Issue 140

Jackie Wang: Carceral Capitalism
by Kendra Place

Jackie Wang is “a student of the dream state, black studies scholar, prison abolitionist, poet, performer, library rat, trauma monster, and PhD candidate at Harvard University.”1 I was first introduced to her writing in 2012 when some prairie prison abolitionists were reading her essay “Against Innocence,” published in LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism. Years later in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal, I was surprised to see that the text was being discussed in a white cube art context, the SBC Gallery, where Wang had been invited to speak. (SBC’s ongoing program of critical institutionalism has been worth following since.) Carceral Capitalism, which includes “Against Innocence,” is Wang’s first book. I read it this summer while on a ferry crossing the Salish Sea.

Like last summer and many before, fires had been devouring the forests, leading the British Columbia government to declare a state of emergency. Audible throughout the boat, news anchors warned: “carelessness causes fire,” invoking an admonished figure—someone who would smoke negligently or selfishly build a campfire—while the media bypassed the structural reality of capitalist/colonial climate change. This rhetoric sounded analogous to the ideology addressed in Carceral Capitalism: that crimes of poverty, traffic infractions and drug use cause carcerality—prisons and prison-like conditions. Contra this myth, Wang analyzes the historical capacity of the political economy to create criminality through ever-adapting modes of governance. Her research focuses on expropriative policing in particular.

A poem on the back of the book establishes the thesis:

What do we make
of the flowering vine
that uses as its trellis
the walls of a prison?

This question weaves together the multiple writing genres and disciplinary approaches that constitute Carceral Capitalism as a precise theoretical and political analysis grounded in autobiography, lending the work an organic quality both intellectually (in autodidactic traditions of Antonio Gramsci and the Black Panther Party) and aesthetically, informing the author’s imagery and imaginaries of abolition and freedom. Pages turn like petals, as the abolitionist antithesis grows from the book’s core critical thesis—in the new racial capitalism (following Cedric J. Robinson), spaces of incarceration and freedom are a continuum, not so well-defined by prison walls (or book covers).

Wang situates her thought in the Florida of her youth and, later, as witness to the United States’ subprime mortgage crisis: “Before I was able to disentangle the political, economic, cultural, and racial forces that were shaping my context, I could feel their effects.” An extensive introduction offers an (auto)historiography of the analytic essays and creative writings that follow. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and endeavours to transform everyday life through collective living, reading and study, Wang began the project to confront a “discursive and political impasse”: “liberalism’s stranglehold on how we understand both the nature of racism and which tactics are legitimate to counter racism.” This was before the Ferguson moment and before Black Lives Matter, which she credits for having “radically transformed how racism is conceived and contested.” Back in 2012, contesting collaboration with police was still often “considered scandalous” and it was less possible to acknowledge racism as constitutive rather than a side effect of policing.

After the police killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising, Wang began to notice a pattern in cities throughout the US. She describes a shift in modes of governance: where the state had once emphasized Keynesian welfare, it then became a debt state, “authorizing austerity,” and now relies on increasingly predatory and parasitic techniques that amount to racialized dispossession.

Her method combines revisions of the historical literature based in critical black and ethnic studies with contemporary discourse analysis: Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation, for example, describes the violent creation of labour markets through the alienation of peasants from their lands; following Rosa Luxemburg, this is an ongoing, global process conditioned by “racialized expropriation, colonization and slavery.” From here, Wang assesses the insidious impacts of finance capital and the credit system on state and municipal levels: as capitalism faces a crisis of accumulation, credit fraud and predation become a way to create markets and ensure profit; mortgage (reverse) redlining defines, moralizes and naturalizes people and neighbourhoods as credit-“risky.” Credit systems, police, private probation supervision, civil forfeiture of property and courts directly loot the vulnerable populations (the captive markets) they claim to serve, targeting residents with fines and fees in order to fund their own existence as the security apparatus and facilitate the upward distribution of wealth. Through these processes of expropriation, Wang argues, poverty is racialized, spatialized and made increasingly expensive.

The book reads like a form of prisoner correspondence, an open letter to Wang’s older brother, who has been incarcerated since he was a teenager, subjected to the uniquely American practice of juvenile life without parole. His experience is, for the author, a “political knot” around which she grapples with the meaning of being on “the outside”; for the reader, this knot is the heart of the book, marked by a change of typeface. From here, Wang elaborates a critique of the unfounded, racist rhetoric of the juvenile “superpredator,” which emerged in the 1990s and influenced policy and public opinion. White fear of a growing, “chaotic” demographic (primarily young black men) and the resulting instrumentalization of law ensured criminality through its anticipation. She further describes the current role of supposedly neutral algorithmic technology in predictive (as opposed to reactive/repressive) policing, where race is invoked by proxy instead of directly: through the targeting of racialized neighbourhoods.

“Against Innocence” is the last analytic essay, in which Wang argues that requirements for innocence serve a white logic of “commonsense” crime and punishment (following Avery F. Gordon), preventing society from becoming conscious of the structure and enactment of criminalization. Investments in innocence privilege white subject positions and spaces while determining who is subjected to disposability and social death (following Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson III and Orlando Patterson) and demanding that black death be a passively suffered experience. Finding hope in Fred Moten’s imaginaries of insurgent black social life, here Wang compels her readers to take responsibility for our own beliefs just before the writing style shifts toward the speculative and dialogic—dream work, poetic citation and fictional conversations with predecessors toward a prison abolitionist imagination.

Although I am less compelled by the revolutionary failure tropes in the form of missed opportunities to seize the exact moment and create a new world from the ruins of the old, and so forth, I read Carceral Capitalism as a unique intervention in the entire tradition of Freudo-Marxist critical theory. Wang discredits the carceral realism that makes it so difficult to imagine a world without prisons by thinking beyond analytic binaries that uphold white supremacy, such as those that would have us address capitalism as homogenizing on the basis of class rather than differentiating on the basis of race, or as working through labour exploitation rather than wealth and land expropriation. Where some current academic debates get caught, she contends with the implications of both Afro-pessimism and anticapitalist/economic struggles; black philosophical traditions and Indigenous anticolonial accounts (citing Dené political theorist Glen Coulthard); and critiques of biopolitical and necropolitical forms of governance, creating space for thought and action that will end anti-blackness. Since carcerality is not necessarily reliant on a physical (prison) structure, to imagine carceral abolition is, for the author, also to imagine a world without “parasitic governance” and “credit worthiness,” a world with different social relations, a “reenchanted world.” Carceral Capitalism allows for a better understanding of how governance works today, whether in the land called the United States or in the land called Canada, providing a parallel to Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives (Fernwood, 2017) and historical context for the current prison strikes. Aesthetically, it offers (an image of) a book as an enclosing (if Minimalist) bramble from which a forest might grow if we allow ourselves literal metaphors.