The War on the People

— Susan Wesissman interviews Christian Parenti

SUZI WEISSMAN, AN editor of Against the Current and host of Beneath the Surface on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, interviewed Christian Parenti for the program broadcast November 15, 1999. We present an edited excerpt here. Louise Cooper reviewed Christian Parenti's Lockdown America in our previous issue (ATC 86).

Suzi Weissman: Why is criminal justice so central to American politics? Why do we beat the European competition when it comes to incarceration, the war on drugs, paramilitary policing, punitive sentencing and even the death penalty? Is the War on Drugs a euphemism for repression of the rebellious and poor?

Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America, Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, suggests something more than a draconian response to surging crime; he situates the repressive mania for law and order in the social, political and economic crisis that faced the US as the post-war boom went into decline. His provocative analysis is the subject of today's “Beneath The Surface.”

Christian Parenti teaches at the New College of California in San Francisco. He has written for In These Times, The Progressive, The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor, and co-hosted Flashpoints on KPFA, our sister station. He is speaking to us from northern California.

Let's start with your argument, Christian. You talk about prison and policing as a repressive strategy, as deliberate?

Christian Parenti: I chart the rise of the emerging anti-crime police state in the United States from the 1960s to the present. The first wave of this current buildup that we're experiencing, a wave that starts in the 1960s, can be seen in many ways as counterinsurgency by other means.

There's no better example of this than [Nixon's aide] H.R. Haldeman's quote in his diary when discussing Nixon's war on drugs: He tells that the President says the real issue is the Blacks, and the solution is to devise a system of control that acknowledges this while not seeming to.

That is their description of the war on drugs: a way of controlling insurgent populations and insurgent neighborhoods. By the 1980s the politics shift to some extent because there isn't the same level of insurgency in America that there was in the `60s and `70s.

It's still very much about class and racial control, but not so much about counterinsurgency, not so much about putting down insurgent populations as it is managing the contradiction of having this huge population of newly immiserated people -- who can't be dealt into the system, and have to be contained somehow -- and that's the second part of the buildup.

Keep in mind that the 1960s were marked by massive social upheaval. You often look back at that time and think: Well, the police won. They cracked down on the Panthers, they liquidated the leadership of certain radical movements, they killed Fred Hampton -- they won.

That's true to a certain extent, but if you look back at 1967, it didn't really look like that. There was a moment there in the mid-to-late `60s when the police were actually failing in the eyes of policy elites, those who control the large foundations, who sit in government, who control the large universities, the police forces.

It was clear to them that the cops were messing things up through either too much repression (in 1968 when the Chicago cops' actions provoked a crisis on the floor of the Democratic convention), or too little (the beginning of the Watts rebellion in 1965, when the police forces didn't have the equipment necessary to communicate with each other).

This crisis in American policing is finally dealt with at a national level starting in 1967. And the other thing to remember is that there are hundreds of riots every summer from 1965 on. In response, President Johnson initiates legislation in 1967 which in 1968 finally becomes law as the Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act of 1968, passing the House of Representatives literally as D.C. is burning.

Martin Luther King has just been killed, D.C. goes up in flames and Congress has just passed this big federal crime bill. And what that federal crime bill does is create the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration -- this massive bureaucracy which for the next ten years redistributes about a billion dollars a year to local law enforcement to give the cops all of the things that we associate with the infrastructure of modern policing.

That's when they first get computers, helicopters, swat teams, body armor, shoulder radios. That's when cops for the first time have to learn how to read -- many of them before that weren't required to know how to read -- and when American law enforcement takes its great leap forwards, is really rationalized and retooled into the form we know it.

SW: You suggest that the police responded to 1965 with a technical rationale: in other words there was too little repression, and later in 1968 there was too much. But what about 1992, when there is a similar rebellion in Los Angeles?

CP: Actually you do have, to a certain extent, a similar police response (to the first phases of the Watts rebellion), a withdrawal, which is what provokes the trigger of the LA riots at Florence and Normandy.

But again you have a similar federal response. Where does Clinton's 100,000 new cops initiative come from? That's a response to 1992. And the crime bill of `94, one of the most dramatic crime bills of the last thirty years, is very much informed by the specter of LA in `92.

SW: Going back to the late `60s and the counterinsurgency methods used, which were to use a lot of hardware, a lot of police and paramilitary paraphernalia -- including SWAT teams -- did it provide its own rationale and create its own bureaucracy that then had to justify and perpetuate itself?

CP: Yes, definitely. The roots of that self-perpetuating police bureaucracy and police `officialdom' connected to and addicted to the gear, takes root in the `60s and `70s. But it's embryonic when compared to that kind of politics today.

You really see that interest group beginning to help push policy in earnest in the `80s, when every single police force of any size in this country has a SWAT team, and you have this infrastructure of training and conferences to help facilitate a culture among this police officialdom, who then push harder and harder for more and more gear.

The two crises from which I see our current anti-crime police state emerging are, first, the crisis of policing and of political obedience and rebellion in the `60s; and second, connected but somewhat separate, the beginnings of an economic crisis, more specifically a profit crisis.

The postwar boom era was the rebuilding of Europe and Japan, when U.S. business is in a position to really reap the lion's share of those benefits, high profits allow business to pay high taxes and pay high wages, and thus you get the golden era of American Capitalism as sociologists and economists often call it.

But that starts to play out by the mid `60s and stall by the late `60s. And in the early `70s you see profit rates declining because there's finally just too much stuff in international markets, too much competition; in other words the recovery from World War II is done.

In 1968 General Electric, which was then the fourth largest employer in the country, notoriously anti-labor, faces a massive strike by twelve unions, and the unions win. Afterwards GE does an analysis and finds that the unions, that the strikers, had not only been getting their strike dues but had been collecting welfare -- in fact they had collected twenty-five million dollars in welfare, so from the point of view of General Electric's Board of Directors this was state-subsidized class warfare.

That had to be broken. So that's the solution that emerges ideologically in the `70s. But it doesn't really actualize in policy until the Reagan era. The opening act of the 1980s, which is really the solution to the 1970s, is that Paul Volcker was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve by Carter. Then Reagan comes in, and together Reagan and Volcker basically engineer the second worst recession since the great depression.

The idea of this was to discipline and scare working people. I've got quotes to that effect in the book...(A)t the same time Reagan goes on a policy offensive against the institutional strength of the working class, gutting the rights of labor, regulation of corporations, federal spending on education, and all of the infrastructures of the social welfare system, like AFDC, CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act), etc.

The best way to measure the effect is in 1980 not a single union contract -- as had been the case since the early 1960s -- involved a wage freeze or a wage giveback, but in 1982 after two years of bitter recession and a policy offensive, 44% of all union contracts involved an outright wage giveback or a wage freeze.

This redisciplining of American labor helps to rejuvenate profit rates, but creates this other problem: the expansion of a new class of poor people, the return of mass homelessness.

With deindustrialization and the withdrawal of municipal services in cities you get this hyper-ghettoization, you have this whole problem population which ten years earlier had been in rebellion and might rebel again. And even if they don't rebel they cause an aesthetic and ideological problem to the system: They can show up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Capitalism needs the poor, yet is always threatened by them.

So how does this system manage that problem? Basically as Machiavelli says there are two choices: Men will either be treated well or crushed. And governing a class society is basically about toggling between those two poles. And so what happens is a shift back, away from cooptive, ameliorative forms of governance towards good old-fashioned repression.

You see beginning in the early eighties a re-engagement of the crackdown of the early and mid `70s. You get the Reagan era war on drugs.

SW: Which is still with us ...

CP: Yes, and it begins in earnest in `84, and we basically have had massive federal crime bills every two years since then. So the argument is that the second wave in the current criminal justice buildup is about preventative counter insurgency to some extent, but also about managing and containing the surplus populations created by capitalist economic restructuring. That's where you get the whole incarceration and policing binge taking off.

SW: Do you think that the 1.8 million -- soon to be two million -- people incarcerated represents the layer of people that would threaten the status quo? And how does this relate to hidden structural unemployment?

CP: I think yes, it does represent a layer of people who threaten the status quo, but the main way the United States hides its unemployment is just by not counting it. The Europeans have a different method of counting. We count only people who are registered as looking for work, so discouraged workers, the millions and million of discouraged workers just lost in the inner cities, the class and caste that are hounded by the cops daily, are just not counted.

As for those almost two million people in prison, people have done the math on that, and it would raise the unemployment rate by 2%. That is, one of the functions to mask unemployment -- but that's not why people are in prison. Ultimately, the argument made in the book is a political argument about class and racial rule, and maintaining stability in an inherently unequal and therefore inherently unstable social situation.

That's what makes Lockdown America different from other books. I'm not arguing that prisons are a profit center. I'm not arguing the same thing as Manning Marable, that prison is hyper-profitable and that's why it's being pushed forward. Actually, I don't think that's the case, I don't think that most prisons are profitable.

There are 72,000 prisoners working. It's a lower percentage of the overall prison population than was working in 1980. The vast majority of prisoners work for state-owned prison industries. The vast majority of those state-owned prison industries do not create a surplus for the state or for the prison system. In other words they have to be subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

The main point of prison labor is not extracting wealth; it's about making prison look efficient. There are only 2500 prisoners that work for private corporations. And it's not for lack of effort. There's been enormous effort to try and draw capital into prison, but the thing is private corporations don't want to exploit prison labor for a number of reasons.

One, which we on the left should keep in mind there is still a moral stigma attached to using convict labor. Two, there's so much cheap labor everywhere in the world, including the United States, and much of it militarily disciplined, why would you ever need prison labor?

Third, prison is not just for prisoners, but for everyone else there a bureaucratic nightmare. So you can't operate a sweatshop with total flexibility inside prison because you're going to have prison guards strip-searching your workers, shutting down your operations, doing economically irrational stuff like not letting people walk across a yard when it's foggy.

All of these things are keeping private capital out of prison labor. What happens too much on the left is that people look for corporate smoking guns, as opposed to looking at the class system in general.

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