At this point, the idea that cops and prisons make us safer has very little credibility. Incarceration rates don’t meaningfully affect crime rates, rates of police violence don’t track with rates of violent crime, police largely don’t solve crimes, and wage theft consumes more money than all other kinds of theft combined but largely goes unpunished. But if the carceral state isn’t actually stopping theft or interpersonal violence, what is it for? What do the police actually protect? An obvious answer here is “profits,” but it’s worth delving into the mechanics, because much of the immediate profit generated by prisons isn’t actually central to their function.
For instance, it’s increasingly common knowledge that the United States uses its prisons as a source of slave labor. An incarcerated person might be paid pennies or nothing at all to fight wildfires, repackage hand sanitizer, or serve in a governor’s mansion, replacing a worker from the outside who at least stands a chance of receiving the local minimum wage. Prison labor isn’t actually free, however – in the US, it costs an average of $31,000 to lock someone up for a year, which is about double what it would cost to simply pay someone the current $7.25 federal minimum wage to do a full-time job. Of course, prison labor can still be a means of channeling public money into private hands, but it largely isn’t: most prison labor serves other government departments. It’s more accurate to say that prison labor is a strategy to claw back a portion of the enormous cost of caging people than it is a motive to cage people in itself. Beyond this, most prisons are government-run: only 9% of prisoners are actually held in private prisons. So, how does the carceral system relate to capitalist profits?
In order to function, capitalism needs at least two classes of person. First, a small population of people who own basically everything: the land, the factories, the food, whatever. Second, an enormous population of people who own, if they’re lucky, the clothes on their backs. (How did things get this way? Pay that no mind, says the first group.) This second class, the proletariat, is “free in the double sense”—on one hand, they’re free to enter into whatever contracts they like with anyone of their choosing. On the other hand, they’re free of all means of subsistence, and have no way to keep themselves alive except by selling their labor to the bourgeoisie, the tiny group of people with all the property. So long as the proletariat sells each day’s labor in exchange for just enough resources to stay alive another day, the bourgeoisie can continue to reap profits.
A problem will immediately present itself to the astute reader: why does the proletariat, the larger class, not simply eat the other one? To answer that, I turn to Lenin’s The State and Revolution. Drawing on Marx and Engels, Lenin wrote that in order to dominate another class, a would-be ruling class needs a state. A state, here, means a whole complex of relationships and institutions designed to mediate the irreconcilable conflict between the classes. Hundreds of years ago, the feudal state kept the aristocracy in charge of the peasantry; now, the capitalist state keeps the proletariat under the thumb of the bourgeoisie.
A state protects the ruling class in all sorts of ways. It has teachers, journalists, and entertainers to convince people that existing arrangements are just and natural. It has politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats to manage the flow of resources and set up gentlemen’s agreements that mitigate the consequences of internal conflict—the bourgeoisie have to be protected from each other and prevented from consuming the working class so quickly there’s nobody left to exploit, though this second restriction has much more to do with labor’s ability to fight back than with capital’s ability to plan ahead. Finally, it has special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc. to enforce the ruling class’s decisions and protect that class from overthrow. These comprise the military and carceral infrastructure used to crack down on threats to power, whether internal or external: knights and praetorians in times before, soldiers and cops today. They’re the state’s last line of defense, and the implicit threat behind any command given by the ruling class or its representatives.
There’s a subtler issue of sustainability in the scenario sketched out a few paragraphs ago. Not only must the proletariat work to survive, but not every proletarian can work. If there were full employment, workers would have incredible bargaining power. To be properly at their master’s mercy, workers have to be replaceable. There needs to be a “reserve army of labor”, a mass of unemployed and underemployed people who can be swapped in as existing workers flame out or wear down, and who can be relegated to the most dangerous and poorly-compensated jobs. Excluding people from the legal economy is, of course, much easier when there’s pre-existing bigotry to draw on, whether founded on appearance, ancestry, gender, health, religion, or ability. Capitalism didn’t invent male chauvinism or regional stereotypes, but it seized upon them as excuses for the division of labor, and maintains them because they increase profits. Capitalism did invent race, and at the same time used race to invent itself; the two are inseparable, as racism forms the basis for both rapacious looting of the global periphery and brutal repression within the imperial core.
A key function of the carceral system is to manage and discipline the reserve army of labor, as when California’s prison population ballooned in response to increased unemployment. Another is to maintain the social disparities that create that army in the first place. Police violence doesn’t happen to more marginalized people just because more of them happen to be unemployed—cops must actively hunt down the marginalized to maintain and reinforce marginalization, because racism, sexism, and other bigotry are crucial elements of the capitalist economy. When American police murder a Black civilian, poor or otherwise, they are faithfully doing their jobs, because the state they serve is built on the repression, enslavement, and exploitation of Black people.
A materialist perspective allows us to understand the carceral system first and foremost as a terror weapon. Police mete out violence not because their training has failed but because their training is working. Prisons torture and immiserate not to rehabilitate but to cause torment and misery. The cruelty is the point! Cops protect private property, not people, because capitalism sees people as replaceable but private property as sacrosanct. If we could simply take what we needed to survive from a common pool instead of having to jump through hoops for the people who own it, the bourgeoisie couldn’t force us to work and couldn’t profit off our labor. They need prisons and cops to contain and coerce us.
From the Marxist perspective, prison abolition isn’t like replacing a coal furnace with a solar panel; it’s like wrestling a gun from an assailant’s hand. It’s no surprise that Lenin defined a revolutionary’s job as “the art of combating the political police”; we can’t remove cops but keep capitalism, or remove capitalism but keep cops, because the cops are part of capitalism’s last line of defense. To fight one is necessarily to fight both, and we have no choice but to win.