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"Carceral Capitalism" by Jackie Wang

D Higel

The complex political and economic systems which govern our lives are not easy to discern. Jackie Wang connects the dots and penetrates the fog. Taking as its project an “attempt to update the analytic of racial capitalism for a contemporary context,” Carceral Capitalism outlines, in direct and almost journalistic prose, our society’s current march towards dystopia (p.69).

Wang’s writing style is a real strength of Carceral Capitalism. She is never sensationalistic, even when describing events and trends that exceed anything Orwell imagined. Wang seamlessly interweaves reportage, personal perspective, and critical theory to construct a deeply informative yet readable narrative, the impact of which would be diluted by an excessive reliance on purely conceptual work. With the exception of the first essay, “Racialized Accumulation by Dispossession in the Age of Finance Capital: Notes on the Debt Economy,” Carceral Capitalism avoids this potential pitfall and is admirably accessible to readers who may lack a strong background in political and economic theory.

Roughly the first third of Carceral Capitalism is taken up by the introduction, an essay which stands effectively on its own and represents the thematic heart of the book. Here Wang presents her main thesis: that racial capitalism operates according to twin modalities of predatory lending and parasitic governance. She explains how financial and municipal entities working together serve to extend the influence of the state over the citizenry, with the most marginalized sectors of the population always the first to feel the latest innovation in the technology of control.

As an especially lurid example of this dynamic, Wang relates the story of a judge in Alabama who refers a group of people owing fines and fees to a blood drive waiting outside the courtroom. Here, the state literally sucked the blood from its citizens, whom it might be more appropriate to call prey. Wang argues that such practices have been on the rise as municipalities struggle to balance their budgets, a condition that is largely the effect of actions taken by the financial industry. At the same time public discourse around municipal finance typically concerns supposed government profligacy, and a concomitant prescription for austerity. As the gaps in the social safety net thereby increase, so also does reliance on personal credit — which is to say, debt. And, as Wang insightfully points out, the subjectivity of the debtor is closer to that of the prisoner than that of the free citizen.

Carceral Capitalism is full of similar stories. The net effect is to provide a lens that effectively brings into focus much of what often seems impossible to either explain or influence. For instance, the near-complete failure of government at all levels to hold the financial industry accountable for the 2008 crisis, which could appear to defy reason, makes perfect sense under Wang’s analysis. It’s a depressing but also a potentially empowering realization. One plausible cause of the widespread political complacency that allows these trends to continue is that they are difficult to see clearly, and what is difficult to see clearly is difficult to act upon. By revealing the dynamics at play Carceral Capitalism can help mitigate the helplessness and hopelessness many experience and the political inertia thus engendered.

Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, semiotext(e), 2018, 359 pp.