American Gulag

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Fri Dec 28 08:23:06 MST 2001

Monthly Review

July/August 2001 [Vol. 53, No. 3]

The "New" Criminal Justice System:
State Repression from 1968 to 2001

By Christian Parenti <seapea at>

Consider again the numbers: in the last twenty years the
Justice Department's budget grew by 900 percent; over 60
percent of all prisoners are in for non-violent drug crimes;
an estimated one-in-three black men between the ages of
twenty and twenty-nine are under some type of criminal
justice control or sought on a warrant; nationwide some 6.5
million people are in prison, on parole or probation. From
the left it is clear that the United States is an
over-policed, surveillance society that uses prison as one
of its central social institutions.

But how are we to understand this? A common explanation,
that spans the spectrum from the radical activists to the
mainstream scriveners at the Wall Street Journal, portrays
the prison boom as driven by direct and specific economic
interests. For example we hear much about private prisons or
prison labor. This economistic analysis is attractively
simple, all one has to do is connect the dots: bad
corporation here, human rights violations there.
Unfortunately explaining prison in "anti-corporate" or other
directly economic terms requires ignoring the facts. Private
prisons are in crisis and losing money, prison labor is not
profitable nor widespread, and most guards are not well
organized or pushing their agenda on legislators. Nor do
prison architects and medical providers, for the most part,
mount huge lobbying operations that can be said to control
policy. In short, prison is not profitable. [1]

Does this mean prison growth is simply irrational, with no
coherent causal link to class exploitation and racism?
Hardly. The new criminal justice system has every thing to
do with the needs of capital and the ideology of white
supremacy. More specifically, this repression is about two
things: creating political obedience and regulating the
price of labor. That is what the repression of the
capitalist state has always been about, from the enclosures
and the Atlantic slave trade, to the many bloody wars
against organized labor, to the militarized ghetto of 2001.
Capitalism was born of state violence and repression will
always be part of its genetic code.

To understand the wider political effects of state violence
it's worth contemplating the opposite: state assistance for
poor and working people. As Frances Fox-Piven and Richard
Cloward wrote in the New Class War "the connection between
the income-maintenance programs, the labor market and
profits is indirect, but not complicated." Too much social
democracy, and people stop being grateful for poorly paid,
dangerous work. So too with the converse, the link between
state repression and labor markets and profits is indirect
but not complicated. Repression manages poverty. Poverty
depresses wages. Low wages increase the rate of exploitation
and that creates surplus value, which is what it is all
about... at least at one level.

This dynamic works at a macro-scale upon the society and
economy as a whole. Policing and incarceration -- directly
profitable or more likely not -- are thus part of a larger
circuitry of social control. Incarceration is the
motherboard but other components include county jails, INS
detention centers, the militarized border, psych wards,
halfway houses, hospital emergency rooms, homeless shelters,
skid row, and the ghetto. All of these locations share
populations and all serve to contain and manage the social
impacts of poverty. But what is the specific history of the
current crackdown and how does the central question of class
struggle shape the story of the new criminal justice system?
Answering that question requires a trip back to the late
1960s, because the current build up started then, plateaued
briefly in the late seventies, and then began a second phase
in the early 1980s, which has carried on into the present.

In The Beginning There Were Riots...

During one of the mid-sixties "civil disturbances," an
intrepid reporter, wanting to know why black people were
looting, burning stores, and fighting cops, asked a young
rioter: "What do you want?" "More ammunition," came the
response. Imagine the terror of U.S. elites with riots every
summer in hundreds of cities from 1964 through the early
seventies. But the riots -- just one part of a sustained
revolt by African Americans -- formed the ideological
backdrop for a much larger general crisis of disobedience.
Elements of this gathering storm included civil rights,
Black Power, Vietnam, the anti-war mobilizations, poor
peoples movements, wild cat labor strikes, feminism, a
sagging dollar, and, by the early seventies, slow growth and
plunging profits.

In response to this panorama of mayhem, a new round of law
and order politics began. The opening move was President
Johnson's Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act of 1968, a bill
that Congress debated just after the assassination of Dr.
Martin Luther King. As the lawgivers toiled, smoke billowed
up from D.C.'s bitterly poor Shaw district a mere two miles
from the Capitol. From this crucible emerged a new super
agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration
(LEAA), which over the next ten years spent billions of
dollars rationalizing and retooling American law

Johnson laid the initial groundwork for new criminal justice
but Sunbelt Republicans, like Senator Barry Goldwater, were
the first to supply the rhetorical fuel for the long
crackdown. As the Senator said during his 1964 presidential
campaign, "Security from domestic violence, no less than
from foreign aggression is the most elementary form and
fundamental purpose of any government." [2] Nixon noted the
power in Goldwater's script, and in 1966 told U.S. News and
World Report: "the deterioration [in respect for law and
order] can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive
doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to
decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey
them." [3] As Dan Baum pointed out in Smoke and Mirrors
(1996), Nixon was conflating street crime with civil
disobedience, the left, and the larger question of
resistance. Likewise, Goldwater linked the redistributive
efforts of the war on poverty to criminal violence: "If it
is entirely proper for the government to take away from some
to give to others, then won't some be led to believe that
they can rightfully take from anyone who has more than they?
No wonder law and order has broken down, mob violence has
engulfed great American cities, and our wives feel unsafe in
the streets." [4]

At the heart of this new politics was an old trope -- white
racism and the need for an internal enemy. As Nixon's Chief
of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, put it: "[The President]
emphasized that you have to face that the whole problem is
really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that
recognizes this while not appearing to." [5] At the same
time police began openly discussing their work as
"counterinsurgency." Law enforcement trade journals ran
articles such as the September 1966 piece in The Police
Chief entitled "Police-Military Relations in a Revolutionary
Environment," authored by an instructor from the U.S. Army
War College, "It is now generally agreed among
counterinsurgency experts that one of the most important
aspects of counter-insurgency operations is the control of
population and resources....Techniques to control the people
include individual and family identification, curfews,
travel permits, static and mobile checkpoint operations, and
the prevention of assemblies or rallies." The article went
on to describe rising crime rates as a precursor to
revolution, and to laud the "value of an effective police
organization -- both civil and military -- in maintaining
law and order, whether in California, Pennsylvania,
Mississippi, or the rice paddies and jungles of Viet-Nam."

Overseeing this techno-political revolution in U.S. policing
was the federal government, particularly the LEAA. As Tony
Platt and other radical criminologists of the 1970's
detailed at the time, the LEAA provided local cops with
money, military weaponry, communications gear, and special
training and forced them into new interagency forms of
co-operation. Under LEAA guidance, police first started
using helicopters, SWAT teams, body armor, computers, and
shoulder radios; they also instituted literacy requirements
and basic competency tests.

Eventually this first phase of the build-up plateaued. By
the late seventies even many mainstream, middle-class, white
Americans began to tire of government repression, as a
series of scandals great and small exposed the seamier side
of politics and policing. As the 1975 Congressional
Quarterly Almanac noted, "It was an ironic twist on the 'law
and order' theme of the first years of the Nixon
administration: the crimes which drew the most attention in
the administration's last years were those committed by or
charged against the men who held some of the highest
offices, including Nixon himself." After Watergate came the
Knapp Commission hearings exposing New York Police
Department corruption, the Church Committee's findings on
domestic spying, and from other quarters came more
revelations about the brutality in Southern prisons. All of
this caused a momentary pause in the otherwise forward
momentum of the criminal justice juggernaut.

Neoliberal Justice: Managing Misery

The lull was short lived. By the early -- mid eighties
President Reagan's men had started escalating domestic
repression once more. But this second stage of the build up
was not about crushing rebellion; that job had been done.
There were no more riots; the mighty Black Panther Party was
long gone; the antiwar movement dead; and even many radical
community organizations had been domesticated, their rank
and file demobilized, their leaders reduced to funding
addicts, living obediently from one Ford Foundation grant to
the next.

Instead, this second stage of repression was about "order
maintenance" in an epoch of harsh economic restructuring; it
was an attempt to physically contain and politically
"explain away" (via racist and often sexist victim-blaming)
the seismic dislocations of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era of
neo-liberal economic restructuring. But why the economic
restructuring, was it simple greed or something deeper?
Ultimately, the neoliberal offensive of the eighties was a
response to the end of the post-war boom and to the economic
stagnation and weak profits of the seventies. It was
"creative destruction" designed to end a crisis of
overaccumulation. By the late sixties, it was clear the
recovery of the post-war era had finally played itself out
and there was just too much capital, too much stuff, and not
enough profitable outlets for investment; not enough
consumption to keep the colossus moving.

Reagan's response was a class war against labor. Between
1979 and 1982, the real average weekly wage fell more than 8
percent. As Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone put it in
The Great U-Turn, "with wage growth arrested by
unemployment, what growth occurred during the Reagan period
rebounded mostly to the profits side of the capital-labor
ledger"(p. 92). Between 1980 and 1985, the Department of
Labor estimates that some 2.3 million manufacturing jobs
disappeared for good. As industrial jobs evaporated, so too
did attendant retail jobs, the local tax base, and much
municipal employment.

This was accompanied by a right-wing assault on the
disadvantaged and dispossessed. Labor unions, which had
maintained some power in the 1970s and whose members had
been extremely troublesome (wildcat strikes, absenteeism,
and the like), were subjected to a vicious frontal assault.
In 1982 alone the Reagan administration cut the real value
of welfare by 24 percent; slashed the budget for child
nutrition by 35 percent; reduced funding for school milk
programs by 78 percent and urban development action grants
by 35 percent; shrank educational block grants by 38
percent; and simply abolished the Comprehensive Employment
and Training Act which had employed four-hundred thousand.

This multifaceted society-wide class assault from above had
a single unifying aim: discipline for the laboring classes.
Neo-conservative "theorist" George Gilder summed it up
nicely. "The poor must work hard, and they must work harder
than the classes above them."[6] The policy package known as
"Reaganomics" was an effort to boost profit margins by
increasing the rate of exploitation. And by the mid-late
eighties profitability was recovering, but with enormous
social costs. Chicago saw its number of ghetto census tracts
increase by 61.5 percent between 1980 and 1990; cities like
Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Boston saw similar changes.
Overall, the number of African Americans who found
themselves living in "ghetto" census tracts, due to middle
class flight, job loss etc., grew by one third. So, too, did
homelessness make a dramatic comeback.

Enlarging the industrial reserve army of labor -- the
unemployed -- brought with it serious political problems.
Simply stated, capitalism always needs poverty and creates
poverty, but is simultaneously always threatened by poverty.
The poor keep wages down, but they also create trouble in
three ways. First, their presence calls into question
capitalism's moral claims (the system can't work for
"everyone" when beggars are in the street). Second, the poor
threaten and menace the moneyed classes aesthetically and
personally simply by being in the wrong spaces. (Gourmet
dining isn't quite the same when done in the presence of
mendicant paupers.) And finally, the poor threaten to rebel
in organized and unorganized ways. This simple fact
punctuating every moment in history is systematically
expunged from official texts. Yet the past is full of poor
and working peoples' rebellions, from the United Mine
Workers dropping dynamite on the West Virginia state
militia, to the National Welfare Rights Organization
flipping desks in welfare offices across the county, to the
Teamsters bringing the United Parce Service to its knees.
Thus the poor and working classes must always be physically

The mechanism of the second phase of the criminal justice
escalation was, of course, Reagan's vicious and hyperbolic
War on Drugs. The reengaged build up began quietly, at first
FBI funding was doubled; wiretap laws were loosened; and
more money was doled out for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Meanwhile, Reagan's Chief of Staff, Ed Meese, and his
Attorney General, William French Smith, started demanding
changes in the criminal code that would "increase the power
of the prosecutors.

Aiding that effort came a battery of new right-wing federal
judges. And from the U.S. Supreme Court came several crucial
decisions, notably Gates v. Illinois, which made it easier
for police to obtain search warrants based on anonymous
tips, and United States v. Leon, which allowed police to use
defective and partially false warrants in obtaining

But the buildup really took off with the Federal Crime Bill
of 1984. This created the assets forfeiture laws enabling
police to keep as much as 90 percent of all the "drug
tainted" property they could seize. Nationwide, the total
amount of all seizures grew from about $100 million in 1981
to over $1 billion by fiscal year 1987. Thus did the feds
entice local police into their plans for total war at home.
The next congressional election brought another massive
crime bill. Only eighteen lawmakers voted against the
catch-all Anti-Drug-Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed
twenty-nine new mandatory minimum sentences, among them the
notoriously racist disparity in the penalties for crack and
for powder cocaine. This bill also shifted official rhetoric
from hunting "king pins" to rounding up "users."

The escalating repression hit people of color hardest, and
black people hardest of all. In 1980, African Americans made
up 12 percent of the nation's population and over 23 percent
of all those arrested on drug charges. Ten years later,
African Americans were still 12 percent of the total
population, but made up more than 40 percent of all people
busted for narcotics. Still more remarkable, over 60 percent
of all narcotics convictions were (and are) for African
Americans. Overall, drug arrests almost doubled in the late
eighties: 1985 saw roughly eight hundred thousand people
taken down on drug charges; by 1989 that number had shot up
to almost 1.4 million.

By the late eighties, lawmakers and the media were locked in
a symbiotic hysteria -- a political perpetual motion machine
-- and the drug war juggernaut was steaming ahead at full
throttle. The racist PR of this onslaught reached it zenith
with the Hill & Knowlton produced TV ads featuring convicted
rapist-murderer Willie Horton who escaped prison while
Michael Dukakis was governor. (As Alexander Cockburn and
Jeffrey St. Clair remind us, it was Al Gore who first
deployed the Willie Horton story during the Democratic
primaries.) The 1988 crime bill emerging from this most
grotesque of planned panics created, among other things, the
cabinet level "drug czar" and pumped millions more in
federal funds to police and prison construction. The bill
also created a "one strike" policy for public housing. Any
tenant caught with even a tiny amount of drugs or
paraphernalia is now subject to automatic eviction. One
recent victim of this policy was seventy-five-year-old
Herman Walker of Oakland, California. A home-care attendant
was caught with drug paraphernalia in Walker's apartment so
the old man was "kicked to the curb."

The Clinton presidency brought new heights of viciousness.
The specter of the Los Angeles riots -- which were for the
ruling class a frightening psychedelic blast from the past
-- spurred the New Democrats on in their design and
implementation of the most racist and merciless policies
yet. Their magnum opus was the 1994 Violent Crime Control
And Law Enforcement Act, which offered up a cop's cornucopia
of $30.2 billion in federal cash from which we got Clinton's
one hundred thousand new police officers, scores of new
prisons, and SWAT teams in even small New England towns.

Two years later, with another election on the way, Clinton
gave us the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,
which massively expanded the use of the death penalty and
eviscerated federal habeas corpus. If this law had been in
effect years earlier, one of Clinton's favorite movies,
Hurricane, would never have been made because Rubin
"Hurricane" Carter would have been denied his exonerating
retrial. And for the people "inside," that same election
year delivered the Prison Litigation Reform Act. This little
examined law barred many prisoners from access to the civil
courts; helped eliminate prison law libraries; kept liberal
judges from imposing meaningful penalties on abusive prison
administrators; and stripped lawyers of their ability to
receive legal fees when handling prison civil rights suits.
The sad election year of 1996 also delivered the
ideologically named "Illegal Immigration Reform and
Immigrant Responsibility Act," which eliminated the
undocumented person's right to due process and helped bring
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) funding up to
four billion annually. These were the Clinton
administration's demolition devices, strategically placed to
take out what little remained for prisoners in the Bill of
Rights. The damage from this mid-nineties frenzy of hate is
so massive that a full accounting is as yet impossible.

Coinciding with these federal laws came a tsunami of state
laws. California made over a thousand changes to its
criminal code during the eighties and nineties. Looking back
we can see clearly the effects -- intentional or otherwise
-- of this generalized project of repression: racialize the
discussion of poverty via the code of crime and then hound
the victims with police narc squads, SWAT teams, and "zero
tolerance" enforcement; send the INS to raid their homes;
and lock up as many as possible for as long as possible.

To recap, criminal justice regulates, absorbs, terrorizes,
and disorganizes the poor. At the same time it promulgates
racism; demonizing, disenfranchising, and marginalizing
ever-larger numbers of brown working-class people; and in so
doing it creates pseudo explanations and racialized
scapegoats with which to delude downwardly mobile voters;
this after all is the very lifeblood of American electoral
politics! And most important, prison allows for the
economically heuristic effects of mass unemployment without
the political destabilization mass poverty can bring. Nor
does the new model of control let loose dangerous Great
Society style notions of "racial equality" and "social
inclusion." These ideological side effects from controlling
the poor via co-optation (welfare) were almost as bad as the
economic support once offered by the insipient, inadequate,
but real American welfare state to the restive working
classes. As Reagan's first Attorney General, William French
Smith, put it, "The justice department is not a domestic
agency....It is the internal arm of national defense." [7]

Today, the poor are thoroughly locked-down. Law enforcement
has moved to the center of domestic politics; state violence
is perhaps more than ever a constant, regular and normal
feature of poor people's lives. Police, private security,
and closed circuit television secure revitalized city
centers; while American ghettos are in political disarray,
wracked by poverty, disease, addiction, and engineered
illiteracy. When the best and the brightest in the 'hood do
organize, the state comes down fast and furious. Take for
example, the gang truce movements in Chicago, New York, and
Los Angeles. In each case the political leaders were framed,
busted, and replaced by apolitical thugs. This was true for
the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings, as well as for the Crips
and Bloods.

Thus the new criminal justice system does an excellent job
of destroying the social fabric upon which any future
political rebellion would rely for coherence at the same
time as it has created a system of surveillance and
repression that is already being used against a new protest
movement. The courts -- retooled by a generation of
conservative judicial appointments and crazed case law --
now function as social abettors, in which the poor and the
dark skinned are shunted off to a concrete hell with
industrial efficiency. Left behind are broken families, more
addiction, more disease, more illiteracy, and thus a more
docile society. All this for the political security of
capital. This is how class struggle is waged from above.


Christian Parenti teaches sociology at the New College of
California in San Francisco and is the author of Lockulown
America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso,



(1.) For a full version of this argument see the last
chapter in, Christian Parenti, Lockdown America:(Verso,

(2.) "Goldwater's Acceptance Speech to GOP Convention," New
York Times, July 17 1964.

(3.) Richard Nixon, "If Mob Rule Takes Hold in the US: A
Warning from Richard Nixon," U.S. New and World Report,
August 15, 1966. 5

(4.) Quoted in Katherine Beckett, Making Crime Pay: Law and
Order in Contemporary American Politics (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1997), 28.

(5.) H. R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside The Nixon
White House (New York: P. G. Putman's Sons, 1994), 53;
quoted in Baum, op citain.

(6.) George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty (New York: Basic
Books, 1981), 82.

(7.) Quoted in Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors (New York:
Little, Brown and Company, 1996). 137-138

The last decade has...seen the highest rates and fastest
increase in mass incarceration in the history of the
Country. These glaring facts, in conjunction with the
current trends of the increasing concentration of national
minority people in the prisons and the every increasing
sensitivity of the prison system to the demands of monopoly
capitalism, insure that the prison problem in America can
only get worse....Reactionary politicians play on the fears
and worries of the people about street and other crimes.
Their proposals for still more repression, however, provide
no solution. Longer prison sentences and harsher treatment
of prisoners clearly have no bearing on the root cause of
the growth of crime: unemployment and racism....Short of a
major social transformation, militant struggle against
racism and for a new WPA (or its equivalent) is the only
meaningful approach to the reduction of crime and the prison

Richard D. Vogel, "Capitalism and Incarceration," Monthly
Review, March 1983.

Copyright (c) 2001 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc. in
association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.

No to repression at home!
Yes to resistance!
No to imperialist war!
Yes to internationalism!
No to the occupation of Palestine!
Yes to Palestinian self-determination!
No to gender oppression!
Yes to women's and LGBT power!
No to the atttack on workers!
Yes to militant unionism!
No to racism!
Yes to reparations and self-determination!
No to conciliation!
Yes to struggle!
No to tinkering!
Yes to transforming!
No to fear!
Yes to popular power!
No to fascism!
Yes to the streets!

Stand and fight!

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