The Political Economy of the “New Jim Crow”: Capitalism, Racism, and Mass Incarceration

“Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, Atlanta, Ga. 16 August 1967

Michelle Alexander’s portrait[1] of the mass incarceration industry in the contemporary United States is chilling and horrific. Her pivotal identification of this “New Jim Crow” is saturated in the irony that the current President of this nation is a black man who has admitted to smoking and inhaling marijuana, a “criminal” commodity that accounts for over half the prison population. Decriminalizing marijuana alone and releasing prisoners held on charges related to this contraband product would massively reduce the very problem she identifies. Of course, reforms such as marijuana decriminalization aren’t won in a vacuum. The prison-industrial complex is a lucrative business for state and federal governments as well as the booming private prison industry. Such vested economic interests will hardly roll over as their paychecks are canceled.

Her calls for a new “human rights” movement to address mass incarceration issues a direct appeal to the largest group of Americans who were not included in the landmark civil rights movement victories of the 1960s, “poor and working-class” white men. Blacks, women, and gays have all won significant new statuses in the post-60s social order, but wages and salaries for the vast majority of white men, as well as most working people, have remained stagnant or even declined for the entire four and a half decades since 1976. Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein identifies the current phase of the “world-system” after this point as a period of nearly inexorable decline in wages and relative wealth for the overall system of capitalist production. He predicts the cycle will end in a bifurcation between two possible resolutions, which he labels as “Davos;” referring to the World Economic Forum, which holds its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland and is comprised of business leaders who seek to understand and respond to the crisis from within a commitment to reform, but not a general reordering of economic system, versus “Porto Alegre;” named after the World Social Forum headquartered in Porto Alegre, Columbia which is generally committed to the view that “Another World Is Possible.” Wallerstein fears that the resolution that may be favored by the Davos trajectory will necessarily reshape and replace existing capitalism with a system that will nevertheless still be hierarchical and inegalitarian.[2]

Why do such grand considerations impinge on the topic of prison reform? I will explore here the hypothesis that the prison-industrial complex that Alexander surveys and critiques serves an explicit economic function that is in some sense more crucial than its function as a racialized undercaste. This hypothesis is derived from Marxist and post-Marxist theories about a “reserve labour army” of chronically unemployed persons who Marx theorized were a crucial element in the maintenance of profit margins and low wages in capitalism. My conjecture is that the prison-industrial mass incarceration complex is a criminalized and racialized concrescence of this reserve army hypothesis. Further, this undercaste serves to visibly anchor and fortify the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s”[3] inherent stratification of our world.

The first difficulty in using the “reserve army” hypothesis to explain the economic function of the mass incarceration undercaste is that Marx himself explicitly excluded “vagabonds, criminals, and prostitutes” as “dangerous classes” from the reserve army.[4] In my research of Marx’s hypothesis I have been unable to find a justification for this exclusion. For the purpose of my exploration, I will offer some considerations for not taking Marx’s exclusion of criminals from the “reserve army” as definitive. Marx’s starting assumption in the Communist Manifesto that all history is the history of class struggle would suggest that in a real sense the very category of “criminal” either serves or is created to serve an economic function. Marx would hardly be expected to consider the criminalization of marijuana, for instance, as a democratic implementation of an ahistorical moral principle, but more likely as a legislative expression of ruling class interests. That laws, courts, police, and prisons might actually be forces that construct a class structure seems a natural deduction from Marx’s premises. That he doesn’t draw this conclusion from his own premises begs explanation, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, all that is needed to frame the hypothesis that the criminal justice system is structured to manifest ruling class purposes is to examine the history of the criminalization of marijuana through a mass media campaign of fear and racial demonization. The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” and the prejudiced attribution of greater marijuana abuse rates to blacks are exhibit ‘A’ supporting this charge.

How does the “reserve army” function in capitalism according to Marx? Capitalism depends on the ability to cheaply mass produce necessary commodities that can be sold to the public for a profit. This means that the labor costs of production must be devalued, since if the real labor costs were expressed in the retail price of a commodity, no profit would be reaped from sales. In order for the hundreds of millions of working people to accept devalued wages, there must be an existential threat to their livelihood. This threat is unemployment. Marx proposed that capitalism needs a constant supply of unemployed workers to keep profits elevated. When production soars in response to growing demand, more workers are hired. But once demand is met, capital must slow production through lay-offs and firings or risk profitability and bankruptcy. For my hypothesis, I propose that beyond the threat of unemployment, an even more ominous threat is incarnated as the prison-industrial complex. Since we know that most criminals are also unemployed, the economic connection between the two conditions seems almost obvious. If one is unable to find employment in the usual market opportunities, one’s health and ultimately survival dictates one’s acquisition of at least basic foodstuffs by some means, including theft and black market activities, such as drug sales.

Alexander identifies the emergence of the “New Jim Crow” with the Reagan Administration’s prosecution of the “War on Drugs” in the early 1980s. If, as Wallerstein claims, capitalism fell into a profitability crisis in the late 70s, then the War on Drugs provided a convenient opportunity to intensify the discipline on the working-class that criminalization represents. That the war was also racialized served a parallel purpose of extending this existential threat to the rising black middle-class that had benefited from the Civil Rights and Affirmative Action victories of the 60s and 70s. Devah Pager studied the effect of a criminal record on the job prospects of blacks compared to whites in a 2003 study, and charges that,

“Those sent to prison are institutionally branded as a particular class of individuals—as are college graduates or welfare recipients—with implications for their perceived place in the stratification order. The “negative credential” associated with a criminal record represents a unique mechanism of stratification, in that it is the state that certifies particular individuals in ways that qualify them for discrimination or social exclusion.”[5]

Since blacks were the overwhelming target of this incarceration crusade, middle-class blacks reflexively distanced themselves from opposing the new criminal justice regime, as Alexander amply documents. Securing the gains of affirmative action, civil rights, and desegregation were turned into a legalistic survival tactic, and neutralized any substantive political opposition to the system itself.

What should replace the “prison-industrial complex?” Angela Davis supplies an important part of the answer,

“…positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment — demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”[6]

Doubtless, such a political program will face massive obstacles. The attempt by Obama to pass a universal healthcare plan met with intense opposition and only passed after a nearly complete evisceration of the very word, “universal.” Education funding reform is even further hamstrung. The crisis of capitalism that Wallerstein presents ensures that the ruling forces of our society, whether they be black or white, are locked in a massive pursuit of falling profits in a world that is awash in overpriced and over-produced commodities. This means that criminalization as a necessary method of targeting the most vulnerable populations for exploitation and incarceration continues with little political will to oppose it.

Despite this pessimistic conclusion, I am hopeful that history is on the side of the majority in the long run. The ruling class is small in real numbers and the declining rate of profit promises to shrink their numbers inexorably. What the vast ruled majority must forge the will to achieve is their own political unification as the dispossessed heirs of the centuries of toil and blood of their forebears. In a billion different ways, in a billion different places, the suffering and marginalized must seize the realities that their own unemployment, underemployment, and incarceration represents, the failure of the great capitalist system of the past few centuries to provide a decent standard of living for all humanity.

“From each according to ability, to each according to need.” Louis Blanc 1839.


[1] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Rev. Ed. New York: New Press, 2012.

[2] Suh, Jae Jang. “Capitalism’s Demise? An Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein.” History News Netowrk, George Mason University, January, 2009. http://hnn.us/articles/59481.html

[3] “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” is a term coined by bell hooks to label the interconnected systems of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism.

[4] Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. volume 1. Marx/Engels Internet Archive, 1999. Orig German pub. 1867. The section dealing with the reserve army hypothesis is chapter 25, section 3.http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm#S3

[5] Pager, Devah. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 108, no. 5. Univ. of Chicago, March 2003.

[6] Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Pr., 2003


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