Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
Since 1980, the number of people in U.S. prisons has increased more than 450%. Despite a crime rate that has been falling steadily for decades, California has led the way in this explosion, with what a state analyst called "the biggest prison building project in the history of the world.” Golden Gulag provides the first detailed explanation for that buildup by looking at how political and economic forces, ranging from global to local, conjoined to produce the prison boom.
In an informed and impassioned account, Ruth Wilson Gilmore examines this issue through statewide, rural, and urban perspectives to explain how the expansion developed from surpluses of finance capital, labor, land, and state capacity. Detailing crises that hit California’s economy with particular ferocity, she argues that defeats of radical struggles, weakening of labor, and shifting patterns of capital investment have been key conditions for prison growth. The results--a vast and expensive prison system, a huge number of incarcerated young people of color, and the increase in punitive justice such as the "three strikes” law--pose profound and troubling questions for the future of California, the United States, and the world. Golden Gulag provides a rich context for this complex dilemma, and at the same time challenges many cherished assumptions about who benefits and who suffers from the state’s commitment to prison expansion.
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Slavery – “it’s the economy, stupid!”
I was recently referred to the writings of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore. I am inclined to agree that their writings could produce sufficient fuel for revisionists and reformists to merit a response. Sadly, the most relevant response to these writings would also happen to start off with a quote from a “Bush”. What neither Gilmore or Kilgore seem to understand is that slavery is an “economic” institution; a system of production where the right, appropriation, and ownership of the labor belongs to an owner or master. In the case of prison slavery, the master is the state.
In the United States, there has evolved three systems or modes of production including, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. These are economic systems of production that should not be confused with their secondary characteristics, ie., violence, torture, and brutality. These characteristics are common in the commercial form of the system; however, on a domestic level, these secondary tendencies may never arise, even if they lie dormant. On the other hand, the simple mechanics of feudal slavery is the labor of the slave (serf) is tied by contract and law (13th Amendment) to the land. In Amerikkka, this relationship was called “sharecropping.”
In her analysis, Gilmore glosses over the primary mode of exploitation of former slaves, by only describing the secondary characteristics as segregation and Jim Crow Laws which were institutions administered, by the state, to support the bonding of Black labor-power to the land for the prevailing class of industrialists and the rising bourgeoisie. Yet, not once does she mention sharecropping by name. The entire 100 year period, where this system prevailed, was characterized by lynching, KKK terror, the Black Codes and Jim Crow and led to a charge of genocide in 1951, state law was the chief mechanism to enforce the economic institution of sharecropping. The repression and enforcement of this mode of production did not end until technological advancements in agriculture rendered sharecropping obsolete by the mid-sixties. The decline of sharecropping, ultimately ushered into history the era of mass-incarceration. We see the rise of mass incarceration with the passage of Nixon-Clinton Crime Bills and the fabled “war on drugs” they organized.
The error of both Gilmore and Kilgore is they fail to analyze the state as the source of exploitation and conclude, “very few prisoners work for anybody while they are locked-up.” They fail to acknowledge that production is part of a complex which sustains an economic order which includes support, maintenance, and sustenance, but also the entire process of the capture, adjudication, and retention of the slave from the slave-hunters in the hood, to the criminal justice system, to parole and probation. This complex can only best be described as the Prison/Slave Industrial Complex (PSIC). Kilgore concludes that warehousing of prisoners is more the function of prisons than economic exploitation. Warehousing is part of any system of production and exploitation, in the case of the the PSIC, these prisoners constitute the reserve army of prison slave labor or “replacement slaves.”
According to one source, “the prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”
According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war
A book on California land and social problems should have mentioned land value "tax" and Henry George.