Book review: Incarcerating the Crisis by Jordan Camp

There is a growing acceptance in the US that the war on drugs has led to a system of mass incarceration which, in many ways, resembles the Jim Crow system of segregation and disenfranchisement – as Michelle Alexander has argued. Even the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, who, over the last few decades, have backed almost every reactionary cause, are now funding public campaigns to reduce the rate of imprisonment.

Incarcerating the Crisis book cover

Yet the currently prevailing account cannot fully explain the origins of mass incarceration. As Jordan Camp notes, even if every single prisoner locked up for drug crimes were released, the US would still imprison at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world. Moreover, the drug war explanation does not make sense of why the expansion of imprisonment since the 1970s coincided with a shift in the racial composition of prisoners: from majority white to almost 70 per cent not white.

In Incarcerating the Crisis, Camp argues that the incarceration explosion needs to be understood as the political response of the emergent neoliberal state to race and class struggles. The ‘expansion of mass arrest, confinement, and incarceration in the governance of US capitalism’ was related to an ‘organic crisis of Jim Crow capitalism’, out of which the ‘neoliberal carceral state’ emerged (pp. 3–5). At the centre of his analysis is a Gramscian concept of crisis and a debt to Stuart Hall, especially Policing the Crisis, which provides the book with a model of sorts. The bipartisan ruling class, Camp argues, navigated moments of crisis by constructing racial enemies that legitimised the state and enabled it to concentrate on the enforcement of order during a period of restructuring. ‘Fears and class anxieties produced by capitalist restructuring were transformed into racist consent to security, law, and order. These purportedly color-blind discourses simultaneously disavowed racism and sustained and naturalized unprecedented prison expansion during the emergence of neoliberal capitalism’ (p. 5). Mass incarceration is an expression of the ‘long counterinsurgency against the Black freedom, labor, and socialist alliance that took shape in the struggle to abolish Jim Crow racial regimes’ (p. 5).

Camp narrates this history through six chapters, each of which focuses on a different urban setting where a crisis moment expressed the racial and class contradictions out of which the neoliberal state emerged and consolidated itself. In each location, he juxtaposes the ‘poetry of social movements’ with the ‘prose of counterinsurgency’, seeking to reconstruct from the archives of radical activists, poets and musicians an analysis of the conjuncture they found themselves in.

Beginning in postwar Los Angeles, Camp describes the work of the Civil Rights Congress and its efforts to link race and class in the fight against police brutality. At the same time, there is the counter-subversion tradition of southern California, personified in Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief William Parker and governor Ronald Reagan. From 1944 to 1968, the proportion of black prisoners in the California prison population increased significantly and the total incarcerated population grew from about 5,000 to more than 28,000 – a pattern that was later repeated nationally. In the aftermath of the Watts uprising of 1965, Camp argues, a counterinsurgency response to insurrection took hold, which tied the war in Vietnam to the urban crisis, prompting a militarisation of the city. After Watts, the LAPD invented the highly armed and lethal Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team. Soon SWAT teams, which drew on techniques developed in Vietnam, were introduced across the country.

In a chapter on the Detroit uprising of 1967, Camp recounts the activism of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and its meshing of ‘Black working-class expressive culture with socialist visions of class struggle’ (p. 45). In contrast, the official response of the Kerner Commission, while acknowledging the role of white racism and poverty, emphasised cultural deficits and family structures – thus providing the basis for the coming carceral ‘solution’ to the urban crisis. One effect of this was that the ‘dominant ideologies of law and order deflected poor whites’ class anger away from the ruling class and toward the Black working class’ (p. 64).

Turning to Attica prison in 1971, Incarcerating the Crisis describes the texts circulated by the Attica Liberation Faction prisoners group and the counter-insurgency thinking that led to the murderous repression of their revolt. As in Los Angeles and Detroit, ‘visions of interracial and class solidarity had seized the political imagination of the insurgents’ in Attica (p. 70). The crushing of the rebellion took place alongside the ‘neoliberalization of New York’ (p. 19). ‘In both the response to the Attica rebellion and the fiscal crisis in New York, neoliberals across the state narrated the crisis in a way that conflated race and class struggles with criminality, illegality, and chaos’ (p. 81). New York state officials dramatically increased prison capacity: from 200,000 at the end of the 1960s to 420,000 a decade later. Three-quarters of those incarcerated were not white. Segregation units, long-term solitary confinement and ‘super-max’ prisons were introduced at the same time to stem the spread of ‘revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in society at large’ (p. 88), as the warden of Marion federal penitentiary put it.

By the time of the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, neoliberal restructuring had rendered whole swathes of the city’s black population permanently unemployed. ‘Mass criminalization was deployed as a strategy of racialized crisis management to contain and warehouse unruly sectors of the surplus population produced by neoliberalism’ (p. 101). To explore this moment, Camp examines the works of the poets Martín Espada and June Jordan, the muralist José Ramírez, and the left-leaning multiracial bands Ozomatli, Quetzal and Rage Against the Machine, all of whom, he suggests, developed critiques of racism, neoliberalism and the prison-industrial complex.

Camp turns next to New Orleans in 2005 where he draws on the poetry of Sunni Patterson in the context of racial discourses of looting and chaos after Hurricane Katrina. Another chapter discusses the Los Angeles Community Action Network and its ongoing organising to confront homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles in the face of gentrification and ‘broken windows’ policing.

Incarcerating the Crisis persuasively enriches our understanding of the origins of mass incarceration in the US, providing compelling evidence that its emergence was a response to the freedom struggles of the twentieth century. The implication of its analysis is that neoliberalism is not simply an economic project that seeks to reduce the state’s provision of services but a multi-dimensional political project of unstable class rule that has to deploy narratives of racial security to legitimise itself in the face of multiple insurgencies from the system’s victims.

Jordan Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis: freedom struggles and the rise of the neoliberal state (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 288pp. $29.95, £25.00.

This review first appeared in the journal Race & Class.

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