Austerity Is Prison (Communique from Anticut 3)
[Note: Today, we marched in downtown Oakland as part of the third in a series of anti-capitalist actions designed to resist and make visible the new age of austerity and crisis in which we find ourselves. Below is the communique handed out during the action.]
Now, finally, the money is gone. The world has run out of future, used it up, wasted it on the grotesque fantasies of the rich, on technologies of death and alienation, on dead cities. Everywhere the same refrain, the same banners and headlines: there is nothing left for you. From the US to Greece, from Chile to Spain, whatever human face the State might have had: gone. The State is no longer a provider of education or care, jobs or housing. It is just a police force, a prison system, a bureaucracy with guns. . .
Sometimes, maybe, we get treated to some political theater: faked expressions of concern or outrage from the puffy, grimacing faces. But the result is always the same – in Oakland, in Sacramento, in Washington, in the offices of the IMF – whatever the owners of wealth want, they get. The rest of us are sacrificed on the altar of the bottom line.
No money on which to retire after a lifetime of crushing work. No money to go to college. No money for the grade schools and high schools, which every day look more and more like prisons. No money for the people maimed, sickened and driven insane by this unbearable society.
We could go through the new California budget line by line, but you basically already know what it contains. It’s not a budget but a bludgeon. Every line says the same thing: Fuck you. Die.
There is no money. And yet, still, we live in a society of vast, almost obscene wealth: blocks of homes sit empty, mountains of luxury goods glut the shopping emporia, unused factories and equipment gather rust. All of it under the spell of a strange collective hallucination called “property.” All of it protected by cops and the threat of prison. . .
Yes, the money is gone and there is no future. No future for capitalism. All attempts at reform are now as absurd as making home repairs while the rest of the house is on fire.
We live, as everyone knows, in times of record unemployment: Oakland itself now has an official unemployment rate of nearly 16%, a figure which does not even take into account those who have abandoned the hope of employment altogether. Of course, capitalism can never provide full employment. Even in times of plenty, it needs to manufacture “joblessness” in order to keep wages down by making sure there are multiple applicants for every job. Still, times are different now. If in the past employment was seen as the norm – that is, the unemployed seen as the otherwise employed fallen on hard times – now more and more people are simply “cast off.”
Naturally, as capitalism continues to create larger and larger populations deemed “superfluous” –or economically unnecessary – informal black markets like the drug trade become one of the only areas where one can make a halfway decent living. Many of California’s prisons are bursting with simple drug offenders, a trend which will only continue. Therefore, at the same time as capitalism creates these populations it also creates the apparatus to deal with them in ever more ruthless ways: to manage, fragment, displace and warehouse them. Whereas once capitalism sought to manage populations through public welfare, vocational schools, and housing projects, now such programs are incompatible with profits. Prisons take their place.
We should remember that the prison system is a form of state planning, a way of adjusting demographics so that the needs of capital are met: the right number of pliant workers, a tolerable level of “crime.” In the same way that a company might invest in new factories and machinery, prisons are investments that capital makes in its own future. Prisons are insurance against the risk of social upheaval, especially necessary in the present era of deepening austerity. They make promises to the “business community” that California will continue to be an attractive investment opportunity. And, of course, prisons are profitable for the companies who supply their inferior food and health care, for the building contractors and the people who run private prisons, not to mention the companies, from AT&T to Starbucks, that employ prison-labor for pennies on the dollar. In many of the desolate, rural areas of California, working for a prison is the only job in town. Likewise, in many urban centers, being a prisoner is the only “occupation” many will know.
Just as austerity means prisons, increasingly austerity is prison, locking the poor into their imposed poverty by denying basic services, education, housing and health care. Gang injunctions are deployed across California’s cities in order to manage their young black and Latino populations, now unable to do the very things we all should do more of in the face of the current onslaught: to meet, to congregate and build bonds. Public schools assume the role of holding cells, while a parallel universe of elite private educational institutions springs up to serve communities wealthy enough to afford them.
It is quiet now, relatively speaking, on the American streets. Still, one senses that the clouds of tear gas suffocating Athens and London, Santiago and Guangzhou, are closer than they seem. In defense of austerity, the police attack protests unprovoked, as happened during our last march, Anticut 2. A pervasive system of handheld and closed-circuit video surveillance continues unabated. Irrational police violence increases as police treat cities as occupied territory.
It is only the narrow idea that everybody has of their own home that makes it seem natural to leave the street to the police. By the same measure, we understand that prison is not something “over there”: it hangs over the head of all of us who would resist the current order of things, just as we see the real face of the police every time we step in the streets. No political struggle has ever been without its imprisoned faction, and indeed, many struggles live and die based on their relations with their imprisoned comrades. The prison system is as much addressed toward the “free” as it is addressed toward the imprisoned. It is meant as a stern warning to all of us.
Over the last few decades, the number of US prisoners has quadrupled. There are now over 2.5 million humans buried alive in these institutions. The largest penal system anywhere: a quarter of all prisoners the world over are rotting in US prisons. As almost everyone knows, this population is overwhelmingly black and Latino. For this reason, we say that, just as much as the growth of the prison system is a symptom of the collapse of the welfare state in the face of deindustrialization, it should also be regarded as collective punishment for the militancy, revolt, and generalized conflict of the 1960′s and 70′s, especially in those zones of civil war located in California.
US prisons long-ago abandoned even the pretense of “rehabilitation.” They are now simply containers designed to hold “dangerous” populations in a state of cryogenic suspension. They are instruments of “social death.” And literal death. Even the notoriously conservative Supreme Court of the US decided that the overcrowding in US prisons constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” Not even they could ignore the barbarity of a system where every 6 or 7 days someone dies due to treatable causes.
This is why we say that all prisoners are political prisoners, their incarceration the product of the machinations of power, the flows of capital, and the structural prejudices of the police. Their potential to revolt, to organize amongst themselves and attack their conditions is always assumed by the state. Hence, the creation of the modern maximum-security and “Supermax” prisons, which generalize solitary confinement to the entirety of a prison population. These are systems predicated upon the most extreme isolation of prisoners, designed to remove them from human contact entirely, hold them in a state of deprivation which, as any number of writers and studies have pointed out, causes permanent psychological damage. This is not accidental but the very purpose of such systems. Extended solitary confinement is essentially non-surgical lobotomy – designed to break people’s will, render them pliant.
Now, for the second time in less than a year, we witness a major uprising in the US prison system. Following on the heels of the brutally repressed work stoppage in Georgia, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay – the Supermax prison inside the Supermax – have begun an indefinite hunger strike. As of this writing, the hunger strike has spread to 10 other prisons. More than 6000 people refused food over the 4th of July weekend.
Reading the demands of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, one notes immediately how modest they are. They are willing to die in order to have their conditions brought into line with Supermax prisons in other states – better food, education, some possibility of getting off the SHU. What this demonstrates is that the State is always looking for an angle; that is, it is always looking for a way to cheat at its own game. It wants to produce exceptions to its own rules, produce places within the law that are, at the same time, outside the law. For example, the prisoners at Pelican Bay are, like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, held in a state of legal suspension – an indeterminate gray area of administrative decision which can, potentially, extend their stay on the SHU indefinitely. Pelican Bay is a limit case for the prison system.
We say again: all prisoners are political prisoners. Even those whose actual actions we find abhorrent in one way or another suffer as the result of capitalism’s crimes, not theirs. They suffer the consequences, in other words, of a society in which people have become so defenseless, and so alienated from each other, that the only response to interpersonal violence is forced confinement. All prisoners are political prisoners. One of the men currently on the SHU at Pelican Bay is Hugo Pinell, former comrade of George Jackson and survivor of the 1971 San Quentin prison uprising, itself a part of one of the most significant narratives in American history, the open resistance of the Black Panther Party and its affiliates in the civil war of the 1960s and 1970s.
There is no austerity without prisons. No capitalism without prisons. No possibility of a “colorblind” prison-industrial system and penal state. By the same measure, we believe that the destruction of capitalism will mean, at one and same time, the abolition of prisons and the regime of forced confinement that has spread over the earth for the last several centuries. To all those in prison, we have one thing to say: we are coming. As soon as we can.
Postcript: As we were finishing up this piece, we discovered that BART police have murdered yet another person – this time in San Francisco. They want us to believe that a “wobbly drunk” with a knife deserves to be shot dead within a minute of officers arriving on the scene. Moreover, they sense a potential public relations coup: because the victim was “White,” and one of the officers involved “Asian,” BART police could not possibly be a racist institution! Even more insulting is the additional implication that the whiteness of the suspect should somehow quell all outrage, as if those of us who protested the murder of Oscar Grant in January 2009, and yet again last July 8th when Mehserle’s verdict was announced, only cared about the “racist” part of “racist police murder.” We oppose police murder, period.
You can’t set fire to the prisons unless you first destroy the police. Let’s do that now.
July 8, 2011
pdfs of trifold handout, front and back (8.5 x 14):