Carceral Capitalism: A Conversation with Jackie Wang




JACKIE WANG IS a student of the dream state, black studies scholar, prison abolitionist, poet, performer, library rat, trauma monster, and PhD student at Harvard University. Her latest work, The Twitter Hive Mind Is Dreaming is forthcoming at Robocup Press. In Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e)/Intervention, 2018), Wang examines contemporary incarceration techniques and illustrates various aspects of the carceral continuum, including the biopolitics of juvenile delinquency, predatory and algorithmic policing, the political economy of fees and fines, and cybernetic governance.

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M. BUNA: In the introduction to Carceral Capitalism, you advance race and anti-blackness as the main foci of your analysis, which you say is necessary, given the current realities of the Prison Industrial Complex. Could you expand on this particular stance of choosing to focus primarily on the anti-blackness of the PIC, at the risk of minimizing other structural forces, such as global capitalism/neoliberalism, that enable and buttress the carceral state?

JACKIE WANG: This book, in part, comes out of my engagement with the literature on financialization and the debt economy. The idea to assemble this collection of essays into a book came to me when I read Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man. From Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire to Costas Lapavitsas’s Profiting Without Producing, post-Marxists have analyzed the changing nature of value and work within the context of globalization. What I felt was missing from these analyses (of late capitalism, financialization, and neoliberalism) was an analysis of racializing processes — an examination of how logics of differentiation mediate capitalist accumulation. The United States has a very particular history of racism. The various techniques of socially managing nonwhite populations that have been deployed in the United States are inextricably linked to slavery, expropriation of native lands, immigration policy, and so forth. What I feel that some of these post-Marxist analyses get wrong is the assumption that the dynamics of late capitalism tend to homogenize subjects, rather than producing difference as a way to enable extraction. Capitalism has no fixed morality — it can absorb anti-racist, even anti-capitalist, critique. But even though capitalism is somewhat indifferent to our identities so long as they can be commodified, late capitalism produces difference, insofar as the most extreme methods of dispossession and extraction first require the subject to be rendered lootable (devalued on the level of subjectivity).

The ongoing force of racism cannot be denied and the liberal carceral state is not an exception, as it provides ample evidence that its very structure is contingent on and advances a racist, particularly anti-black agenda. However, the carceral logic of capitalism has become increasingly focused on the most vulnerable, who, more often than not, are also the poorest. Along this line, you write that “the use of debt as a mechanism of dispossession requires that subjects first be incorporated into the capitalist system as borrowers,” and also introduce the concept of “racialized accumulation by dispossession.” How would you summarize the link between racialized mass incarceration and the debt economy legitimized by morality tropes such as deserving and undeserving borrowers? 

One might ask, why include a chapter on the debt economy in a book about prisons and police? Perhaps I was trying to rethink how debt has been conceptualized, and show that expropriative credit instruments are also carceral instruments, insofar as the creditor owns the future of the debtor. In other words, I wanted to think of debt as a form of unfreedom that is unequally distributed (because race, class, and gender structure the forms of credit one has access to, as well as the perceived creditworthiness of the subject). But to label the use of credit as an instrument of capitalist accumulation a “carceral technique” is not merely metaphorical. In my chapter on municipal finance, I examine the chain of indebtedness produced by debt-financed governance. Municipalities have certain financial responsibilities to their creditors that they often offload onto their constituents. Thus, the creditworthiness of municipalities that are struggling fiscally (which determines their ability to access cheap credit) becomes dependent on their ability to loot residents. The financialization of governance and the emergence of new “exotic” credit instruments produce new modes of extraction that are carried out by the criminal justice system. You are also right to point out that both the debt economy and racialized mass incarceration are propped up by a moral economy that fractures the population into the deserving and undeserving.

You argue that the court system and police play an increasingly important role in the generation of revenue via municipal fines, as debt is imposed on residents (especially black Americans, already segregated and seen as potential offenders) through a variety of criminal proceedings that transform the residents’ space into a carceral one, marked by unrelenting austerity measures, hyper-policing, and fines farming. What are the traits of the carceral municipality as opposed to, let’s say, an ideally free city, where mobile, insurgent nonwhite sociality would not be regulated or punished?

In the carceral municipality you are followed in your car by a police officer as you drive to your shit job simply because you are not white. While you are being given a ticket for $300 the cop realizes there is a warrant out for your arrest for an unpaid fine for the length of your grass being three inches too long (though you cannot recall having ever received such a fine). In jail, you call your aunt to bail you out, but she doesn’t have the money and it takes her a day to secure your release through a commercial bondsman. Since your aunt lacked financial assets, she had to list her car as collateral. When she misses a payment due to low-waged and precarious employment, she will be charged additional fees by the bondsman. After you are released from jail, you are reprimanded by your boss for missing work without calling in, and you are written up. Because your license has been revoked for traffic violations and an unpaid ticket, you now have to use the unreliable and underfunded public transportation system to get to work. You arrive late on the day you have been summoned to appear in court because the bus did not arrive on time, and thus you are forced to reschedule your court appearance and pay an additional fee. This scenario could go on and on and on …

What would an alternative look like? I invoke Fred Moten toward the end of the chapter on municipal finance because he reminds me that in the cracks of the carceral society, insurgent socialities already exist. People have an urge toward life, a need to gather, to jam, to conduct experiments in care when the welfare state and health-care system have failed us. It could be comrades taking turns to take the poet Anne Boyer to the hospital while she undergoes cancer treatment, or the creation of mental health collectives, or things more quotidian, not necessarily bound up with our brokenness and deteriorating bodies. It could be the sociality created in the Baltimore Feminist Reading group I was part of, the different mode of engagement we invented there, based on friendship and not the performance of mastery found in the academic seminar. This is not to glorify informal structures of care that emerge in the crucible of a capitalist system that would grind us all to pulp if it weren’t for our friends. But this is the unexpected underside of social precarity: its production of need and dependence can sometimes be socially binding.

Still, some people fall through the cracks. These informal structures are not always sustainable or functional. We don’t always have the resources to catch each other when we fall, when someone is laid off from their job or evicted. I would like a world where housing and food are not commodities, where everyone has health care and guaranteed basic income rather than compulsory debt, and everyone is free to move (without being policed or surveilled) and travel using reliable green transportation infrastructure. As for the city, it should not consist solely of commercial space, but also include true commons: public space for people to gather, for teens to loiter to their heart’s content. Who knows what will be created when congregation is not met with regulation.

Following the 1990s construction of the juvenile “superpredator” by John Dilulio Jr., racialized juvenile defenders became less and less distinct from their adult counterparts, while also being regarded as incapable of self-government and self-determination. How exactly did they earn the right to be punished as adults in the first place?

In the media they “earned” the right to be punished as adults by committing crimes that were cast as socially unforgivable (i.e., violent crimes such as murder). Essentially, the concept of the superpredator produces a type of subject that is incapable of “redemption,” insofar as they are considered constitutionally antisocial and psychopathic. In this view, the only way to protect the social body from the ungovernable juvenile hordes is to permanently confine the so-called superpredators.

Assumingly unbiased and neutral algorithmic/predictive policing uses assumingly error-free data to provide knowledge about where and when the next crime will occur. Why is it important to question who gathers data and how data is gathered in the first place?

Great question. There are some techno-critics who are also techno-optimists, in that they believe algorithmic bias can be corrected through the collection of clean, accurate data. Dirty data would be, say, the data on sexual violence manipulated by the Baltimore Police Department in order to bolster their appearance of being efficacious and responsive. Good datasets would consist of data that gives us some kind of accurate snapshot of the world based on records that have not been tampered with. When it comes to policing, I don’t think it makes sense to uncritically make appeals for better data collection (unless it’s on police conduct!), as such appeals will necessarily expand the domain of policing, and create a more totalizing surveillance state.

As I mention in the book, populations that are not heavily policed fail to generate reams of data. Who collects data, what they will use the data for, what their motivations are, what categories are being used for data collection — all of these factors reveal that data is always-already political. Why is it that only the rich have maintained their right to opacity? Maybe if the context in which data collection took place was not defined by capitalism and white supremacy, we could start thinking about other uses for data — we could use data to determine social needs and resource redistribution rather than punishment and profits. The system in which new technologies appear tends to structure how these technologies are used. 

You use the dutiful crime-fighting cyborg from Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) as an analogy for the future (or present, as some might argue) of law enforcement, with its combination of militarization and cybernetic control. Verhoeven’s hybrid starts on the path toward reclaiming his lost humanity. But can’t putting a more humane face on policing and imprisonment (in the final scene, RoboCop no longer presents himself as a corporate-owned product, but as Murphy) be construed as a way of rebranding state-sanctioned violence in some of its most repressive forms?

RoboCop stages the proverbial showdown between good cop and bad cop. ACAB (“All cops are bastards”), as a mantra, reveals this structure to always be reactionary. RoboCop is policing redeemed by the retention of the human element. But nowadays cybernetic police practices extend beyond the human and the locatable. What happens when we consider predictive forms of policing that have no face and thus cannot be personified? Perhaps there is a need for personification to arouse our moral indignation. “All police databases are bastards” makes no sense. We need new aesthetic and political practices to respond to new forms of power that circulate through technology and algorithmic regulation.

Just as risk scoring segregates people into the rigid categories of deserving and undeserving, based on the a priori association of blackness with risk (criminality, laziness, welfare-dependence), the notion of innocence segregates racialized subjects into the categories of bad and good as is, for instance, the case with DACA, with its emphasis on good versus bad immigrants. This state of innocence how is it fabricated and instrumentalized, and what aspects get obscured in the process? 

I wrote the essays in this book before the Trump presidency (he was elected while I was finishing the introduction). If I could go back, I would add more reflections on the politics of innocence, and the current framing of immigration discourse as it relates to the binary of the good immigrant (hard-working, invested in the American Dream, educated, family-oriented) and the bad immigrant (“bad hombres,” thugs, dropouts, et cetera). Although I mentioned it in passing, I would also do more to deconstruct the violent versus nonviolent offender binary. Decreased punitivity for nonviolent offenders is often accompanied by increased punitivity toward violent offenders, which can strengthen the carceral state as a whole.

Do you envision Carceral Capitalism becoming part of the ever-expanding curriculum for teaching about prisons, policing, and prison abolition — ranging from foundational texts such as Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? to the latest posts on Mariame Kaba’s Prison Culture blog — which aims to show that there is actually no master narrative when it comes to the carceral state?

I agree with the claim that, when it comes to the carceral state, there is no master narrative. Academia forces scholars to brand their arguments in order to sell books and land a job. Now there is a lot of intellectual jousting about what caused mass incarceration. Was it a backlash to prisoner organization or to black power and the urban riots of the ’60s and ’70s? Was it the need for a new method of racial management in the wake of the collapse of Jim Crow? Was it postwar moral panics around sex? Was it the buildup of state infrastructure during the Cold War? Was it prosecutors or the War on Drugs? Was it a way to socially manage surplus populations created by de-industrialization? Was it the three-strikes laws and determinate sentencing regimes? Was it private prisons, law-and-order politicians, wrongheaded criminologists, or a compromise Democrats made to maintain the loyalty of their white constituents? I don’t think racialized mass incarceration can be reduced to any single factor. That’s why I had to be interdisciplinary in my approach to unpacking issues related to the carceral state — to attack a set of problems on multiple levels of analysis (law, discourse, political economy, autobiography, culture, aesthetics, political theory, biopolitics, et cetera). I don’t claim to be offering a master narrative in my book. With that said, I do hope people will read and engage with the book, whether it’s in radical reading groups or in the classroom or outside a structured learning environment. I hope that Carceral Capitalism will spark conversations and organizing efforts.

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M. Buna is a freelance writer with work featured in Full Stop, Hong Kong Review of Books3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere.


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