Speech on the Carceral Capitalist State

given by ACL at the BIPOC Liberation Collective Community First Feed-In 7.26.20

Let me begin by stating from the outset: The carceral capitalist state, on an international scale, is an apparatus of repression, one that enables and sustains the exploitation of labor; enables the ongoing expropriation and genocidal practices of settler-colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy; and, finally, enables the violence of heteropatriarchy. The central task of the carceral capitalist state is the violent protection and enforcement of the status quo.

On the eve of the fascist era, the anti-fascist philosopher Walter Benjamin said that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” For the oppressed, the world is always in a state of emergency. So, the oppressed cannot wait for the right moment to liberate themselves. The right moment for radical transformation, for liberation, is always here and now; it cannot be postponed or delayed; it can happen at any moment. This is demonstrated by the fact that, just a few months ago, it would have been almost unthinkable for the project of abolition to have become a matter of urgency for so many, even though it is of course the case that thinkers in the Black radical tradition––Black feminists and activists especially––have been doing enormously important work on abolition for decades.

What I mean to suggest is that the carceral capitalist state is not just there to intervene during times of overt social crisis. The carceral capitalist state, of which the police is an important part, exists to destroy and suppress––through violence, murder, smear-campaigns, intimidation and psychological warfare, propaganda, and imprisonment––the uprisings and social movements led by oppressed peoples, who constantly make this state of emergency visible. Because this state of emergency is constant and becomes intolerable for the oppressed, the capitalist system needs the carceral capitalist state in order to contain the very possibility of revolt.

The carceral capitalist state destroyed the Black Panthers, repressed the Young Lords, tried to destroy, often successfully, revolutionary communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and continues to repress the demands of Puerto Ricans to be freed from predatory debt and to determine their future. The carceral capitalist state was there at the Stonewall riots and the Haymarket riot. The carceral capitalist state is there today, brutalizing Indigenous people when they rise up against capital’s effort to construct pipelines through their lands. Think of the activists in Ferguson who died under mysterious circumstances. Think also of the way the carceral capitalist, settler-colonial Israeli state at every turn violently suppresses the Palestinian project of self-determination. Wherever people rise up against the forces that oppress them, the state is there. The carceral capitalist state is the enemy. It exists to reinforce the disposability and powerless of human beings––working class BIPOC especially––in a society that sacrifices life in the interest of profit and works tirelessly to make it appear as though the abolition of this state of affairs is impossible.

I repeat: The carceral capitalist state is the enemy because it is essentially an instrument meant to enforce the reproduction of the relations of domination between the oppressor and the oppressed, the exploiter and the exploited. Thus, whenever people say that the carceral capitalist state and the police exist to protect people, we should always keep in mind the emptiness and moral bankruptcy of these claims. Agencies that terrorize and make life a living hell for BIPOC and migrant workers within the U.S. and at the border such as ICE and DHS are a part of the carceral capitalist state. The concentration camps filled with tens of thousands of migrants are a part of the carceral capitalist state. The U.S. military, which systematically slaughters Black and brown people in Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is part of the carceral capitalist state. Prisons, which today relegate over 2.3 million people, disproportionately BIPOC, to inhuman conditions are an integral part of the carceral capitalist state. The police, which has been tear-gassing, blinding, beating, maiming, breaking, imprisoning, humiliating, and killing protesters in the U.S. and in places like Chile and Bolivia is a central organ of the carceral capitalist state.

We must not forget that the image of the state as the protector and guarantor of civility and peace is directly contradicted by these facts. We must remember that the idea of “law and order” as it exists is the law and order of domination and oppression. We must recognize that asking pigs to kneel betrays the very idea of justice for those whose lives have been destroyed by police and state-sanctioned violence. “Nobody in the world, nobody in history,” writes Assata Shakur, “has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” We should remember this as we struggle to devise tactics, actions, and strategies to destroy the forces of oppression and bring about relations and institutions that sustain human life and allow us to radically remake the world toward this end.

I want to say a few more general things about the carceral capitalist state.

Firstly: The carceral capitalist state is an instrument for managing the common affairs and business of the capitalist class, as Marx and Engels once argued. The state and its various apparatuses serve the aims of capital accumulation and profit. Profit is the ultimate motive which drives racial capitalism and the state serves to guarantee that the working class on a global scale––those dispossessed from the means of production and subsistence––remains docile in its servitude. The carceral capitalist state is what grants capital the power to make the “commons”––land, resources, as well as the very ability to collectively determine what our future will be––into private property. It is not just material objects which are privately appropriated by capital with the aid of the carceral state. The very process of decision-making is concentrated in the hands of the exploiters and the oppressors who serve and benefit from the system.

Secondly: The carceral capitalist state is a product of alienation. This means that the carceral capitalist state is a false community. As political subjects with rights, we are all, so the official story goes, equal before the law. But this formal equality stands in direct contradiction with the real material inequalities that permeate racial capitalism, the various forms of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “social abandonment” and premature exposure to death. The formal rights which are supplied by the carceral capitalist state serve to create the illusion that we are all equal, when in fact people continue to be exploited, oppressed, dehumanized. When people are evicted, their formal equality cannot help them. In fact, if they refuse to leave, the police will forcibly remove them in defense of landlords and private property. When neighborhoods historically inhabited by BIPOC communities are gentrified by finance capital and real estate speculators in cities across this country, the carceral capitalist state sees this as just another business transaction. So much for those who suffer dispossession. When certain policies which effectively sacrifice human beings to the workings of the so-called free market are implemented, the state enshrines and enforces them. When people loot or when they begin to revolt, however, the state intervenes with violence and repression. It is no longer indifferent but active in carrying out organized acts of repression. Thus, the carceral capitalist state criminalizes entire populations while hiding from the view the injustices at the heart of racial capitalism.

Thirdly: The carceral capitalist state produces the ideological illusion that social antagonisms can be resolved exclusively within the confines of the state itself, by legal reforms and not by the radical reorganization of social life as a whole. It deceives us into believing that politicians, bureaucrats, and violent, racist institutions like the police are the only ones who can determine the way we make collective decisions about our collective existence.

So, on the one hand, the carceral capitalist state makes sure that the capitalist class can perform its aim of accumulating capital by exploiting the working class––differentiated along racial, gendered, and national lines––with as little obstruction as possible. The carceral capitalist state ensures that hyperexploited and racialized undocumented migrant workers live in constant fear of deportation and detainment, so that they more easily accept their exploitation. The carceral capitalist state, moreover, wages an everyday war of terror against racialized communities in the form of surveillance, policing, and even more so, as we so clearly see today, when they dare to question the system.

On the other hand, the carceral capitalist state makes us believe that the only way of collectively relating to each other is through the state itself. We know this is a lie. For example: We collectively relate to each other against the carceral capitalist state when we say defund and ultimately abolish the police. We collectively relate to each other against the carceral capitalist state when we take to the streets, not allowing ourselves to be deterred by state-violence and white supremacy. We collectively relate to each other when we go on strike against the bosses and employers who exploit, abuse, divide, and loot us of the fruits of our labor. We do this also when we engage in mutual aid and care (like today). We collectively relate to each other when we stand in solidarity with the struggles of prisoners, migrants, workers, disabled people, and the unhoused––those effectively abandoned and oppressed by a system in which economic value is primary and human needs, as well as those of nature, are entirely secondary.

The struggle against the carceral capitalist state is a struggle against the political and legal apparatuses which serve the interests of the ruling class, who exploit workers and expropriate peoples and their resources around the globe, who sap resources by investing in war, arming and militarizing a police force which terrorizes and murders our Black and brown comrades, our trans and gender non-conforming comrades, who privatize healthcare andschools and make them into a privilege for the few, who live parasitically on the backs of workers of all colors. To struggle against the carceral capitalist state today is to struggle against all of these things––against counterrevolution––and to bring about a new horizon for freedom and human flourishing.

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