The direction of my research about the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC from now on) took many different paths. I began by reviewing an old standard in academic theory: Michelle Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. With no clear idea of where I wanted to go with this, I went on to read about women and the transgendered and crime, the War on Drugs, and exploited prison labor. It was when I began to read some of Angela Y.
Davis's work on the PIC that I discovered the Critical Resistance
Collective (CRC), the only organization in the US that works to eradicate the PIC and its various arms: incriminating legislation, police, surveillance, etc. While reading their collective work, Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex, I was struck by how many of their arguments threw a wrench into Foucault's thesis. Clearly, this old academic standard that I've read in so many of my classes needs quite a bit more criticism than I have ever heard it given. Hence, conversation and criticism between Foucault's Birth of the Prison and the CRC's Abolition Now! has become the focus and culmination of my research. In the following paragraphs, I plan to discuss in what ways the arguments of the CRC complicate those of Foucault. I will end with questions raised by the CRC through their struggles and the material reality of their movement.
Before I begin, it is important that I summarize the ideas that my arguments are based off of and the terminology I will use to articulate my points.
My entire engagement with the PIC rests on the idea that what is a crime and who are criminals is not always self-evident, that people (especially poor, young, non-white, immigrant, and queer people) are intentionally criminalized and pathologized by the state and its various fascist arms. This is done in order to create populations of caged people which can be profited off of through the supply of cheap labor and the production of damaged humans, which in turn will maintain and expand the flow of prison workers. The PIC and its brutality are justified through giving people the illusion that disappearing human beings into prisons solves social problems, such as gang violence and domestic violence (well, at least they're off the street!), and with the belief that prisons reform rather than damage people. Indeed, most never question the legitimacy of the PIC, because for a person to be in prison, "they must have done something wrong." Therefore, all arguments I put forth will be made with the conviction that the PIC is a tool of slavery, racism, patriarchy, and colonialism and must not be simply "reformed," but done away with entirely.
Some important terms:
panoptacism: a method of surveillance which motivates surveyed subjects to self-police. For example, the camera on the street corner - any person walking past cannot be sure whether the camera is real or not, or whether or not there is someone watching them through it. Thus, the subject regulates their own behavior.
materiality: having to do with the tangible, the "real;" material realities are people's lived experiences; material complexity can express many things about bodies and objects (for example, the massive immigration of micro organisms); the material and feasible reality of dismantling the PIC
biopower: the interest of the state and capitol to evaluate, measure, catalogue, survey, manipulate, and influence mass or specific populations of people
necropower: the power to decide life or death
the docile body: the target and object of power; easily recognizable; easy to categorize; the "working unit" that helps run the "well oiled machine;" subjected, practiced, and disciplined bodies (people)
Critical Resistance Collective, Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and
Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex. New York, NY. The CR10
Publications Collective. 2008.
Foucault, Michelle. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage.
New York, NY. 1979.
Michelle Foucault's thesis in The Birth of the Prison is that in the 18th century, disciplinary power used by the state to accomplish its ends and regulate its subjects went through a transformation. Through an admittedly sloppy historical illustration, he argues that disciplinary power went from being a brutal public display of the state's power in which transgressors were horrendously punished in front of on-looking spectators to a muted and professionalized business in which the object was reform, not punishment, and the public face of the state became the glossiness of the courtroom and the detention center. Thus, the state's disciplinary power moved from focusing on the bodies of criminals to the souls of criminals; from branding criminals with white hot irons to having them participate in "productive" yard and industrial labor, educational and religious programs. In the new order, Foucault argues, the kind of brute force exerted on bodies that had been used before was not necessary due to the increased sophistication of methods of surveillance and containment facilities and the confessional, of which panopticism is one; things like necropower became less under the jurisdiction of the executioner and more under the auspices of the judge. This new order dedicated to saving the souls of the damned and the delinquent was motivated by the development of biopower, in which the state came to take a supposed interest in the welfare, safety, and, most importantly, the productivity of its citizens. The further development of biopower paralleled the development of the docile body and its accompanying tenants: the uniform which marks the worker, the specialization of knowledge and labor, the rhetoric of partitioning (a place for everyone, everyone in their place) and the organizing of small things (the will of individuals) to perform for the greater things (the will of god and the state).
There are many things that are missing from Foucault's analysis of disciplinary power, not least of which is his failure to address the rise of violent military imperialism at the same time the birth of the prison as a reforming institution in Europe was happening and the new formation of the criminal directly tied to race and status in colonization. Foucault may make apt observations as to the development of biopower, panoptacism, and the docile body. However, the linear understanding of historical "progression" by which he presents these observations, his claim that the state no longer has a stake in overt brutality and that violence is no longer spectative are complicated by arguments presented by members of the CRC. In her essay COPS and the Visual Economy of Punishment, Ofelia Cuevas reviews the revitalization and explosive expansion of racial punishment as entertainment. Speaking of shows like COPS and police brutality and murders, she writes:
"Every evening on television, in news and dramatic programming, policed and punished Black and Brown bodies are part of the popular landscape of state-sanctioned domination and violence. So common and accepted, so significantly mundane is the brutality of the police against raced communities that the reality in which they are displayed before us becomes a social hallucination. The 'racist disposition of the visible, which will prepare and achieve its own inverted perceptions under the rubric of what is seen,' according to Judith Butler can turn a clear vision of police brutality into a myth of 'police vulnerability.' Thus the violence enacted upon Rodney King, who was clearly beaten by police, becomes not a case of state brutality but a reality so twisted that it is seen as a case of police victimization . . . We no longer stand as witnesses to brutality, we gather in front of televisions (and computer screens) as public entertained by racial punishment," (pg. 42).
Thus, Foucault's assertion that power is no longer overt, but primarily covert, is dashed by the construction of the policed as violator, the state as violated, and the public as spectator in television crime dramas and the news. Indeed, this harkens to the construction of entertained and policed bodies and the state in the "lynch mobs of yore." It would seem that Foucault's analysis of state power is decidedly unmarked by race, class, or gender, and, furthermore, that it is based upon a dismissively selective review of historic European documents. The linear progression of history that Foucault presents, in which persecution of "criminals" moves from being solidly about brutality and elimination to cleverly "making use" of undesirables can be complicated merely by a review of European vagrancy laws. In his essay, Safer Cities Unplugged, Peter White writes,
"Vagrancy laws - which happen to be the original name for today's quality-of-life policing strategy - have roots that extend as far back as 14th century England. The original purpose was to create a substitute form of serfdom [slavery] by legislatively tying workers to the master's land. By the middle of the 17th century, and up until the 19th century, the number of 'masterless' men and families that crowded the streets led to a change of emphasis in vagrancy laws. The new thrust was to create methods of control and ways to banish those that were undesirable, financial burdens, nuisances, and potential criminals," (pg. 72).
As we have seen, observations and arguments put forth by Cuevas and White complicate Foucault's thesis that modern expression of state power is covert and focused only on the soul, and furthermore, that the PIC's investment in organized slavery is a new development. Rather, state brutality has ascended to the level of mass media entertainment, and the creation and exploitation of criminals in prison complexes is part of an on-going system spanning at least hundreds of years.
For the CRC, and for many others, the abolition of the PIC and the possibility for a new way of life is not a pipedream characterized by impractical idealism. Rather, it is an urgently pressing matter; a matter that involves revolutionary action as the only way to make an end of an endless cycle of capitalistic and imperial violence that has always victimized the underbelly of the empire. Indeed, the structures of capitalism and colonization that produce marginalized and impoverished groups, and thus, produce criminals, give critical emphasis to the realization that "working with what we already have," doesn't work. The material existence, resistance, and reality of the movements of people in the CRC and their affiliates should serve as an example of the practicality of revolutionary politics. Rather than approaching massive obstacles to human well-being with diminished expectations for social transformation, the CR10 Publications Collective writes,
". . . as many organizers have demonstrated, we are not only struggling to tear down the cages of the PIC, but also to abolish the actions of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment that give the PIC its power. We are also reminded that abolition is the creation of possibilities for our dreams and demands for health and happiness - for what we want, not what we think we can get," (pg. xii, emphasis added).
For the PIC, once one has come to a place in which it is reasonable to demand health and happiness that is integral to dismantling and rebuilding the established order, and when abolition is not only the goal, but the strategy as well, all that remains is possibility. I would like to close simply with a list of questions for consideration raised by members of the CRC in an interview. Hopefully, these questions will guide us in a direction where we think openly and proactively about possibility, and refuse to have our dreams dashed by the myth of what is "realistic."
• How do we question all violence (including state violence) in our daily lives?
• How might we form institutions that protect people from violence without relying on police, surveillance, and prisons?
• How might we form institutions that are not based on ideas of nation-state governance?
• At what points do structural and revolutionary organizing and everyday life meet?
• How can we establish space to express dissent without punishment?
• How can we establish accountability for all the violence we commit upon each other?
• How can we work on a "human level" without recreating romanticized ideas of "community?"
• How might we expand the ideas of abolition rather than the organization itself?
• How do we form coalitions?
• How can we think outside of colonial criminalization?