Issue 4

Liberal Ideology and the Carceral State

If people have “equal rights,” why are some rich and some poor, and some free while others are incarcerated? Let’s explore liberalism’s underlying logic and dependence on the carceral state.

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Like prior modes of production, capitalism entails a brutal class dictatorship, the domination and exploitation of workers by rulers. Since capitalist society is founded nominally on private ownership and actually on white supremacy, capitalist police respond to property damage with lethal force and capitalist prisons are filled with people of color. Agents of the state withhold life’s necessities from the working class by force, and the more of those necessities there are, the tighter the grip of the ruling class gets.  Plenty itself is a threat to profit because only people “free” of the means of subsistence can be compelled to sell their labor-power for a wage. So, capital routinely seals away or destroys the surplus it generates, whether by drowning excess produce in bleach or locking excess people in cages. The need to have just the right number of unemployed—not so few that they can’t be brought in as replacements or auxiliaries at the drop of a hat, but not so many that they attain the critical mass that makes widespread revolt viable—causes the prison system to act as a heat sink, absorbing more and more people into its depths as automation increases the raw mass of available goods but reduces the number of jobs to go around. This is part of why the United States prison system,  a very recent development in historical terms, has swollen to such grotesque proportions regardless of the impact of “crime” as such.

Unlike prior modes of production capitalism is premised on voluntary association and exchange. Rather than swear a portion of all their product to a lord, a worker sells a day’s worth of their labor-power to a capitalist, and might well choose a different capitalist tomorrow. The two parties in any exchange are strictly equal in juridical terms, each fully empowered to dispose of any commodity they own in any means they see fit, and it’s pure accident that one has more commodities to offer than the other. It may be ridiculous to claim that the law in its majestic equality forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, but it’s also true; a formal symmetry in property rights both structurally underpins and ideologically legitimates the capitalist mode of production.

Liberalism is that legitimating ideology. Most people who argue in favor of capitalism aren’t capitalists themselves (as in, they don’t own the means of production and reap profits thereby); they’re just liberals. Liberalism entails the belief in free speech and free markets, in an inviolable right to personal autonomy that encompasses a person’s property as well as their physical body. Liberals come in many flavors; some are progressive on social issues while others are conservative, and some favor state intervention in the market while others bemoan it. Either way, liberalism is the basic proposition undergirding capitalist relations; the whole thing falls apart unless people are free to trade their stuff with other people, but also free to withhold their stuff from other people, whatever that stuff is.

This ideology isn’t a trick concocted to confuse or divide people, but a mental map naturally constructed in the course of navigating social terrain. Ideology develops post-facto, explaining and reinforcing behaviors as those behaviors become customary, unspooling from basic, empirically observable truths about the power relations governing social life. Under capitalism in specific, people have ample opportunity to observe that they are formally equal to each other, yet materially unequal to each other.

On the one hand, the majestic equality of the law implies a majestic equality of human beings: if we have equal legal rights, we must have equal human rights. Insofar as people are already inclined to cooperate, help others out, and just treat each other nicely, the proposition that they all have equal worth thanks to personhood itself is intuitive and agreeable.

On the other hand, the grotesque inequality of outcomes under capitalism implies a grotesque inequality in people. If some are rich and some are poor, and some are free while some are enslaved, and there reigns an impartial, universal law that strictly and rigorously accords people equal rights in recognition of their shared humanity, what the hell is going on? The answer is simple: people do not have equal humanity

It’s the division of people into irreducible, ineluctable kinds that squares the circle of capitalist law on one hand and human morality on the other. Rather than being on opposite poles of an economic relation that mandates exploitation, capitalists and workers must inherently differ in skill and virtue. Rather than tending towards certain kinds of work by dint of social inertia, women must be inherently domestic. Rather than being the arbitrary targets of a sucker punch only made possible through an accident of historical development, Africans must be inherently servile, inherently unsophisticated, inherently deficient in whatever ineffable traits are most conducive to civilization—and civilization, of course, means capitalism and only capitalism.

In this way, the general fact of social abjection and the specific practice of racism are not accidental byproducts but inherent aspects of liberalism. The capitalist mode of production requires the division of people into smart and stupid, worthy and unworthy, innocent and criminal; ultimately, into white and Black. Capitalism trains its participants, whether exploiter or exploited, to divide the world into fixed and abstract categories, to separate each object’s physical existence from its abstract worth, to conclude that the endless optimization and exchange characterizing capitalist accumulation isn’t a relic of a particular phase of history but the fundamental pattern of all human action, and one that applies to people as easily as to things. Personhood itself becomes a property relation.

The baseline assumption that capitalism is fair, that it recognizes human rights and comports with human morality, is what allows most people to participate in the economy without the need for direct coercion. Liberal subjects are, of course, abstractly aware that if they steal some soda or fail to pay rent they’ll be triggering a chain of events that might culminate in their death at the state’s hands, but most people don’t make a conscious cost-benefit calculation each time they wait at a stoplight or pay back a loan. They can just go with the flow because they live in an ideological universe designating the law as just despite the violence that law entails.

It’s this liberal ideology—which in the final estimation is racial ideology—that legitimates the repressive state apparatus of the bourgeoisie. A prison industrial complex that regularly visits horrible torture onto a portion of the population is perfectly tolerable if that portion is composed of bad people who somehow deserve it, and especially if the torture happens out of sight. Just as liberalism paints poverty as coming from a personal deficiency in skill or diligence, it explains abuse and imprisonment as the result of a personal deficiency in morals or humanity.

This sorting of human beings works both ways, too. Not only are the socially abject repressed, but repression creates social abjection, automatically excluding the victim from the category of “human” to the indifference or even approval of many onlookers; anyone attacked by the police must have been a criminal, a danger to public safety narrowly averted by our boys in blue. This is why the police punish interpersonal violence as well as property crime, even though they in no way reduce such violence or repair the harm it does. The punishment links social friction with police abuse, creating the perception that the former naturally causes and justifies the latter.

In this way, liberalism has scored a propaganda win unmatched by prior hegemonic ideologies. If you walked into a king’s court, you’d never imagine that the royal guard is there for your protection, but this is exactly how the bourgeois state has convinced its subjects to view the police. The enforcers of bourgeois dictatorship are transformed by liberal ideology into impersonal forces of judgment akin to the market itself. The counter to this demobilizing and depoliticizing tendency is an unreserved commitment to abolition. An abolitionist framework is part and parcel of Marxism’s ruthless criticism of all that exists, a refusal to accept liberal ideology as natural law. The problem with the capitalist economy isn’t that the division of profits between boss and worker is somehow unfair; it’s that profit itself arises only from exploitation, that a few are enforcing a dictatorship against the many. Likewise, a critique of the capitalist state can’t hinge on the idea that the police wrongly criminalize the innocent and undeserving; rather, criminalization itself is socially corrosive, and all prisoners are political prisoners. It’s impossible and self-defeating to simply point the cops at the “right” targets; the law’s fundamental mechanism of action must be broken and swept away.

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