Coronavirus & Carceral Capitalism

Coronavirus & Carceral Capitalism

By Casey Buchholz

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 labour. 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 50 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 has been shifted on to individuals via the imposition of social distancing—it is also a burden that has been punitively enforced. For example, violations of state-wide emergency orders issued in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Hawai’i and others are punishable by either fine, imprisonment or both. 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. Jails, prisons and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions centres have been the sites of some of the worst outbreaks both nationwide and globally. In polite language, commentators are saying the coronavirus has turned our gulag archipelago into a public health disaster. That’s true, but it’s an understatement. The coronavirus is in the process of turning every jail, prison and detention centre 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. For instance, either unable or unwilling to provide medical care, jails and prisons are preferring instead to punish symptomatic incarcerated people by sending them to solitary confinement. At the same time jails and prisons are denying care, they are also denying incarcerated people sanitation products and PPE. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in New York City jails the rate of infection is 85.7 per 1,000 people while the rate of infection for New York City is 25.38 per 1,000 people. Meaning, the rate of infection in New York City jails is over three times greater than it is for the non-incarcerated population. And, as if the situation wasn’t already deeply dystopian, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed it is offering incarcerated people US$ 6 per hour and PPE to dig corona-specific mass graves on Hart Island. While jails have reduced their population by significant percentages since the beginning of the pandemic, prisons, on the other hand, have released almost no one. The decreases in jail populations are welcome, but combined with the unwillingness to reduce prison populations, it’s important to emphasize that the current measures fall well short of what it is needed. Right now, anything short of full prison abolition will quite literally result in the carrying out of the logic of carceral capitalism in the extreme: disposing incarcerated people of life itself.

Finally, we arrive at the primary contradiction of the coronavirus crisis: pandemic labour. On April 3, 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 US$ 2 hourly increases for their work during the pandemic. While hourly workers at CVS will receive bonuses ranging from US$ 150 to US$ 500 and hourly workers at Walmart will receive bonuses of US$ 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 labour is and who the most socially necessary labourers 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 coronavirus, the rotten nature of reality is articulated to us in clear terms by the testimonies of workers, organizers and union bosses: 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 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 in the Department of Economics at UMass-Amherst. He tweets at @caseyrbuchholz.

An earlier, slightly revised version of this piece was published here: