Capitalism creates social disorder and relies on police and prisons to manage it. Until liberals recognize this link between criminal justice and the economy, their reform programs will be ineffectual — and racist policing and mass incarceration will persist.
The racial composition of the American prison system is staggeringly unequal, with black people incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people, despite accounting for just 12 percent of the overall population. On the surface this system appears straightforwardly designed to enforce our society’s racial hierarchy. But new research suggests a more complicated picture. A 2018 study, for example, concludes that the racial inequality in America’s prison population is mostly a second-order effect of the racially unequal makeup of America’s poor. In other words, the problem of imprisoning racial minorities can’t be disentangled from the general exploitation and dispossession of America’s working class — who, due to the legacies of slavery and racist exclusion, are disproportionately black.
With racial undertones that frequently turn into overtones, Republicans blame incarcerated people and the communities they come from for their own misfortunes. On the other hand, Democratic politicians have recently grown more comfortable condemning the criminal justice system’s obvious racial inequalities. But as staunch proponents of capitalism, they refuse to openly acknowledge the link between economic inequality and the oppressive institutions set up to manage the effects of that inequality. They’re thus only capable of tepid critique and a lukewarm reform program. Most cling to a set of police accountability measures that are further proven insufficient with each new viral video of police violence. Others make performative declarations at demonstrations while covertly affirming the status quo.
The Democrats’ inconsistent and ultimately useless approach to police and prison reform owes in large part to an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the economic function of American policing. To understand how it works, we can look at two examples separated by a century and a half: the rates of incarceration by race in the North and South after Reconstruction, and current New York City mayor Eric Adams’s strategy for policing the homeless today. Both reveal that under the capitalist economic system, the police function to manage populations excluded from the workforce and clear the human detritus created by the process of capital accumulation. If we want a world free of racist policing and incarceration, we will need to take capitalism itself to task.