by Joseph G. Ramsey
November 27, 2021
It’s not enough to judge a left journal by its cover. A recent case in point: people in left social media circles of late have been taking shots at the democratic socialist magazine Jacobin’s latest issue (https://jacobinmag.com/issue/lower-the-crime-rate), with its provocative (and maybe confusing) cover bearing the slogan “Lower the Crime Rate.” A range of radical voices online have reacted to this cover as if it amounts to a kind of endorsement of police repression in liberal guise. But actually the lead articles inside the issue are, in this comrade’s view, quite good. From the Opening Statement by Benjamin Fogel to the interview with Marie Gottschalk, the contents here are valuable for the way they highlight major blindspots structuring liberal and much “left” common sense and activism around policing, prisons, and the carceral state these days. The issue deserves wide engagement, as it can help us to see more clearly some of the real challenges that lie before us in terms of radically changing the system of “criminal justice” in the USA. One need not share Jacobin‘s emphasis on electoral politics (or the specific organizational vehicle of the Democratic Socialists of America) to find value in the magazine’s pages.
Among the main takeaways:
1) That last year alone 21,570 people in the USA were murdered, a significant surge from the years prior. It follows that the widespread left talking point that the rise in crime is all an imaginary product of right-wing hysteria and sensationalist mass media is false. The USA is between 3 and 30 times more violent than its wealthy “peer nations”; violent crime remains a reality structuring US working-class life. It follows that would-be working-class organizers need to take it seriously.
2) That a black person in the US is 35 times more likely to be killed by another civilian than by a police officer. The US Black population’s murder rate exceed that of all countries on earth, excepting Jamaica and El Salvador. The 1000 or so people killed by police each year in the USA remains a perpetual outrage, but we must not allow this outrageous police violence to lead us to neglect the real problem of violent crime in this country, a problem which disproportionately affects Black (and poor, and Latin@ and Native) people.
3) That polling shows that a vast super-majority of Americans at present (apparently 86%!?) want the police to spend as much or *more* time in their neighborhoods as they do now, even as strong majorities think that “policing requires major changes” (58%) and think that “police violence is a serious problem” (79%). Such (contradictory) numbers can certainly be read symptomatically–as reflecting dominant media, politicians’ framings and general social fears–but, even so, police abolitionists thus have, to put it mildly, a lot of *persuading* to do if they are going to build a majority that can make such a change viable in most parts of the country.
4) That while the Black incarceration rate in the USA is off the charts compared to other countries (as is now well-known), being around 5 times that of the white incarceration rate in the US, even the incarceration rate for white individuals alone is still 4-15 times the incarceration rate of Japan and Western European countries. Thus, to frame the expansion of imprisonment in the USA as simply a “New Jim Crow” or an expression of anti-Black “systemic racism” is clearly inadequate. Even if the US released every single Black prisoner tomorrow, this country would still be imprisoning more people than any other country on earth. Framing incarceration as primarily an anti-“Black” problem risks blinding us to half the problem, and half of the potential mass base for its transformation.
5) That the main driver of mass incarceration in the US has not been non-violent drug offenses–and certainly not non-violent offenses linked only to petty drugs like marijuana. (Such marijuana only offenses amount to only around 1% of those in prison.) Even if ALL prisoners whose primary charge is a drug offense were released tomorrow, that would reduce the prison population by only 20%, still leaving the US by far the main jailer in the world. Drug decriminalization then, however correct (and this author mostly supports it), does not yet speak to the heart of the problem: a growing punitiveness in US society and government that is at once increasing the violence of this society, while responding (and often compounding) high levels of real violence in the society more generally. (The place of property crimes here deserves more attention than the Jacobin issue provides.)
6) That there are more than 200,000 people in the US serving “life sentences,” many of them without even the prospect of parole. This is more than many countries incarcerate at any one time, for any amount of time, and around the *total* number of prisoners held in the USA before the prison boom and the “war on crime” launched in the late 70s. It represents a startlingly state-sanctioned condemnation of our fellow human beings, a mass policy of flushing people away without even the hope of rehabilitation or redemption.
7) That in the USA today, more $$$ value is stolen by employers via “wage theft” each year than the total $$$ of property stolen as a result of “robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts.” Thus, even without going deeper to the Marxist point that all wage-labor involves a kind of theft through exploitation, the employer class is a massive source of criminality, host to a massive amount of robbery.
8)That the hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of dollars of private and corporate wealth that is held (often “legally”) in tax havens like the Caiman Islands or Panama is not only a massive social theft of tax resources from the people, but also creates a swamp of shadow banking and underground finance that attracts, feeds, and enables organized crime the world over.
9) That crime among the masses can and should be viewed not as right-wing (or liberal) invention to justify militarized policing, but as a genuine “index of oppression,” “born out of poverty and the miseries of capitalism.” As such, it requires action not just (and not primarily) at the level of policing or public safety (though the reality of these levels cannot be bypassed), but a deeper social transformation of the entire economic system. The goal of bringing down the crime rate, and thus the widely felt need for expansive policing, requires a broader kind of *abolitionism*, one aimed at abolishing poverty, abolishing homelessness, making quality health care (including mental healthcare) as well as quality education available to all, providing sustaining and meaningful employment to those who currently lack it, and generally redistributing wealth and power downward to reduce the vast inequalities in our midst.
10) That, within the current system, the kind of radical reforms above are going to *cost much more* than the current state strategy of intensive policing and punishment. Shifting the resources from existing police institutions to social programs, public health, or prevention, however well intended or symbolically powerful, will *not* be anywhere near enough (by a factor of more than 10). Indeed, to the extent that a focus on “defunding the police” takes our focus off of fighting to expand the total federal and state revenues for things like universal healthcare, public housing, jobs programs, as well as redistributive progressive taxation, it risks becoming a self-defeating endeavor. (Furthermore, some studies show that underfunded police departments may in fact become *more* abusive, not less.) We need to keep our eyes on the real prize.
11) That the current system response to the economic stagnation since the 1970s has in many ways been a response based on not only social control priorities of the elite, but controlling things on the *cheap,* keeping taxes on the rich and corporations low, maintaining profitability, etc. We should be honest about the massive social investments–and the need to expropriate the social wealth controlled by capital and the rich–that will be necessary for this kind of program of radical reform. You can’t squeeze public health and social safety from the bloody budget of a SWAT team or a Bearcat.
12) Reducing the glut of guns in the USA, shifting drug offenses from the frame of “crime” to “public health” would all be good things, and transferring the deadly militarized budget surpluses of US police to social programs and community based crime prevention initiatives would also (aka “Defund the Police” or even better “Demilitarize the Police”). So would ending the CIA, whose criminal anti-communist crusades have seeded the terrain for organized crime and drug trafficking for generations. But without deeper transformations in Americans political consciousness and society, reforms (radical or moderate) at the level of policing are not only unlikely to accomplish the ends of harm reduction, but may in fact play into the hands of far-right politicians who love nothing more than to run on “law and order,” as if their policies of increasing punishment, surveillance, militarization, and racist profiling are the only way to keep communities “safe.” The left cedes the ground of serious public safety to the right at its peril.
Joseph G. Ramsey teaches English and American Studies at UMass Boston, where he is active in the Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA) and in struggles to defend public higher education. He is presently working on a book recuperating the critical communism of Richard Wright: <