A Deadly Symbiosis

26 08 2010

In this article, I put forth two interconnected theses, the first historical, replacing the carceral institution in the full arc of ethnoracial division and domination in the United States, the second institutional, explaining the astounding upsurge in black incarceration in the past three decades as a result of the obsolescence of the ghetto as a device for caste control and the correlative need for a substitute apparatus for keeping (unskilled) African Americans ‘in their place’, i.e. in a subordinate and confined position in physical, social, and symbolic space. I further argue that, in the post-Civil Rights era, the remnants of the dark ghetto and the fast-expanding carceral system of the United States have become tightly linked by a triple relationship of functional equivalency, structural homology, and cultural fusion. This relationship has spawned a carceral continuum that ensnares a supernumerary population of younger black men, who either reject or are rejected by the deregulated low-wage labor market, in a never-ending circulus between the two institutions. This carceral mesh has been solidified by two sets of concurrent and interrelated changes: on the one end, sweeping economic and political forces have reshaped the structure and function of the urban ‘Black Belt’ of mid-century to make the ghetto more like a prison. On the other end, the ‘inmate society’ that inhabited the penitentiary system of the US during the postwar decades has broken down in ways that make the prison more like a ghetto. The resulting symbiosis between ghetto and prison not only enforces and perpetuates the socioeconomic marginality and symbolic taint of the urban black subproletariat, feeding the runaway growth of the penal system that has become a major component of the post-Keynesian state. It also plays a pivotal role in the remaking of ‘race’ and the redefinition of the citizenry via the production of a racialized public culture of vilification of criminals.

A fuller analysis, extending beyond the black ghetto, would reveal that the increasing use of imprisonment to shore up caste division in American society partakes of a broader ‘upsizing’ of the penal sector of the state which, together with the drastic ‘downsizing’ of its social welfare sector, aims at imposing desocialized wage labor as a norm of citizenship for the deskilled fractions of the postindustrial working class (Wacquant, 1999a).This emerging government of poverty wedding the ‘invisible hand’ of the deregulated labor market to the ‘iron fist’ of an intrusive and omnipresent punitive apparatus is anchored, not by a ‘prison industrial complex’, as political opponents of the policy of mass incarceration maintain (e.g. Davis, 1998), but by a carceral-assistential complex which carries out its mission to surveil, train and neutralize the populations recalcitrant or superfluous to the new economic and racial regime according to a gendered division of labor, the men being handled by its penal wing while (their) women and children are managed by a revamped welfare-workfare system designed to buttress casual employment. It is this shift from the social to the penal treatment of poverty and its correlates at the bottom of the class and caste structure, subsequent to the denunciation of the Fordist-Keynesian social contract, that has brought the prison back to the societal center, counter to the optimistic forecasts of its impending demise by analysts of the criminal justice scene in the early 1970s.

To recognize that the hypertrophic growth of the penal institution is one component of a more comprehensive restructuring of the American state to suit the requirements of neoliberalism is not to negate or even minimize the special office of race in its advent. If the prison offered itself as a viable vehicle of resolving the ‘black question’ after the crisis of the ghetto – that is, for reformulating it n a way that both invisibilizes it and reactives it under new disguises: crime, ‘welfare dependency’, and the ‘underclass’ – it is surely because America is the one society that has pushed the market logic of commodification  of social relations and state devolution the furthest (Esping-Andersen, 1987; Handler,1997). But, conversely, if the US far outstrips all advanced nations in the international trend towards the penalization of social insecurity, it is because, just as the dismantling of welfare programs was accelerated by the conflation of blackness and undeservingness in national culture  and politics (Gilens, 1999), the ‘great confinement’ of the rejects of market society, the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, the jobless and the useless, can be painted as a welcome ‘crackdown’ on them, those dark-skinned criminals issued from a pariah group still considered alien to the national body. Thus, just as the color line inherited from the era of Southern slavery directly determined the mishappen figure of America’s ‘semi-welfare state’ in the formative period of the New Deal (Lieberman, 1998), the handling of the ‘underclass’ question by the prison system at the close of the 20th century is key to fashioning the visage of the post-Keynesian state in the 21st.