In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the State of California to release 30,000 to 40,000 of its 140,000 inmates. California’s prisons have become so overcrowded that the Supreme Court declared the situation unconstitutional. The decision was imminent. For nearly two decades, California, along with many other states, was busy getting ‘tough on crime’. In the early 1990s, the state enacted the ‘Three-Strikes Law’, which mandates life sentences for third-time serious crime offenders, and it pursued the country’s ‘war on drugs’ and other law-enforcement campaigns with increasing zeal. Soon enough, its prisons were overflowing at nearly twice their capacity.
The United States is often portrayed as the archetypical liberal model. It is the world’s largest, most prosperous ‘free market’ and the greatest generator of profit on earth. And yet this very liberal haven is also the largest penal system in the world. There are now more than two million inmates in its prisons and jails and another five million on probation and on parole. If you add these two numbers together, you get a ‘correctional population’ of over seven million. This correctional population is the largest in the world – both absolutely and relative to the overall population – and it is also the largest the country has ever seen.
To some, this combination of market prosperity and intense punishment may seem puzzling. Many people intuitively expect crime and punishment to correlate with poverty, backwardness and deprivation; to be a feature of the Third World, not the First.
Knowingly or not, this expectation is grounded in the conventional separation of production from state and capital from power. According to the liberal version of this separation, accumulation breeds economic prosperity, and prosperity in the economic sphere reduces crime and calls for less punishment in the socio-political sphere. However, if we discard this separation and instead think of capital as power, and of capitalism as a mode of power, the puzzle disappears. The greater the capitalization of power, the greater the resistance to that capitalization and the larger the force needed to prevent this resistance from exploding. As profits increase to make distribution more unequal, the result is mounting resistance from below, and this resistance in turn leads to retaliation from above. The rising crime and intensifying punishment that we now see in the United States are key manifestations of this dialectic of capitalized resistance and retaliation.