Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, University of California Press, 2007; 'Globalisation and US prison growth: from military Keynesianism to post-Keynesian militarism', Race and Class, Vol 40, No 171, 1999) notes that in the 1980s, the US embarked on the largest prison-building programme in the history of the world. They were not built for existing criminals, but for the children of people not even born yet. This was a federal spending project of considerable generosity, for its beneficiaries. (It was not, of course, considered socialistic.) How to justify such a project? If the idea that there was a crime-wave did not withstand scrutiny (crime declined through the 1980s), the need could always be attributed to the violence of a gang-led drug trade. But, as Gilmore also explains, illegal drug use among all population sectors declined from the mid-1970s, and most drug dealers turn out not to be organised in gangs.
Then why did the US government begin, more than a decade after Nixon's "law and order" campaign, to systematically incarcerate millions of its citizens, such that today over 7m Americans are either in prison or on parole? The prison system is not, contrary to some invective, a corporate slave sector of the economy. The overwhelming majority of prisons are in the public sector, as is the labour performed within them. It is racist, but then America has always been racist, without necessarily producing this sadistic system. Nixon's campaign had tapped white America's fears of black rioters in the inner city, (previously, riots had largely taken place in the form of pogroms by white racists), it did not result in a massive escalation in the prison population. Alexander Cockburn has suggested that the American ruling class likes, even requires, sadism - like Nixon's 'madman theory', it works. It frightens people. It makes examples of people by damaging them for life. It makes one irrational. And it reminds one who is boss. But one can strike upon a number of ways to maintain people in a state of panic. Why this solution, and why did it strike when it did?
Gilmore argues that ultimately the prison-building programme provided a spatial solution to a number of surplus problems - surpluses in labour, land, state capacity, and finance capital were all neatly soluble by turning public spaces into cages. Labour would either end up guarding the jail or living in it, the land would be built upon and thus suitably capitalised, the state would invest its resources, and finance capital would be circulated through construction and the outsourcing of services (since traditional infrastructural investment was so weak). For Gilmore, these crises were built up during the period of the Keynesian welfare-warfare state, during which the capitalist class was happy to pay high taxes to ensure "collective investment, labour division and control, comparative regional and sectoral advantage, national consumer market integration and global reach". Given a breakdown of that settlement, brought about in part by the expense of the Vietnam war, US capital sought to reduce its contribution to the "social wage", waging a successful war through the legislature. At the same time, the heightened mobility of capital in an era of 'globalization' enabled it to move faster than labour could follow, leaving substantial numbers of people stuck in spaces with little work and few resources for escape or improvement.
The response of the American state to crisis is one of habit-formed belligerence. In this period, it was preparing to shift gears from an attempt at maintaining labour's allegiance to the imperial state, to wide-ranging efforts to discipline labour by attacking its organisations, undermining its bargaining power, rolling back protective legislation, etc. It was preparing to abandon welfare and stimulus programmes, instead exhorting people to rugged, masculine self-reliance. The only really legitimate sphere of action left for the state was its coercive and racial functions. The very racialised moral panic about crime and disorder, initially inspired by black power, leftist and labour revolts, provided a coercive and masculinist solution to the problems of accumulation. It justified the elaboration of a machinery of domestic surveillance and violence, dwarfing its hardly insignificant scope before. The criminalisation of previously legal activity, and increased sentences for otherwise inconsequential crimes, helped redirect much of the labour surplus, consisting of moderately educated working age people who might in another era have found a waged job and a tolerable existence, into cages. It also provided a post-Keynesian model for economic stimulus, relieving some of the stresses that had developed within the economy over time, without the need for any wet, feminising 'social' programmes. That the solution to the crisis of American capitalism involved locking up and brutalising much of the working class would be shocking, scandalous, were it not for the fact that the effects of this prison-industrial complex are so racially laden. Racism normalises it. It would not have been possible in the first place, I suppose, were it not for the durable hold of a kind of white masculinity among a sector of the population, for whom lethal violence against large numbers of black people is no more than what they deserve.