This issue addresses one of the most important developments of our time — the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. It is well known that the American prison population is the largest in the advanced capitalist world, both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers. Equally appalling is the racial skew of those in the system, with blacks being massively overrepresented relative to their place in the general population.
For years, the explanation for both facts — the massive overall rate and its racial skew — has focused on institutional and cultural factors. In particular, it has been accepted that a primary culprit is the broader racism of the public, and politicians who capitalize on it, as evidenced in the draconian drugs laws passed in the 1980s.
In a sweeping and ambitious analysis, John Clegg and Adaner Usmani show that this conventional picture is very misleading. While racist attitudes and political brinksmanship have played a role, the fundamental driver of the carceral state has been economic — the collapse of the employment structure in urban areas after the 1960s, which threw millions of people into long-term poverty, and a balance of class forces which ruled out redistributive reforms to address the economic disintegration.
Once the hub of manufacturing employment, cities fell into decay, with skyrocketing joblessness and high crime rates. As more affluent whites escaped into suburbs, the working-class population, disproportionately black, was left to fend for itself, and became the object of a widening and more punitive dragnet. The implication of this analysis is profound — the only viable solution to mass incarceration is through a massive program of state jobs, social welfare, and economic redistribution.
Clegg and Usmani’s article is a shining example of political economy and class analysis put to a burning issue. In his address to a conference in honor of the late Erik Olin Wright, Göran Therborn lays out an agenda for class analysis in an age of oligarchy and globalizing capitalism. As Therborn argues, it is high time to return to a focus on capital and labor as the fulcrum for contemporary capitalism, both in the North and South, and his own brief but very suggestive report on recent trends shows just how fruitful this agenda might be.
It is precisely a disregard for careful class analysis that has handicapped perhaps the largest Maoist revolutionary movement in the world, the Naxalite insurgency in India. Anish Vanaik examines the ongoing frustration of a movement that, on one hand, is now the only wing of Indian communism that presents any challenge to the status quo, but on the other hand, has failed to break out of a very narrow band of the Indian countryside. This is in part because of state repression, but also because of its refusal to acknowledge the realities of a changing Indian capitalism.
Continuing with the international focus, Lev Grinberg argues that the current electoral impasse in Israel expresses the slow but ineluctable fracturing of Israeli national identities, not in spite of Israel’s colonial project, but because of it. He examines how the effort to maintain the identity of a Jewish state has backfired over time, releasing forces that cannot now be contained within the traditional political parameters. And as the United States watches one of its client states implode, its own imperial framework is starting to show the strains of a superpower in retreat.
In a recent book, How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr offered a fresh perspective of the uniqueness of this American imperial expansion. But Christian Appy argues in his biting review that Immerwahr’s work has the effect of obscuring and sanitizing American aggression, rather than helping us better understand it. And finally, Nivedita Majumdar examines Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis’s recent title on surrogacy, which seeks to defend the rights of those who labor in it. Majumdar argues that Lewis’s book, far from acknowledging the real interests of surrogates, tends more to overlook the dynamics in surrogacy. And its insistence on viewing the institution as a springboard toward abolishing the family is not only unpersuasive, but dangerous.