The Coronavirus and Carceral Capitalism

From a prison cell in 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old world is dying and the new cannot yet be born; in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The political economic and biological relevance of Gramsci’s words and the conditions under which they were written extend well beyond historical parallel and literary metaphor. A crisis has metastasized from the micro-biological to the political economic. Now, neoliberalism is dying. In the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms have appeared: social distancing, crisis policing, death camps, and pandemic labor. Of what disease are these symptoms? Not coronavirus. Carceral capitalism. 

The practice of social distancing, the primary solution being put forward by health care professionals, political commentators, celebrities, and everyone else on social media to flatten the curve, is defined by the CDC as avoiding “close contact,” staying “home as much as possible,” and putting “distance between yourself and other people.” In effect, the practice of social distancing is a practice of forced isolation and incapacitation. Coincidentally, forced isolation and incapacitation, as scholar activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes in her book, Golden Gulag, is “the theory that undergirds the most ambitious prison-building project in the history of the world” (14). In a strictly criminological sense:

incapacitation doesn’t pretend to change anything about people except where they are. It is in a simple-minded way, then, a geographical solution that purports to solve social problems by extensively and repeatedly removing people for disordered, deindustrialized milieus and depositing them somewhere else (14).

The practice of social distancing, then, as the sole and primary strategy that’s being offered in the United States to flatten the curve doesn’t pretend to address the social antecedents of coronavirus: “the more we stay home, the sooner we can get back to normal.” Read: “the more we stay home, the sooner we get back to the status quo.” Furthermore, in purporting to fight the coronavirus by simply changing where people are, the practice of social distancing casts people as the problem, rather than an unfettered and cutthroat capitalist political economy that has systematically underdeveloped health care infrastructure and underproduced life-saving medical supplies and equipment in the name of cost minimization and profit maximization. Never mind the fact that the same political economy has been defined by fifty years of wage stagnation, the persistent rolling back of social insurance, and the shifting of inflationary health care costs on to “consumers” via private insurance premiums. In the face of these circumstances the American political economy has been rendered obsolete, devoid of any social solutions, and, as such, the full burden of fighting the pandemic is shifted on to individuals via social distancing.  In sum, social distancing conflates controlling the virus with controlling people in place of controlling the conditions in which it is allowed to be spread.

At the same time the burden of the pandemic is increasingly being shifted on to individuals via the imposition social distancing, it is also a burden increasingly being punitively enforced. For example, violations of state-wide emergency orders issued in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Hawaii, and others are punishable by either fine, imprisonment, or both. While The Center for American Progress writes “To date, most jurisdictions have resisted the approach of arresting people,” reports have surfaced via The Appeal on the arrest and imprisonment of people in Florida, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey for social gatherings such as church services, weddings, and house parties in addition to more trivial offenses such as loitering and patronizing a gas station store. What’s more, in a time of acute material security, police are arresting and imprisoning people for offenses such as stealing whiskey, shoplifting groceries, and curfew violations resulting from homelessness in cities such as New Orleans, Avon (Ohio), Orlando, and undoubtedly in countless others as well. In fact, some police departments have cynically increased the punitiveness of their practices by adding corona-related charges to non-corona-related charges or by tricking drug-users to have their drugs tested for the virus at a police department. Thus, the criminalization of life and poverty, something viewed by many as “necessary,” is the only state-sponsored response to a crisis for which there exist no other possible state-sponsored responses. In this way, not only is the American state revealed as a failed state, the criminalization of life and poverty is revealed to be the extension of the carceral logic of social distancing: people are the problem, therefore they must be contained, and, if necessary, punished. 

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world. Currently 2.3 million people are incarcerated nationwide. As the coronavirus spreads, jails, prisons, and ICE detentions centers are likely to become the epicenter of the pandemic. Some reports are already claiming that they are. In polite language, commentators are saying the coronavirus is going to turn our gulag archipelago into a public health disaster. That’s true, but it’s an understatement. The coronavirus is going to turn every jail, prison, and detention center in the United States into a death camp. The 5,000 institutional settings that comprise our gulag archipelago have housing conditions remarkably similar to coronavirus hotspots with confined spaces that hold large numbers of people in close proximity, making it impossible to follow CDC coronavirus sanitation protocol. What’s more, these facilities are massively underequipped to handle a pandemic. Currently, in the Rikers Island jail complex, more than 800 people are being held in isolation or in quarantined groups. The contagious disease unit, which only has 88 beds, is already at maximum capacity. In New York City Jails the rate of infection is 66.5 per 1000 people. The rate of infection for New York City is 9.8 per 1000 people. Meaning, the rate of infection in New York City jails is seven times greater than it is for the non-incarcerated population. This week, Rikers Island reported its first incarcerated persons death from the virus. And, as if the situation wasn’t already deeply dystopian, this week the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed it was offering incarcerated people $6 per hour and PPE to dig corona-specific mass graves on Hart Island. Right now, anything short of full prison abolition, will quite literally result in those incarcerated people digging their own graves. That is, it will result in the carrying out of the logic of carceral capitalism in the extreme: incarcerated people digging a hole in to which they will be thrown into eternity and disposed of life itself.  

Finally, we arrive at the primary contradiction of the coronavirus crisis: pandemic labor. On Thursday, a doctor joining in the protests against the working conditions at the Montefiore Medical Center, said going to work every day “feels like a sheep going to slaughter.” In an interview with Jacobin, following walk outs at Amazon warehouses in Staten Island and Chicago, an Amazon warehouse worker said their employer doesn’t “think our lives matter as much as theirs.” Hourly workers at Whole Foods, Target, and Costco will receive $2 hourly increases for their work during the pandemic. While hourly workers at CVS will receive bonuses ranging from $150 to $500 and hourly workers at Walmart will receive bonuses of $300. However, one employee at a Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA told the LA Times “the $2 is insulting” and the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union questioned whether “a bonus like Walmart offered” was worth somebody’s life? 

Coronavirus has revealed to us what the most socially necessary labor is and who the most socially necessary laborers are to our collective well-being. In doing so, it has also revealed that what and who is most socially necessary is also most devalued in capitalism. For most on the left, this insight isn’t particularly novel. However, in the face of the corona crisis, the rotten nature of reality is articulated to us in clear terms: capitalism privileges the pursuit of profit over human life itself. People are disposable, capital is not. This is especially true when capitalism is in crisis.

The common thread that connects social distancing, crisis policing, death camps, and pandemic labor is carceral capitalism. That is, the common thread is the degree to which people are blamed, contained, punished, and disposed of for problems that are not of their own making. It is the degree to which people are blamed, contained, punished, and disposed of for the failures of capitalism. It is the degree to which people are blamed, contained, punished, and disposed of in the name of saving capital. As activist and instagram blogger, Vienna Rye writes, “a system that can only criminalize life, and has no ability to care for it, is a profoundly sick system.” The symptoms have been with us for some time. It’s time to let capitalism die.

Casey Buchholz is a PhD student, Department of Economics at UMass-Amherst. He tweets at @caseyrbuchholz.

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