Monday, May 19, 2014

Slavery 3.0: Deciphering an American Dilemma


"Capitalism needs and must have prisons to protect itself from the criminals it has created."  -  Eugene Debs, 1920

            Contrary to what many people believe, slavery in America did not end after the Civil War; it simply mutated into something far worse.   From the smoldering ashes of those blood soaked battle fields, a new system of slavery soon arose to re-enslave African Americans with all the legitimacy and morality of law.  That new system was named after a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted black slave called Jim Crow.  Unlike the first version of American slavery, which was an economic system of racism operating for profit, Jim Crow was a social system of racism operating out of fear and revenge.  In the parlance of modern day technology, this Jim Crow system of enslavement could be called Slavery 2.0.    Imposed by law in the defeated southern states after the Civil War this reformulated system of slavery was as bad, and in many ways it was even worse, than the chattel slavery it had replaced.
   In the same way the Civil War was fought to end the chattel slavery of the south - what could be called Slavery 1.0 -  the African American Civil Rights Movement was an attempt to end the social racism of Slavery 2.0.  And with the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, many people believed Slavery 2.0 had successfully been abolished. But they were wrong.
As before, a new system of slavery emerged that would prove to be as bad or worse than the two previous  incarnations.  In practice, this new system operated as a hybrid that included the most malevolent parts of both, while in appearance, it looked like neither.  Like the rope of a hangman's noose, the latest version of slavery was braided together from the lessons of the past, and used to create a stronger, much more resilient, yet far less conspicuous form of slavery.  That slavery came from a chorus of moralizing politicians who took it upon themselves to condemn addicts as criminals, and they preached the new religion until it became the chains of codified law.

 Overtime, the two systems coalesced into one, until the for-profit chattel slavery of the antebellum South was resurrected in the form of the Prison Industrial Complex and the system of Jim Crow was re-dubbed as the War on Drugs.  Today, these two systems work in tandem to mutually reinforce each other, creating a feedback loop that forms the zygote of contemporary American racism.  That racism should have died on the battle fields of the Civil War and the Freedom buses of the Civil Rights movement. But it didn’t.  Instead, despite the election of America's first "black President," it is more alive in the United States today than it has ever been. 

On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell address in which he warned the nation to “guard against the … unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.”  He was worried about the dangers of an ever growing defense industry swallowing up the very democracy it was being paid to protect.  His fears were not unfounded.  What Eisenhower had failed to see at that time, however, was the increasing growth of another industrial complex.  That complex would eventually undo over a hundred years of social progress for millions, re-enslave more African Americans today than prior to the civil war, and result in the creation of a permanent under-caste system.  That industry is the Prison Industrial Complex.
In America today, the prison industrial complex (PIC) is a system that produces more profits from enslavement than the cotton fields of the antebellum south.  Like the invention of the cotton gin, the invention of the PIC dramatically increased the demand for slave labor.   That demand grew out of a system of social control designed to remove an undesirable class of people from the general population.  This ‘undesirable class of people’ was increasingly comprised of a disproportionate number of poor African Americans, and their “removal” was effectuated by a system of mass incarceration under a pretext of a war on drugs. 
While the War on Drugs (WOD) and the Prison Industrial Complex  may have been prompted by an earnest attempt to improve people's lives, today, they become largely political charades.  Instead of making America a safer place, they only allow politicians to win votes for being “tough on crime,” while ruining lives in the process.  The price for such political grandstanding, in other words, is paid for by the victims of this charade in the form of a spiraling cycle of poverty and prison from which few ever escape.  It is a system of fear for profit, and treats addiction with all of the medieval enlightenment of curing a schizophrenic by burning him alive.  

In 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal authored a study of race relations in the United States entitled An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. In his study, Myrdal painstakingly detailed what he saw as obstacles to full participation in American society by African Americans in the 1940s. The ideals of liberty, justice, and fair treatment of all people formed an “American Creed” that shaped all political and social interactions in the United State.   But despite this creed, Myrdal saw a vicious cycle in which whites oppressed blacks, and then pointed to blacks' poor performance as reason for the oppression. The way out of this cycle, he argued, was to either cure whites of prejudice or improve the circumstances of blacks, which would then disprove whites' preconceived notions. Myrdal called this process the “principle of cumulation." To Quote Myrdal, 

“There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of white Americans desire that there be as few Negroes as possible in America. If the Negroes could be eliminated from America or greatly decreased in numbers, this would meet the whites' approval—provided that it could be accomplished by means which are also approved.

Four decades later, Ronald Reagan would announce the War on Drugs, and the “means” by which “the Negroes could be eliminated from America or greatly decreased in number” was finally enacted via the legal system that met with ‘white approval.’   Myrdal went on to describe how “White prejudice and discrimination would keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other.

In Black-White Relations: The American Dilemma, Junfu Zhang gives this description of Myrdal's work:

“According to Myrdal, the American dilemma of his time referred to the co-existence of the American liberal ideals and the miserable situation of blacks.  On the one hand, enshrined in the American creed is the belief that people are created equal and have human rights; on the other hand, blacks, as one tenth of the population, were treated as an inferior race and were denied numerous civil and political rights.  Myrdal's encyclopedic study covers every aspect of black-white relations in the United States up to his time.  He frankly concluded that the ‘Negro problem’ is a ‘white man's problem.’  That is, whites as a collective were responsible for the disadvantageous situation in which blacks were trapped.

Unfortunately for millions, this American Dilemma, as Myrdal described it, is as true today as it was in 1944.  
Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address against the danger of thinking the best solution must be the one with the most expensive price tag. “Crises’ there will continue to be,” he warned, and “In meeting them, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all (our) current difficulties.” Yet America has succumbed to that temptation in the form of the Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs. Indeed, these two systems have combined to become, more than anything else, the “spectacular and costly action” that is the cause of “all (our) current difficulties.” 
            These two systems have been administered like vaccines to a single societal patient, in whom they combined in the body politic to form a cancer. In this way, the PIC and the WOD have metastasized into the latest version of the New American Dilemma - Slavery 3.0.  

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