. And the reason I think this is important is because we are at a time where there really is a movement afoot internationally and what it's all about is capitalism as a global system and there is a debate going on, which is not always acknowledged as such, as to what is the enemy? Is the enemy nasty corporate practice or is the enemy a whole society that is a specific stage of historical economic development that has, as a system, a logic. And that's you know, what I think. And I think that, I'll give you the punch line first, I think that if we limit our critique to bad corporations we will end up in a cul-de-sac where we will eventually be patting Nike on the head for changing their nasty habits, which they will never do anyway.

So, more specifically, why does America with 5% of the world's population have 25% of the world's prisoners. It wasn't always like that. When this criminal justice crackdown that we're living in now began was really in the late sixties and what was going on in the late sixties? Basically the U.S. system faced a dual crisis, political and economic. the political crisis, you're all familiar with, I'm sure: the civil rights movement, the black power movement, then the anti-war movement adding into that. Also a little known wildcat labor movement that was making things difficult for the captains of industry, massive strikes also making things difficult for the corrupt leadership of the AFL-CIO forcing them to actually act like actual unionists, and of course rioting: massive rioting from 64 on. Every summer huge riots burning down the cities. Black people and white people together, in some situations, shooting back at the police and the national guard. So in other words, the ruling class's worst nightmare.

And in response to this, the police were not really capable of dealing with the situation.

There's also the war in Vietnam that is the background for all of this. You have to remember that the U.S. is bogged down in this hugely expensive, incredibly technically complicated war that by the late-sixties was threatening the power of the U.S. dollar and undermining the whole world financial system and also, after the Tet offensive of '68, it was a war that was falling apart from the U.S. side. U.S. soldiers began fragging their officers, refusing to go into combat, drug abuse and malingering was just a major problem. So all of this needs to be connected. And in response to all of this on the domestic side, the police were not up to the task of basically crushing and containing the rebellion. We often forget that because ultimately they prevail, right? They crush the panthers, they put so many activists in prisons, they shut things down, they were tremendously brutal, broke the law, got away with it, et cetera.

But around 1967-68, it didn't look like that. It looked quite the opposite. The police would apply too much repression and things would blow up into a political storm for the administration. For example, the '68 democratic convention in Chicago: the cops went ape, cracked heads. And it didn't scare people away; it radicalized the movement. It made the U.S. look really really bad. It made it harder for the U.S. to get on the world stage and say "Capitalism and liberal democracy deliver the goods. Not any of these other options people are fighting for. This is The system." It's harder to do that when the entire world is watching cops beat up quaker grandmothers, which is like what they were doing on t.v. in Chicago. Or the cops would apply too little repression, for example watts in '65, they couldn't, Darryl Gates, who later became chief of police, was in charge and he had to coordinate the L.A. Sheriff Department, the Highway Patrol, and the LAPD—three forces that actually hated each other's guts and were competing for turf and all that sort of stuff. Didn't train together properly, didn't have compatible communications equipment, et cetera, et cetera. So first there's confusion, then paralysis, then they withdraw, Boom! that allows this riot, which again put the lie to the idea that everyone was wealthy in the U.S. and that the U.S. had overcome racism and the U.S. was a true democracy. Major problem for the U.S. as a world power.

So in response to the police crisis, Lyndon Johnson, in 1967 proposes legislation, that in '68 passes the house of representatives as D.C. is literally burning for the second time. Martin Luther King has just been assassinated, there is massive riots, there is like smoke billowing over the congress and these guys are designing this piece of legislation which creates the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the LEAA, this huge federal bureaucracy, which over the next ten years redistributes about a billion dollars a year to local police to retool and retrain american law enforcement and the judicial system and prisons, to some extent, to deal with the crisis of an incipient revolution which is what they had on their hands at the time.

So the LEAA's intervention is when we begin to see the contours of the criminal justice system as we know it today. That's when cops first get radios in their cars, shoulder radios. That's when they first start using computers. They get body armor. They get helicopters. SWAT teams proliferate. Before the late sixties, there weren't SWAT teams in every major city, and now there are SWAT teams in every small town as well. That's when police have to learn how to read; before that the police didn't have to know how to read. In most states, you needed more training to be a beautician than to be a police officer. Which you might not think is important, but, you know, when you're actually trying to understand the movement and destroy it and think critically about repressing the people, it helps if your troops can read.

So that's the first part of the buildup and it sort of plateaus in the late seventies. The second part of the crisis that was going on parallel to this was economic. The U.S. ended world war 2 as the industrial power on the planet. Europe and Japan, the two main capitalist rivals had been destroyed economically and so the U.S. was, by the end of the war, producing half, or some people say more than half of the world's output and it was in the position to make incredible profits.

U.S. corporations were in their golden era and profit rates had never been as high and have never been as high again and it's because those other two poles of world capitalism were trying to retool and redevelop. Everything from their infrastructure to people's personal goods had been destroyed in the war plus there had been a depression before this. So you had, like, fifteen years of deprivation and pent up economic demand coupled with generous aid from the U.S. and U.S. corporations there to provide the machines, tools, and the commodities at first. And you get this incredible boom throughout the nineteen fifties and the early sixties: the golden era of capitalism. And during that time, the U.S. was able to buy in certain elements of the working class. Profits were so high that American corporations could pay higher taxes, submit to higher regulation, and pay a union wage to a portion of the working class. By the late nineteen sixties, Europe and Japan have recovered. They're now supplying their own markets. They're beginning to import to the U.S. Likewise, many third world or southern countries are becoming newly industrialized countries as economists would put it. You have countries like South Korea, Turkey, Mexico that had just been open markets for western capital now industrializing, producing their own sneakers, toothpaste, tires, whatever.

So finally you have the fundamental crisis that capitalism always returns to: you have a crisis of overproduction. This is one of the central irrationalities of this system. That when things work out the way they're supposed to, you run into trouble. When the economy is going well, you inevitably produce too much stuff and therefore you can't keep producing at the same rate of profitablity, which is the logic, which is the reason that investors invest, that's what keep capitalism going, is profitability. If that doesn't occur, then there's major crisis. Firms go over, millionaires lose their money, investors overreact: there's unemployment and you get sometimes a radical constriction of the economy into a major recession or depression. And then you get massive scarcity caused by overabundance.

So you have, to put it more simply, by the late sixties, basically ninety percent of americans have refrigerators, and you know they didn't coming right of World War Two. They've got cars, they've got blue jeans, and they're not buying them at the same rate. Yet, the world is able to produce more of that stuff than ever before, so it means all this sunk investment in these factories is not profitable. That's a major crisis for the capitalist class that owns the stocks and bonds in factories. So what're they going to do?

Well, the solution in the real, you know, true organic solution to this problem is war. That is one of the functions of war under capitalism. Not that it's thought of as such, but structurally this is how it works: one of the heuristic positive things about war for the capitalist class is that it destroys, not just people, but stuff. You clear away the commodities of capital and then restart a period of growth. It's like burning a field and we are their weeds, unfortunately. So they couldn't just write off capital, destroy Europe's economic base, destroy the U.S. economic base, so where are they going to make up the difference?

Well, from labor. That's the easiest place to go, is to take back the gains that the working class had made over the last thirty years since the depression. Both directly through higher wages and indirectly through what's called the social wage, funding for welfare, increased funding for education, increased funding for the environment. You have to remember that it's under Nixon in the early seventies that you have the creation of the EPA, the creation of OSHA, all of these huge agencies. The Mine Safety Administration created billions and billions of dollars that could go into corporate pockets [that instead] are going to create a better standard of living for people, safer environment, better wages.

So capital tries to attack labor in the Seventies. They try to drive down wages, but it doesn't work, and the ruling class is trying to figure out "well, why is this?" And there's no better illustration than this story: in 1969, General Electric, then the fourth largest employer in the country, one of the top blue chip firms, faced a strike against twelve unions that previusly hadn't gotten along, but they unite, in part driven by their young rank and file, a lot of then coming out of radical movements, coming out of Vietnam, they don't have deference for authority, they're not going to take no for an answer and they don't care. And so the leadership in the union realize they have to strike. They fight GE, they win this massive strike, and wages go up even though, at the same time, unemployment is going up nationally and there's supposively a recession going on. So the honchos at GE get together and they look at "well, what happened here?" and they realize the strikers were not only getting their strike benefits from the union, but they were collecting welfare thanks to a recent liberalization in federal law, and they had collected thirty million dollars in welfare. So from the point of view of general electric, this sort of move towards social democracy in the U.S. was basically state-funded class warfare against them. And so what they had to do to actually get the price of labor down was to destroy this social welfare system that was about containing and controlling the poor which was very much a response to the riots and all that stuff before in the thirties and then in the sixties.

So that had to be destroyed. The consensus around that recalibration of the U.S. economy doesn't really arrive until the late nineteen seventies when Carter appoints Paul Volcker as the chairman of the Federal Reserve and he then ratchets up interest rate from around eight percent to close to sixteen percent which means that people are sometimes paying as high as twenty percent interest. So what that means it's harder to borrow money to go to school, harder to borrow money to open a new factory or a new small business, whatever whatever. Less jobs, the economy constricts, increased unemployment. The idea was to create a crisis: to engineer a crisis so that the working class would be scared and shut up and work harder for less and I'm not being paranoid and reading into this. At one point, congress asked Volcker, the crisis was getting very very bad, Mexico was threatening to bail out on its ninety billion dollar debt and Volcker goes before congress and they say you have to lower interest rates and stimulate the economy and he says "Well, I can't do that," because basically, this is his quote, "the standard of living of the average american worker has to decline, I don't think you can get around that," until economic health returns. His colleague in England, where the same policy was being pursued, because this is a world system, Alan Budd, later described the policy this way: "Rising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. What was engineered in Marxist terms," this guy is a Thatcherite conservative, "was a crisis in capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labor and has allowed the capitalist's to make high profits ever since." Chief economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher. So that's then the policy of Reagonomics. You have this incredible recession, second worst recession since the great depression. At the same time, you have an assault on labor. You got the, Reagan fires the air traffic controllers, PATCO, a union that had endorsed him: they go on strike, he fires all eleven thousand of them. He starts stacking the national labor relations board with total conservatives who always rule against labor, deregulates laws around health and safety, deregulates laws around investment so it's easier to close a factory and move the machinery to mexico where wages are less, you know the whole story. The effect works.

In 1980, not a single union contract included a wage freeze or wage giveback and none of them really had since the early sixties. By 1982, forty-four percent of all union contracts included wage freezes or outright wage givebacks. So you have, in the eighties, you have the return of mass poverty. I mean there'd always been, you know, mass poverty in the U.S., but you have a new, a renewal of very serious poverty and you have the emmiseration of a whole section of the working class that used to be unionized and fairly middle class and for whom the system essentially worked. So that works, that starts boosting profit rates, profit rates recover in the eighties. You get the stock boom as a response to the real surplus values that's now being extracted from labor because people are producing the same amount of work for less. And you get the boom of the Eighties and it's continued into the Nineties.

But there's a problem that goes with this agenda of shifting, you know, of creating poverty so as to make people work harder for less. You then have all these poor people around, right? And you have cities in major crisis and that's a problem not for any moral reason as far as they're concerned. But because historically the poor, as you all know, have always rebelled, right? In organized ways and in unorganized ways. And they're a problem in other ways. Poor people undermine the legitimacy of the system. It's hard to convince everybody on the planet that everything's okay and this system really works when there are so many people who are hungry, can't get an education, et cetera. Also, the poor scare the monied class, especially when they're poor people of color, so you have a spatial problem. If the poor, you want the poor to intimidate your workers, right? Say you own a hotel, you want the poor. You want homeless people to scare the shit out of your waitstaff, but you don't actually want those homeless people in front of your hotel, cause then they scare away the tourists. And, of course, poor people organize and rebel. So how do you manage this contradiction? You have to have poverty under capitalism, capitalism produces poverty through policy and organically through crisis, but it's always threatened by poverty.

Well, one way was welfare, right? Absorb the poor, co-opt the poor, placate the poor, but that was seen to be aiding workers in general, so that's not an option. Well, what do you do? You switch back to the old-fashioned method of repression, increased demonization. So you get, in the early eighties, a re-engagement with that earlier part of the story of the criminal justice crackdown. and it's very much about containing and controlling the poor. You get the War on Drugs, ramps up in '82, first by changing the rules to favor the prosecution. In '84, there's the first really big federal crime bill that does a whole bunch of stuff. It creates a lot of grants for local law enforcement, local incarceration, but one of the key things it does is create the Asset Forfeiture laws which is a way of recruiting local police into the drug war, because this is really coming down from the top in certain levels. A lot of local police departments, they didn't care if you were smoking marijuana, whatever. In the late seventies, twelve states allowed you to grow and smoke marijuana. So it's hard to get all the cops on board. So you bribe them, right? You say well if you go after the drug dealers, you can take all their cash and their houses and their boats. So you get the assets forfeiture laws which causes this creation of assets forfeitures squads going around taking ninety percent of all the property that they can seize that's drug tainted. Eighty-six, you get another major crime bill that creates new, twenty nine new mandatory minimums, billions of dollars for grants to the locals. Eighty-eight through ninety-two, more of these crime bills. Ninety-two riots, Clinton comes in. More of the same policies culminating in the '94 crime bill where there's thirty billion dollars doled out to the states. Of course, always with strings attached that they must repress poor people more, essentially, right? So you can get the money to build your prison if you have a three-strikes law or truth-in-sentencing law. Which means that in many cases nonviolent offenders on a third or second offense are put away for twenty-five to life. Then you can get extra money from the Feds, etc etc. Ninety-six, effective terrorism anti-death penalty act. Numerous immigration restrictions to militarize the border. And on and on and on, and we're still in that moment of buildup though it is beginning to plateau to some extent and there is this response to it. And now, I mean that brings the story to the moment which you're all familiar and you're all activists and you read a lot about this stuff and I don't need to go into any details, I'm sure you all could probably know more about some of the latest stuff that's happening than I do, but that's sort of a framework to think about this crackdown in a way that's bigger than C.C.A. Because C.C.A. could fail tomorrow, which it might, because it's actually having problems and they're still going to have prisons, you know what I mean? They would like all of this stuff to be profitable, but even if it's not profitable, they're going to have SWAT teams, they're going to have helicopters, and they're going to have prisons. And you're going to pay for them. And it's better for capitalists to make money in the middle, but if they can't, they're going to do it anyway. And that doesn't mean it's not connected to profits, it just means it's not as clearly connected to individual corporate's profits and it's more connected to the profit system as a whole political, economic and cultural system. And anyway, one of the reasons for pointing that out also is because it gives us more avenues of resistance, more ways to enter. And I know you all think like this anyway, so, just a little reminder, but the whole thing is connected so when we're struggling for better education, struggling for the, you know, struggling against the W.T.O., we're also struggling against this whole incarceration, you know incipient police state here in the U.S. So, that's all. Thank you.

[Serious applause.]

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