The Iron Cages of Capitalism (Literally)

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    The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit
of Capitalism, which exposed the psychologies that
helped numerous Europeans believe that the accumulation
of money (which Saint Paul had called the root of
all evil) would lead to spiritual salvation, Max Weber
argued that capitalism had become an “iron cage” – one
that coerced humans into selling their bodies for wages,
slaving in assembly lines, and many other evils. For him,
the problem was not so much that humans were exploited,
it was that they had no choice in the matter; they
were born into a system with certain expectations they
could not change. Exactly one hundred years later, we
find that Weber was correct, but perhaps not in the way
he intended. Today, capitalism is an iron cage, figuratively
(and increasingly, with globalization) for most, but
also literally for the two million (YES, THAT IS 2 MILLION)
Americans locked behind the cold, iron bars of
On January 22-24, 2004, scholars, activists, and poets
from across the nation met at the Levis Faculty Center at
the University of Illinois to discuss, debate, problematize,
and confront the very real cages that bar many citizens
from leading normal lives. The title of this conference
was “Education or Incarceration? Schools and Prisons
in a Punishing Democracy,” and it was made necessary
by some alarming facts – which are delineated in the
sidebar (facing page).
Given these startling facts, it was necessary for scholars
and poets to meet with local activists, community
members, and formerly incarcerated individuals to
make some sense out of the machinery of the prisonindustrial-
complex. The result was nothing less than
inspiring. Though the problem is gargantuan, and there
are no easy solutions, there are things that community
activists can do that will have a very real impact on the
local level. In the spirit of the conference, then, I will do
three things in this article. First, following Weber, I will
consider the problem of prisons as a structural problem
embedded in the social facts of capitalism we must live
with every day. Second, I will consider the impact of the
prison-industrial-complex on education. And third, I
will discuss local options for critical resistance against
this leviathan that cages so many mothers and fathers,
brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Indeed, this
conference made me want to both cry in indignation
and slam my fist through a wall in anger. At the same
time I also found that what made me so upset could be a
rallying cry for change.
One of the most important aspects of capitalism is
wage labor. It was not always the case that humans
labored for wages; in fact, it was only in the 16th and
17th centuries that wages were offered for work – which
occurred when merchants in cities such as London,
Boston, and New York discovered the fundamental law
for valorizing capital: they could make the most profit
for themselves by underpaying workers for their labor.
But to turn farmers and peasants into workers was a difficult
task, and it required the state to expropriate these
peasants, farmers, and Native Americans – meaning that
it had to steal their land so that they had no other choice
than to labor for a wage. There was massive resistance to
the re-structuring of society along capitalist lines, and
the most potent, deadly instrument in this shift was state
violence. Indeed, the first police system in England was
created for two goals: to prevent theft, and to enforce a
wage system of labor. And along with the police came
prisons, executions, and schools.
To enforce wage labor, capitalists needed new methods
of discipline and surveillance; in short, they had to
force workers into obeying their commands, and to constantly
watch over them to make sure that they were
obeying. Those that did not, or would not, were great
dangers to the system – and as such, they had to be punished.
The state made an example out of rebels by executing
them or, after the 1740s in Pennsylvania, by incarcerating
them. The idea was to remove the danger while
making an example of it; the message being that pirates
or workers who resisted the iron cages of capitalism
would be brutally murdered.
Thus, there was this peculiar contradiction that
developed. Capitalists needed laborers, but at the same
time they hated and feared them because they were
numerous and had the power to rebel (as was demonstrated
repeatedly in England and America). One potential
way to avoid this was to enslave Africans and Native
Americans, thereby raising the profit margin because
slaves deserved no pay – indeed, they were not even
human. Here, the many margins of the story collapsed
into a truly globalized system.Workers were offered substandard
wages, just enough to be better off than the
jobless; then they were drugged with imported sugar and
alcohol from the slave market economy of the
Caribbean. Workers, slaves, Indians, all stoned on sugar
and rum and yet hostile to the emerging cruel capitalist
realities, were bullied by emerging police states into
accepting their fates.
There was no way to avoid the contradictions of the
system, however. Slaves rebelled; crews mutinied; pirates
stole slaving ships and returned slaves to Africa; farmers
rose up against local and national governments. Other
methods of discipline were necessary to quell the manyheaded
monstrous Hydra, which is how capitalists
viewed the base of proletarians on which their profit was
built. The prison was effective; lock up those who might
make trouble.We have seen, since Ronald Reagan’s conservative
initiative to lock-up all drug users, the perplexing
effectiveness of this strategy. The keynote lecturer of
the conference, Ruthie Gilmore, professor of African-
American studies at Berkeley, made a stinging yet subtle
point: why is it that no one protests when it is stated that
2 million Americans are in jail? It is because the prisonindustrial-
complex has become so embedded in the fabric
of our society that we don’t even see it anymore. The
premature death inflicted by the prison-industrial-complex
it becomes no big deal. But we can see by looking at
its effects on education that Americans should be paying
more attention.
Christine Clark, a professor of Human Relations from
the University of Maryland, made one of the most obvious
yet provocative points of the conference: education
in America has always been two-tiered. There has been
education for the leaders, the managers, the bourgeoisie,
and then separate, unequal education for the workers,
the wage-laborers, the proletariat. Building on Clark’s
point, we can add that this is the point where racisim
enters the picture, because the managers were all white,
and the workers a motley crew of various ethnicities.
Clark’s argument is thus important for the ways we consider
prisons and schools. On the one hand, the managers
have been educated to rule over workers; they are
taught to buy into the American dream of unlimited
wealth; they are connected through elite fraternities and
sororities to other managers; they are given financial
resources to make the American Dream come true.
Indeed, we see this in our president, George W. Bush,
whose Yale degree in history has taught him very little
about past American human rights abuses that might
pollute the Dream, and everything about positioning
himself so that other elites give him the opportunity to
manage workers and common Americans. Elites are socialized into a culture of rulers through their schools.
On the other hand, workers have learned nothing better
than the lessons of discipline in their schools. Though
Michel Foucault argues convincingly that the function of
any school is discipline, the types of discipline imposed
will be different based on the class of pupils. One function
of blue-collar modern schools has been to teach
workers to enjoy wage-labor: the schedule is routinized
with bells and breaks; learning is kept at a basic level of
memorization; teachers invoke authority as the ultimate
manager; and pupils must mediate on the American
Dream, inevitably reaching the most important ideological
conclusion: if they work hard enough, they can
become the manager, the leader, the president. Yet they
rarely do – not because they don’t work hard enough,
but because the system is rigged. Their dreaming is a
form of discipline endowing the merit of hard work.
And they are also conditioned to accept that state violence
underlies the whole system of wage-labor. We can
see this especially in early 19th Century America. In May
1833, Jacob Abbot, a school principal, argued in his
“Description of the Mount Vernon School,” that discipline
was the sole function of schooling: “My duty is to
take measures to prevent future transgression, and to
lead those who have been guilty of it, to God to pardon.”
To prevent future transgression meant corporal punishment:
beating a child who misbehaves. In September
1849, an article in The Massachusetts Teacher claimed
that a teacher “is forced into a conflict before the school,
with one or more of his pupils, and the struggle is for the
supremacy.” One of the functions of schools, then, as
many of the presenters at the conference argued, was to
educate workers to accept their lot in life.
Schools became one method whereby the contradictions
of capitalism could be mediated.Wage-laborers are
necessary for profit, but in order to increase the profit to
its maximum, workers have to be assimilated into factories
– and this entails cooperation between workers from
different backgrounds who nevertheless shared the common
concern of exploitation. Schools became a beacon of
hope for the ruling classes. Capitalists hoped that educating
workers to enjoy work would make them less likely to
rebel, and the leviathan thus became more subtle.Workers
were schooled to love work; if they did not, instead
choosing to rebel, they were either executed, thrown into
jail, or impressed into the military (which enforced slavery
and the logistics of capitalist trade). The options were
not, and have not been, very good for workers.
What this conference demonstrated is that there is a
profound link between schooling and prisons in our
post-industrial age. As a third-industrial revolution has
led to more automated jobs, and as globalization coups
such as the FTAA have led to the movement of jobs
across borders where labor is cheaper, there is a decreasing
need for educated workers in the manufacturing and
service sectors. Why, then, are we educating the poor
working class these days? The answer is suggested by the
shocking fact that states like California are planning
prisons that will not open until 2040. The facts suggest,
as every conference presenter agreed, that we are teaching
poor, predominately black males that their only
option is prison – and we will build prisons to contain
these not-yet-born convicts we create.History has taught
that roving classes of unemployed workers, what Marx
called the lumpenproletariat, can cause immense trouble,
perhaps revolution. Thus, prison is no longer a holding
place for criminals; it is now housing for a whole
class of workers who are no longer needed, and in their
idleness, can cause nothing but trouble.
Certain schools, as Tonya McClary from The American
Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia argued,
actually funnel students into prisons. These students are
disciplined by ripped, outdated textbooks, broken windows
and desks, security lines that result in two-hour
waits to enter the school, and teachers who impress upon
them that they have no future. Thus, to prison they go.
This is indeed a sad state of affairs.Yet one of the most
important messages of the conference was hope. As
Ruthie Gilmore argued, though the PIC is far-reaching
and thus imposing, the very girth of the system means
that there are many, many opportunities for activism.
One peculiar thing about systems of domination is that
they have created, and do create, the very conditions for
their destruction. The very egregiousness of the problem
has made it visible, and the fact that it affects 25 million
Americans means that there are multitudes of indignant
individuals waiting to protest in ways that can change or
alter the system. Protests often seem futile when fighting
something so large as the prison-industrial-complex.
Yet as Robert Schultz, a prominent member of the
Midwest chapter of Amnesty International, argued at the
conference, politicians want you to believe that resistance
is futile, but it is not – indeed, only through resistance
is change possible. Amnesty International has
demonstrated the real impact organizations of protest
can have here in Illinois by pushing former Governor
Ryan to place a moratorium on all death sentences. The
power of resistance is also bright in California, the worst
of all prison states. There, activists such as Craig Gilmore
of the Education not Incarceration Coalition, and Rose
Braz, the Director of Critical Resistance – a movement
created to fight the prison-industrial-complex – have
successfully protested their way to a decreased prison
budget. The struggle is pushed on in Illinois by activist
scholars such as Erica Meiners, from Northeastern Illinois
University, and, Stephen Hartnett, here at the University
of Illinois who has been an inspiration to many
fledgling activists in training.
Change is a teeter-totter, and by applying force at one
end, we can shift the balance to a situation that is more
fair, more equitable, and more amenable to the pursuit
of happiness, to recall Professor Gilmore’s apt phrasing.
Here is where the conference reached its stride, for its
final panel, entitled “Practical Utopias,” moderated by
Professor of Education Policy Studies James Anderson,
stressed three things that we can all do on a local level to
fight the prison industrial complex.
First, we must go to our local courthouse and observe
trials. As Victor Goode, from Advocates for Basic Legal
Equality, Tonya McClary, Ruthie Gilmore, James Anderson,
and many local community members stressed,
packing a courthouse in support of a defendant demonstrates
to judges, juries, and prosecutors that the community
is watching and cares about who is sent to
prison. Doing this alters the strategies used by prosecutors,
and the sentences imposed by judges, because they
are accountable to the community rearing its beautiful
head. In fact, many judges seek harsh punishment for
criminals because they think it will get them re-elected.
We must show them that this is not the case.
Second, we can begin a cop-watch program, as one
local community member stressed. Programs of community
members following cops around the community
to make sure they do not racially profile, manufacture
evidence, or abuse defendants have been implemented in
Berkeley and in Eugene Oregon. Again, it is important to
show them that we are watching.
Third, we must establish trust, or what the political
scientist Robert Putnam calls “social capital,” in our
communities and schools. “Zero tolerance” policies are
not a cure, but a cause of imprisonment. Many of the
normal behaviors of children that were once handled by
community members are now handled by cops who have
no patience for adolescent behavior. As Rosa Braz pointed
out, we call the cops too much – and often when we
call them on someone else, they end up arresting us.
Doing these things can upset the system. If it taught
nothing else, the “Education or Incarceration?” conference
taught that even among the despair of a monstrosity
such as the prison-industrial-complex, there is hope
in activism and coalition building. If we band together
and make our voices heard, even those who shut the
doors on the iron cages of capitalism cannot afford to
ignore them.
For More Information, Please See:
James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the
South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University
of North Carolina Press,1990).
Scott Christianson,With Liberty for Some: 500 Years
of Imprisonment in America (Boston: Northeastern
University Press, 1998).
Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York:
Seven Stories Press, 2003).
Sidney Willhelm,Who Needs the Negro? (Cambridge,
Mass: Schenkman Press, 1970).

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