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Modern Penal Colonies

The recent Pelican Bay Prisoner Strike has reminded me, yet again, of how I am immeasurably sickened whenever someone talks about the United States being a beacon of freedom.  After all, we have to wonder about how free a country is when it has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  In this context, it is ludicrously hypocritical to speak of wars being waged in the name of "freedom" when there is really no content to this claim of freedom: a country that maintains the largest population in human history of people who are literally unfree must be confused whenever it uses the concept of "freedom" to justify its violence.  In this context it is also ridiculous for peace-loving liberals to talk about how much they love their country, babbling about how, if it would only forsake the supposedly aberrant wars it is waging, it would be lovely if it would work according to a set of authentic freedom-loving values that never existed to begin with.

Hence, there is a rather pernicious USAmerican moralism that, galvanized by patriotic idealism, creeps into the mindset of uncritical US citizens, even those who are critical of their country's most recent imperialist adventures.  Obviously, the propagandistic aim of these adventures (to bring "freedom" and "democracy" to the rest of the world) should be understood as undermined by the fact that the country waging war is also the world's largest penal colony––a fact that is more visceral than the deeper reality, upon which this fact rests, of the logic of capitalism.  For even the counter-arguments made by reactionaries regarding prisoner population beg the question: if everyone in prisoner actually deserves incarceration because they are essentially criminals, then the United States, due to its high rate of incarceration, is a country that is essentially criminal… Only outright fascists can argue for the righteousness of US penal colonies without contradiction by blaming the essential criminality on non-white peoples and thus proving, yet again, that Frantz Fanon was correct when he argued that "it is these racists who, in their opposition to the country as a whole, are logically consistent. […] The racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal." [Frantz Fanon, Toward the African Revolution (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 40]

The fact that many prison reform activists in the US realize the absurdity of their country's incarceration rates is interesting, even if they are generally left-liberal activists.  The statistic is so obvious that it must be dumbfounding once it is taken seriously.  Indeed, the culture industry takes it seriously, but mainly to make money, as is evident in the recent Netflix series Orange is the New Black––which I happened to start watching at the same time as I learned of the recent Pelican Bay strike.  (On a side note, if I wasn't a materialist I would obsess over the weird coincidences that often define my life.)  Interestingly enough, the person who the series is based upon, Piper Kerman, is a prison reform activist who, despite probably being little more than a left-liberal, links to sites that support the Pelican Bay Prisoner Strike on her website.  Point being: the fact that the US is the largest penal colony in the world and that maybe this is a problem is an unavoidable fact for anyone involved in trying to change the prison system, even if they possess liberal politics, let alone abolish it altogether.

Where these statistics become especially telling is in the context of anti-communist propaganda.  Indeed, the "gulag" system is often mobilized by anti-communists as an example that proves the lack of freedom that existed under the former Soviet Union.  When I somewhat humorously ranted about why I sometimes feel gulags are "a good idea" months ago, and received various complaints, I was thinking about the contradiction between the belief that the Soviet prison was an "evil" necessarily generated by communism and the belief that the US prison system was an aberration.  For as I have pointed out before (but I cannot remember where), there is actually no comparison between the two systems: regardless of what one might think of the Soviet prison system (supposedly exposed by that arch-reactionary and fascist sympathizer, Solzhenitsyn), the US possesses a far more brutal system filled with a significantly larger population.  In fact, there really is no comparison since the US prison system is historically unprecedented: here we can speak of incarcerated nations rather than a single archipelago.

Moreover, comparing these two prison systems might reveal something significant about the US penal system.  The Soviet system, for all of its faults, claimed that it was not only incarcerating "actual" criminals (i.e. thieves, murderers, rapists, etc.) but political criminals (i.e. remnants of the bourgeois and semi-feudal classes, anti-communist wreckers, etc.), thus existing as a mechanism of class repression in which those who were opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat would be incarcerated alongside other criminals.  My point, here, is not that this penal system of repression succeeded in its aims (after all, socialism was eventually overthrown in the Soviet Union) but that the US penal system, in comparison, serves a similar and far more successful function: it also functions as a mechanism of class repression but has been able to do so with far more success for a longer period of time.

Perhaps we can argue that the Soviet "gulag" system was erroneous because it attempted to mimic bourgeois methods of class repression, but this is another problem and one that I am not interested in engaging with here.  What we might be able to argue, however, is that the US penal system is also an institution of class repression and that maybe the reason it maintains a significantly larger population is because the class it is attempting to repress is significantly larger than the class the Soviets were attempting to repress.  Whereas the gulag system under Stalin was aimed at repressing the bourgeoisie along with its "petty" criminals, hence a minority of society, the gulag system in the US is aimed at repressing the proletariat and the masses in general, the majority of society.  And since the US prison system is determined by the class politics of the US, it should be no surprise that those who enforce US class politics through extra-legal methods, such as the murderer of Trayvon Martin, will never set foot in a US prison.

Of course, it is easy to see the US prison system as an aberration, especially for those of us who live in Canada––a capitalist country with incarceration rates that are currently nowhere near the incarceration rates of the US and that, like most other capitalist countries, do not even possess a death penalty.  The US also possesses far less social democracy which means higher poverty rates, higher death rates connected to lack of social services, and a bigger military than its counterparts in the imperialist camp.  But this supposed uniqueness is perhaps due to the fact that the United States is the most powerful and authoritative imperialist nation: we must recognize that other capitalist nations, regardless of whatever social democratic rights they provide their citizens, are also imperialists and might even hope to out-maneuver the US, at some unknown point in the future, as the principal imperialist force––the contradiction between imperialists, it needs to be said, is still a significant global contradiction.

The penal system of the US, refracted through my social context of Canada, cannot be dismissed as a problem that is unique to US culture––as if this culture is completely alien to the capitalist culture of Canada.  In the past decade, after all, the Canadian ruling class has established various bills regarding policing, crime, and the penal system that are meant to mimic the US system: our ruling class wants to extend its penal colonies and is attempting to legally enshrine the foundations upon which these colonies can be built.  Canada also has its internal colonies, its racialized populations, its hard-core of the proletariat that needs to be imprisoned and disciplined; perhaps the Canadian ruling class believes that it needs to consolidate itself internally by imprisoning millions of its citizens in order to consolidate itself, militarily, in external imperialized zones.  And only then, after one quarter of our society is in a prison ghetto and another quarter of our society is transformed into a vicious military force, will we be able to declare that we are truly bringing freedom to the rest of the world.


  1. Comrades have created a broadsheet bulletin to break the mainstream news blackout on the mass hunger strikes in the California prisons.

    It can be downloaded as a full PDF here, and there is also ongoing fundraising to get a second printing on the West Coast and one in NYC for the Northeast.

  2. I'm back reading after an accidental hiatus...

    One thing I'll add to this is something else that has recently come to light (in the context of the US prison system): forced sterilization. As you rightly mention above, the US led imperial wars are done in the name of bringing "freedom" and "democracy" to the rest of the world. There is, of course, so much rhetoric aimed specifically at bringing freedom and liberation to women who are being oppressed under Muslim regimes [my facetious, generalization].

    In California (and I'm sure this is happening elsewhere and we have not yet heard about it) women continue to be sterilized against their will with forced consent in prisons (even though this practice has been illegal since 1979). The forced consent often comes as these women are in the throes of childbirth or immediately after (which does not count as obtaining informed consent). This goes without saying, but these sterilizations are being performed on women from marginalized communities, and healthcare officials linked to these prisons are making decisions about who should/should not continue having children. It's fucking disgusting (and I'm disgusted to not see more outrage about this amongst the same people who are lamenting the equally disgusting anti-abortion stuff happening in Texas).


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