The crisis of 21st century policing and prisons, writes Jackie Wang in Carceral Capitalism, is a story about nerds and cops. In Wang’s brilliant new book—released this past February by MIT’s Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series—the racist cop, judge, and banker fade to the background, all but replaced by a figureless but no less nefarious avatar: the algorithm. “Color-blind” predictive policing tools dispatch cops to terrorize black and brown neighborhoods, while recidivist models dole out racially-biased sentences and credit reports use zip codes as a proxy for race. The technologies may have evolved, but the prerogative remains the same: to police, to contain, to profit.
At its core, Carceral Capitalism asks a seemingly simple question: What is the price of policing and prisons? Wang offers an incisive critique of 21st century racial capitalism. She exposes the financial “inclusion” of black and brown low-income communities through subprime lending as a new form of racialized accumulation, and traces the neoliberal state’s abdication of its responsibility as a provider of social services in favor of its role as guarantor of “security.” But despite the depth of Wang’s political economic analysis, she is equally concerned with the crushing psychological and moral costs of mass incarceration, a system which—despite its promise of safety for white America—she describes as fundamentally “anti-life.”
I met with Wang on a dismal, snowy April day at Harvard’s Widener Library, where Wang, a Florida native, is a Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies. The prim and austere setting stands in contrast to the style and substance of Wang’s work—its scrappy aesthetics, poetic whimsy, and unabashed radicalism. She has been prolific in both genre and form, having published several punk zines including On Being Hard Femme, a recent collection of poetic fragments titled The Twitter Hive Mind is Dreaming, and influential political treatises—her celebrated essay “Against Innocence,” published in 2012 in LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism and reprinted in Carceral Capitalism, is a thorough fuck you to respectability politics. All three forms come together in Carceral Capitalism—a formal experiment that lends itself to the project’s disruptive politics.
One might expect Carceral Capitalism to leave its reader dispirited. But I left the text and our conversation feeling hopeful. As Wang writes, channeling the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in the book’s final chapter: “The profession of the poet is dreaming. The profession of the jailer is to contain.” Here, Wang’s poetics shines through. Beyond laying out the deadly reality of the U.S. carceral state with clarity and vision, Carceral Capitalism succeeds where it is most important—by inducting its reader into the project of abolition, into the dreamwork of imagining otherwise.
Mark Tseng-Putterman: I’m really curious about the period of time the essays in Carceral Capitalism span and how you feel they work together in concert.
Jackie Wang: It was a year-long process from when I had the idea to assemble these essays into a book to when it actually came out, which is actually very fast for getting a book out the door. I had written some of the essays before I decided to assemble them into Carceral Capitalism. I was reading one of Semiotext(e)’s books, The Making of the Indebted Man by Maurizio Lazzarato, and after that I started thinking about the racialization of debt and about what is missing from this body of literature of post-Marxist commentary on the debt economy and financialization, because a lot of it is coming out of a European context. If I wanted to analyze what was happening in the U.S., I had to look at how racial dynamics mediate the debt economy.
I realized I had something like the first draft of a manuscript, but I needed to develop a conceptual framework to think about the various dimensions of the carceral state. I more than doubled the length of the manuscript after I sent the first draft to Semiotext(e).
I was wondering about your writing process as someone who is both a scholar and a poet. In writing some of these essays and melding them together in a collection like this, do you feel like your work as a poet and scholar are separable? Or are they intertwined?
I don’t think my [academic] program liked that I was a poet. I don’t even care if you include this in the interview [laughs]. I was told that I needed to be “monogamous” with grad school and that this poetry stuff didn’t really count for anything in the academic world. There’s actually a lot of stigma around being an artist while also being an academic. There are some writers and poets and artists who use pseudonyms to publish their creative work because they’re worried about not being taken seriously as scholars. I never really bought this. Because of my personal constitution, I’m just incapable of making these disciplinary distinctions. In Carceral Capitalism, I talk about political economy, law, Robocop, autobiographical experiences, and I include poetry and poetics as well. It didn’t make sense for me to only use one set of tools or only think about the problem of the carceral state on one register.
I feel like my scholarship and my poetry are in conversation with each other. I read very widely, which also enabled me to write a concluding chapter where I’m thinking about the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish alongside Heather Ann Thompson’s history of the Attica Uprising, alongside Patricio Guzmán’s documentary about Chilean political prisoners under Pinochet, Nostalgia for the Light. The scholars I admire most are very interdisciplinary. Fred Moten is a major inspiration for me, and though he’s not someone who comes up very much in the book, I really appreciate the freewheeling, lyrical, and interdisciplinary style of his thinking. He has no epistemological filters, so he can talk about the social philosophy of his mom, B Jenkins, while also talking about jazz music, quantum physics, the history of slavery, and the history of science and mathematics. He’s bringing these disparate discourses into conversation. That’s how I think of my poetry and scholarship working together.
I’m also interested in thinking about poetics and the imaginative work of prison abolition. Reading the last chapter of the book where you talk about the abolitionist imagination, I was thinking about what adrienne marie browne says about how all social justice organizing is a form of science fiction because it’s engaged in the project of imagining alternative futures. How do you think about the dreamwork of abolition and how has that informed some of the writing in this book?
My major inspiration was Robin D.G. Kelley, and in particular his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. That book is about the imaginative work of the black radical tradition, so it talks about black communism, black internationalism, Afrofuturism, pan-Africanism and even literary movements like black surrealism. Kelley combines movement history, literary analysis, and personal anecdotes.
Kelley highlights that social movements are not just about the nuts and bolts of political organization, but it’s about social imagination: the practice of envisioning a world that does not yet exist. Even movements that aren’t using poetry directly in their struggles are engaging in a practice of imagining new worlds. I just felt like there was so much opportunity to think about the role of social imagination in struggles to abolish prisons. This is something that many prison abolitionists have written about before me, people like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who have thought about the effect that prisons and carceral structures have on our imagination. I wanted to think about how prison abolitionists have tried to imagine other worlds, worlds without prisons, which people say is this impossible world that will never be realized. But instead of defensively saying, “Actually, let’s look at the Netherlands and Northern Europe and all of these case studies that we can point to that show that this is a realistic project,” I wanted to say, “What if we don’t have to concede to these terms when thinking about the world that we want? What if we don’t have to be beholden to a social realism that is circulated by a white supremacist capitalist system?” As a poet, I feel very comfortable inhabiting that space of uncertainty.
In the concluding chapter, I also wanted to discuss the phenomenological experience of incarceration, as narrated by people who have been imprisoned. One question that I was interested in unpacking is what it means to cage people. What does it mean to have a world where if there’s some kind of social rupture that needs to be repaired, prisons are offered as the social solution? If we agree that people have certain basic needs—the need for meaningful activity, time in nature, the ability to socialize with people, the ability to work towards something in their lives—to me then, prisons seem anti-life. The practice of putting people in cages forecloses the possibility of prisoners inhabiting the world and their lives in a way that is meaningful. Prisons are anti-life on a fundamental level.
You mention in the introduction that you wrote “Against Innocence” before the Black Lives Matter movement began. The essay critiques liberal appeals to innocence that ignore the “a priori association of blackness with guilt.” Do you think that some of the dominant politics of innocence that you’re critiquing in that essay have shifted? I often feel like there’s still the same cycle of discourse around so-called “deserving” or “not deserving” victims of the carceral state.
Around the time of the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, there began to be more pushback against the blanket condemnation of riots as violent and antisocial. There were people who were saying riots are a legitimate form of protest, and this was circulating in the mainstream media. People are also going to marches where you can have “abolish prisons and police” as a position that’s not ridiculed and dismissed. But I still think that the discourse of innocence and proper victimhood is so, so deeply entrenched in our society. There’s an emphasis on the “good citizen” who is law-abiding, hard-working, and striving towards what we call the American Dream. This vision of respectable assimilation is still being used to try to undermine some of Trump’s policies.
But one of the reasons I strongly resist this “good victim, bad victim” dichotomy is because the underside of that is often support for harsher treatment for the so-called “bad victim.” And you can see this playing out in immigration discourse, when people claim that if we protect the DREAMers, we need to simultaneously figure out a way to expedite the process of deporting the so-called bad immigrants. And it’s the same thing with the violent/non-violent criminal distinction. The political trade-off that is often made is—if we’re going to release non-violent offenders because the War on Drugs is no longer morally legitimate, then we need to increase punitivity towards the so-called violent offenders. I’m very critical of relying on this discourse of innocence to make certain political claims. Even when thinking about the way in which prison reform has historically played out, oftentimes if you make these political compromises, the reforms you’re trying to make backfire and actually expand the means of criminalization.
I’m reminded how even Obama used the language of detaining and deporting “felons, not families,” as if “felons” don’t have families. And throughout your book, you talk about the ways in which incarcerated individuals are located outside of the realm of the social, or beyond the realm of the everyday world. It seems that the experience of your brother’s incarceration looms throughout Carceral Capitalism, and you write about how it has shaped your own understanding and experience of freedom. Could you share more about how your personal life has informed your politicization?
I was talking to my older brother, who’s in prison, on the phone last night and he told me about a friend who was put in solitary recently because he had a mental breakdown after the prison administration stopped allowing him to have visitations from his children. Hearing about these kinds of stories, it reminds me of a distinction that Cornel West makes between the problematic and the catastrophic. In academia, we’re sort of in the game of dealing with the problematic and not necessarily the catastrophic. But prisons and police are catastrophic. The effect they have on people’s lives is catastrophic. It’s not like, okay, let’s debate the causes of mass incarceration—should we look at prosecutors or political economy? Approaching the problem from that vantage point would just gloss over the catastrophic dimensions of it.
For me, personally, it is impossible to ignore the catastrophic dimension. When physically entering prisons, the fucked-up-edness of the institution can be felt, viscerally. So I had to write the book from the perspective of someone affected by the carceral state by way of having an incarcerated sibling. It’s not that this direct experience allows me to have some kind of special perspective or whatever. The prison is just something that’s a part of my life, something I cannot ignore. And from a very young age, I have been trying to figure out why there are so many people in prisons in the United States. Why is the U.S. the only country in the world that has juvenile life without parole? If I’m writing an essay about juvenile life without parole sentences, I can’t really ignore the way I’ve seen that sentencing regime affect people who are enmeshed in it, including my brother and other people that my brother has met while in prison.
In the book, you blend both a political economic analysis of racial capitalism and a consideration of the economically “irrational” aspects of mass incarceration and antiblackness. As you point out, a lot of the conversation around mass incarceration is framed around private prisons. But you also emphasize that there is a great economic cost to running public prisons, and that’s something that’s not talked about a lot. I’m wondering how you approach engaging those two bodies of scholarship and what’s at stake in thinking about the political economy of mass incarceration as well as the psychology of antiblackness.
Yeah, I think you really grasp what I’m trying to do in bridging these two different perspectives. The first essay I wrote that appears in this collection is “Against Innocence,” and that essay is informed by a deep engagement with Afro-pessimist discourse, which focuses on gratuitous violence as the defining feature of antiblackness and the afterlife of slavery in particular. Some of my thinking around Afro-pessimism has changed a little bit on some of these questions since writing “Against Innocence,” but then when I started wanting to think about the political economy side a little more, certainly in the mainstream, private prisons are the thing that’s critiqued.
To me, it was always surprising that private prisons are more of a scandal than public prisons. The fact that people are in prisons at all is a scandal, but why is it morally outrageous that there are private prisons but somehow it’s morally fine that there are public prisons? People say that if private companies are in the business of running prisons, then they have a profit motive and that profit motive incentivizes the expansion of prisons—it is a conflict of interest. But governments themselves have a stake in managing marginalized populations and in using prisons and police to generate revenue (which I discuss in my essay on municipalities’ use of the police for fine and fee-farming).
The cost of imprisoning people is huge. The number of people employed in corrections, especially in places like Florida, is also huge (in Florida, 16 percent of state employment is in corrections). Paradoxically the cost of imprisoning people is becoming a problem for deficit hawk Republicans. Even the Koch Brothers and Jared Kushner are now rallying for prison reform. Prior to this moment, there was bipartisan support for law-and-order politics, but now the law-and-order position is no longer politically viable for some Republicans.
I wanted to think about the question of why mass incarceration was taken up politically if the cost is high. There are a lot of people in the seminar that I’m in right now at Harvard, the Crime and Punishment seminar, that are thinking about post-war American state-building. When the Keynesian welfare state was being dismantled, there was also this simultaneous build-up of the carceral state, which makes no sense from the small-government ideology. But it actually makes sense when we’re thinking about U.S. state-building. U.S. democracy has been constituted such that confinement has always been its underside; the U.S. body politics has been constructed vis-à-vis the unfreedom of marginalized populations. So I needed to look at both political economy and look at the irrational and psychological dimensions of racism.
I don’t know, it’s hard for me to even say that there is one particular cause of mass incarceration. Now that carceral studies is being established as a field, there are a lot of people who have a stake in saying that they’ve “figured out” the cause, the single cause of mass incarceration. I think you have to be working on multiple levels. Or if you’re not working on multiple levels, it doesn’t make sense to claim that the lens of analysis you’re using is the definitive lens. I see that happening in carceral studies, and it makes me uncomfortable.
I want to get at some of your analysis of the algorithmic regime of both the debt economy and the realm of policing. In the wake of the election, there’s been such an interesting disavowal from certain liberal Silicon Valley figures, while people like Peter Thiel are offering their data analytical expertise in service of mass deportations. I’m curious how you’re thinking about the role of technology in the context of mass incarceration in the Trump era.
It is something that I’ve found deeply disturbing for a while. I wouldn’t say that I’m universally a techno-pessimist person, but I think that given the capitalist white supremacist context that we’re living in, it’s not surprising that technology is used in the way that it is.
I’m researching the history of the use of risk assessment as an alternative to money bail. One thing that has actually been in the mainstream news a lot lately is the issue of commercial bail, which has been exposed as an unregulated industry that ruins lives and is incredibly predatory. Bail bondsmen exploit poor people who can’t afford bail. Some critics of commercial bail have argued that it is a breach of our constitutional right to due process.
I was looking into the proposed alternatives to bail and I’m very disturbed by some of them. GPS ankle-bracelet tracking is an alternative that’s circulating, but also the use of risk assessment tools to determine who should be released on their own recognizance and who should be subjected to pre-trial detention. I’ve been researching the history of the Vera Institute model, which assigns a “risk score” to people based on factors such as employment history, housing history, connection to family members, etc. It flags people who are socially precarious as “high risk” and re-inscribes social inequality algorithmically. People who have had irregular employment in the last few years, or who are recently unemployed, would be marked as high risk. I want to not only critique commercial bail but to think critically about the alternatives to money bail that are being presented as “progressive,” such as risk assessment.
Naively investing in technological solutions to these problems can actually expand the domain of policing and surveillance.
I’m very concerned about Asian American perspectives on issues of policing and prisons, particularly the way that the logics of “law and order” politics reify things like the model minority myth. I feel like the politicization of a whole generation of Asian Americans comes in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. And especially after the shooting of Akai Gurley and the way many Chinese Americans were rallying for his killer Peter Liang, there’s often an uncertainty about how we should enter into conversations and organizing around mass incarceration, and how to think about the racial positioning of Asian Americans in the context of systemic antiblackness. I’m curious how you’ve navigated that, as you’ve worked in Black Studies and prison abolition work.
I was hoping you would ask this question, too! You’ve written some awesome stuff about these issues—much-needed interventions that cut through the how the discourse has been framed. Dylan Rodriguez is another person who’s written about Asian antiblackness and Black-Asian relations. He’s written about Black-Korean relations in L.A. post-Rodney King, and how Korean American business owners organized to expand policing and participated in police parades.
At some point, I want to write about the experience of being in an African American Studies department at Harvard, at the time that Harvard is being sued by Asians to dismantle affirmative action. And you’ve written about this as well, and have noted that 65 percent of Asian Americans actually support affirmative action. This guy, Edward Blum, who funds a conservative legal organization called Project on Fair Representation, is recruiting Chinese Americans who were rejected from Harvard for a lawsuit aimed at dismantling affirmative action. This is something I find deeply disturbing. Jeff Sessions has also used so-called discrimination against Asian Americans as a pretext for dismantling affirmative action. The tactic enables these white supremacist maneuvers to be carried out in a way that purports to be colorblind because it’s on the behalf of Asian Americans.
I think it’s very, very important for Asian Americans to say, “This is bullshit.” This is antiblack, anti-Latinx, anti-indigenous. But one thing that I also want to resist is a kind of homogenized “people of color”-style banner of entering into these conversations. Because, you know, I think that racial logics play out in very different ways. Not only between Asian Americans and African Americans, but also thinking about how immigrants and indigenous people are positioned in society. I don’t think that it’s analytically or politically useful to say that solidarity is based on shared experience. Because that would, to me, be a way of glossing over the differences in vulnerabilities. Thinking specifically about prisons, I have a brother who’s in prison, but Asian Americans aren’t the primary demographic affected by mass incarceration.
I also want to stay tied to and support the tradition of Black-Asian solidarity, like Yuri Kochiyama’s organizing for political prisoners. Yuri was an activist who cradled Malcolm X while he was dying. She was called “proto-internet” because whenever someone in the movement went to prison or jail, she knew who to contact and would mobilize the radical social network to support the person who had been scooped up by the state. Activists had her phone number memorized.
But thinking about the 60s and 70s, a lot has changed since that period. That was during the Cold War, and also the Vietnam War, and so even Black radicals were very aware of U.S. imperialism and how it was affecting people in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. I appreciate the internationalism of that moment. Because of Chinese communism and the war in Vietnam, in the U.S., Asians were villainized. But now we’re the model minority. And I think there are even some problems with how model minority discourse is resisted by Asian Americans. Saying that the model minority myth is racist because it perpetuates stereotypes misses the way that it functions in a larger social field, where Asian Americans are being held up as the model minority against other groups like African Americans and indigenous people.
I’m also very aware of differences that exist within the “Asian American” community (in terms of class, country of origin, reasons for migrating, refugee status, etc). It’s extremely fraught and complicated, and I appreciate Asians who have come out in support of Black Lives Matter in a way that doesn’t try to gloss over the differences in how Asian Americans and Black Americans are racialized.
There’s a way in which solidarity can even be weaponized as this nonconsensual project when Asian Americans are demanding to be recognized, especially by Black activists as partners, without sitting with the critiques of the very different projects of racialization that Asian Americans and African Americans are implicated in.
Yes, that brings to mind the important interventions that Jared Sexton has made in challenging the POC [people of color] framework. There’s a way in which nonblack people of color often use antiblackness as metaphors and analogies to talk about their situations, but then at the end of the day, they will throw African Americans under the bus for the purpose of getting ahead in society. I think the frustration that Afro-pessimists are expressing about multiracial coalitions and multiracial solidarity is totally valid. I feel like Asian American radicals that are committed to Black liberation and prison abolition need to grapple with those critiques.
Are any organizing efforts or critical thinkers within the work of prison abolition giving you hope in this moment?
There are a lot of people who have been organizing around these issues for a very long time. It’s true that when The New Jim Crow dropped, it changed things: it put mass incarceration on the map as something to think about and organize around, but those efforts were happening before that, and are now sort of being written out of the history. Shout out to abolitionist organizations such as Critical Resistance, Black & Pink, Anarchist Black Cross, Sisters Inside, the Audre Lorde Project, Southerners on New Ground, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and others.
Thinkers such as George Jackson—imprisoned Black radicals who are actually theorizing prisons even before the era of mass incarceration—laid the groundwork for analyzing the ways in which prisons are an instrument of political repression and are racialized (Jackson and the Black Panthers influenced Foucault’s analysis of prisons). I think if I was going to give someone a book that was an anti-prison “gateway drug,” it would be George Jackson’s Soledad Brother. That book is very inspiring and accessible. If people are new to prison abolition as a movement and an idea, Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? is a good place to start. I read it when I was probably 15 years old, and I’m sure it shaped how I think about prisons.