Passive Revolution and the Movement against Mass Incarceration: From Prison Abolition to Redemption Script.

AuthorRobinson, William I.

AT A RECENT CONFERENCE THAT BROUGHT TOGETHER ACADEMICS and activists from the movement against mass incarceration, one of the authors of this commentary, Oscar Soto, sat through several days of presentations on the state of the prison reform movement and directions for future research and activism. However, entirely and painstakingly absent from the proceedings was the prison abolition agenda. Without a single exception, participants failed to critique--or even mention--the system of global capitalism that has produced surplus humanity and mass incarceration. Instead, the majority of speakers focused on reform and, in particular, on providing prisoners and the formerly incarcerated with the opportunity for higher education. "Education not Incarceration" seemed to be the dominant motif.

The passage in late 2018 of a prison reform bill (the First Step Act) is indicative of the newfound interest among the dominant groups in prison reform. The bill, among its various provisions, gives judges more discretion when sentencing drug offenders, reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or three strikes, from life to 25 years, and boosts prison rehabilitation efforts, including educational and training programs that allow prisoners to earn credit. Although Democrats and Republicans alike cheered the bill as a breakthrough, particularly revealing was its endorsement by conservative and far-right groups, ranging from the Cato Institute to the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. Even the Fraternal Order of Police and the union representing federal prison guards backed the bill. What accounts for this rather abrupt change of heart among the dominant groups, the corporate elite, and their political and police agents?

The radical critique of mass incarceration and the movement for prison abolition have been around for half a century, if not longer. That said, the movement gained steam in the early twenty-first century, linking the call for abolition to a critique of global capitalism and empire, as Angela Davis (2003, 2016), among others (see Puryear 2013, The CR10 Publications Collective 2008), has discussed in several recent books, while Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) in her bestseller Golden Gulag delivered a devastating critique of the relationship between crisis in capital accumulation and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. However, it was with the 2012 publication of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that the mainstream took notice and began to embrace the movement against mass incarceration. However, that embrace has been icy. Far from helping to do away with the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, it has all the makings of an attempt at what the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci referred to as passive revolution, that is, an attempt from above to bring about mild reform in order to undercut movements from below for more radical change.

The irony here should not be lost. The organizations and political agents of the corporate elite that have now embraced reform are the same ones that championed capitalist globalization and one of its by-products, mass incarceration. The Cato Institute, for instance, founded in 1977 to promote the emerging neoliberal agenda of the corporate state, free markets, and globalization, has done as much as any group among the power elite to push the very conditions of capitalist restructuring and class warfare from above in the United States and worldwide over the past four decades that have resulted in an exponential expansion of the ranks of the surplus humanity--disproportionately drawn from racially oppressed populations--and the concomitant systems of mass social control and repression that produced mass incarceration in the first place (see, e.g., Robinson 2014, Chapter 5; 2018a; 2018b; 2020).

In recent years, however, the institute has adopted prison reform as one of its major foci. The Cato Institute is joined in this newfound concern for overincarceration and criminal justice reform by what appears to be the entire assortment of liberal and conservative corporate-funded think tanks and foundations, ranging from The Heritage Foundation, the Koch brothers, and the Ford, MacArthur, Kellogg...

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