“Exhaling a Low Freedom Song”: Jackie Wang on Carceral Capitalism

I can’t quite remember an intellectual journey as complicated, engaging and justice-inspired as my trip through Carceral Capitalism. A warning: Author Jackie Wang is not for the faint-hearted. Whether she is delving deep into the tragedy and outrage of her brother’s 40-year prison sentence, picking apart economic crisis theory or changing gears altogether with a few poems, this book demands total engagement. It’s not exactly an academic study of carceral capitalism, yet it is one of the most rigorous studies of carceral capitalism you will encounter. It’s not exactly a chronicling of the debate between Afro-Pessimism and capitalist crisis-centered analysis, but it is. At times, I felt like I was reading parts of the literature review of a Ph.D. dissertation (the exciting parts) and at other moments she was baring her soul, her anger, her love, her solidarity.

So, let me drill down and focus on the three things I love about this book. First, I love the fact that she digs deep into capitalist crisis theory, i.e., the various explanations why contemporary capitalism doesn’t work. Folks, we are in late racial capitalism and hardly anyone on the left drills down into the fundamentals of how capitalism works, how we end up with crises of overaccumulation and underconsumption. They rarely take the initiative to re-frame, invent new terms or re-work old ones to give us some tools that enable us to look through a 21st century lens, not a 19th century monocle. Jackie Wang understands that contesting the hegemony of capitalism is not just about naming the corporate evil-doers and organizing boycotts. Instead, she isolates what she considers the two “main modalities of contemporary racial capitalism: predatory lending and parasitic governance” and starts ripping and running. I don’t totally agree with that assessment of the two main modalities, but it doesn’t matter. She is on her own target and all those concerned with these issues should have a look. I especially like her use of the term “financial state of exception.” She uses the examples of Flint, Michigan, and Puerto Rico, where the authorities insist that there is such a serious financial crisis that they must declare a “state of exception” — meaning that normal rules of democratic governance can be suspended to address the “financial” crisis. Wang is giving us a warning: that there are many “exceptions” coming down the pipe, especially with Trump in the White House.

Wang’s theoretical insights and ability to connect classical tools with contemporary reality are reminiscent of Ruth Gilmore’s work in Golden Gulag.

Second, she is not at all taken in by the technocratic, non-partisan criminal legal mantras of the day. For Wang, evidence-based smokescreens and sophisticated risk-assessment tools do not resolve the contradictions of race and criminality — or capitalism, for that matter. “I hold that risk is a new color-blind racism, for it enshrines already existing social and economic inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity,” she writes. She repeatedly tackles the technical solution crowd and the bean counters with statements of the obvious truth that are systematically hidden: “Finance capital is incentivized to increase the pool of people marked risky because this practice is more lucrative.” Wang sees the horrors of the rise of Silicon Valley power and issues a warning: “It is important that we pay attention to this paradigm shift as once ‘digital carceral infrastructure’ is built up, it will be nearly impossible to undo, and the automated carceral surveillance state will spread out across the terrain.” As someone who spends vast amounts of my life pondering where electronic monitoring is heading and how it will converge with other technologies of surveillance, I totally appreciate the gravity with which Wang treats this technology.

Third, though I was totally captured by her intellectual sweep, unlike any other book I have read that tackles so many complex theoretical questions, there are moments of deep personal vulnerability where she shares the difficulties of her brother’s incarceration and its impact on her and her family. She turns to prose and poetry, closing the book with a chapter entitled “The Prison Abolitionist Imagination: A Conversation.” Here, she does what every author dreams of doing but never has the nerve to do it or a publisher who will allow it: She delivers page after page of the quotes from people who inspire her abolitionist imagination the most, from Assata Shakur to Rosa Luxembourg to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Wang brings us into this wonderland of conversation with this alluring invitation: “There are moments I want to enter. Will you follow me there, to the place where the breathing walls quietly exhale a low freedom song?” She reminds us in many ways that

the spark is kept alive,

underground, waiting for the right conditions.

The specter of Attica,

The specter of Wounded Knee

The specter of Ferguson

The specter of Harpers Ferry

The specter of Haiti.

After my engaging journey through Jackie Wang’s book, I also had the pleasure of reaching out to her in direct conversation. Our Q&A, which touches on carceral capitalism, electronic monitoring, prison abolition and more, appears below.

James Kilgore: Why do we need the term “carceral capitalism”? After all, we’ve got racial capitalism, late capitalism, monopoly capitalism and many more, why add one more item to the menu?

Jackie Wang: I think each of the analytics you mentioned can capture various dimensions of what I am calling “carceral capitalism” but doesn’t cover others. “Monopoly capitalism” was widely used in the early and mid-twentieth century to analyze capitalism’s tendency toward consolidation rather than the “perfect competitiveness” of liberal economic lore. Late capitalism usually refers to the late-twentieth-century neoliberalization of the global economy (characterized by trade pacts, market deregulation, the globalization of supply chains, austerity, the scaling back of welfare, attacks on labor unions, etc.), as well as the expansion of biotech, information and digital industries in mature economies. Racial capitalism as an analytic is capacious: it can be used to analyze the dynamics of settler colonialism, the relationship between slavery and capitalism, and contemporary modes of racialized extraction in the forms of predatory lending and parasitic governance. In my book, I attempted to expand and create bridges between these analytics to look at how the state (on municipal, state, and federal levels) uses caceral techniques to facilitate racialized accumulation (for example: the use of fee and fine farming by the police to fill revenue gaps created by shrinking tax bases). This answer gets at why I used “carceral capitalism” and not another framework; for an explanation as to how I use the term, I refer people to the introduction of the book.

As someone who spends a lot of time researching electronic monitoring or what we call e-carceration, I am interested in your term “digital carceral infrastructure.” What do you mean by this and why should we be worried about it?

Digital and technological infrastructure can include:

  • Electronic monitoring using GPS ankle shackles
  • Predictive policing software
  • Biometric tracking technology
  • CCTV cameras and automated surveillance footage analysis, such as facial recognition
  • Robotic and drone policing
  • Digital crime databases and statistical analysis of crime data

The list goes on!

Although it’s not always digital, I would include algorithmic forms of carceral infrastructure, such as risk assessment tools (which are common in the domains of parole and pre-trial detention). I would also include the prison telecommunications providers that monitor prison correspondence and provide “services” to prisoners at absurdly high prices.

What worries me about these particular forms of carceral infrastructure is the way in which they vastly expand the state’s capacity to process and track people. By enabling the automation of parts of the criminal punishment system, more people can be ensnared in it, even when public budgets are slashed. Paradoxically, these forms of carceral infrastructure are often built up during reform periods, as they are touted as the cheap, humane and evidence-based alternatives to biased policing and over-spending on prisons. But once the infrastructure is built up, it’s hard to scale back. More importantly, freedom is impossible when living in a police state.

What do you think are the key forces, organizations and strategies that will need to rise to the fore to overthrow carceral capitalism? Where might you see the roots of these liberatory powers today?

I have always found inspiration in the Black radical tradition, the prison abolitionist movement, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles, and feminist movements. I appreciate political frameworks that centered women, queer and trans people of color. Perhaps the most immediate tasks include tending to the immediate needs of prisoners while laying the groundwork for abolition. Prison reform is on the table (even among Republicans!), but the challenge is winning people over to the side of abolition.

Some organizations I mentioned in another interview: Critical Resistance, Black & Pink, Anarchist Black Cross, Sisters Inside, the Audre Lorde Project, Southerners on New Ground, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and others. Also, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

As a formerly incarcerated person I spend a lot of my life fighting against the prison-industrial complex in the quest for abolition. But, having lived in southern Africa for 18 years, I am often disheartened that those fighting for transformation of the criminal punishment system often have very little consciousness of or solidarity with liberatory struggles in other parts of the world. Any comments on this?

While it’s totally true that Americans can be provincial (perhaps because our education system is bad), the Black radical tradition has always been an internationalist tradition. This summer I’ve been going through the papers of Angela Davis for a project, and she’s someone who has definitely been connected to liberation struggles around the globe (anti-imperialist, abolitionist, communist, anti-colonial), and has interviewed women prisoners in countries beyond the US. Recent prison divestment campaigns have also been inspired by the boycott movement against the South African apartheid government and the contemporary BDS movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

I have just now started working on a project about Black-Palestinian prisoner solidarity, which I’ve been thinking about ever since I read about the Palestinian political prisoners and anti-Zionist organizations that supported the CA [California] prisoner hunger strikes in 2013, organizations such as Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network and the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) were given legal sanction to force-feed striking prisoners, Sheikh Khader Adnan, a former Palestinian political prisoner who gained international attention when he went on a 66-day hunger strike to protest being detained without charge, publicly supported the CA prison hunger strikes while reflecting on the similarities between the tactics used by both the Israeli and US prison systems. Angela Davis has also been writing and speaking about the global nature of the carceral state. In Freedom is a Constant Struggle, she writes about the carceral infrastructural links between Israel, Europe and the US in her analysis of G4S, a security corporation that operates globally: “G4S has insinuated itself into our lives under the guise of security and the security state — from the Palestinian experience of political incarceration and torture to racist technologies of separation and apartheid; from the wall in Israel to prison-like schools in the US and the wall along the US-Mexico border.”

In countries where racialized apartheid and/or settler colonialism is used as a method of social control (Jim Crow US, apartheid South Africa, occupied Palestine, etc), prisons function as an instrument of political repression. I have only been to South Africa for a couple weeks last summer, but while I was there I did get a chance to see Robben Island. Though I’m critical of the direction the ANC has taken since the end of apartheid, I’m glad that history is part of the local memory. Americans tend to think of political repression as something that happens elsewhere, like in the Soviet Union.

In short, yes, I agree with you that people fighting prisons in the US should pay attention to what’s happening around the globe, and build alliances across national borders. Israel trains US police officers; the predictive policing software I wrote about in my book was initially used for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. These issues aren’t separate.