Beyond “Carceral Capitalism”

By John W. W. ZeiserSeptember 3, 2018

Beyond “Carceral Capitalism”

Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang

I LIVE CLOSE to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where I often pass the LAPD’s shiny new academy on my afternoon walks. The pop pop pop of cadets training on the gun range echoes through the park’s ravines at a constant clip, their noise pulling me from my daydreams. Recently, when I have heard the pistols, like so many firecrackers set off on a suburban street, my thoughts turn to Jackie Wang’s recent book of essays, Carceral Capitalism. The guns’ impositions remind me of two parts specifically: “gratuitous violence,” the ultimate method of looting by “parasitic governance”; and her central idea in the penultimate essay, “Against Innocence,” that white people (i.e., me) are woefully incapable of internalizing the reality of state violence against Blacks, even when it incurs in geographically white spaces.

There in the hills overlooking Dodger Stadium — itself a monument to municipal dispossession — the academy stands as a physical embodiment of what Wang dubs “the new racial capitalism.” Racial capital is a term borrowed from the late Cedric Robinson. Robinson himself first encountered the term “racial capital” in England, and throughout his career he “took up the term and broadened it into an analytic that posits race as a central feature of capitalism.” Robinson was attempting to resolve the problem so many scholars and historians have of ignoring racializing projects in the study of capitalism. He argued that these projects preceded and helped form capitalism in Europe, contributing to, rather than developing from the material forces of capital as it superseded feudal life. Capitalism is often taken as or depicted as a homogenizing force. But Robinson saw the production of difference as a defining feature of capitalism’s success, and of psyche of those who are in power within it. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “[Y]ou are rich because you are white. You are white because you are rich.”

Wang prefers Robinson’s framework for her essays, though she grants the “dual character” of work in capitalism as both homogenizer and difference-maker. As a homogenizing force, it exploits worker labor, but its differentiating mode expropriates along the lines of class, race, and gender. The expropriation lens is a core feature of the work of Marxist theorists from Rosa Luxemburg to Silvia Federici, whose arguments center on the necessity of populations outside capitalist production to fuel its supposedly endless growth. Marx himself termed this expropriation “primitive accumulation,” but many writers who followed Marx have expanded this term enough to make it a core aspect of capitalism rather than the historical moment that preceded it.

Luxemburg, for example, saw imperialism as the way for capital to expand into non-capitalist regions, expropriating their labor and material wealth. Federici, meanwhile, has argued that capitalism has always rested on the unwaged labor and social reproduction women provide. This remains the case today. For example, as Susan Watkins highlighted recently, contemporary child care now relies on “ocean-spanning ‘chains of care’” with the final link always being unwaged; and Wang notes that women in the 21st century are now dispossessed not only through marriage and child-rearing, but also, increasingly, through elder care.

The turn to expropriation provides richer insight into the ways capitalism works in the messy reality far from Marx’s ideal conditions in Capital[1] Wang’s influences range far and wide, from geographers like David Harvey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore to the Afro-Pessimism of Frank B. Wilderson III and the biopolitics of Foucault, to name just a few. I agree with Wang’s choice to focus on expropriation. It is both less apparent and more central to capital accumulation in the 21st century, especially for a country whose industrial base has been gutted by globalization, its factory floor relegated to China, Bangladesh, and Mexico. In the United States, we are left, with increased financialization, [2] low-wage service-sector work, and surplus populations. Wang argues that local, state, and federal institutions “manage” these surplus populations through five main tactics: the financial state of exception, automation, extraction and looting, confinement, and finally gratuitous violence. Pop pop pop.

In the United States, surplus populations get incarcerated in a way that they do not in many other parts of the world. The US incarceration rate is 655 per 100,000, far and away the highest in the world. Moreover, on a sheer numerical basis, the US imprisons more people than any other country on earth, with 2.2 million people behind bars and another 5.1 million on parole and probation. The peculiarities of the US system stem from the unique ways in which the state is deployed to ensure capital accumulation, protect racial citizenship, and manage populations. Jim Crow or the Chinese Exclusion Act may be a thing of the past, but access to the full benefits of American citizenship remain bound up with whiteness, such as unequal treatment before the law. Harvey Weinstein, for example, can arrive at court and be out on the street in an hour, while exorbitant cash bail is set for poor, brown, and Black people, who end up in Rikers or Los Angeles’s notorious Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers.

In her magisterial Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore demonstrates how California addressed a series of significant crises, particularly surplus populations, that arose in the 1970s. Wang traces the connections between the Golden Gulag and the larger carceral state. American productivity began slowing in the 1960s as Europe and Japan reentered the world economy. The perils of a globalizing economy intersected with the rise of law-and-order politics, a racially coded response to the Civil Rights movement. As Naomi Murakawa argued in The First Civil Right, crime was not racialized, race was criminalized. The politics of the early 1970s thus increasingly focused on the brutal management of inner-city populations, almost entirely Black, brown, and poor after white flight. With the tax base fleeing, capital crises sprung up, typified by New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975. The capitalist class seized on these crises as a way to re-liberalize markets that had been managed by the Keynesian state in the postwar era. [3]

According to Gilmore, California was an ideal testing ground for a particular type of response to the crises of the 1970s, for what Mike Davis called “the prison-industrial complex.” Previously, dispossessed populations rarely ended up in prison: “[D]uring most of the modern history of prisons, those officially devoid of rights — indigenous and enslaved women and men, for example, or new immigrants, or married white women — rarely saw the inside of a cage, because their unfreedom was guaranteed by other means.” But by the late 1970s, these formerly dispossessed populations, particularly Blacks, had been battering on the doors of the capitalist state for decades. California’s solution to dealing with Black unrest, surplus populations and capital, falling agricultural productivity, and real estate problems was to push capital investment into prisons through state bonds and other measures. This was a solution reproduced across the Sun Belt, with the dog whistle of law and order, filling the jails with the poor, working-class, urban minorities that the white public feared.

Wang expands on Gilmore’s geography. She includes “what Alex Lichtenstein calls ‘Sunbelt penology’: a penal ideology that emerged in the South but has become paradigmatic across the nation. He labels the region that most vigorously adopted this penal model ‘Flocatex’ after Florida, California, and Texas,” which have expanded mass incarceration to an alarming degree. California, for example, saw its prison population grow by 500 percent between 1982 and 2000. Wang herself is no stranger to this insidious penal ideology. She hails from Florida, where her brother was subjected to the state’s draconian juvenile life without parole sentence. Her short piece “Ripples in Time: An Update” recounts the Kafka-esque misery of dealing with a carceral bureaucracy hellbent on criminalizing juveniles, a category that barely existed until the 1940s, and, according to Elizabeth Hinton, only became a major concern during the Kennedy administration.

As prison construction ramped up, state and private entities also refined the first three tactics (financial states of exception, automation, looting) that keep 21st-century carceral capitalism afloat. Financial states of exception are a convenient excuse for private capital to move in on a municipality. The 1975 NYC fiscal crisis is the Ur-text whereby money managers and investment bankers, with the federal government’s blessing, have held municipal governments over a barrel to extract fees and force public-sector unions to accept increased financialization or outright dissolution.

Today, the lengths technocrats go to put a city back in the financial black would put those ’70s neoliberals to shame. All they wanted in 1975, after all, was to discipline labor. Now the money managers believe avoiding bankruptcy can best be achieved at the risk of poisoning the local population, such as the managers tasked with providing solvency to Flint, Michigan. Detroit fared little better, as city leaders’ blunderous attempts to make a buck backfired spectacularly with the 2008 Global Recession. This didn’t concern politicians, of course, because the poor, mostly Black residents of Detroit would be the ones to foot the bill, not those living in Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills. Today, in Wang’s words, “the role of the state has been inverted such that wealth is being redistributed upwards” whether the state is Rust Belt municipalities or the Federal Reserve. It might be more accurate to say the state has reverted. The postwar glow of the ’50s and ’60s was exceptional, rather than a rule. Nevertheless, at the moment “the state is no ordinary borrower; it is a borrower endowed with the legal power to loot the public to pay back its creditors.”

Ferguson is a textbook example of the confluence of these tactics. There the city used police power with brazen disregard to extract fines from Black residents to make up for budget gaps. Wang goes to great lengths to demonstrate that this “policing as plunder” is explicitly raced, what she calls the “racial kapitalstate.” In fact, when money is tight, it is imperative that “municipalities must fuck over residents by instituting austerity measures […] As demonstrated by the case of Ferguson, in order to remain solvent, municipalities develop a parasitic relation to the people they are supposed to serve.”

The city’s behavior in Ferguson was so egregious (for example, 95 percent of “manner of walking in the roadway” citations were issued to African Americans in a city that is only 67 percent Black) that the Department of Justice was forced to conclude that the city’s looting and police practices violated the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments. Of course, the only reason officials felt the need to investigate was because of the extraordinary reactions to Michael Brown’s murder. Thousands more cities and counties across the United States practice this kind of looting and criminal disregard for the most vulnerable.


Like capitalism itself, Wang then takes the corporeal turn, from political economy to the individual — the body. “The body” is everywhere; in most every Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, in debates over self-care, sex work, and trans rights, at CrossFit gyms, the Fitbits on our wrists, the tattoos on our skin. For Wang, the corporeal turn is both figurative and literal. It is the idea of biopower, the use of the algorithm, and determinations about which bodies deserve financial credit or the state’s punitive force. Literally, it is the body that is incarcerated, brutalized, or killed.

Wang’s approach begins with the figurative. Gone are the days under the monarch’s arbitrary whim, as he beheads whom he pleases to keep the peace or consolidate power. Instead, systems of rational state control such as the legal system, medical practice, and nowadays algorithmic surveillance slowly coalesced into what Foucault termed “biopower,” a concept many theorists, such as Roberto Esposito, whom Wang relies upon heavily, have expanded. In short, biopower is a process in which the state, through a variety of institutions and practices, fosters the health of both individuals and the social body and protects it from threats to its well-being. If the state can be conceived as a body — a body politic if you will — the state’s power is deployed much like the white blood cells of an immune system, taking care of foreign threats to its overall social health. A relatively anodyne example of this might be the state subsidizing employee fitness and wellness programs, such as it does in certain provisions in the Affordable Care Act. [4] The rationale is that healthy workers will be more productive, which is good for the company’s bottom line and the bottom line of the state.

But within biopower, vulnerable groups often get treated as germs, or as symptoms. Wang describes the discourses in the United States about juveniles and juvenile criminality that arose in the 1980s and ’90s and the dramatic shift in legal and political thought about crime and Black life in the US. Punitive measures were the “rational” means the state used to address what was seen as the existential threat that urban, mostly Black, youth posed to the American body politic. These “rational” measures included the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, three-strikes laws, and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, penned by then-Senator Joe Biden and signed into law by Bill Clinton.

The term “juvenile” was a new category of personhood, appearing after the practice of child labor was banned in the industrializing West. [5] Wang notes: “Vaguely, the concept of the juvenile is associated with a naturalized connection between age and maturity level.” For the state, the problem with this definition is that it encompasses all teenagers, not just some. Thus, Wang continues, a juvenile in the United States cannot be “a natural category that corresponds to a fixed set of characteristics — [it] is a biopolitical construction that delimits the application of criminal law.”

If a subset of all juveniles is seen as posing a risk to social health, as Black boys born in the mid-1980s were seen to be, the state needed to find a way to exert its power — rationally — on that subset without catching too many white juveniles in the same net. This meant incorporating some juveniles into adult institutions. How did this biopower play out, then, from the conception of juveniles as a category to sentencing some juveniles as young as 11 to life without parole?

We can locate the modern origins of draconian sentencing structures in the 1965 Moynihan Report. In the report, the extreme economic disparity between Black and white America was explained primarily by the pathological cultural failings of African Americans. Specifically, “the fundamental problem,” Moynihan writes at the outset is “that of the family structure.” While making a cursory acknowledgment of structural racism, Moynihan blamed the victim, particularly Black mothers, and to read the report today is an exercise in what you might call “smh” or “WTF” reading. Yet its conclusions have influenced both white America’s understanding of Black life in the United States and the respectability politics of middle-class Blacks.

Fifteen years after the report, the appearance of crack cocaine flooding into the United States’s inner cities in the early ’80s set off a middle-class moral panic, adding fuel to the fire stoked by Moynihan. In Black mothers, the media found the perfect villains: crack-addicted welfare queens who were incubating a race of superpredators [6] lacking the moral fiber and empathy of regular Americans. It did not matter that the science behind prenatal crack syndrome was a joke, nor that white Americans used cocaine and other illicit drugs at comparable rates because the media-fueled “epidemic” proved to white America what it already believed to be true.

Venerable liberal outlets like the New Republic and The New York Times carried water for Reagan-era politicians already deeply committed to criminalizing race, while academics such as John DiIulio deployed their own half-baked “science” to rationalize why the state should criminalize these babies. As they became teenagers, the result was, as Nima Shirazi of the Citations Needed podcast noted, “The childification of white people versus to the adultification of African Americans.” Crack use and the supposed rise of the superpredator gave the state the opening it needed to separate white juveniles from their Black and brown peers. Reagan's Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 codified sentences for crack versus powder at 100:1 and a whole series of law enforcement and legal actions continued unabated, turning places like South Los Angeles into veritable penal colonies.

By the mid-1990s what Kendrick Lamar has dubbed “Section .80” had reached the nebulous age of the juvenile only to discover that institutions such as the media, academia, politics, and even their own communities had bought into the myth of John DiIulio’s “coming superpredator.” DiIulio wrote that they were “a calculable risk that must be preemptively managed, for they have been deemed incapable of self-government and self-determination.” Imagine, for instance, saying that white suburban youth were incapable of self-government. People would nod their heads in agreement: “Of course, they’re still children, they have much to learn. They need to be free to make mistakes.” But for urban youth, the opposite was true: inability to self-govern becomes a reason to bring the full weight of the adult legal system down on them. The preferred tool of management was incarceration, or what Wang calls “exclusionary inclusion,” and here it is worth quoting Wang at length:

[W]hile adolescents are differentiated from adult citizens based on their limited mental capacities, in order for them to be effectively managed through confinement, they must first be juridically folded into the domain of adulthood, and the jurisdiction of criminal law must expand to include them. […] the juvenile is captured through an inclusion into ordinary law, rather than an exclusion. But while juveniles acquire the right to be punished as adults, they do not acquire the other privileges and rights of adult citizenship (i.e., voting, drinking, and so forth). Their status under the law remains contradictory, for they are at once inside and outside the laws that apply to adults, governed as both exceptional and ordinary subjects. Thus they are catapulted into the domain of ordinary criminal law and juridically “included” at the precise moment they are being branded for exclusion.

In effect, popular discourses about life in Black America dovetailed with mainstream fears about potential hordes of Black teenagers running amok. This provoked the immunological response of state power, which then greatly expanded its ability to incarcerate everyone, not just Black, brown, and indigenous.

How do we mark and manage these diseased elements today? Through an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus fueled by machine learning, the algorithm, and big data, which has automated the punitive forces of the police, school administrators, credit rating agencies, and employers, while eliding the deeply structural racism inherent in these institutions. This technological turn is thanks in large part to the general perception that these “tools” are color-blind, just like our legal system, a worldview wholly adopted by the technocratic liberals who make up the Democratic Party. They are designed by supposed experts, who train algorithms to remove the “biases” that plague human choice and action.

Except this isn’t actually the case. Google’s brilliant engineers still can’t teach its image search to differentiate between a gorilla and a Black man. Their brilliant solution, block the word “gorilla” from the search. Its search function is notorious for returning sexualized depictions of Black girls and women. Researchers, no matter how well meaning, have a set of assumptions, and these assumptions are passed on to their machines, mainly because these tools remain a reflection of larger social forces. Yet for Silicon Valley, and I daresay, large chunks of the body politic, the answer to these problems is not to address the ways that white supremacy and capitalist violence are baked into the system from the start. The problems of empire, and genocide, are foundational; their costs are incalculable. But instead we get calls for more technology, or better technology, more humane and harmonized.

How does this relate to the carceral state? The police are zealous converts to this reliance on algorithm-inflected technology. Predictive policing, as it is called, is the newest fad in a long history of the police’s embrace of statistics as a bulwark against questions about their authority, necessity, and success. It is also an example of the enmeshment of academia and incarceration that would make Jeremy Bentham blush.

Wang singles out the imaginatively named PredPol, a predictive policing startup founded by UCLA mathematicians and an anthropologist: “PredPol is a software program that uses proprietary algorithms (modeled after equations used to determine earthquake aftershocks) to determine where and when crimes will occur based on data sets of past crimes.” Out pop maps with little red boxes that designate today’s batch of patrol-worthy places “a kind of temporary crime zone” (emphasis original). Predictive policing has joined other forms of extreme surveillance and criminology, which have become organizing flashpoints for activist groups in recent years. Jeff Brantingham, the UCLA anthropologist and co-founder of PredPol, has dovetailed his own research of foraging with PredPol’s predictive software. According to Brantingham, “criminals are effectively foragers,” and he argues that “[c]hoosing what car to steal is like choosing which animal to hunt. The same decision-making processes go into both of these choices.” Just as DiIulio applied a naturalist’s veneer to the supposed culture of poverty, PredPol has a sheen of evolutionary certainty about predicting criminal behavior.

The potential flaws in this idea are clear. Despite the perception of data being neutral, it is, by its very nature, biased and always will be. It reflects the preconceptions and limitations of those collecting the data, typically those with power and a purpose to both justify and increase that power. In the instance of predictive policing, what is being fed into an algorithm is decades of police data, which we already know to reinforce and be reinforced by existing systems of race and class oppression. This is further compounded by the fact that police data is notoriously incomplete. The algorithm isn’t told whether an arrest leads to a charge, prosecution, or guilty verdict, whether or not a confession was coerced from a terrified juvenile facing the full weight of the adult legal system, or whether people even want the police to exist. No number of academics promising that theirs is a race-neutral system free of bias will ever change this, only obscure it further.

The process can only produce a picture that inherently privileges police information and perspectives while excluding those of the policed community. Moreover, what kind of crimes are we talking about here? The quality-of-life kind that hobbled Ferguson’s Black population or make driving while Black a crime unto itself? Why not crimes committed by major polluters, corporate executives, pharmaceutical companies? It’s obvious that these PredPol models are not being deployed in an equitable fashion, but of course, that’s not how the legal system is set up to work. The New Inquiry has made hay out of this asymmetry question with its own white-collar crime map.

Under the guise of public safety, there are ever-increasing amounts of surveillance that reinforce the systems of discipline and punishment, Wang calls it “techno-governance,” that we have had since the advent of modern policing. As Ava Kofman recently reported, school shootings are the justification du jour for expanding this system. Facial recognition and machine learning systems will do little to prevent active shooters from carrying out their attacks, but they will give school administrators a similarly sophisticated tool to maintain discipline in their portion of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The crescendo of Wang’s analysis is that this techno-governance over biopower reproduces a white supremacy that is at its core largely irrational and, in the words of Frank B. Wilderson III, “libidinal.” All of the tactics of extraction and exploitation work because they are backed with the threat of social death, or if that doesn’t sufficiently keep people in line, real death. The trick is, kill people white America won’t miss, or believe are in some ways deserving of death. The reporting of Michael Brown’s very public murder by Ferguson police is representative. The New York Times called Brown “no angel.” Though editors later referred to it as a “regrettable mistake” it is more likely that the reporter’s phrase merely reflects a larger fact about life in empire, particularly American empire with its vast media apparatus that has so thoroughly conflated Blackness with criminality. Similar slippage happens on a daily basis when speaking about Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, even medics protected by the Geneva Convention.

Wang finds a similar example in a headline about the exoneration of five counselors responsible for the death of Isaiah Simmons, a teenager being detained at a reform school. It reads: “Charges Dropped Against 5 In Juvenile Offender’s Death.” Not teenager’s death, not young man’s death, not student’s death. Instead, he is defined by his criminality. He is part of the disease that white America is in need of inoculation against. These headlines and reports proliferate across media.

These reporters are reflecting a set of ideas about crime, race, and the deployment of state violence to maintain law and order and economic stability that are fundamental to whiteness, not to the white race, whatever that means. Robin D. G. Kelley had to remind readers recently that “not all white folks are the same […] [n]o one’s ideology or political stance is fixed at birth; ideas, perspectives, and movements are always in flux.” And that’s what whiteness is, an ideology, about as pervasive an ideology as there is in the United States. What these headlines, media narratives, and political rhetoric do is to reinforce this ideology, that whiteness is citizenship, power. We can see this at work in the way various waves of European immigrants were treated and eventually welcomed into the umbrella of whiteness, or how “model minorities” are held up as paragons of striving. And it is not only an ideology believed by people who present as white. To take Kelley’s statement one step further, white as a category is meaningless, but whiteness confers the ultimate meaning in the American context.

Wang’s solution is a call for a move “against innocence.” Innocence, she argues, is the only lens currently used by white America to internalize state crimes against Black and brown people: “[I]nnocence becomes a necessary precondition for the launching of mass antiracist political campaigns” and whenever a person’s moral purity cannot be established they “will not become a suitable spokesperson for the cause.” Wang thinks this is especially the case when antiracist activists are trying to enlist white allies to the antiracist cause, the tactic is “an appeal to the white imaginary,” often used by people of color who are aware that this is the only way white people can access empathy.

Trayvon Martin’s murder is one very obvious example of this, with even President Obama remarking that Martin “could have been my son.” Innocence and what Wang calls “translation,” the fitting of state violence into a vernacular that can be understood by white universal subjectivity, immediately draws out the listener’s empathy, allowing them to see someone like Martin or Oscar Grant as one of their own, innocent, unjustly murdered. A similar logic is at work when people discuss school shootings: it is innocent students in suburban bliss who are gunned down, while similar sentiment is not forthcoming when the latest body-cam video shows a cop shooting a Black teenager in the back, and it also erases powerful mobilization efforts around gun violence. Indeed, the act of translation hits a wall because Blackness is synonymous with guilt and crime, and we remain silent or seek ways to whitewash. Wang points out that the Baltimore Occupy movement effaced race from the outrage over Martin’s death. It was an attack against “youth,” not Blackness, thus sparing white observers from scrutinizing their complicity.

The intractable problem is that white America’s “liberal politics of recognition can only reproduce a guilt-innocence schematization that fails to grapple with the fact that there is an a priori association of blackness with guilt (criminality).” This is compounded by the hegemony of race-blindness, a corollary of which is the belief that for something to be racist, someone needs to say something that is literally racist, primarily by signaling through speech acts or overt acts where “intentionality” can be proven. Of course, when something blatant occurs, media is quick to judge this the result of a few bad apples rather than the legal, political, and carceral systems working as they were designed to. Moreover, as Wang points out, joining Michelle Alexander and others, “the racism underlying the systematic imprisonment of black Americans under the pretense of the War on Drugs is more difficult to locate and generally remains invisible because it is spatially confined,” because

[t]he engineering and management of urban space also demarcates the limits of our political imagination by determining which narratives and experiences are even thinkable. The media construction of urban ghettos and prisons as “alternate universes” marks them as zones of unintelligibility, faraway places removed from the everyday white experience.

When state violence does rupture white spaces, as it did when Oscar Grant was gunned down on a nearby commuter rail platform, whites return to innocence to explain the deep structural problems that resulted in Grant’s death. Wang is quick to point out that Black establishment politics also falls victim to this mentality, highlighting the way the NAACP abandoned the burgeoning prisoner’s rights movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s in favor of a respectability politics that resulted in full-throated support for Bill Clinton’s law-and-order efforts in the 1990s.

Wang’s “against innocence” has nuance and takes aim at a number of liberal pieties that may be difficult for some to square, particularly her attacks on second-wave feminism’s complicity in reproducing and expanding the carceral state, the way safe spaces can be used to blunt serious discussions of race and identity, and the leftist desire to recast urban uprisings as rebellions and not riots. I myself had never thought deeply about how the fight against domestic violence, led largely by white women, has had profound consequences for Black and brown people’s safety and an expansion of the carceral state, and this was refreshing and led me to the Prison Abolition Syllabus, which does a great deal to problematize the masculinization of incarceration. However, her essay also opens up a massive problem about imagining what the carceral state is and how to upend it.

When innocence is used as a tactic to elicit sympathy, to shock public opinion, or even to exonerate a single person, it inherently reproduces and prolongs the narrative that some people deserve social — or real — death, yet it is effective for mobilizing sympathies. How then do we shift into a mode of thought where a white person’s first response is not to conflate criminality with Blackness, particularly when it is so deeply entrenched in the social fabric and history of America? No answer is forthcoming, and Wang adopts a pessimism informed by Frank B. Wilderson III.

Wilderson is one of the principal theorizers of Afro-pessimism, which has become a prominent school of thought within critical race studies and has found its way into popular writing via Ta-Nehisi Coates. Wang uses Wilderson’s analytic as well to describe the foundational role it plays in the “gratuitous violence” of the American carceral system. It is compelling, yet if Afro-pessimism has something useful to say about American history, its shortcomings, philosophical and political, are manifold.

Critics of Wilderson and other Afro-pessimists have noted that the school of thought revolves so specifically around American Blackness that it does little more than “reinscribe the most imperial white ‘American’ perspective on slavery and Blackness instead.” The year 1865 or the fact of the 13th Amendment carry little weight for Haitians or Brazilians, for example. However, Wang allows that perspective to go largely unchecked in her essay, and the inability to escape the hegemonic American narrative remains a major weakness of intellectual life in the American left in general.

Furthermore, adopting an Afro-pessimist lens leaves very few options as far as reorganizing society is concerned. As R. L. Stephens noted in an interview last year, the legal avenues for rectifying the foundational sins of the United States have been largely exhausted; in fact the law has given rise to much more pernicious forms of control — the War on Drugs, color-blindness — which are firewalled from legal redress because it’s damn hard to prove in a legal sense that they are racist at all. It’s no wonder that the further along in Wang’s analysis we get, the more dire it becomes.

Admirably, Wang does not end with pessimism. She’s too astute to think that it can be the only antidote to our world. Nevertheless, answers to the problems she raises are not forthcoming — which is how it should be. Instead, in a lovely coda titled “The Prison Abolitionist Imagination” Wang offers an interesting suggestion. Riffing off of the line, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” the famous quote from Jameson that Mark Fisher used in Capitalist Realism, she exhorts us to turn to “a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the Present.” She then leads us through this imagination. It is one of hope tinged with a bittersweetness that will be instantly recognizable to leftist activists. The road is long and full of false-starts and outright failures, but is always informed by hope, whether it is hope in fully formed revolution, or, as Zoe Samudzi recently called for at her reading at Skylight Books here in Los Angeles, harm reduction. Wang converses across time and space with revolutionary activists and writers who have labored in full knowledge that their struggle is only a small piece of a larger contest for freedom and dignity, and who have never forgotten that what can be imagined can be realized, or Assata Shakur said, “Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them.” Wang’s essays open up a series of questions about the forces arrayed against real justice: surveillance, techno-politics, color-blindness, exploitation, and extraction that occurs close to and far from home. They also set up the abolition of the carceral state as one of the key moral battles of this century. If, in a hundred years, someone can take the same route I’ve been walking all spring and not see the edifice of a police academy, I’d like to think that Wang’s essays helped in some small way to get us there.


John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic. He lives in Los Angeles.


[1] This is not to imply that Marx was ignorant of this. He acknowledges early in Capital that it is more a thought experiment than it is a description of reality, something Wang, too, reminds her readers.

[2] If you’re lucky enough to have a retirement plan, chances are its success relies heavily on the stock market; cf. Michael McCarthy’s Dismantling Solidarity: Capitalist Politics and American Pensions Since the New Deal..

[3] For an excellent introduction cf. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. For historical background Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979, and an updated discussion Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos.

[4] It should be noted that Foucault did not look approvingly on universal or obligatory health care.

[5] For a more thoroughgoing discussion of the history of state fears about juveniles, see Chapter 1 of Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.

[6] If they’re white, however, they’re millennials.

LARB Contributor

John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic, currently living in Maine.


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