September 29, 2008
Over 1.7 million US citizens now live in prison, a 300 per cent increase since 1980.
In some US cities, one-third of all black men are in jail, while spending on prisons has overtaken allocations for higher education in California.
Christian Parenti’s new book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (August 2008, Revised and Expanded Edition) establishes the connection between these stark facts and the right-wing social and economic counter-offensive that began in the early 1980s.
Parenti marshals a vast array of evidence to underline the connection between the damage wrought by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the substructure of US and British society in the early 1980s and the effects that have consequently devastated working-class communities on both sides of the pond.
He shows that Reagan’s reactionary social engineering, in the form of “monetarist austerity” and a “deregulatory war on labour,” led to interest rates shooting up from 7.9 per cent in 1979 to 16.4 in 1981, plunging the US economy into the worst recession since 1929.
Parenti observes that then chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volker’s “cold-bath recession” resulted in unemployment shooting up to 10 million by 1982, putting immense downward pressure on wages, as it was designed to.
He quotes Thatcher’s chief economic adviser Alan Budd, who submerged Britain in his very own “cold-bath recession.”
In retrospect, Budd wrote candidly that “rising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes.
“What was engineered — in Marxist terms — was a crisis in capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.”
In the US, the real average weekly wage fell more than 8 per cent between 1979 and 1982.
“Overall,” Parenti writes, “Reaganomics increased class and racial polarisation destroyed inner cities, sacked public education and public health services, created epidemic homelessness, increased exploitation of workers and caused the intensified spatial concentration of a permanently unemployed class.”
The same is true of Thatcherism and its new Labour legacy here and it is the “social wreckage” and “social dynamite” left in the wake of the ruling-class offensive that the modern criminal justice crackdown seeks to regulate and contain.
Petty gangsterism, drug peddling and the associated violence that corrodes formerly industrial working-class communities in Britain and the US today are, in Parenti’s eyes, the “natural” result of economic decline and the ongoing metamorphosis of the welfare-into-police-state.
Parenti traces the origins of today’s macho, militarised Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams to the armed units of spooks and police that killed off the Black Panther leadership in the late 1960s.
Once established, these expensive attack teams became self-perpetuating. “Big budget outlays compel police departments to show ‘good use’ — that is, to deploy their SWAT teams wherever possible,” he explains.
Today, paramilitary police units are increasingly “called out to execute petty warrants, conduct traffic stops and round up non-violent suspects or, more commonly, conduct raids in place of detectives doing investigations.”
In Greensboro, North Carolina, the public library’s bus-sized “bookmobile” was retired, along with its card catalogue, 2,000 volumes and two librarians, due to lack of funds.
Shortly thereafter, the bookmobile was converted into a mobile command-and-control centre for the Greensboro police department’s elite 23-man SWAT team.
While the business counteroffensive of the 1980s and ’90s helped to restore profits, it also “invigorated the perennial problem of how to manage the surplus, excluded and cast-off classes.
“This then is the mission of the emerging anti-crime police state,” he argues.
New Labour vowed to get tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime in 1997, the same year that Gordon Brown supposedly set the Bank of England free.
Back then, Britain’s incarceration rate stood at 120 per 100,000. Today, it is 148 per 100,000, putting Britain above China, Turkey and India in the imprisonment league table.