On Carceral Capitalism

This episode features Jackie Wang and her recently released collection of essays titled “Carceral Capitalism.” She provides a framework to understand how racial capitalism produces gratuitous violence against Black bodies as well as profit-generating technologies of extraction — from Ferguson to Flint and beyond.

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Episode Transcript:

Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. In this episode, we speak with Jackie Wang about her recently released collection of essays titled “Carceral Capitalism.” She provides a framework to understand how racial capitalism produces both gratuitous violence against Black bodies as well as profit-generating technologies of extraction — from Ferguson to Flint and beyond.

Before we begin, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.


Stephon Clark

On March 18th, Sacramento police murdered 22 year old Stephon Clark for existing as a young black man in the united states. Clark was shot at 20 times by the police in the backyard of his grandmother’s house, a house in which Clark lived with his family, after mistaking Clark’s cellphone for a gun. Since the shooting, massive demonstrations have taken place in Sacramento and across the country calling for an end to the violence of policing.

Trump wants to execute drug dealers

On March 19th, president Donald Trump publicly pushed for the death penalty for drug dealers in his new plan to combat the opioid crisis in the US. Trump, who has praised the violent authoritarian rule of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly crackdown on drug dealers and drug users, also announced that he will be pushing for stricter enforcement and more mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers. Trump has a history of promoting the execution of black and brown people, most prominently when he fought for the death penalty in the case of the now-exonerated Central Park Five in the late 1980’s.


Over 50 organizations have endorsed a campaign to challenge the use of electronic monitors and surveillance techniques, the use of which has doubled in the past decade. Challenging E-carceration, which was started jointly by the Center for Media Justice and the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, aims to limit the use of electronic monitoring and to protect the rights of those monitored through media and popular mobilization, as well as to imagine alternatives to the carceral state. Visit challengingecarceration.o-r-g for their “Guidelines for Respecting the Rights of Individuals on Electronic Monitoring” and more resources.



a Maria: I am a Maria and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan. I’m here today with co-producer David Langstaff and we are interviewing Jackie Wang, author of the recently published collection of essays titled “Carceral Capitalism.” Jackie Wang is a prison abolitionist and multimedia artist whose brother is incarcerated in Florida and she is currently working on her PhD in African-American studies at Harvard University. Jackie, you have called Carceral Capitalism quote -“an attempt to update the analytic of racial capitalism for a contemporary context.” Can you speak to the importance of racial capitalism as an analytic framework you develop in your book?

Jackie Wang: So, when I talk about updating the analytic of racial capitalism, I’m mostly in conversation with people who have tried to theorize racial capitalism but much of the theorization ahs focused on the birth of capitalism, the way in which capitalism has always been intertwined with slavery, and there are also a number of historians, sometimes called the new historians of capitalism, who have also tried to rethink the nature of capitalism from a racial capitalism perspective.

And so what I was interested in focusing on in the book and it kind of unfolded in multiple stages, but I started out looking at municipal finance and looking at parasitic and carceral governance. I was doing a bit of research on the situation in Ferguson –after the murder of Michael Brown, the department of Justice investigated the Ferguson police department and found that the municipality was basically plundering the residents of Ferguson as a way to raise revenue for the municipality– and the financial manager of Ferguson was literally directly corresponding with the police chief, telling him how much revenue they needed to extract from residents.

So I started thinking about extraction happening by police officers and I wanted to understand the context better so I started researching a bit of political economy, looking into the fiscal situation that was leading to the dependency on these carceral extractive techniques. So I started looking into, you know, how in places where the tax base has collapsed there has been an increasing reliance on these techniques of extraction. And definitely Michigan was a place that kept coming up when I was just reading, and I would just pay attention to whenever I would read news articles that were related to this issue. And definitely Michigan kept coming up over and over again. The Flint water crisis is also bound up with these processes. When Flint was taken over by the emergency managers their goal was to make Flint solvent by any means necessary. And even if that meant poisoning the residents by switching the water supply, even though they knew that they wouldn’t be able to treat the water to prevent lead from leaking into the water supply.

And so this is not only happening in Ferguson or happening in places like Flint, MI, and Detroit, MI, but in places that have undergone a transformation in the economy. So in the South, where there’s been you know, a shrinking of the agricultural sector, and in the Midwest where there’s been deindustrialization, these are the places where these carceral extractive techniques are being used the most. But there’s also research that shows that majority black municipalities across the country that rely on these extractive techniques. And so I was thinking about connecting racial capitalism to these processes but then while I was researching the municipal fiscal crisis I started thinking about the moneylending side because increasingly, municipalities are funding government operations through issuing debt. And that’s not anything new, municipal bonds have been around forever but the kinds of credit instruments that are being used to finance municipal governance have changed a lot, especially since the eighties there’s been a financialization of municipal affairs.

So when I started thinking about that piece, about what it means for municipalities to rely on debt finance governance, I started thinking about the moneylending side and then I started thinking about predatory lending on the private side as also being a component of contemporary racial capitalism. And then I started thinking more about payday loans, commercial bail bonds, and banks trying to enter into agreements with municipalities that are struggling, that basically make it so that the municipalities are making bets about the direction of interest rates using public money.

So when I was trying to figure out how to fit this all together, I had initially focused on the parasitic carceral governance side of contemporary racial capitalism. But I decided to include an additional chapter that was about predatory lending and the debt economy. And so something that, in the zine Containing the Crisis, is the effect of automation and deindustrialization, and so for me, to think about this topic and how it relates to racial capitalism, I basically drew from Black Power thinkers such a Huey Newton, a little bit of Eldridge Cleaver, even though he has questionable gender politics, and George Jackson. And these were all people who were basically at the dawn of this era of automation and deindustrialization and right before the buildup of the carceral state there are all these black thinkers who were theorizing these processes as they were unfolding. Eldridge Cleaver said though that the welfare state would enable consumption when people were shunted from the labor market, but looking at how it’s played out, it’s really the debt economy that has kept things afloat. And so I wanted to think about the debt economy as one side of contemporary racial capitalism but I also wanted to think about just the effects that debt has on our lives.

So, you know, when you’re in debt, essentially what that means is that somebody owns your future. And so for me, this presents a lot of problems, not just in terms of our freedom to live our lives in the ways that we want to, but it also means that the choices that we have will be narrow and we will also be disciplined by our indebtedness. And so that’s just a very very roundabout way of saying that I was really in my book focused on predatory lending and parasitic governance. I don’t want to exclude work and productive labor from my analysis but there’s been a lot of work done on that front already. So for me this was a way of theorizing the relationship between racial capitalism and the carceral state by looking specifically at processes related to financialization.

David: So you’ve brought attention that both the Detroit bankruptcy and the Flint water crisis as brutal but ultimately unexceptional examples of what you call a financial state of exception, one of five techniques of “parasitic governance” which you understand as one of the key forms taken by the state under contemporary racial capitalism. Can you help break down these concepts for our listeners, perhaps drawing on Detroit and Flint as illustrations of the dynamics you are trying to illuminate?

Jackie Wang: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think this is also related to the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis as well, um but when I was thinking about the financial states of exception, I guess this is a term that is an extension of Agamben’s state of exception analytic. I was thinking specifically about how current modes of governance are suspended in a way of a fiscal crisis so you know what we often see happening in municipalities that go bankrupt is the elected officials are basically removed from their offices and emergency managers are put in their place and these are basically technocrats who are making financial decisions that are geared towards making municipalities solvent.

So basically the goal of municipalities in debt the idea is that we’ll put these people in power that will have complete control of the affairs of the municipality. For people who think we live in a democracy this is kind of shocking, it is a kind of fascism in a way. The way that it was framed in Puerto Rico is a kind of colonialism because these financial managers are usually working on behalf of the financial industry, and you know the priority is to make sure that the creditors get paid. So what happened in Detroit, in the lead up to the financial crash, Detroit had entered into these swap agreements with banks, which is basically making a bet about the direction about interest rates. Once the interest rates dropped in the wake of the financial crash, Detroit found itself having to pay millions of dollars every month just to pay off the swap agreements. The way that this situation got framed in the media, it was labor unions and the pension fund that was zapping the tax dollars. Maybe in some ways it’s technically true because these swap agreements were arrange to get money for the pension fund, but it was actually this very complicated this financial instrument that was zapping the fund primarily.

This all gets framed in very curious ways in the media. The ideology is that teachers are being greedy, labor unions are too powerful, public employees are getting these cush health benefits and pensions, but it was actually the financialization of Detroit’s’ affairs that really lead to the bankruptcy.

Like I said in the book, its cities that are under some kind of fiscal deres and the cause of the deres vary from city to city, but it wasn’t just Detroit that this kind of thing happened to. Many many school districts in Pennsylvania also funded education projects using swaps. So they also experience something similar to Detroit. So financial state of exception is one of the techniques of parasitic governance that I play out. I also talk about automated processing, so this is also something that happened in Michigan, that I talk about a little bit in the introduction.

Michigan implemented this software called MIDAS, which was supposed to automate the process of fining people for unemployment fraud and basically it automatically issued thousands of claims for unemployment fraud and it automatically fined people sometimes upwards of a hundred thousands dollars and over ninety percent of these claims were false and then the state was like okay, they pass the law saying that they can use the revenue of the funds collected from accusations of unemployment fund to balance the state budget and then they were sued soon after, they were trying to get away with it literally trying to get away with stealing from people who have recently experienced unemployment, which is like basically the most evil thing I can think of.

Automated processing this is something that is of particular concern to me when I think about carceral state infrastructure, because basically it means that it can not only increase extraction from people, you know very easily by just implementing software, but it can expand the reach of a surveillance state. So I already talked about looting and extraction in relation to Ferguson a bit, but I also talk about confinement and gratuitous violence, so basically by thinking about gratuitous violence specifically I wanted to build a bridge between you know racial capitalism as an analytic and afro-pessimist.

There has been some kind of heated exchanges around how to analyze specifically anti-Black racism, and afro-pessimist are very resistant to the idea of having some kind of economically reductionist of account of anti-Black racism. So saying that something like mass incarceration is merely an effect of capitalism or something along those lines. But I acknowledge that political economy can only tell us so much about how these processes work. So I felt like I really needed to pull in that discourse and try to think about all of these things together to show that yes, our economy is racialized, and yes that there is an economic motive behind some forms of racialized state extraction but that really does not explain you know why mass incarceration is racialized. The economic explanation can’t account for police shootings and other forms of violence are gratuitous.

a Maria: You written also that “strategies of innocence become problematic when they reinforce the framework that renders revolutionary and insurgent politics unimaginable” can you talk more about this and strategies that move us towards the abolitionist horizon without falling into a trap of constructing docile subjects?

Jackie Wang: This is why I definitely wanted to flag my project –especially in the conclusion– as an abolitionist project. So one thing that I am particularly concerned with is this compensatory model of punitivity where now it seems like a war on drugs is gradually losing its moral legitimacy. I mean in many places it has lost its moral legitimacy, and there has been a push to decarcerate people but its mainly limited to the so called non-violent offender who is just locked up for the possession of drugs of something, along those lines and I appreciate that the abolitionist resist this violent, non-violent dichotomy people make when they talk about prisons and mass incarceration.

A similar thing I’ve been thinking about also is immigration and immigration detention and the discourse around immigration right now; so I’ve been thinking about how some people using a kind of discourse of innocent to promote certain immigration policies that are favorable to certain kinds of immigrants. You know the DREAMers are the focus of much of the media attention but there is this idea that there has to be trade off, so if the DREAMers are going to be allowed to stay, than the bad immigrants need to go and so there is this good immigrant, bad immigrant discourse and so a lot of people are highlighting the stories of people who are legible as successful and hardworking in accordance with American norms and you know that implicitly also reinforces the idea of well if you are not legible of a good American in these ways then you should not be treated with dignity.

What I was focusing on primary in that essay was questions around tactics so if there is this idea of a good citizen that becomes the preconditions for anti-racist politics then that can only ever reinforce a kind of reformist approach because any modes of resistance that are seen as you know militant or improper will not warrant sympathy and these tactics will basically be written out, militant tactics will be written out in our politics if captivity is the precondition for how we understand like grievances.

That essay definitely came out of the occupy movement so it’s pretty old now and in the introduction of my book I talk a little bit about what has happened since I wrote that essay, but this question around tactics was something that was very heavily debated around occupy and there definitely was this good protester, bad protester mentality and you know I come out of the anarchist mileu and we are definitely demonized in this discourse as well. And so I wanted to challenge that framework and you know the question around policing was particularly heated during the occupy movement, you know this is pre-Black Lives Matter so the question of police violence was kind of push to the side. There were many people who participated in occupy who thought that it would be outlandish to include a critique of the police or to exclude the police and I talk a little bit about how the discourse and the political terrain has shifted since occupy because of the Black Lives Matter movement.

a Maria: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jackie Wang: Thank you for having me on, and for the stuff that you’ve been working on as well.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, a Maria, David Langstaff, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.