By Alan Bean
How do we organize in a world of steadily declining resources? It isn’t just that non-profit organizations are struggling to stay afloat; the economy of the United States has entered a period of decline that will not end in your lifetime or mine. Dissidents are good at critiquing what is; we aren’t always adept at anticipating what will be. We can no longer proscribe solutions rooted in the assumption of ever-expanding national wealth. Storm clouds are gathering on the economic horizon.
Take mass incarceration, for instance. Why has America been locking people up at six times the rate of other western democracies? Ronald Reagan’s adaptation of the Southern strategy has a lot to do with it; but it would be a mistake to blame a phenomenon this immense on a single individual. Reagan embraced the politics of racial resentment because his handlers perceived, correctly, that this would be a winning formula for conservative politicians. The American public was willing to share the wealth with African Americans when times were good; but times were no longer good. Or, to put it somewhat differently, the promise of good times for all was dead.
In his book, Lockdown America, Christian Parenti relates mass incarceration to changing economic reality: “The new wave of criminal justice militarization has been about managing and containing the new surplus populations created by neo-liberal economic policies. The quest for renewed profitability created more poverty and more opulence. Thus reproducing and governing the social order has required more repression, more segregation, and more criminal justice.”
Criminologist David Garland would agree. “The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” The boundary between prison and community, Garland continues, is “heavily patrolled and carefully monitored to prevent risks leaking out from one to the other. Those offenders who are released ‘into the community’ are subject to much tighter control than previously, and frequently find themselves returned to custody for failure to comply with the conditions that continue to restrict their freedom. For many of these parolees and ex-convicts, the ‘community’ into which they are released is actually a closely monitored terrain, a supervised space lacking much of the liberty that one associates with ‘normal life.’”
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness is the most eloquent expression of this position, but she is hardly alone in her analysis.
Why have we quarantined an entire segment of the American population? Listen to David Simon’s description of the mindset driving the choices of the “corner boys” who populate his critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire: “These are the excess people in America – our economy doesn’t need them. We don’t need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it.”
And here’s the problem: first, we couldn’t afford 15 percent of our population; now we can’t afford the policies that allowed us to control the 15 percent. If our vast Gulag of jails, prison guards, police and probation officers is no longer economically sustainable (and it isn’t), what are we going to do with David Simon’s corner boys and the rest of the unfortunate 15%?
As Michelle Alexander points out, if we shrank our prison system back to its pre-mass incarceration dimensions, small communities across America would see a sudden swelling of their unemployment roles. What do we do with the millions of people currently employed by the American prison system?
Or consider the armed forces. America can no longer afford to serve as the world’s policeman. Defense and defense-related expenditures in America have been growing at a annual rate of 9 percent since 2000, and now consumes approximately 50% of tax revenues. Conservative politicians claim that America will forfeit its dominant position in the world unless these spending levels are maintained. Well, that means we will forfeit our position in the world, because we can only sustain a military a quarter the size of the one we’ve got.
But again, what happens if we pare back our military budget to Canadian, British, German or French levels? The military, like the prison-industrial complex, serves as a monumental job creation program. When reserves are factored into the equation, the US military employs 2,278,616 people. Poor minority males often face a choice between the streets and the military recruitment office. What happens if one of these options is no longer available?
You may be wondering why the talking heads, pundits, preachers and politicians aren’t addressing these issues. As UT Austin journalism professor, Robert Jensen suggests: “Dissident political organizing must take into account the fact that contemporary America is deeply delusional. Our collective life is shaped by a propaganda-driven political system that ignores and evades. Political leaders — from the reactionary right of the Republican Party to the liberal left of the Democratic Party — are not interested in creating new systems to face these challenges but instead are mired in trivial debates about how to duct-tape together the existing social, economic, and political systems to allow us to live in our delusions a bit longer.”
But, as Jensen argues forcefully, advocacy organizations must not buy into these popular delusions. Nothing short of a massive reorientation of moral values can prepare us for the challenges we face. If our reform efforts are successful, we must find jobs for most of the 2.3 million people we are currently locking up, most of the 2.3 million who staff our jails, prisons and courts, and most of the 2.3 million currently employed by the US military. The political establishment, conservative and liberal, is unwilling to face these realities, but reality has a way of asserting itself at the most inopportune moment. That moment has come.
The debt limit stand-off in Washington is just one sign of the clouds gathering on the horizon. We don’t have the funds to do what we have been doing. Progressives can no longer call for tweaks and minor adjustments to the status quo; only a moral revolution can save us from economic chaos.