Philosophy in Prison: Capitalist Oppression

“Philosophy in Prison” is a series of posts generated for the APA Blog by Professor Gabriel Rockhill’s philosophy course, “Class, Race and Social Transformation,” which took place in the Spring semester of 2017 at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. This post is the second of six.  You can see more posts from the series here.

A Discussion Between J. A. (aka James), M. R. (aka Rock), K. S. (aka Ghani), R. W. (aka Omar), and Ameer.

Rock: What’s up, fellas? So, this is it, huh? Spring semester’s coming to an end.

Omar: Yeah, and this is one of the better classes.

James: So, our group has to do a discussion for a blog post on capitalist oppression.

Ghani: Yeah, I’m all for it, just as long as we begin this assignment with full recognition of the tautologous nature of its title. Adding the word oppression to capitalism is superfluous, in my view. This assignment needs only be titled capitalism.

Ameer: Why do you say that, Ghan?

Ghani: Because capitalism in and of itself implies oppression. It cannot function, it simply cannot be, without oppression. It literally begins with oppression. Capitalist mantras such as “Maximize gains!” and “Turn over profits!” are innocuous rallying cries for oppression; for they mean extract, expropriate, usurp, drain, squeeze, in order to gorge your pockets, while giving the least bit possible in return. In fact, the less the capitalist gives back, or the closer to nothing that is given back, the more in line with the aims of capitalism the relationship is. The dynamic of such a relationship can be best described as exploitation, which is only made viable through domination, enslavement, oppression.

History is the best tool or lens, with or through which the oppressive nature of capitalism can be analyzed. For no matter how capitalism tries to re-invent itself to suit the times and appease the ever-awakening, ever-emerging, ever-evolving consciousness of humanity—who, for the most part, are the oppressed—no matter how capitalists attempt to sanitize and humanize capitalism, with concepts such as “conscious capitalism,” the history of capitalism will always tell it like it is. History will tell harrowing narratives of dehumanization and oppression. It will tell of the creation of conditions, socio-economical arrangements, that coerce human beings to sell their labor, or as Marx emphasized, their labor power, to the capitalists for crumbs in return. Or it would tell of the expropriation of labor power through the capitalist enterprise known as slavery. In any event, history would tell of the estrangement of people from themselves, from their intrinsic worth, from the true value of their power. It would speak unequivocally about asymmetrical relationships that can only be defined as exploitative and oppressive. The history of capitalism would mince no words. It would speak of the slaughter and ongoing oppression of women all over the world. It would spill the beans about genocide after genocide after genocide. The history of capitalism would let the cat out the bag, give up all the tapes. And both the cat and the tapes would testify that capitalism in and of itself has always been, continues to be, and always will be, oppression, oppression, oppression, …without recess. That is, until we, the oppressed, do away with it. Or Mother Earth does away with all of us.

Ameer: Damn. I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the history of capitalism has truly been that horrendous.

Ghani: You’re darn right. No need to exaggerate or fabricate history. Look at the present, and hear history’s testimony about capitalist oppression. I refer to the conscious team of historians, political and cultural analysts, and social justice activists The Ex-Worker, and their Crimethinc podcast. They aptly describe capitalism as a fire, which requires constant fuel. They said, “So you can imagine, for capitalism to get started, it required a whole lot of fuel up front to get the fires roaring” (Crimethinc Podcast #32: White Supremacy and Capitalism, From 1492 to Ferguson). “Primitive accumulation” is Marx’s term for the initial process for starting the fires of capitalism. It was through conquest, pillage, plunder, rape, genocide, enslavement, oppression, colonization, enclosure of the commons, and privatization of property that massive amounts of fuel/wealth was accumulated. These things not only required oppression in order to work, but they are in and of themselves different forms of oppression. Capitalist oppressions.

But, for the purposes of our assignment, let’s humor ourselves with the term capitalist oppression.

Rock: It’s interesting that you mention utilizing history as a tool for analyzing capitalism and capitalist oppression. I agree. And race is also an effective tool for analyzing capitalist oppression. Capitalism in the United States of America has a long history of using race—a socially constructed concept—to perpetuate discrimination.

James: Why do you say “using race”?

Rock: It was done with the slave codes, in post-slavery, the black codes and Jim Crow laws. From a conflict theory perspective, this occurs because the predominantly white superstructure, in their efforts to keep tight the reigns on economic and political power, perceive diversity and inclusiveness as a racial threat against their well-being and cultural dominance. Institutional and employment discrimination sustain the status quo, keeping the top one percent in a superordinate position to all. Today, they are reluctantly inclusive of women and minorities.

James: I hear that, but I’ll take it a step further to say that capitalist oppression, the handmaiden of white supremacy, is the economic engine behind maintaining relics of slavery, i.e. black subjugation, for the benefit of white supremacy. Today, relics of slavery, as modes of oppression, are perpetuated and manipulated through various socioeconomic, political, educational, and judicial institutions and structures controlled by elite white capitalists.

Rock: That term, “relics of slavery,” jumps out at me. Why or how do you relate it to capitalist oppression?

James: In the United States, when we see repeated incidents where racist cops are accosting, seizing and gunning down unarmed black men on tarmac streets in low-income neighborhoods, it is a relic of slavery. When we see state government’s shady politicians secretly pushing unconstitutional and unjust voter ID laws through their legislatures to restrict and suppress minorities being rounded up and stuffed into prisons under modern Jim Crow laws, it is a relic of slavery. When we see banksters or creditors denying loans to minorities based on geographical locations, it is a relic of slavery. When we see schools being under-funded because of their zip codes, it is a relic of slavery. Relics of slavery are ongoing and too numerous to count.

So, who benefits from these social dynamics and relationships? The elite white capitalist oppressor. It keeps them on top of the pyramid of life. When we remove the rubble away from the ideals of the capitalist oppressor, we find their true purpose is to promote their institutions and structures of power and oppression. These vehicles of power and oppression are designed to sustain white supremacy, power, privilege, hegemony, and dominion over “The Others.” This is ultimately what capitalist oppression is all about.

Rock: Although I’ve never thought of it as a relic of slavery, I’m glad you mentioned the underfunding of schools in targeted zip codes. Systemic savage inequalities persist in the public school system of minority communities, while those within affluent communities are afforded better facilities, resources, teachers, and money. This is a component at work in the reproduction of the very social ills that plague society.

Dig this: this country professes democracy, but private wealth vastly influences decisions related to the public. Politicians be backed by corporate dark money, while prominent religious leaders support shady politicians. Educational institutions churn out compliant workers to fit into and maintain the status quo…

Omar: You said it, bro. Capitalist oppression has many facets that affect our society, and one of them is coercive mobility. When a large number of felons are removed from a particular neighborhood then returned to the same neighborhood when their sentences end, it increases crime and victimization in the same neighborhoods, which are primarily areas of color. While it is the intent of legislators, judges, police, and prosecutors, to protect citizens, the coercive mobility facilitated by them has the unintended consequences of increasing crime and victimization. One example is the disproportionate federal sentences delivered to communities of color for the sale of crack cocaine as opposed to the sentences for the same amount of powder cocaine more heavily used by whites.

When people are removed from a community at high rates, it stresses an already socially and economically disadvantaged community. When ex-offenders return and are barred from obtaining decent employment, housing, etc., it contributes to lack of life improvement overall. It stresses relationships with wives, husbands, etc.; it strains the family unit and, in some cases, it contributes to the inability to form new relationships.

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, including Russia, Iran, and China. The privatization of prisons, or warehousing human beings for profit takes the irresponsibility and danger to new levels. The business men and women who run private prisons for profit won’t be held to the same standards nor bound by the same conventions, as state facilities. Staff employed at private facilities are not trained properly. The administrators of private prisons do not have to care about you one way or another. They don’t have to care about your mental or physical health and well-being. All they have to care about is collecting money off our warehoused bodies. The privatization of prison will make the prison experience even more dangerous.

Ameer: I appreciate you opening that door and stepping through it, because we can’t realistically talk about capitalist oppression without talking about mass incarceration. The people need to know that mass incarceration was put in place not only to enslave minorities but to control the general population. Just like hanging and whipping enslaved people in front of each other were means of control and power, so is imprisonment in the 21st century. It is used as a tool to remind the masses of people that if they “commit crimes,” i.e., break the rules, this can happen to them. Is it right or fair? Of course not. But it’s important to know that when the penitentiary was first created, its main purpose was to serve as a prelude to punishment. So, why did they make the penitentiary the punishment itself? To control the masses by using prison as an example of what happens if you do wrong… Also, the capitalists have learned that there’s money to be made in the institutions, but that’s another monster in itself.

James: But, Ghan, you had mentioned a few other things, or used some other words, in relation to capitalist oppression. You used the word “relationship” to describe the dynamics of capitalism. You spoke of the capitalist oppression of women, and you said something about Mother Earth getting rid of us. You care to elaborate?

Ghani: Well, I agree with Joel Kovel, a distinguished professor of social studies at Bard College, that capitalism is more than just an economical system; it is a system of relationship(s). He argues that “Far from being a merely economic arrangement, then, capital is the culmination of an ancient lesion between humanity and nature” (The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed Books, 2007), p. 7). One of the first steps of capitalist oppression was thus the gendered bifurcation of nature, or domination according to gender, which stands at the origins of this lesion or relationship. And the first foot it put forward in its march toward the domination of nature and the world stepped on women. I refer you to The Ex-Worker again, as they referenced in podcast #32 writer Silvia Federici pointing out that:

new forms of gender oppression that emerged in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages also helped kick-start the emergence of capitalism. Specifically, the witch hunts and other forms of misogynist violence combined with new legal and social restrictions on the roles of women, so that as peasant men were forced into new waged roles as proletarians in the new capitalist world, peasant women were forced into unwaged roles as housewives. Thus women’s reproductive and domestic labor formed another source of this “primitive accumulation,” that is, a source of value marshaled by the wealthy to stoke the growing fires of capitalism.

I think we do a disservice to ourselves, our consciousness, our analysis of capitalist oppression, and our understanding of what oppression is, period, when we think of capitalist oppression as something that is done solely to other humans. Capitalism oppresses other life forms as well. Tranquilizing and capturing animals, only to ship them across the globe, to keep them in zoos, for capital, is capitalist oppression. Keeping animals in cages in pet shops is capitalist oppression. SeaWorld is a term of capitalist oppression. Keeping animals in laboratories, vivisection is capitalist oppression. Poaching animals to the point of endangerment and extinction for their tusks or skin is capitalist oppression. Wiping out entire forests to build FIFA World Cup and/or Olympic stadiums, or for agri-businesses, are forms of capitalist oppression against the earth. Gutting the earth and draining it of its resources, while poisoning her air and waters, are forms of capitalist oppression against the earth. Climate change is a consequence of capitalist oppression. Ecocide is capitalist oppression. Overfishing and destroying entire biomes are capitalist oppressions. Either we stop capitalism or Mother Earth will stop us.

Omar: So, the Sixth Mass Extinction might very well include us.

James: That’s right.

Ghani: Like Joel Kovel said, “the end of capitalism or the end of the world.”

1 thought on “Philosophy in Prison: Capitalist Oppression

  1. While I would certainly sympathize with many things said herein (eg., US prisons are a self-perpetuating revolving door system supporting caste/class/race inequality by mass incarceration, whether based upon capitalism or not…), I would have to question the blithe assumption that there’s a direct equation between ‘capitalism’ (whatever that is…), oppression, racism, slavery, and the prison system. A basic reading of world history would show that slavery existed in almost all societies prior to what I think the speakers here refer to as ‘capitalism’ (Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example, where slaves built pyramids, but even Paleolithic hunter/gatherer societies, where women and war-captives were property of dominant males etc.), and certainly oppression (say, the domination of the stronger over the weaker, or of men over women, etc.) existed long before ‘capitalism’ (unless you want to define capitalism to include barter? But then, what isn’t capitalism?). So what’s missing here is a definition of that big word, ‘capitalism,’ that doesn’t just mean: oppression! slavery! racism! etc., in what somebody points out is a circular (‘tautological’) definition (capitalism=oppression, qed, oppression=capitalism, and so on).

    The Marxist description of the Western economic system and capitalist (bourgeois) class domination probably fit 18th Century Western European class societies (before the French Revolution), but does it fit, says, the Ancient Indian caste system (where priests and warrios ruled over craftsmen and slaves)? Or Western medieval feudalism (which Marx sees as pre-capitalist)? Or even contemporary America (where the working class has been largely out-sourced to what used to be called ‘Third World,’ ‘underdeveloped’ nations (Bangladesh, El Salvador, Malaysia etc.), and most (‘white’? and some ‘black’? ‘brown’? ‘red’? ‘green’?) Americans are upper middle class (or even upper-upper class) by global standards)? And is all oppression ‘capitalist’? Is all inquality based upon economic class? Then why is Islamophobia probably the number one source of bigotry and oppression in contemporary America? And why has the US war on terror gone on for fifteen years? destroying Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya), killing 100,000s of Muslims, and blighting whole generations of Muslim children—with no real benefit for ‘capitalists’ (except, perhaps, for the mutlinational military industrial ruling class, many of whom are so rich money no longer really means anything anymore to them. Except power…)

    In brief: In the spirit of what Marxists used to call crit.-self-crit, I’d like to see some critical thinking about the big words thrown around here (capitalism, domination, oppression, slavery, racism, etc., all with scare quotes), which might make this analysis more directly relevant to the contemporary global condition, and also remind us that, compared to Muslims in Mosul trying to dodge the crossfire between Islamic State snipers and US bombers, or Indonesian slum-dwellers picking through garbage heaps for scraps of food, even the poorest Americans (like myself) and even American prison inmates (like yourselves, bros), the so-called victims of white capitalist oppression, have it pretty good, despite all that so-called capitalist oppression…

    And as a survivor of the 1970s, I’d also like to remind the discussants that back in COINTELPRO days, the California State Dept. of Corrections and the FBI used to send agents into the US prison system, to recruit felons (like Donald (‘Cinq’) Defreeze) to spout Marxist/Leninist dogma, to entrap white college kids (like Patty Hearst) into thinking they were joining a radical, revolutionary organization (like the SLA), and carrying out ‘radical,’ ‘revolutionary’ (e.g., violent) acts, just to set them up to be targeted by the swat teams and gunned down on American network TV (like the LAPD/SLA shootout at 1466 E. 54th St. Los Angeles). So let’s remember that there are sometimes dangerous consequences of ‘radicalizing’ people with Marxist/Leninist (‘anarchist,’ ‘radical’ etc.) rhetoric, and working them up against the ‘white,’ ‘rich,’ ‘class’ oppressor (‘those rich pigs,’ as a former Weather-woman/NW law professor once called them…), or against, for example, white police officers (also once referred to by the porcine epithet…), and sending them out to commit violent acts, to kill people, or to get themselves killed in what Huey Newton called ‘Revolutionary Suicide,’ which doesn’t accomplish anything for anybody, and just keeps the so-called capitalist system working. Which, as you righly point out, also means keeping people in prison, when the whole point is to get clean and get out, where you can maybe really do some good for somebody, like yourself.

    PS: On the day I first read this post, six police officers, not all of them white, were shot in a single day. So the capitalist/racist/class etc. system is not always all about white and black, cops and cons, or masters and slaves, either…

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