Skip to content

Columns: ReVisioning a Paradigm – Toward a libratory conceptualization of the carceral State by Ward Churchill

October 16, 2015

ReVisioning a Paradigm


Toward a libratory conceptualization of the carceral State




The issue before us cannot be reduced to the entities formally designated as “prisons,” either in the broad terms of their very existence or, more narrowly, in terms of specific “excesses” and “biases” discernible in their functioning. The reasons are most prominently displayed in the U.S., which has long and literally imprisoned a substantially greater proportion of its population than any other country, and where quasipenal modes of incarceration ranging from jail time to house arrest are no less conspicuous. Here, all institutions have been harnessed to the task of imposing order through punishment and/or the ever-present and -mounting threat of it. To this end, a vast and continuously expanding proliferation of statutory/regulatory requirements and prohibitions has been established, together with an increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated surveillance apparatus with which to detect noncompliance, and a no less comprehensive and burgeoning apparatus of enforcement.


In effect, whatever proportion of the U.S. population does not happen to find itself in one or another level of lock-up at any given moment essentially lives under conditions of perpetual probation—or, perhaps more accurately, of “conditionally suspended sentences”—always aware, albeit with degrees of acuteness mediated by such factors as age, sex, skin-tone, and income level, that even petty deviations from The Rules can result in consignment to the cages. Such perceptions are constantly reinforced via the principle orifices of official propaganda, a characterization encompassing, but by no means restricted to, both the “news media” and their symbiotic counterpart, the “entertainment industry” (a term by now easily extended to cover everything from literature, film, and TV programs, to comic books, video games, collegiate/professional sports, and substantial components of the so-called news media themselves).

Of at least equal importance in this connection are the schools, wherein special emphasis is placed on conditioning compulsory attendees from an early age to accept the proposition that unquestioning obedience to authority is, if not a cardinal virtue, then at least something demanded of them “for their own good.” Nuance and refinement, as well as amplification, continuously accrues from various quarters: organized athletics, extracurricular youth groups, military recruitment/training/service, the churches, police “community outreach” programs, social-civic-commercial organizations, and, not least, the seemingly endless host of “certified experts” inhabiting an array of think tanks and a multiplicity of hopelessly deformed/thoroughly-corporatized monstrosities now passed off, with all due cynicism, as “universities.”


As a whole, the U.S. doctrinal system functions in a virtually seamless manner, afflicting the populace from cradle to grave with total immersion instruction in the expectations of Those In Charge, the largely illusory benefits to be attained by meeting them, and the consequences of failing—or, far more seriously, of consciously refusing—to do so. While both positive and negative incentives are integral to the system’s “curriculum structure,” the latter are by nature the more decisive, given the grim immensity of the real world prison-industrial slave complex with which they are backdropped. Inverting Freire, a comprehensive pedagogy of oppression has thus been affected. Those subjected to it typically comport themselves in an approved manner throughout their lives, not because they’ve actually been convinced that doing so will enable them to live out some à la George Merrywell-type fantasy, or even that it might afford fulfillment in basic human terms, but because of the depth and extent to which they’ve been inculcated with an intractable fear of the alternatives.


The resulting panorama is that of tightly-controlled population marching resolutely and with almost regimental precision towards a destination it neither desires nor truly comprehends, all significant decisions regarding its route and objectives dictated and enforced by an arbitrary, rigid, highly-centralized, and largely unseen power. Plainly, core elements of the reality usually conceived as being definitive of the penal environment have bled into, now permeate, and thus define, that of the “free” society outside the walls in a manner epitomizing the carceral state so famously envisioned by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. That is the situation in which we find ourselves engulfed, and in which, no matter how unwillingly, each of us finds ourselves participating. It is designed and constructed so as to offer no exit to anyone within, or at least no one in any sense foundationally accepting of its terms. Correspondingly, it is by no means susceptible to reform, a process leading only to further evolution and perfection of the fundamental structure.


Any favorable transformation of our circumstance is thus contingent, not upon the relative effectiveness with which we engage in assorted tinkerings with the system—improving conditions in the prisons, providing meaningful instruction in the schools, and rewriting the tax code in a more equitable fashion, as examples—but, instead, upon its complete dismantlement. Rephrased, liberation can be achieved only by abolishing the statist structure of oppression, which is to say through abolition of the state itself. The process must of course begin with acts of refusal, undertaken both individually and by various collectivities, but it cannot end there. Resistance alone is grossly insufficient to accomplish the desired result, which is, after all, eradication rather than alteration of the opposing entity. In stark contrast to the thought of Fanon, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Assata Shakur, there is nothing of utility on this score to be gleaned from the accommodationist drivel offered by the likes of Marc Cooper or Medea Benjamin.


That said, far more is required of those who would seriously aspire to eliminating the mechanisms of statist oppression than possessing or acquiring what Eldridge Cleaver once and aptly described as “the courage to kill” the oppressor, although it too is imperative. Success in such an endeavour ultimately depends upon the extent to which we equip ourselves to truly know our enemy—that is, to apprehend its full dimension and inner nature—thereby gaining the ability to see clearly both the enemy and what we must do to destroy it. Absent such clarity, it is all but inevitable that we’ll either to show up with knives at a gunfight, as the old saying goes, or expend ourselves slashing at tentacles rather than delivering a killing thrust to the heart of the beast (indeed, we’d be unlikely to know where its heart might be located). A better recipe for failure is difficult to imagine.


Fortunately, much good work has already been done by Foucault and others in laying bare the psychoanatomical form and dynamics of the carceral state with which we are confronted. Within the analytical/conceptual paradigm they have established are many of the tools necessary to understanding with considerable exactitude what it is that must be destroyed if viable alternatives are to be realized. The paradigm is not without its shortcomings, however. Saliently, it is utterly anthropocentric in orientation, concerning itself exclusively with mentalities and material factors shaping the socioeconomic and political relations between humans. One suspects that something much deeper might be involved, a sort of bedrock without which the state, especially in the form depicted by Foucault, could never have found an initial footing, much less acquired its currently predominating station in human affairs. The very prospect that this is so would seem on its face to be important, a matter entirely worthy of “excavation” (to employ Foucault’s own term).


Suffice it here to say that this goes to the manner in which humans of certain traditions, confluent in the so-called advanced societies comprising “world civilization,” view themselves in relation not only to other humans/human societies, but to other species of being, both sentient and presumably not, to say nothing of the planet we mutually inhabit. This is to say that the subliminal matrix prefiguring emergence and consolidation of the carceral state is readily discernible in the sense of entitlement manifested by virtually all members of such societies, irrespective of the degree of oppression they might personally suffer within them, to impose themselves upon the nonhuman balance of the natural world. The sheer banality embodied in protests that those consigned to prison cages are thereby “treated like animals” in some respects says it all, while nonetheless providing only the barest glimpse of the cognitive substrata it reflects.


Here, it must be admitted that we are presently faced in large part with the psychointellectual equivalent of terra incognita. There remains a veritable continent of consciousness—or its absence—to be explored, unpacked, its implications charted, and the resultant understandings assimilated by all who pursue liberation. Bluntly put, the libratory paradigm itself must be substantially reworked and expanded. The task is undeniably daunting. Yet it must be undertaken lest, in failing to unravel the codes of value and priority antecedent to contemporary carceral mentality and in which it secures its predication, we retain them in ourselves even while abolishing the state in its present form. Should that be the scenario defining our “success,” the inadequacy of the means by which we measured the term would in itself predetermine that we eventually replicated that which we opposed.
Accordingly, it is again fortunate that the hard work necessary to complete—or transcend—what may be called the Foucauldian paradigm is underway. Actually, as is evidenced by the enduring struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples not to be pushed into oblivion, it has been going on all along. Their understandings of the relationship between humans and nonhumans have, after all, always been profoundly different from those emblematic of the cultures and societies caught up in the modernist trajectory, a matter allowing them to sustain modes of social, political, and economic organization antithetical to those of the carceral state. From them, there is clearly much to be learned. That some of it is in fact being learned, is demonstrated by the concepts guiding the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the green anarchists, among others. Infusing our own and other libratory movements with comparable insights can only serve to strengthen the whole which we must ultimately become.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: