As a Punishment for Crime

When you get right down to it, for capitalists, slavery was a hell of a good deal.  It opened up new markets, it was a self-reproducing form of labor, and best of all, it provided a very inexpensive and largely docile workforce.  Its failure, if you remove morality from the picture — which capitalists are forever striving to do — had much more to do with mechanization and its general unsuitability for the requirements of industrial economies than anything else; had it been more easily transferrable from the cotton field to the factory floor, we would likely still have it everywhere.

The demise of America’s race-based slave economy following the Civil War, still considered by many white people in this country to have been a dreadful mistake for which everyone else must continue paying in perpetuity, put an end to it in an official capacity.  However, capitalists — white capitalists, that is, and the politicians who support and enable them — have forever sought a way to bring slavery back in everything but name.  The war between capital and labor has forever been one where the former seeks to place the latter in a condition as close to involuntary servitude as possible; they must still maintain the pretense that there’s some grand philosophical difference between labor that is forced and labor that is ‘freely given’ for wages, however, even if they both result in misery and starvation if a worker chooses not to go along with them.

Luckily for them, there is the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution.  The wording of that fine document, with its ban on any form of involuntary servitude except for as punishment for crime, has provided a loophole that has been exploited since 1865 by enterprising, industrious Americans, and has in recent years led to the explosion of what we have come to term the ‘prison industrial complex’.  This is the topic of filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary from last year, 13th, in which she calls upon an array of experts, a mountain of historical evidence, and an amassing of facts so dismal that they would seem like a wild-eyed conspiracy theory if they were not so well-documented, to illustrate the way that the U.S. government, in conjunction with (and to the near exclusive benefit of) big capitalist enterprises, has exploited this clause to reintroduce racial slavery in everything but name.

The film is remarkably comprehensive, illustrating a large and complex subject in a relatively short period of time; it takes us from the post-slavery reconstruction era through Jim Crow, northern migration, the Depression, the civil rights era, Nixon’s drug war, and the crack epidemic, right up until today’s period of mass incarceration.  DuVernay uses dynamic interviews with a wide selection of activists, prisoners, politicians, historians, and academics to make the case that, by both circumstance and design, the growth of capital power has gone hand in hand with the growth of carceral punishment, very frequently for minor infractions or for nothing at all (she is particularly devastating in pointing out how a bureaucracy has developed, as in Ferguson, Missouri, that essentially criminalizes entire populations of color through the use of bail and court violations, nuisance laws, and other means of giving police the power to arrest and detain nearly anyone they choose).  The interview subjects are passionate about their subjects, but 13th never reaches a pitch of hysteria; rather, it calmly lays out the undeniable and devastating case that we have managed to essentially outlaw a whole people.

This could not be more relevant if she had released it today; Donald Trump, who at the time she made the film, was still one of several Republican candidates, is now President of the United States, and has shown every sign of continuing the process of virtual enslavement through police power.  As I write this, he has already blustered about cracking down on illegal immigration, ‘protecting’ the police from the consequences of their brutality, and sending in federal troops to impose a Nixonian law and order regime on my own city of Chicago.  But Trump needn’t have won for her to make her case.  When she was filming 13th, it seemed very likely that Hillary Clinton would win the election, and DuVernay makes it clear that Clinton, her husband, and the neoliberal program they represent in government are just as much to blame for the growth of the carceral state and the shadow slavery it has allowed to come into being.  She goes into harrowing detail about the effects of Bill Clinton’s omnibus crime bill, Hillary’s comments about ‘superpredators’, and the way the Democrats bear equal responsibility for privatization of prisons, the escalation of police threat responses, and the way convicts are being made more or less permanent wards of the state.

At a time when many fiery discussions of the intersection of identity politics and anti-capitalist economics are dominating the political conversation, 13th makes the urgent argument that the two are now, as they have always been, inseparable:  race-based slavery encouraged poor whites to have one group they could feel superior to; capitalists uses racial resentment to try and break unions; and Nixon’s poisonous Southern Strategy was designed to reify Southern racism as a political tool to turn the entire region against the Democratic Party.  Racist fears of blacks are used to support a dehumanizing system of imprisonment and torture, and drug policy –a fraud from its very beginning, as the film makes depressingly clear — is the blunt instrument by which that racism is enforced.  The result is money for the capitalists and power for the politicians, as millions of black citizens are disenfranchised by warrant of having criminal records.  For the powerful, it’s win-win; for the helpless, it’s lose-lose.

DuVernay, an exceptionally talented director of color who I fear we are about to lose to blockbuster status, manages to illustrate all this with inventiveness, action, and quiet passion.  Thanks to her intelligent structural work, clever framing, and a stunning soundtrack, 13th does not resemble a traditional documentary at all, which makes it all the more compelling and hypnotic.  It is the story of a great crime disguised as a great crusade against crime, and that story is about to have one of its ugliest chapters.  Finding out how we got here is vitally important to figuring out how we can change direction, and 13th is a great place to start doing that.


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