Carceral Capitalism and Anti-Capitalist Politics

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1666 ... September 14, 2018

Carceral Capitalism and Anti-Capitalist Politics

Dillon Wamsley

Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism (MIT Press, 2018) is arguably one of the most wide-ranging, critical, and theoretically nuanced examinations of the political economy of the carceral state in the USA to date. While there has been a substantial growth in writing on the criminal justice system in recent years, particularly following critical engagement with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), there remains important theoretical gaps in understanding the political and economic dynamics of mass incarceration under neoliberalism. Wang helps to fill those gaps by taking seriously the relevance of radical political economy to understanding the foundations of the carceral state and outlining the limitations of these approaches in acknowledging the centrality of anti-black racism which, as Wang... notes, is "at the heart of mass incarceration" (85).

The main theoretical framework underpinning Wang’s analysis is her deployment of the concept of racial capitalism to capture the racialized dimensions of accumulation and class in the contemporary US social system. Wang begins by examining Marx’s analysis of ‘primitive accumulation’ in Capital, and then Rosa Luxemburg’s extension of Marx through her work on the expanded reproduction of capital and the spatio-temporal dynamics of capitalism’s expropriating logic across the world market. Tracing Luxemburg’s analysis to David Harvey and his notion of ‘accumulation by dispossession,’ Wang then explores the limits of conventional Marxist analyses in adequately encompassing all the dynamics of oppression and class stratification in capitalist societies.

In drawing on analyses of racial capitalism and settler colonialism to uncover historical and contemporary forms of dispossession, expropriation, and disposability through state violence, Wang extends her analysis beyond exploitation in the realms of work and production. Rather, she argues that there are dual and mutually overlapping logics of exploitation and expropriation intrinsic to capitalist social systems. Indeed, Wang amends Harvey by adopting the term ‘racial accumulation by dispossession’ to demonstrate that carceral capitalism simultaneously homogenizes subjects through the wage relation and exploitation, but also differentiates them as racialized and gendered subjects (101).

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