1990s >> 1999 >> no-1133-january-1999

Beggar’s belief

Capitalism creates a mass of people who are permanently unemployed and then has to devise means to control them.

In 1728 John Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera for the London stage. It was an attack on the corruption of Robert Walpole’s government of private men and on the self-interested motivations that were now to drive society. It featured a central character called Mr. Peachum, a turn-key (gaoler), who aided, organised and fenced for the criminal fraternity of London (representing the cut-throat selfishness of Walpole’s ministers) and then turned them in to the authorities when they were no longer profitable to him.

It is not surprising that such a play should appear with the arrival of capitalism within society, with its emphasis on mercenary personal gain replacing any notion of loyalty or community. It is also not surprising that a prison was the chosen setting, nor that the law was seen as a corrupt tool in the hands of a selfish few. What is surprising, is how durable this image from the dawn of Modernity has turned out to be.

The prison was a common feature of 18th century writing, because it was emerging as a new and devastating weapon in the class war. Under feudalism the population could be controlled by fear, by selected spectacular public executions, to keep the whole thing running. Emergent industrial capitalism, however, needed a disciplined workforce, ready to clock on and work like machines, and obey. For industrial capitalism, gory punishments and executions were wasteful, and did not create sufficient internal discipline. Other methods were required.

Thus, with the advance of capitalism, we see less and less reliance on execution as a means of social control, and more and more on the rise of the prison. It is telling that the prominent liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham advanced, for his idea of a Utilitarian Utopia, the Panopticon, a prison/workhouse/school, wherein from a central tower an observer could see into all the individual cells, without being seen themself. The idea was that the uncertainty of not being detected would prevent the inhabitants from stepping out of line, and thus there would be no offences. This was a fantasy of the factory, perfectly compliant workers, in their place, and knowing their own duty and work. It is also an image from which capitalism has never been able to escape, because it is precisely that discipline that it needs to function. This applies not just in the workplace, but in the whole of society.

Surplus population

The big problem for capitalism is that it contains the seeds for its own discord, so whenever social discipline breaks down prison is deployed to try and patch things up. The prison remains as a solid reminder of the anti-social nature of capitalism.

Capitalism creates such social breakdown because its creates a “surplus population”. Capitalism can, to keep up the compulsion on the workers to work, only fully maintain those workers who succeed in selling their labour power. Some of the rest are maintained at a lower level as an “industrial reserve army” to be used in the event of production expanding. Beyond them is a stagnant pool of the permanently unemployed who are regarded as “unemployable”. In recent years, as economic growth has slowed and the introduction of labour-saving methods continued, the size of this pool has grown. As far as the capitalist is concerned these workers, since they are on no use to them, can go hang (quite literally in the past).

Thus Noam Chomsky has spoken of “a kind of superfluous population there’s no point in educating because there’s nothing to do with them. You put them in prison because we’re a civilized people and you don’t send death squads out to murder them” (interview with David Barsamian, 1971).

The facts for America bear this out. In California education budgets have been slashed, and prison officers earn 30 percent more than lecturers, with a massive increase in the use of prisons. In that state alone over 130,000 people were held in prison in 1995, and it was still rising then. California has allocated $3.2 billion extra to its prison budget since 1992. Nor is California alone, and nor is it the worst. In 1993 California had 607 prisoners per 100,000 population, Texas had 700, and Georgia had 730. The combined totals of the three most populated European states (France, UK, Germany) only reached 84 per 100,000 head of population in the same year. In 1997 in the USA the figure was 645.

In 1995 5.4 million Americans were within the prison system (that includes remand, on parole, in prison, etc.), which works out as about 5 percent of the adult male population. The prison system has been deployed, to great effect, both to ameliorate the unemployment statistics (all those prisoners don’t show up) and to control the “socially excluded”. Within the vast network of controls, the US poor are being restrained and disciplined. This is on top of the increasing number of restraints being imposed by the American “welfare” system.

In recent years in Britain, both under the Tories and Labour, the prison population has began to shoot up as our masters, realising the bankrupt nature of their policies, and the stagnant nature of modern capitalism, decided to copy the US model. According to Home Office Statistics for 1997, there were 61,114 people in prison in the UK, 5,833 more than the previous year, and increase of 11 percent. The prison population has increased by 37 percent since 1993 (when it was 44,570), and it is clear that it is the greater use of custodial sentences that has caused that increase. The number of prisoners per 100,000 head of population has also increased to 111 (120 in England and Wales, 119, in Scotland and 95 in Northern Ireland), second only to Portugal in Europe.

What’s more is the increasing use of private prisons, selling them to a whole bunch of Peachums, to make a profit from locking up the poor (Gay is still with us). The massive amount of spending on prisons is going to create a demand to keep the prisons full (which will be complemented by police arrest quotas), to justify the payments and swell the security firms’ profits. As the system gets more and more expanded, more firms are being allowed a slice of the prison cake. In August this year, two months after the 1000th convict was tagged for home detention (a cheap and easy modern equivalent of the Panopticon, to enable the government to extend prison control even further), the government announced the winning firms that had tendered to administer these schemes.

The Curfew Orders which necessitate tagging are a way of subtly increasing the effect of prison, and controlling the numerous “petty offenders” for whom prison is too expensive and wasteful and option

More discipline

In April, the government announced that it was going to extend its “Welfare to Work” scheme to some lucky young prisoners, to help them find work (and thus buck the 76 percent recidivism rate for young offenders). This linking (apart from being a naked attempt to try and use their “captive audience” to increase the success figure for the New Deal) demonstrates the intrinsic values of the New Con, that it is a device by which the government is trying to control the surplus population, and allocate them to work, whenever they can find it for them. Already they are embarking on making it mandatory for single mothers to attend their initial New Deal interviews. Increasingly more and more strings are attached to “welfare”. Inspectors can call round at recipients homes and look round for signs of co-habitation, with a de-facto search warrant, under threat of extra-judicial punishment (removal of benefits).

Prison is also a device by which to promote and re-enforce racial division in society (as if creating a “criminal class” isn’t divisive enough). In Britain 1.5 percent of the British male population are Caribbean, however a staggering 10.4 percent of the British male prison population are likewise Caribbean. Of the female prison population, 12.9 percent were Caribbean, while only 1.8 percent of the general female population are.

The racism aspect is worsened when one considers that some 2,720 immigrants are held in “Detention Centres” as what the Home Office euphemistically calls “non-Criminal Prisoners”, part of the government’s attempts to prevent immigrants entering the country.

Also prison was used extensively for fine defaulters, of whom some 6,300 found their way to gaol, helping victimise the poor of society even more.

It is worth remembering, that throughout the Thatcher Years, police pay awards were significantly above other public sector pay awards (such as nurses and teachers), as the government fought to secure the loyalty of the police force. The result of this can be seen in the difference between the police involvement in the Miners’ Strike (with an illegal national police force being established, and the miners’ freedom of movement restricted) and recent events in Australia, where the police refused to intervene in the dockers’ dispute telling the government straight that they should fight their own battles. Also, increasingly, local councils are reliant on Close Circuit Television Cameras (with ever increasing sophistication) to keep an eye on us and ensure we are behaving (that damned panoptic eye again). We are not judged to be responsible enough to go about our own lives.

Other attacks on basic liberties abound, police stop and search powers are increased, the right to silence is removed, the right to trial by jury is decreased, freedom of movement is restricted. The change of government has made no difference. Increasingly the state is trying to shape and control our lives through bureaucracy or through the police.

The only solution open to capitalism now, faced with social decay and chaos, is to criminalise the “surplus population”, to lock them up, to take control of them and increase discipline throughout society. Capitalism’s only solutions are brutal and barbaric, and in 1997 70 inmates of prisons killed themselves.

Socialism offers to end the social conditions that cause that breakdown and necessitate enforced discipline, offering instead self-worth, and freedom of association in production, a strong inclusive social identity. The prison is not a symbol of capitalism. Capitalism is a prison, and it is imperative for us to try and break out of it.


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