Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.

In Defense of Education

We have been converted from citizens to consumers. That conversion has been helped along by the dumbing down of education in the waning decades of the industrial era. The once lofty goal of building a viable democratic society by assuring that citizens were adequately educated in all things human, including art, science, music, culture, and political economy – the full range of human knowledge – has been replaced by narrow technical training for those willing to be trained to be obedient employees rather than be educated as citizens. It’s flipping Big-Macs for the rest.

The ‘captains of industry’ realized along time ago that they only needed obedient workers and ready consumers – active citizenship would be a major inconvenience. No need for civic participation in an oligarchy – better, in fact, to restrict it. No need for an engaged thinking public if the plutocrats are in charge. [Plutocracy: “a country ruled by the richest people” Miriam-Webster online.] The power elites have known all long that the general population, for the most part should be kept as ignorant and subservient as possible. At the same time, a big part of American culture was a vision of a growing energetic entrepreneurial spirit spurring innovation and the potential for anyone to succeed. That, of course, is a rather large contradiction. Nevertheless, education was seen as the path to achieve the “American Dream.”

Most of the “educational reforms” over the last century have served the purpose of generating profits for consultants, salaries for bureaucrats, and the management of students moving through the system until at some point most jump or are pushed out. When I was in college, I thought that if we just got everyone properly educated we could solve all the world’s problems and live happily ever after. I think I still held on to that hope, tempered by a certain realism, when I began teaching university courses. Gradually, though, it became clear that education was failing America, or maybe America was failing education.

Bottom line: bureaucracy grew and teaching and learning declined as the key elements of the process became “objectified” by various “standards” and procedures (mostly formal “objective” testing and formal “learning objectives”), all of which distract from and consume the funds needed for the actual engagement of teacher and student. More and more pressure, especially on primary and high school teachers, forced them further from direct personal engagement with students, which is the essence of effective teaching and learning.

In thirty-five years of teaching in the California State University system I watched it decline in budgeted support and grow in diverse bureaucratic distractions from the reason we professors thought we were there: teaching and research. At the same time, I learned more and more about how the primary and secondary systems were destroying the chances of very bright individuals in the poverty ridden central areas of Los Angeles. The university students I taught were increasingly unprepared for the work. The hardest part was realizing that innately intelligent individuals simply had not been prepared with the skills needed to succeed in college and there was little I could do about it by that stage. I also discovered that colleagues in other cities and states were experiencing the same decline on their campuses as I was, including some of the nation’s most elite institutions.

Now, the power elites have just about what they want, except for an adequate supply of technical drones for their operations. Today, the plutocracy’s growing problem is that people are not as stupid as the elites expect them to be by depriving them of a real education; they are increasingly angry at being effectively cut off from even modest economic success, and they are ready to do something about it. As in other areas – the economy, politics, community relations – people are organizing themselves to achieve what the conventional institutions have failed to make possible. No, I’m not talking about corporate ‘charter schools’ or ‘privatized’ trade schools. Community based schools are emerging with a human focus. That is where the defense of education will be based and where the full education of citizens will be found.

The massive problems of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty wages caused by the trajectory of the failing growth economy will not be solved by education alone, despite pundits’ claims that workers are not prepared for the good jobs, which are insufficient in number anyway. The larger question is whether we are willing to support the broad public education that is necessary if we are to transition to a new ecological economy as a strong democracy, or whether we will fail entirely and devolve into social chaos. We must choose, and act now, because we have a long way to go.

The Real Cause of Unemployment: Automated and Outsourced Over-Production

In a growth economy, new jobs are created on a regular basis because new production expands the employment base. In a shrinking economy, just the opposite happens. The U.S. and most of the industrial world have enjoyed the benefits of expanded production and employment for many decades, minus the occasional downswings of the “business cycle,” along with some deep depressions. That is the ‘conventional wisdom,’ and within a narrow framework it has worked until now.

However, in addition to sending jobs to low-wage nations, ‘improvements’ in the processes of design, production, and optimizing the supply chain – all of which involve reducing the labor needed for these processes – capital invested in advanced production technology requires less and less labor. That is the key contradiction in the growth economy. Once labor costs are reduced beyond a certain point, buying power can no longer keep up with production. The addition of capital mobility amplifies this problem.

Capital is mobile; labor, not so much. Sure, Mexicans come across the U.S. border seeking work because highly automated production of corn in the U.S. – with the help of government subsidies and NAFTA – allows U.S. agribusiness corporations to undercut Mexican corn prices, flood their grain market, and drive traditional Mexican farmers off their land. Then the same corporations buy up or lease Mexican farmland to produce crops for export to the U.S. – especially those requiring hand picking. Desperate farmers who lost their livelihood can be hired at below poverty wages; some of the remainder head for the U.S. with nothing but hope.

A win-win situation for the corporations and their capital is a lose-lose proposition for both Mexican and American workers and the price of their labor. But when capital moves from the declining cities where American manufacturing once thrived, to the centers of large Asian populations in dire poverty, the immobility of labor is clear. Neither American nor Asian workers without highly specialized technical skills, can follow the movement of investment capital to obtain jobs. That is the real face behind the mask of “free trade.”

Those corporate elites who the pundits of CNBC and Fox News tout as the “job creators,” are, in fact, American-job destroyers. The claim is routinely made that these wealthy CEOs create jobs through investment of their wealth. Well, they do create poverty jobs in Asia to replace middle-class jobs in the U.S. In the process they destroy American jobs. And now we have the TPP, the “Trans-Pacific Partnership,” or “NAFTA on steroids,” formed in secret and intended to wipe out national standards for labor and environmental protection, even further extending corporate rule and economic control over nations.

Through most of the industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of economic production, investment of capital has been directed toward labor saving technologies of production as well as the invention of new products. The first coal-fired steam-driven textile factories in England and Scotland required many workers to maintain the machinery which did absorb some of the farmers driven off their land by the “enclosures” which were part of the first stage of industrialized agriculture. Most of the rest were encouraged to emigrate to Australia, the U.S., or Canada, where expansion into native lands provided new opportunities for workers displaced by the new industrial technology.

The industrial age has been characterized by continued economic growth. That growth absorbed most of the labor lost to automation of industrial processes. We are now at the end of that phase of the growth economy. Despite denials from the industrial and financial elites, the age of economic growth is ending. Converging crises of finance, resource depletion, accelerated climate disruption with increasingly costly expansion of fossil-fuel production, under-funded over-consumption sustained only by increased debt, and even greater over-production, make it inevitable.

Classical economics, the propaganda tool of industrial capital, sustains the illusion of endless growth. But it fails to recognize environmental reality. A new economics that faces ecological limits must assume curtailed fossil-fueled production and reliance on human labor for two reasons. First, no economy works without circulating its money. Wages are necessary for workers to purchase goods and services produced by other workers. Second, an adequately rapid withdrawal from fossil-fuel addiction will require converting many processes from capital-intensive to labor-intensive production. Some might yell “Luddite!” But existing science and technical knowledge will allow invention of many new labor-based methods and modification of old ones, avoiding the back-breaking pre-industrial forms of work. They just will not use so much fossil-fuel energy. Vast opportunities arise to invent new technologies that rely on human energy. Don’t forget the venerable bicycle. It remains the most energy-efficient mode of transportation yet devised.

Scapegoating for the Oligarchs, or Not

Ruling elites routinely distract their subject people by directing attention to individuals or ethnic groups as ‘the enemy,’ and it routinely works. As long as people are distracted by arguments over ethnic and individual culpability and conflict, the oligarchy wins. We could discuss the dominance of the English-American elite over the American economy and politics after the revolutionary war and their continued dominance thereafter, excluding the Scots-Irish immigrants and later many other ethnic groups from full political and economic participation, but to what avail?

The big mistake is to reduce problems resulting from economic inequities to the characteristics of individuals or ethnic groups. Today’s central banking cartel transcends national borders and ethnic categories, yet it benefits from any distraction of public awareness by scapegoating, including re-coded American racism, blaming immigrants for job losses, and plain old anti-Semitism.

The bottom line is structural; we live in a political economy of oligarchy, with a new twist that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism” – a new form of fascism with a thin ‘democratic’ facade. You could waste your time tracking the ethnicity of all bankers, only to find a mix of whatever proportion, yet it would not matter. Their allegiance is to the financial elite of which they are members. Their Fox News minions call them the ‘job creators,’ even as they move their capital overseas to the labor markets they can exploit more cheaply. The oligarchy has various historical elements, but its current structure of power is what matters, and that is not an ethnic structure, it is the political-economic-financial structure of the corporate state. That is what needs to be directly faced and dealt with by ordinary citizens through concerted action.

Any chance for the people to prevail and for equity and democracy to survive will result only when people in communities recognize the fact that the larger system is way out of democratic control. It is not immigrants, Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, or even terrorists who cause the problems most people feel directly in the form of depressed wages, underemployment, unemployment, lack of access to quality education, loss of access to voting, the decline of municipal infrastructures, growing police brutality and gun violence, a congress that refuses to respond to economic crises on Main street, not just on Wall Street, etc. Oligarchy thrives on oppression and distraction. Most societal problems are symptoms of economic and political oppression, and elite delusions of empire. Most Americans know that “the system is rigged,” and the economic cards are stacked against them. We also know that we can’t fight it alone. Anger breeds prejudice and discrimination; easy targets are presented to distract us. But only a turn toward positive concerted action can really help.

Because of the lock-up of national politics and economic policy by the oligarchs, the only ways left for ordinary people to survive and to thrive are strategies to create our own locally controlled institutions within communities and to withdraw participation from the giant institutions controlled by the Oligarchs.

Move your money from the Big Banks to local credit unions. Cancel Big-Bank credit cards and use local credit union cards. Start community banks. Divest savings from the fossil-fuel oligarchs and invest in socially responsible funds and local ecologically sound enterprises. Organize community solar and wind generating systems. Buy local. Reduce consumption from marketing-driven wants; buy to satisfy actual needs. Withdrawal from the international trade and industrial production system will stimulate opportunities in local economies in which individuals and families can participate and exercise control. That, of course, will not be an easy transition; it will require much cultural change and will be resisted by the oligarchs. But it will be an invigorating, transformational stimulus to a free and open society.