WHAT IS FASCISM?
Manufacture a mythology of lies
In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer depicts Hitler’s chilling oratory and its effect on his followers:
Now the 600 deputies, personal appointees all of Hitler, little men with big bodies and bulging necks and cropped hair and pouched bellies and brown uniforms and heavy boots leap to their feet like automatons, their right arms upstretched in the Nazi salute, and scream “Heils.” Hitler raises his hand for silence. He says in a deep, resonant voice, “Men of the German Reichstag!”
The silence is utter.
“In this historic hour, when, in the Reich’s western provinces, German troops are at this minute marching into their future peacetime garrisons, we all unite in two sacred vows.”
He can go no further. It is news to this “parliamentary” mob that German soldiers are already on the move into the Rhineland. All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads. They spring, yelling and crying, to their feet. Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah. The Messiah plays his role superbly. His head lowered, as if in all humbleness, he waits patiently for silence. Then his voice, still low, but choking with emotion, utters the two vows….
Donald Trump’s oratory of pathos is of a less eloquent sort—shorter sentences, fractured grammar—but it casts the same spell and commands the same madness. In his rallies, his outbursts rotate among three targets, Mexican immigrants, Democrats, and the mainstream media. At a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania,
Trump’s bellows hands shift, horizontal to vertical; now he’s chopping. “Brutalized,” chop! “Murdered,” chop! “Hacking,” chop! “Ripping out, in two cases, their hearts.” A man’s voice somewhere ahead of me cries out “fuuuck!” More, like a liturgy, a horrible psalm of repetition, “illegal alien” and “rape” and “sexual assault of a child” and “alien,” and “unlawful contact with a minor” and “rape” and “indecent exposure” and “sex crimes” and “animal”; “released by Philadelphia to wander free in your communities.”
He gestures to the sectioned-off area where CNN and other news organizations are assembled, protected by a cage, and denounces them as “very bad people” and “scum” and “liars.” “‘Look at them!’ he cries, pointing. His thousands turn to the cage to scream.” As for the Democrats, one Trump fan conveys the prevailing mood to reporter Jeff Sharlet by bending over and “sniffing the wet blacktop like a hound,” mimicking a supposed pedophile in the act of sniffing out children to molest. “Creepy Joe!” cries another supporter. “Demons,” he rejoins. A female fan expounds:
“Not even human….It’s too terrible to speak of.” She turns away, to the happiness of a small circle of new friends she’s made at the rally, a whole family decked out in Trump wear. But she keeps coming back. “The truth and the lies,” she says. I don’t know what she means. She turns away again, returns again, her eyes watery. “I’m going to say it,” she decides. But she can’t. She walks away. Her friends seem worried. She comes back, leans in. “They eat the children.” She shakes with tears. Her friends nod. (Sharlet)
In The Fascism This Time, Theo Horesh succinctly contrasts Trumpian-style demagoguery with its Nazi progenitor: “While early twentieth-century fascism may have produced well-organized mobs of neatly dressed automatons marching in goose step to a vision of the future, early 21st-century fascism presents a slovenly crowd of obese retirees giggling over their own offensiveness. Yet, both inspire followers to be swept away by the crowd.” Despite his buffoonery and his carnivalesque rallies, Trump and his supporters, Horesh notes (writing at the end of Trump’s term in office), represent an ominous new national development. Examples indeed abound, from the expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps for the children of detained and deported immigrants (though 350,000 immigrants were already in ICE detention under Obama) to the January 6, 2021, attempted coup and attack on the Capitol building. Trump brought out the ugliness of the country’s rightwing and supremacist sectors. But there is a tendency to place undue emphasis on the figurehead of Trump. I cannot but feel that his supporters are out of their league in the face of America’s diverse majority and have only managed to expose themselves as a rather pathetic and incompetent bunch, despite the prospect of more violence to come, as his supporters and political cronies reattempt to wrest power by any means. Things are indeed liable to take a turn for the worse if Republicans reject the results of the 2024 presidential election, as Barbara F. Walter warns in How Civil Wars Start. And if they do succeed in regaining power, with or without a civil war, my thesis may turn out to have understated its case. This does not mean, on the other hand, that the country is not already on a fascist trajectory, one that began long before Trump. If this is not immediately evident, it’s because it is all too familiar and close to home. It’s called brainwashing, and brainwashing works precisely when it’s not recognized as such.
A hallmark of fascism is the dumbing down of public discourse to a neat and tidy narrative of the nation’s patriotic mission, typically calling for a return to a mythologized past imbued with pastoral signifiers. In the American case: rugged individualist cowboy types and devout Christian wives and children in their giant playground of a landscape devoid of Native Americans, Hispanics, and Blacks, though I’m sure there are white supremacists who are not averse to the restoration of slavery. While this nostalgia has historical roots, the gulf separating the fantasy of the past from the complex reality of the present requires much denial and distortion. The cognitive dissonance experienced amidst the chaos and change of contemporary society is too great to absorb and deal with. Half of the public rises to the challenge and the other half demands drastic action to halt the slide, to return to the past and preserve American life as they think they know it. The tension between these two publics has always existed in American society; Trumpian politics is just the latest twist. The immediate question is how much political power the mythologists currently possess and how much damage they are causing. Rejecting evolution in favor of creationism in the schools, subjecting the public to the daily display and brandishing of guns, charging mothers who miscarry with murder on the grounds of fetal neglect, and refusing face masks amidst a pandemic in the name of freedom, are a few of the recurrent mythologist causes fought over in the U.S. culture wars. They also serve to distract from a much more comprehensive, inclusive, protean deception long foisted on the public: the master lie of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism proceeds from the belief that the USA is the greatest country in the world. Conservatives and right-wingers take this notion for granted and uphold it fervently. Liberals and progressives tend to be more jaundiced and reject the balder forms of jingoism yet may still assume their homeland to be an example for the world to emulate. All countries have their points to be proud of. Few can approach America’s rich legacy of popular music—blues and jazz, soul and country, rock and rap (a great musical tradition derives as much from social oppression and anguish as from the mixing of cultures, both found in abundance in the U.S.); technological innovation, which has given us computers, the internet, social media, electric cars and space travel; the counterculture, civil rights, feminist, gay rights, and ecology movements; or as vital and still vibrant a free press, from independent neighborhood bookstores to the online behemoth Amazon, which despite its reprehensible labor practices has succeeded in making millions of books available to people around the globe.
The dark side of all of this is an inherent, ingrained sense of American superiority—and a corresponding ignorance of the rest of the world. This is apparent at the top regardless of what administration is in the White House, from Trump’s contemptuous dismissal of international agreements to Joe Biden’s patriotic platitudes at a May 28, 2021 speech at Joint Base Langley Eustis in Hampton, Virginia: “America is unique. From all nations in the world, we’re the only nation organized based on an idea.…None of you get your rights from your government; you get your rights merely because you’re a child of God. The government is there to protect those God-given rights.” But it is also apparent among ordinary folk of whatever political persuasion. It need not be affirmed because it’s expressed implicitly. There are of course exceptions to this profound ethnocentrism (notably the well-traveled), this notoriously American apathy and indifference toward all things foreign. Yet whenever I go back home for a visit, I am struck by how little curiosity there is, how few people—otherwise open-minded, well-educated people—bother to query me about the countries I have spent much of my life in. It’s not just my own imagination but a phenomenon well known to American expats.
American exceptionalism also takes the form of a highly distorted understanding of how the U.S. is viewed abroad. Most Americans assume the world is envious of their country and everyone would live there if they could. This may be true in, say, Central America or the Caribbean, whose inhabitants are fleeing corrupt dictatorships, and it may have been more commonly the case in impoverished countries in decades past. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that people not blessed with being born in the greatest country on earth are finding fewer reasons ever to visit it, let alone imagine living there. Friends and acquaintances I’ve known in my years abroad frequently express shock at the extent to which Americans are inured to the oppression they suffer under. In what other nation, for example, can you be arrested for dashing into a shop for five minutes to buy something while your kid waits in your car, or bounty hunters sue you in state court for providing a pregnant woman a lift to an abortion clinic? (K. Brooks; Keshner).
The notion that one’s own country has nothing of interest to gain, nothing of value to learn from other countries and cultures is insidious because it makes it easier to overlook their humanity. It also makes people seem less human the more distant they are geographically. The fascist corollary to this is that it makes it easier to rationalize their elimination. An example of Americans’ cavalier disregard for countries they don’t like or understand is the casual use of the repugnant phrase “nuke ’em.” This came close to actually happening under Trump (Foster).
Define the enemy and brutalize it
It is often said that fascist regimes require a charismatic leader with a knack for whipping up popular support and mobilizing nationalist aggression. But this is not always the case. A stolid, distant figure, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was never even heard on the radio until he announced his country’s surrender in 1945. Yet the mere appeal of his name was enough to engineer the deaths of 15-20 million Chinese civilians. This genocide was carried out not just by means of the usual scorched-earth campaigns and attendant famine and disease, but a great deal of direct slaughter: shooting people in pits, or roping together a dozen at a time and burning them alive with kerosene or gasoline. Something else was going on, which we shall attempt to examine below, to manufacture the kind of blind obedience that made Japanese farm boys and upright gentlemen with a taste for haiku and flower arrangement (which they were observed fiddling with in their barracks) alike gleefully rape pregnant women and disembowel them with their bayonets (Harmsen, Nanjing; Harmsen, Shanghai).
Japan’s excuse at the time for the Nanjing atrocities of 1937, not to mention the much broader devastation of eastern China’s cities and countryside, was that they “lost control of the army.” But it’s indisputable that much of the depravity was issued down from commands on high. Emperor Hirohito approved of chemical and biological warfare and signed off at least 375 times on toxic gas attacks in China (Gold). Hal Gold’s Japan’s Infamous Unit 731: Firsthand Accounts of Japan’s Wartime Human Experimentation Program (which makes for as difficult reading as Vivien Spitz’s Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans) recounts how for fourteen years beginning in 1932, a year after Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, Chinese citizens were randomly seized, sent to secret medical experimentation centers (the flagship site near Harbin in Heilongjiang Province included crematoria), dissected alive on the vivisection table, forced to have sex after being injected with syphilis, tied to stakes and blasted with various germs including the bubonic plague, and many other vile experiments. The expertise gained was used, among other bacteriological attacks, to drop a plague-outfitted ceramic bomb on Ningbo in October 1940; hundreds died but quick action by the city in isolating the affected zone prevented a wider outbreak.
The Germans matched, indeed exceeded the barbarism of the Japanese, being responsible for a comparable number of civilian deaths in Poland and the Soviet Union, some 20 million (a figure including most of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims). But the Nazis had an even more ambitious goal in the Hunger Plan, formulated in early 1941. By encircling vast territories and cutting off food supplies they would have deliberately starved to death an estimated 20-30 million Russians and Ukrainians (Stargardt). The plan was disrupted as the Wehrmacht got bogged down in Operation Barbarossa later that year and far fewer died than intended, though many millions of Poles, Slavs, and Jews were murdered by other means. Shooting people into pits was the dominant method in the early years of the war. As many as ten to twenty thousand could be shot at a single killing site per day, but that was found to be exhausting and traumatizing for the shooters. More effective means were experimented with, including dynamiting groups of people, also found to be inefficient (Mayer). One solution was to redirect carbon monoxide fumes into the vans ferrying victims to the killing sites and simply dump the lifeless bodies into the pits. More creatively still, in October 1941 in Konin, Poland, eight thousand Jews were thrown naked into pits filled with quicklime and melted alive; by the following morning all except the victims’ heads had dissolved, their faces still frozen in their screams (Rhodes). Eventually, of course, the mass murder was sped up in the gas chambers and crematoria of the extermination camps, accounting for another three million victims.
An intractable question is how ordinary soldiers could be compelled to participate in the indiscriminate, cold-blooded slaughter of civilians and defenseless troops alike. The Japanese army took few prisoners of war, and many of those it did were worked to death or succumbed to starvation and disease; for the most part, captured Chinese troops were killed outright. Germany made a pretense of keeping Soviet POWs alive, but several million of them starved to death in the concentration camps anyway. The comprehensive slaughter of the enemy was always warfare’s operating principle. Julius Caesar had all his captured troops put to the sword, matter-of-factly recounted in his Gallic Wars. Rape and pillage where civilians were seen as the victors’ prize was likewise a timeworn practice, as were the scorched-earth campaigns of the Thirty Years Wars in Europe (1618-48) and the even more destructive Taiping Civil War in China (1850-64), the latter resulting in the deaths of tens of millions. The survival of civilians was long disregarded in the military calculus as being of any significance, morally or otherwise. Twentieth-century fascism operated as if it were still immersed in this past when war and slaughter were glorious for their own sake; it dispensed with such ethical encumbrances as the Geneva Conventions and relished in the spirit of total war. As Hitler oft retorted whenever any of his generals hesitated to pull out all the stops, “There is no room for sentimentality here.”
Even in modern times, widespread civilian destruction is reserved as a last resort by all modern armies, to brutalize and break the enemy population psychologically and make them cave in, as in the Allied carpet bombing of Germany and the Americans’ flattening of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in WWII. But the fascist state does the same proactively rather than reactively. Although the U.S. military, in its pointless and catastrophic war on Indochina, came to understand the importance of not alienating civilians in the South Vietnamese countryside to avoid pushing them into the hands of the Vietcong, it nonetheless gratuitously bombed North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, resulting in one to two million civilian deaths—the largest aerial bombardment in history (J. Gibson). Included in this devastation were hundreds of thousands of tons of napalm—gelled gasoline—dropped on military and civilian targets alike, and the four million Vietnamese exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, disabling or rendering gravely ill a quarter of them. To confuse the public, fascist states pay lip service in their propaganda to acting only in the interests of defense and peace. Hitler always claimed the Germans were only protecting themselves against the worldwide Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy and acted dismayed when the Western powers declined to join him in his invasion of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. similarly banked on the bogeyman of communist tyranny in its war of aggression against Indochina.
In order to turn an army into an effective fighting machine, obedience is hammered into the troops down to the last man. For those who might contemplate wavering, they have no choice: you cooperate in killing because refusing to do so could result in your own court-martialing or even execution for insubordination. However, what needs emphasizing is that not all soldiers are reluctant to kill. Many do so willingly, and this wrath is vented on enemy civilians as enthusiastically as it is on enemy troops. To explain this, we need to delve into a more stubborn kind of obedience, operating on a deep psychological level and instilled from an early age, requiring a crushing and molding of the immature ego in the name of group conformity. Once thus reshaped, individuals can be turned into sadists without their having much conscious comprehension of this process.
Central to this indoctrination is dehumanization. Before an enemy can be brutalized, it must be defined and identified, made vivid, threatening, and larger than life, yet less than human. Dehumanization renders the enemy unique, separate, and therefore expendable. It’s easier to rationalize and compartmentalize murder and slaughter if one believes that what one is killing is not really human. It also helps if the enemy is physically and recognizably distinct, of a different race. This highlights the fact that fascism is undergirded by racism. Thus the yellow race of Vietnamese “gooks” served as a convenient enemy for the American military. For the German and Japanese fascists, race was a bit more problematic. Where the enemy was not racially distinct in a physical sense, it was simply declared to be so. The Japanese inculcated the absurd notion among its citizenry that they were racially superior to the Chinese (there are subtle facial markers that distinguish the Japanese from the Koreans and the Chinese, southern Chinese from northern Chinese, but East Asians as a whole are indistinguishable from one another). Russians and Poles are in no meaningful sense physically distinct from the Germans, yet by positing an imaginary “Aryan” race, the Germans convinced themselves they were superior to the brute-like Slavs on the one hand and the wily and cunning Jews on the other, both classified as Untermenschen—subhumans. It is telling that when a nation turns against its own people, the Other is often racialized and physical or hereditary distinctions created where none were before. Being a mere descendent of a landlord branded one a landlord in early Communist China. Landlords were also dehumanized by being depicted in the media as stunted, stoop-shouldered, and (like the Japanese and American enemies) mustached, all signifiers of wickedness. The peasantry was then unleashed on many innocent people, resulting in two to three million “landlord” murders by Mao Zedong’s own estimate.
If you still find it inexplicable that ordinary people can be brainwashed into believing in an enemy—a less-than-human and expendable enemy deserving of righteous death—consider yourself lucky that your indoctrination failed.
Prioritize rage over rationality
In Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle, Germany and Japan defeat the Allies in WWII and divide up the United States between them. The intriguing premise resulted in one of the author’s most popular works. Yet the book is burdened by a central limitation—its modest length. Whereas the majority of Dick’s novels present tightly structured, self-contained worlds, here he was working on a canvas too large to be contained in its 200-plus pages. The multiple locations, characters, and backgrounds could be no more than sketched, and the resulting gaps begged to be filled in. Amazon Studios found the concept fecund enough to come to the rescue and flesh out Dick’s broad brushstrokes into a magnificent four-season (40-episode) eponymously named TV series (2015-19). Creator Frank Spotnitz inserted new plot lines and devices drawn from Dick’s own oeuvre (parallel realities, time slips) while staying true to the overarching narrative. No expense was spared in recreating a visually imposing Nazi and Japanese-occupied America as the triumphant fascists might have run it once the troublesome war was out of the way and the superfluous Jewish and African Untermenschen dispatched. There are indelible images: the smart black SS uniforms (in high-definition Blu-ray), the melting down of the Liberty Bell into a shiny copper swastika, the blowing up of the Statue of Liberty, Albert Speer’s once-stalled plans for his Grand Dome (dwarfing in size the U.S. Capitol building) now rising awesomely over Berlin, the proud Reichsführer Himmler assuming the helm after Hitler’s death in 1962 when the story is set (and the year the novel was published), and the like.
Dick’s speculative novel provides much food for thought. I have a contrary thesis: a German or Japanese victory in WWII would have been impossible even under the best of circumstances, given the self-destructive and entropic nature of fascism. Fascism is predicated on and fueled by rage. Its very basis is unstable and unsustainable. Just as capitalism requires constant economic accumulation and expansion to avoid collapsing in on itself, so fascism requires constant expansion and growth, and it is this that drives its military adventures into the ground. There is no such thing as a calm, cool, collected fascism, capable of righting itself and achieving long-term stability. As huge and necessary as the combined Allied effort against the Nazi juggernaut was, it’s arguable the Germans lost the war before they even began it, by building up armed forces designed for blitzkrieg rather than protracted war. Fresh off their conquest of France, so confident were the Germans of being able to subdue the Bolsheviks that they failed to make even minimal provisions for winter warfare in Operation Barbarossa, launched in June 1941 and expected to be wrapped up before the summer was over. As a result of this folly, by December, bogged down outside of Moscow, one million German troops would perish by either arms or, dressed in rags in subzero temperatures, exposure (Shirer). The Japanese army likewise overextended itself in fighting on two fronts—China and the Pacific War. Yet before that, in 1937, some Japanese military advisers had warned their top brass not to proceed on to Nanjing after conquering Shanghai. As they predicted, the Jiangsu Province campaign, like the Nazi’s Moscow campaign, turned into a costly diversion that eventually drained and stalemated their forces in eastern China, at the cost of millions of casualties on both sides (Harmsen, ibid.).
The dilemma of aggression versus realism was to reoccur in the European theater over the next several years as the Germans continued to lose ground against the Soviets and their shortages in manpower and materiel grew more acute. The horrific limbo of the Lodz ghetto illustrates this nexus of ambivalence. After the Nazi takeover of Poland in 1939, the remaining Jews of Lodz deemed healthy enough to work and hence spared immediate extermination were forced into the city’s Jewish ghetto. By mid-1942, they had been reduced to 70,000, a third of their original population, manufacturing clothing on a starvation diet for the German army’s upcoming second campaign on the Eastern front. Already the “pragmatist” faction among the Nazi leadership was warning that the Lodz Jews were dying of illness and malnutrition at a rate of several thousand per month, which was to rise to almost 5,000 by September, at the height of the battle of Stalingrad. Nevertheless, despite the Wehrmacht’s desperate need for clothing and supplies which were being provided at the time largely by the Jews in the Lodz and other Polish ghettos, the “exterminist” faction prevailed and swayed a vacillating Heinrich Himmler, who in June 1944 finally ordered the remaining Polish Jews sent to death camps, when the Soviet advance toward Germany narrowed the Nazis’ priorities. Only 877 Jews were found alive in Lodz by the Red Army in January 1945 (Mayer). When we note that Himmler was wavering, this was not of course out of any moral concern over the killing of the Jews, but whether the meager food rations barely keeping them alive would be better apportioned to German troops then fighting under extreme conditions.
A more rationally minded military leadership might have fed their prisoners of war and put them to work in factories. That the Nazis never productively exploited more than a fraction of their millions of Polish, Soviet, and Jewish captives but murdered or starved them to death is one of fascism’s key paradoxes. It thrives on violence but undermines itself in the process of expending its violence: a death-drive ideology.
If it seems presumptuous to style the United States as “fascist” in the same sense as German or Japanese fascism, the U.S., again, is no stranger to devastating, pointless, and failed military ventures, which moreover have a racist basis—the war on Indochina for one. But it’s not necessary for a fascist state to engage only in outward aggression; it can just as effectively turn its aggression inward, as is the case in the U.S. This might not be immediately evident. On the contrary, many regard America as the world’s beacon of democracy and the only counterweight to the forces of totalitarianism. Rather than address this mainstream propaganda head-on, my task here is to apply certain criteria I have observed in my study of fascism and see whether the American example fulfills them or not.
Returning to the question of irrationality’s predominance over rationality, let’s have a brief look at the extraordinary wastefulness of the U.S. economy, which is effecting a slow but steady nationwide degradation and deterioration. If the U.S. has survived as a representative democracy for two and a half centuries, it shouldn’t be forgotten that its rise has always been tainted and its wealth stolen, formerly enabled by slavery and today by inequality and exploitation. Even without a war of aggression at present, U.S. military expenditure in 2020 was $778 billion, 39% of total military spending worldwide and far ahead of any other country, $392 billion spent on nuclear weapons alone (China comes in a distant second in military spending at $252 billion). The oft-stated rationale is that the U.S. needs to maintain overwhelming military dominance to protect not just its own interests but those of the entire “free” world. Even if nuclear weapons are never used, the knowledge of how many the U.S. has in store keeps hostile states in check through sheer intimidation. This symbolic power, by which America reminds the world of who’s in charge, simply costs that much amount of money—it’s expensive being the global cop. Or so we are led to believe. The unacknowledged rationale for this tremendous expenditure is the web of corporate relationships and profits in the military-industrial sector.
Reminding the world of who’s in charge involves actual destruction as well. The U.S. drops an average of 46 bombs per day on other countries—a total of 337,000 bombs released between 2001-2021 (Benjamin).
Even more money is wasted on the business of incarceration. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country—2.3 million in 2020 (followed by China with 1.7 million, but China’s population is four times as large)—and keeps another 4.6 million on probation or parole (Oudekerk & Kaeble). While only $80 billion is spent annually on the operational costs of prisons and jails (“only” being relative, that is, to military spending), hundreds of billions of dollars are lost to the economy from the reduced or absent labor of the imprisoned, the paroled, and their families. The U.S. is unique among industrialized nations in sabotaging the reintegration into society of the incarcerated. Parolees have enormous difficulty finding employers willing to hire them, not to mention for a decent wage, causing many to return to crime—and back to prison—in order to survive, and further impoverishing their families from lost wages, in a vicious circle. Compounding this vicious circle, the family’s children, lacking positive role models and burdened with psychological and developmental difficulties, are also likely to enter a life of crime. Tallying up all of these hidden debits, a Washington University study estimates that for every dollar spent on incarcerating people, there are ten dollars in social costs, adding up to one trillion dollars yearly—more than the military budget (Ferner).
Maintaining the massive prison population is a huge financial burden. The costs are passed on not just to taxpayers, which fall disproportionately on the poor, but directly on to the poor as well—the families and neighborhoods that serve as the prime source of incarceration recruitment. But it’s not as if the industry is actively looking for human fodder for the sake of cynical profiteering, apart from the ten percent of America’s prisons that are privately operated and whose profiteering is very much in evidence (Bauer). On the contrary, prisons and jails are a big drain on state budgets. They do provide employment (at low wages) for white rural locals living in their vicinity, and private contractors profit from the obscenely low wages paid to prisoners, an average of eighty-six cents an hour; Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas engage in inmate slave labor for no pay at all (Brakke; “Economics”). But these hardly offset the costs. Jackie Wang confronts this enigma in her incisive Carceral Capitalism:
Although it’s important to analyze the economic conditions that have been driving contemporary police practices, an analysis of prisons and police that solely focuses on the political economy of punishment would be incomplete. There are gratuitous forms of racialized state violence that are “irrational” from a market perspective. From an economic perspective, the new sentencing regime that emerged alongside the War on Drugs—such as three strikes laws for drug possession—make little economic sense: Why waste an exorbitant amount of public money on incarcerating nonviolent offenders, sometimes for life?
It’s noteworthy that the prison industrial complex draws its guards and prisoners from the same populations—uneducated rural whites and disadvantaged urban Blacks—as the military-industrial complex draws its recruits for the army. The underlying motivation of this intertwined military-prison industrial complex is, again, symbolic: to put people in their place. The rage directed towards America’s enemies abroad is simultaneously directed toward America’s internal enemies—minorities and the impoverished. It’s a political economy of irrationalism, for there is no sensible explanation for the diversion of wealth and governance away from the nation’s disintegrating infrastructure, threadbare educational, medical, and social services, and paralysis in the face of global warming. As David Graeber sums up the function of irrational state power in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years,
We are looking at the final effects of the militarization of American capitalism itself….the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures….a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and military intelligence apparatus, and propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy….Economically, the apparatus is largely just a drag on the system; all those guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and don’t really produce anything.
Incarcerate the enemy at home
What’s shocking about America’s gulag archipelago of prisons is not just the sheer number of the incarcerated—over two million—but the general indifference toward them. As with Americans’ lack of interest in other lands and cultures, there is a similar degree of ignorance about the nation’s internal colony, distanced and dehumanized from its citizenry in its own way. Part of this has a racist basis. Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans make up 42 percent of the prison population; if Hispanics are counted separately from whites, the minority prison population rises to 72 percent, compared to the 38 percent of minorities in the country as a whole (U.S. Bureau of Prisons). The internal colony consists not just of the incarcerated but encompasses the transitional territory of the impoverished inner-city as well, which supplies much of this population and recycles it back into the prisons through recidivism and a counterproductive parole system. Wang describes the distancing process by which white America insulates itself from its domestically exiled legions and keeps them out of sight and out of mind:
The urban landscape is organized according to a spatial politics of safety. Bodies that arouse feelings of fear, disgust, rage, guilt, or even discomfort must be made disposable and targeted for removal in order to secure a sense of safety for whites….The media construction of urban ghettos and prisons as “alternate universes” marks them as zones of unintelligibility, faraway places removed from the everyday white experience….What happens in these zones of abjection and vulnerability does not typically register in the white imaginary.
Conservatives claim that the skewing of the prison population towards minorities is unremarkable; they are the groups most prone to crime. What conservatives ignore is the historical context. The white majority has from the outset engaged in a centuries-long, unrelenting campaign of oppression against Blacks and other minorities. By the end of the Civil War, the U.S. had four million slaves. In the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras up through 1965, white vigilantes lynched some 3,500 Blacks, with almost no accountability. Slavery crept back in disguised forms. As Alec Karakatsanis reminds us, “for many decades, white elites in the South used the punishment system to transfer wealth, confiscate land, and preserve racial hierarchy through convict leasing—that is, criminalizing people so that their bodies could be forced to work for profit.”
The mortality rate of convicts in South Carolina chain gangs in the 1870s was 45 percent. “We must not be held to too strict an accountability,” intoned Alabama Inspector of Convicts W. D. Lee in 1890. “We have a large alien population, an inferior race. Just what we are to do with them as prisoners is a great question as yet unsettled. The Negro’s moral sense is lower than that of the white man. We say that he has been degraded by three or four generations of slavery” (Bauer). In the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, 10,000 Blacks were left homeless and 300 were murdered when their neighborhood was destroyed by whites. Also, from the mid-nineteenth century through the third decade of the twentieth, thousands of Mexicans were murdered by white vigilantes in Texas, California, and New Mexico (C. Gibson). The treatment of Native Americans over the same period is well known, having been starved off their lands by the U.S. Army, who slaughtered virtually the entire national herd of 30 million buffalo, since “we were never able to control the savages until their supply of meat was cut off.” Or as one army general put it, “kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone” (Phippen).
Then from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, in response to decades of racial segregation and police harassment, American ghettos exploded in pent-up rage in some 2,000 uprisings. During a mass arrest in Cairo, Illinois in 1971 (which had been experiencing two straight years of conflicts between law enforcement and Blacks), after a white woman’s purse had been stolen, the city police chief announced, “I want every nigger in Cairo rounded up, and if that means busting heads to bring them to jail, I want them brought in” (Hinton). During this same decade of violence, federal allocation of funds for police increased 2,900 percent to $300 million in 1970—not the most creative approach to repairing race relations. The urban uprisings were brought under control after a significant slice of the Black male population was transferred from ghettos to prisons by the expedient of vastly increasing the construction and capacity of prisons, whose population ballooned from 200,000 in 1970 to 2,300,000 by 2000. In recent decades, the mutual hostility has only become more entrenched with the targeting of Blacks by increasingly militarized police forces stocked with military-grade weapons, including mine-resistant tank-like vehicles and Black Hawk tactical transport helicopters, routinely gifted to police forces across the country by the army, while state and local governments now shell out about $250 billion annually on police, corrections, and the courts (Hinton; Whitehead). Over the past decade nationwide, police have shot to death 2,000 Blacks, many of whom were found to be innocent. Some of this lethality is due to police panic, elsewhere to execution-style killing. In December 2020 in Columbus, Ohio, a cop repeatedly shot Casey Goodman, a Black 23-year-old, in the back as he was entering his home, holding nothing in his hands but sandwiches (B. Brooks, “Ohio”). In April 2021 in North Carolina, police repeatedly shot a Black man, Andrew Brown Jr., in the head as he sat in his car in his driveway while they shouted, “Let me see your hands!”; body camera footage showed that Brown had his hands on the steering wheel the entire time (Szekely & Layne). A University of Washington study reported that the majority of police killings in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018 were misclassified or went completely unreported (Oladipo).
Hispanics, particularly “illegals,” are also singled out for special treatment. Mexican immigrant Joel Arrona-Lara was pulled from his car by ICE agents in California while driving his pregnant wife who was in labor to the hospital, who had to drive herself the rest of the way (“ICE detains”). A Honduran woman’s baby daughter was plucked from her breast—literally—by ICE agents while feeding her in a Texas immigration detention center (Madani). An innocent U.S. citizen, Laura Sandoval, was visiting an ailing relative in Ciudad Juarez, just south of the Texas border, and upon returning to El Paso apprehended by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which operates with impunity like a Gestapo. They took her to a nearby hospital where a male doctor subjected her to a vaginal and rectal examination for drugs, enforcing her bowel movement with a laxative. She was told that if she did not voluntarily indicate her consent on a form, they would charge her $5,488 for the hospital bill (Bosque).
The incarceration industry is not exclusively a racist enterprise. Whites who fall afoul of the law may be better positioned to avoid long prison terms or prison altogether if they are wealthy and well-connected, yet they experience the same fate once they disappear behind prison walls. A large, looming prison system, irrespective of who is imprisoned, is attractive to fascism. Fascism also relies on public support, without which it cannot acquire the power it does. Americans can be unforgiving toward those who cross the line into crime and are enthusiastic supporters of harsh prison sentences. When a government resorts to extreme forms of retribution out of all reasonable proportion to the crime and well beyond any civilized standards, we call this symbolic punishment. Symbolic punishment serves to show off the sovereign’s or the state’s power. It functions to instill fear in the populace, sending the message, “Watch out, you may be next.” Its historical analog is the burning of witches at the stake and the public beheading of infidels and traitors, spectacles which magnify the agony of the condemned for the sake of general catharsis. Today it survives in the cruel mental and physical humiliation of the modern dungeon—U.S. prisons. The display of symbolic power is the prime activity of authoritarian regimes, as an intimidated population is easier to control and more amenable to fascism.
As we have seen, the U.S. leads the world by far in incarceration rates: 6,517,000 under some form of correctional control in 2019, or about three percent of the adult population. This breaks down into 631,000 in local jails (470,000 in indefinite pretrial detention), 1,291,000 in state prisons, 226,000 in federal prisons (450,000 incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses in state and federal prisons), 879,000 on parole, and 3,490,000 on probation. An additional 400,000 are in indefinite immigration detention at the hands of ICE and CBP. Almost one million convicted sex offenders are on sex offender registries, many for life, while unknown thousands (states generally don’t publish reliable data) more ex-sex offenders are incarcerated in “civil commitment” prisons after completing their sentences (“Crime rate”; Morris; Sawyer & Wagner).
Turning to minors: 44,000 are in juvenile detention, adult jails, and prisons. Children aged eleven to seventeen make up one-fourth of imprisoned sex offenders and one-tenth of those on sex offender registries (J. Levine; McKay). Over 400,000 children, many involuntarily, are in out-of-home foster care. Meanwhile, 70,000 migrant children are held in detention, many separated from their parents (“Detention”). Accounts of physical and sexual abuse of juvenile prisoners are rife. In one Texas detention facility, guards forced boys to have oral sex and got a girl inmate pregnant (Sandoval & Arango).
Much of the public—excepting of course the minority communities affected—is willfully ignorant about the reality of prison life. Several unique features of American incarceration stand out. We’ve mentioned the perverse practice of exploiting inmates’ labor for absurdly low wages, putting extreme financial pressure on them and their families. There is also a shocking absence of hygienic, nutritional, and medical measures. Overall close to half of the prison population has a psychological disorder (the percentages vary between jails, state, and federal prisons); being ignored and left untreated in the hostile prison environment ensures their further mental deterioration. Lawmakers visiting Riker’s Island jail in New York, with 6,000 inmates in indefinite pretrial detention, often for nonviolent offenses, “described seeing shower stalls being used as jail cells, fecal matter and urine lining the floors, and dead cockroaches next to spoiled food in the jail’s hallways.” Many inmates were characterized as suffering from mental illness (Francis). At Logan Correctional Center for women in Illinois, prisoners “are walking through raw sewage in their housing unit…living with maggots, mold in the sinks & showers, no bleach to clean…No cameras in their open living quarters with an all-male correctional officer staff” (Conway).
U.S. jails and prisons do not, as a rule, mete out dictatorship-style torture at the hands of officers (unless guard-administered beatings count), but they tacitly pass this responsibility onto the prisoners, who routinely engage in injurious or lethal attacks on fellow inmates using shivs (homemade knives), along with rape, while staff looks the other way. Other prisons can be absurdly draconian about sex, putting prisoners caught in a consensual embrace, handholding, or even gesturing fondly to each other, in solitary confinement (Bauer; Halperin). Up to 100,000 inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, though estimates can vary widely as prisons hide their data (Manson). The title of one recent news article captures what happens to some of them: “A prisoner was ‘covered in filth and barking like a dog’ after 600 days of solitary confinement in a Virginia jail” (Bhardwaj). Prisons and jails often refuse to comply with the federal government requirement to report the causes of prisoners’ deaths, because to do so would implicate them in their medical neglect of the inmates as well as their enabling of prisoner-on-prisoner violence (Press).
It’s a shibboleth that prisoners consist mostly of incorrigible types who need sequestering for society’s safety and moreover deserve their lengthy prison sentences anyway. There are indeed many prisoners who fall into this category. But it doesn’t follow that they should be treated atrociously while doing their time. Purely as a matter of expediency, not to mention humanitarianism, reform is unquestionably superior to punishment, as attested by innovative prison models such as Norway’s (“Incarceration”). Would you rather see angry convicts further hardened by lengthy incarceration released back into society with poor job prospects, or rehabilitated and employable parolees with newly acquired skills and trades? But equally important, many prisoners are not in fact violent, indeed don’t belong there in the first place. Slightly less than half of the prisoners in state prisons, 70 percent in local jails, and 94 percent in federal prisons are nonviolent offenders (Sawyer & Wagner). Many are there for drug crimes, some locked up for simple marijuana possession—at a time when the country is moving toward cannabis legalization. Thousands more each year wind up imprisoned for misdemeanor offenses which morph into jail time over failure to pay multiplying court fines that they lack the means to pay (Ockerman).
A single past criminal record, no matter how inconsequential, can doom a person to minimum-wage jobs, for the two-thirds who succeed in finding one; the remaining third remains unemployed. Seventy million Americans bear the invisible shackles of a criminal record—a powerful means of social control provided to the state. A felony conviction disqualifies one from voting. Many ex-convicts are unaware of this, but instead of simply preventing them from voting, they are, astonishingly, sent back to prison for innocently attempting to vote (Lantry & Haslett; S. Levine). Of course, racist conservatives in states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia have an interest in disenfranchising Blacks by any and all means including imprisonment, as it favorably impacts Republican electoral outcomes.
Let’s start with the humble parking ticket and work our way up to more serious crimes. What interests me about this particular infraction is that everyone, the most conscientious car owners included, gets ticketed sooner or later, and there are many otherwise law-abiding citizens who, whether due to sheer carelessness or obsessional necessity of some sort, get ticketed quite often. There are those who accumulate so many parking tickets that they give up and stop paying them. Or let’s take the speeding ticket. Sooner or later, everyone receives one of these too (or a moving violation for driving too slowly if you’re a pot smoker).
While it would surely be interesting to see how drivers collectively conducted themselves in the absence of any rules of the road (forming posses converging on reckless drivers?), I doubt there is an anarchist or libertarian out there who doesn’t support some basic traffic laws. Yet traffic penalties are imposed not for the common good but to generate cash for city budgets. In the U.S., some 25-50 million moving-violation tickets are issued each year, amounting to $3.75-7.5 billion in revenue, and an equal amount in profits for insurance companies, who gleefully hike the premium of their ticketed customers. As the National Motorists Association puts it, “No other class of ‘crime’ is as profitable for state and local governments as is that of traffic tickets” (“Traffic tickets”). Parking tickets generate a hefty cash flow as well. New York City alone earned $565 million in fines in 2015 (Mays). Delinquent driving is the perfect cash cow and the penalties are increasing year by year. They would skyrocket if it weren’t for certain constraints, such as the law of the marketplace. When costs rise beyond a certain point, consumers stop cooperating. In the face of exorbitant fines, drivers tend to show up in traffic court, where they often succeed in having charges dropped, as courts feel a certain moral obligation to hold municipal avariciousness in check. Or drivers might simply start behaving themselves, causing an unacceptable plunge in public revenue.
More serious traffic offenses are monetized as well—speeding 25 mph over the limit, driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident, manslaughter while DUI—though the incidence rate drops off significantly with misdemeanors and felonies. The number of DUI arrests in the U.S. annually is around 1.5 million, a fraction of total traffic offenses. Still, the best of us gets tripped up now and then. I have a friend who never had a traffic violation in his life until he got pulled over after a couple drinks and was booked for DUI. He was exactly at the 0.08% blood alcohol limit (for Illinois) and not over. He fell below the limit when he was again breathalyzed at the station a few hours later while handcuffed to a chair, and with the help of a lawyer managed to get the charges dropped. He still ended up with some $5,000 in administrative and legal fees. He’s lucky he wasn’t charged, which would have eaten up more in jail time or probation fees, not to mention a license suspension and a record.
In theory, at least, financial penalties for minor offenses are a logical, fair, and transparent form of punishment. Like the “sin” tax on cigarettes and liquor, they provide added revenue for the government at no extra cost to the well-behaved citizen, placing the burden instead on those who take risks. A capitalist perspective takes things a step further and considers all possible means of monetizing and profiting off unlawful behavior. You could even describe risk as the ultimate product capitalism sells to the public: “Today we live in a world in which risk is manufactured and made quantifiable by new technologies and new forms of expert knowledge. Risk now inheres in everything we do, from eating, investing, and driving a car to simply breathing. Risk is, simply put, ideological” (Tomso).
The focus of interest here is not so much the petty or the professional criminal (theft, burglary, fraud). Less than five percent of the population ever ventures into this territory, while less than one percent commits assault and robbery, and far fewer still rape or homicide (“Crime rate”). As we’ll see, the American state does indeed capitalize on all of these crimes, increasingly so. But a more profitable enterprise would concentrate on the predictable manifestations of human weakness, those which the general population cannot help but fall prey to again and again: the irrepressible infraction or offense. Traffic violations are one; debt is another; illicit drug use and sexual misconduct are two more. These are the real cash cows.
In a more rational system of justice, no one would go to jail for any offense except violent acts. If punitive fines replaced jail time, the convicted could continue to work and be productive members of society. Fines would be graded according to the severity of the crime and wages garnished in proportion to one’s ability to pay. That in itself would be enough of a punishment and a strong disincentive to repeat the offense, while repeat offenses would be punished more severely. Offenders would also be required to undergo some form of rehabilitation and community service. Violent criminals who must be sequestered for society’s safety should be put to work in prison for reasonable wages to pay for the cost of imprisonment and to support their families.
For a monetary-based punitive system to make sense, people must have money to pay the fines imposed on them. The U.S is unique in its grotesquely sadistic approach to punitive justice, in that it simultaneously incarcerates and fines the convicted, who thus lose the means to pay their fines once prison deprives them of employment. The U.S as well, particularly since the 1980s when the prison population ballooned, locks up more and more people for a greater variety of offenses and keeps them locked up longer than anywhere else. There are, of course, nefarious regimes elsewhere in the world that are extremely brutal toward their citizens, but such tends to be reserved for political prisoners. U.S. domestic policing, by contrast, directs its brutality toward a much wider swath of the population.
A common refrain is that those in jail deserve to be there because they have a debt to pay to society. As for those who get off lightly with only a probation sentence, it can’t be that bad, can it? Well, it is pretty bad, in fact. The system milks anyone who makes one false step—and their families—to the max. One Baltimore woman, a nurse’s aide, incurred thousands of dollars in fines and repeated jail time for a single DUI offense that caused no accident or injuries (Dewan). An Alabama woman, a day-care center custodian, experienced similar financial hell from a single driving-on-at-expired-license conviction (Stillman, “Get out”). Both were poor and Black but gainfully employed until they lost their job due to jail time, which prevented them from paying their fines and pushed them deeper into the hole and back into jail—a vicious circle for people at the edges of respectable society.
Ever more inventive ways are devised to place an extreme punitive financial burden on the offender—known in the parlance as “offender-funded justice”—while depriving them of the means to pay. Underscoring their arbitrariness, the myriad administrative and correctional fees issued by courts, jails, probation agencies, electronic surveillance contractors, and so forth, vary among states and cities, some putting a greater burden on the taxpayer, others on the defendant. Typical rates that a misdemeanor offender will pay might include $2,000 to a bail bondsman, $1,500 to a lawyer, and $250 to the court. If the offender is able to avoid jail time and put on probation, there will be fees amounting to $80-$200 per month to the probation service, and another $300-$400 per month in rehabilitation courses, which can stretch from as little as twelve hours for first-timers to thirty months or more for repeat offenders. If electronic surveillance or house arrest is imposed, a GPS ankle-bracelet rental can run $300-$500 per month. Many sex offenders are saddled with electronic monitoring for life and struggle or fail to make these payments as they are routinely denied employment.
Another misconception is that we pay for prisoners, who hardly deserve the right to bask in the lazy comfort of a taxpayer-funded jail cell. The reality is that the taxes are eaten up by bloated prison bureaucracies and there is still a shortfall of funds. Since the 1980s, the jailed population has burgeoned beyond the capacity of existing budgets. Governments have thus turned to private companies and contractors who claim to operate prisons more cheaply, with resulting deterioration in conditions and kickbacks to powerful politicians (Korecki). Both private and state jails charge prisoners for everything from room and board and medical care to laundry and toilet paper. The average “pay-to-stay” rate is a hefty $68 per day or $25,000 per year. Some local jails in California charge prisoners as much as $100-$150 a day (Eisen). You might hope these high costs would guarantee a basic standard of care and protection for the incarcerated, expected of a developed country. But the quality of U.S. prisons is by all accounts dreadful, with threadbare medical and virtually no psychiatric care, along with beatings, arbitrary punishments, and 70,000 rapes annually (Gopnik).
The fees incurred by prisoners might be recouped through forced labor but for the outrageous crumbs for wages contemptuously tossed at them; Louisiana pays four cents an hour (Rabuy & Kopf). Working mothers or relatives often have to pay for an imprisoned family member’s necessities (soap, toothpaste, phone calls, emails), at artificially inflated rates that can run up to $10,000 per year (Lewis & Lockwood). If the family can’t support them, they go into debt while in prison, making it all the more difficult to get a financial foothold when they get out. Prisoners thus accumulate huge debts from years in jail. Collection agencies are hired to harass their families to pay up on their behalf, and they hound parolees upon their release, which in turn contributes to the high recidivism rate, as parolees have a hard enough time finding gainful employment and acceptance back into the community even without any indebtedness. Many prison debts simply go unpaid, for reasons that are not hard to understand: they have no bearing on reality.
Jack up the state of fear
The most effective weapon for keeping a population docile is psychological terror: the ensemble of intersecting anxiety-inducing processes and effects dispersed throughout daily life. Because these forms of mass distress are normalized to appear as universal and inevitable, there is scant awareness of their collective function and little coordinated response or protest. We do not necessarily mean crude, Big Brother-style repression. Repression in its contemporary American incarnation is far more sophisticated and subtle. The best way to describe it is by breaking down the generalized, faceless terror into its components (terror here being distinct from terrorism, i.e., destructive acts carried out by self-identified terrorists).
Financial terror refers to the distress of being heavily burdened, or rendered indigent, by unmanageable or unanticipated financial pressures and hardships. Eighty percent of Americans are in debt to an average of $38,000, mainly auto loans and credit-card debt, while average mortgage debt per household adds another $190,000. The average student loan debt per undergraduate student is $49,000; 28 percent of those with student loans default. Master’s degree graduates of Columbia University’s film program have an average debt of $181,000, and some have debts up to $300,000 (Korn & Fuller). It’s often said that people have no one but themselves to blame for money problems since it’s a personal choice. But this downplays the circumstances that force many to fall into debt in the first place, which is to rescue themselves from economic constraints or crises or to help other family members. It also ignores the aggressive, predatory activities of financial organizations and educational institutions to induce people to go into debt. Capital One Financial Corporation, for example, earns $23 billion in interest each year with its bespoke targeting of the lower echelons of wage earners in order to “push people into debt who would have otherwise avoided it” and “profit off people’s misery,” as one former employee puts it (Botella).
It would be nice if society could acknowledge and take more responsibility for the ease with which it allows people to become indebted instead of smugly blaming individuals. Unfortunately for Americans, the tendency to hold the poor responsible for their own failures is long-entrenched and has religious roots going back to the Puritans, who “brought with them…a biblically prescribed view that God helps those who help themselves, that poverty is a kind of sin, the result of a willful failure to work and thrive” (Snedeker). But the problem runs deeper:
The hold that debt has over our lives is not merely numerical. It functions as a disciplinary apparatus as we internalize the ideology that naturalizes indebtedness….We are, from an early age, socialized into a form of financial citizenship that compels us to accept indebtedness as inevitable and to constantly engage in self-disciplinary acts that authorize and extend the debt economy—whether it’s pursuing a job as a corporate lawyer instead of a public defendant in order to pay off student loans or telling your peers they are irresponsible for not building their credit. (Wang)
Medical terror refers to the devastating impact of snowballing bills from sudden illness or accident. No one’s physical well-being is exempt from peril but American medical terror is especially horrific, as it piles financial terror on top of a health emergency. It’s hard to say which would be worse, a stage-four cancer diagnosis or the cost of that diagnosis: 42 percent of cancer patients lose their life savings after two years of treatment, averaging $92,000 per patient (Bandoim). Not surprisingly, catastrophic illness is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. (Graeber). Annual medical expenses for Americans come to $5,000, including those with insurance or patchwork assistance from Medicaid, Medicare, or the inadequate Affordable Care Act. That’s the per capita average; it is much higher if we discount the many young, healthy people with no medical expenses. There is no shortage of news stories on the obscene cost of medical care—of hospitals price-gouging patients as much as ten times actual costs or springing inscrutable hidden fees (Sun; Kliff & Sanger-Katz). At first glance, it can seem as if such stories are concocted for entertainment value and hospitals are playing practical jokes on patients, as when one hospital charged a man $1 million for his coronavirus treatment (Kliff). The cost of a drive-thru Covid-19 test in Texas is $2,450; get the test done in an emergency room and it’s $54,000 (Gleeson).
Meanwhile, Democrat politicians wring their hands and mouth protestations of outrage, Republicans sit back in sardonic silence, and the rest of the world shakes its head in incomprehension at the sad, sadistic U.S. medical system.
Compounding medical terror is pharmaceutical terror: the colluding of the drug companies, hospitals, and physicians in overprescribing medicines, especially to the elderly, for the sake of profit (Span). While 40,000 Americans sit in prison for cannabis offenses—a safe and natural plant medicine—drug companies contribute to the growing national annual overdose tally of 100,000 deaths and counting from lethal opiates and opioids (Nir, “Inside”). Many of these deaths are due to illegal abuse, from such drugs as fentanyl whose safe dosage is very hard to control, but many users start out with legally acquired medication and graduate to illegal use only after their prescriptions run out and their only recourse to assuage chronic pain is the black market.
Social terror refers to the violence—and the fear of violence—which hangs over American communities like perpetual storm clouds. Commentators are fond of pointing out statistics showing that violent crime in the U.S. has actually decreased over the past couple of decades (due to a variety of factors it’s not necessary to go into here), and therefore panic about crime is exaggerated and overblown. This misses the point that the violence is already way out of proportion to other developed countries and is comparable to places like Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, and the Philippines. Three hundred and sixteen people are shot every day in the U.S., one-third of them lethally; gun injuries rack up $1 billion in medical costs per year (Santana; Flowers). Private insurance typically pays for only a portion of victims’ gun injuries, which average $96,000 per in-patient stay, that is, exclusive of emergency room treatment; the remaining medical and rehabilitation fees are picked up by Medicaid (maybe) and the victims themselves (Fransdottir & Butts).
So great is the diarrheic flood of guns in the U.S. that Mexico is presently suing American gunmakers, who design their weapons to appeal to Mexican drug cartels, to stem the flow of guns into their country. A Colt special edition .38 pistol, for example, is engraved with an image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (Agren). I was once robbed at gunpoint near the University of Chicago campus; it was an interesting experience but once was enough. It took place only three blocks away from where 24-year-old Dennis Shaoxiong Zheng was shot to death three decades later in a broad-daylight robbery, the third University of Chicago student to be randomly murdered in 2021. If you’ve spent your entire life in this country without a gun incident you might think omnipresent gun terror isn’t as bad as it is made out to be, because you haven’t experienced it. But the majority of the world’s population live in much safer circumstances and go about freely without being shadowed by the specter of assault. In Canada, England, Germany, Japan, and China, countries where I have lived beside the U.S., a night on the town is a stress-free experience, for women as well, where they’re much in evidence at late hours.
Whenever gun-control advocates get their news bite after the latest mass murder, they are quickly put in their place by soberer voices reminding us that meaningful gun control never stands a chance of legislative passage in this country, and they are probably right. What will likely change as guns continue to proliferate and fear of their use looms ever larger, is that everyone, in an attempt to turn this fear on its head, will have to arm themselves with open-carry weapons—exactly the gun lobby’s goal. If this ensues, the only people who will want to immigrate to the land of the free anymore will be those fleeing impoverished countries even more violent than the U.S. International tourists may be frightened away, along with the $250 billion in annual revenue they bring in. Also financially ravaged will be universities, when the large cohort of international students vanishes, who supply another $45 billion in revenue. With a shrunken economy in an austere social landscape, we could witness the unprecedented phenomenon of a developed country reverting to a developing one: the future incarnation of the nineteenth-century American Wild West.
I am jolted back into the old malaise whenever I return to my hometown of Chicago, with the constant sound of police, firetruck, and ambulance sirens at all hours of the night. You only begin to notice this if you’ve been out of the country for a while or live in a rural area. Foreign visitors are unnerved by this ominous, round-the-clock noise pollution. Sirens have a dual indexical function. First of all, they indicate—index—the presence of an emergency vehicle so that cars can get out of the way. But sirens also index a general state of emergency. Inured to it as a result of routine, lifelong exposure, we are unconscious of the phenomenon in its generalized aspect, and regard sirens as an inevitable feature of daily life. But there is in fact little need for sirens, except intermittently to clear traffic (I should qualify this: in the U.S. sirens clear people very effectively; Americans tend to pull over almost in a panic, whereas in China emergency vehicles are blocked by indifferent cars and pedestrians, a phenomenon that has fortunately improved in recent years). That these vehicles have nothing better to do than blast their siren down empty streets at night when people are sleeping bespeaks something else: state power’s insistent affirmation of itself. You might be more conscious of this were you to imagine if the standard sonic signature identifying emergency vehicles were replaced by air-raid sirens.
Another way to appreciate the face of state power is to be in a confrontation, however trivial, with the police. I was biking recently in Shanghai, China, when a police officer stops me for violating a traffic regulation for cyclists. Gently placing his hand on my shoulder, he guided me over to the correct lane for crossing the intersection. This is America: one evening a few years back I was pulled over on a street in Chicago. Instead of calmly informing me that one of my taillights had stopped working, the cop resorted to yelling and cursing. I happen to be white. Being Black makes it much easier for police encounters to spiral out of control or erupt in instant gunfire. In an incident only days ago, Chicago police kicked in the door of a house in a Black neighborhood without announcing themselves or presenting a warrant. They pointed their guns at the parents lying prone on the floor and then at their two girls in the bedroom, four and nine years old, who wet their beds and have since displayed PTSD symptoms; it was the wrong house (Niemeyer). A young Black man describes another encounter with the Chicago police:
Once my friend and I were walking down the street. We were at Wood Street and 45th and we had just come outside. Then the cops came. Deep. Three cop cars. Because my phone had a weed plant on the screen they wanted my PIN number to unlock my phone. But I said, “I’m not going to give you my PIN.” So one of the white cops punched me in my stomach and put me inside the cop car. (Kaba)
Atlanta police were filmed kicking a handcuffed mentally ill woman in the face and down a hill, who had been brandishing a weapon (Marcus). Whether she was threatening people is irrelevant in regard to such police behavior following upon her being subdued. One hardly needs to be armed and dangerous. Bay Area police sicced an attack dog on an unarmed Uber driver, severely mauling his arm, when his rental car was listed as stolen after he had fallen behind on payments; the video showed the attack to be entirely unprovoked (Anguiano & Bhuiyan). A Black woman in California stopped her car at the side of a road to change places with her father and was obedient when the police approached her. For no reason, they slammed her to the ground, knocking her unconscious (Weber). Police around the country have a knack for flinging people to the ground. A migrant woman was caught by a Border Patrol officer who “threw me to the ground in a very aggressive way. And he pulled me up three or four times, and kept slamming me on the ground,” kicking her in the rib cage and lower pelvis (Sullivan). A white Louisiana cop was videoed lifting up a Black woman who had just been attacked by several boys and “slamming the 100-pound woman to the ground repeatedly. Witnesses say that at one point, the deputy slammed [her] head into the pavement so hard that several of her braids ripped straight from her scalp” (Germain). A deaf man pulled over in Colorado for running a stop sign tried to communicate with the police in sign language but was slammed to the ground, tasered, and jailed for four months, allegedly for resisting arrest (Burke). When a disabled Black man was ordered out of his car by Ohio police and protested, “I can’t step outside the car, sir. I’m a paraplegic…I got help getting in,” they were filmed dragging him out by his hair and throwing him to the ground as he screamed in pain (Zitser).
If I’ve been piling on more than a few examples of people being treated like rag dolls, when they’re not treated as terrorists, it’s to point out that it happens far too regularly to be considered mere haphazard acts by rogue cops. Gratuitous state violence, long entrenched in this country, is a form of symbolic power. The police are enlisted and encultured into this ideology, without requiring their conscious understanding of it, for the purpose of evoking and dramatizing the state’s power through countless intimidating displays and acts, whether it involves hurling people to the ground, punching them in the stomach or, as renowned Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko experienced after a recent American tour, U.S. customs officials destroying his priceless kora (Sawa).
As this behavior trickles down and becomes normalized, we see more people at the margins of society similarly act out on vulnerable people, as if mimicking it. Over the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were over 9,000 reported hate crimes against perceived Chinese in the U.S., many involving horrific, random attacks on elderly Asians—slammed on the head by bricks, shoved from behind, thrown out of their wheelchairs. As if to explain away the problem, it’s been noted that many of these assaults have been committed by homeless and mentally people. But that only underscores the fact that it is symptomatic of a violent society from the top-down (“More than 9,000”).
The sewage system
In business-as-usual America, government coffers are militarizing the police, expanding the jail population, providing employment for the carceral complex, and solidifying corporate ties with private contractors in the electronic monitoring and surveillance industry. The state is happy to oblige in all of this, as it gives the bureaucracy and related sectors things to do and punitive profits to gain. With some eight million incarcerated, probated, and paroled under some kind of penal or protective jurisdiction, on top of the 70 million with a criminal record, we have what amounts to the physical or electronic shackling of almost a quarter of the American population. To be sure, some of the imprisoned are a threat to society. But most are not. Fascism sweeps up everyone. In the name of law and order, large numbers get put away in either human cages or digital cages, subject to criminal-record blacklisting, GPS tracking, or other forms of electronic carceral surveillance. As the technology develops and evolves, there is no telling how it may become employed against all of us in the future.
On the other hand—and this is also key to understanding fascism—the state cannot drag so many into its net without the approval and support of the population at large. With both perceived and real dangers all around them, the paranoid half of the American public is highly obsessed with law and order. Politicians exploit this to get elected and promise to follow through. The state is happy to oblige and expedite this collective desire for ever more arrests for an increasing array of crimes. And of course, the more crime there is, the more the public demands the sort of harsh state response that fascism trumpets. Oddly, nothing really changes, but what counts is the illusion of change, namely that the internal enemy is being packed off and society cleansed of its human waste, even when it’s recycled back into society in the more toxic form of traumatized ex-convicts.
I use the metaphor of the “sewage system” to underscore that it’s not merely a question of the object itself. Rather, sewage is the constituent product of a system, an economy, both politically and symbolically speaking. It’s a political economy in that it is a real economy producing something, the criminalized and imprisoned, for consumption by its stakeholders—prison and police officials, contractors, prosecutors, and politicians—though at taxpayer expense and with collateral damage to the communities of the incarcerated. It’s a symbolic economy as well in that it produces something illusory for public consumption—human waste—which furnishes the evidence of its own production, even if and precisely because real humans are involved.
But it’s not enough to sweep things up once and for all to restore society to some primordial state of order. The public demands ongoing evidence, continual reassurance in the form of a constant flow of waste. The human sewage needs to be sent out of the way, but not to disappear. To provide the guilty with free room and board in which to do their time is unacceptable, and what happens to those dispatched to the carceral underworld needs to be made evident. They must be made to suffer throughout the duration of their sentences under the harshest possible conditions. In this sadistic theater, the line between those on stage and the audience is sharply drawn. If the question is what accounts for the enormous amount of human sewage the fascist state is compelled to produce, the answer is that there is something about this continuous outflow that is immensely satisfying. After all, as the Nazis said of the Jews, it serves them right: they had it coming to them.
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This essay appears in Sexual Fascism: Essays, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.
Related posts by Isham Cook:
American fascism: The sexual rage of the state
Sexual surveillance in the Covid-19 era
Covid-19 and the disease of American exceptionalism
I always finish an Isham blog feeling my knowledge and education has been hugely enhanced and leaving me with a thirst for more and this entry was no different.
I really wouldn’t agree that anti-sex sentiments is so wide among progressives, especially to be compared as another form of fascism. Controlling other people’s private behavior in this way is still primarily rightist.
The key factor for progressives has always been consent. The reason adults engaging in underage sexuality is immoral, is because children cannot consent. It’s also the reason sexual harassment is wrong, because in power differentials the party that holds over someone’s paycheck exploits how the underling can consent.
Furthermore, prevailing progressives these days are pretty adamant about sex workers rights as well. Look at the outrage at the recent OnlyFans debacle, the majority of the conversation being had supports sex workers and believes they should be treated fairly. Perhaps I’m in my own online bubble, but that seems to be the vast majority to me.
Most progressives I know do not think that nudity is inherently sexual and wrong either, by the way. Another current event comes to mind–the child from the famous Nevermind album cover suing Nirvana. Again, the majority don’t think a naked baby constitutes pornography at all and that he’s just making a cash grab. That’s certainly the main discourse I’m seeing in progressive circles.
There are certainly some on the left who might take sexual morales too far, exploitation in prostitution is a complex subject for example, but I don’t think the data shows it is comparable to conservative religious condemnation at all. Overall, the topic of consent is pretty valid and consistent, mostly, and the young liberal-left seems to me as open minded as any generation that has come before.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ray. Consent is a tricky issue. Are you suggesting a 17-year old is incapable of consent because they’re underage? (check out e.g. Joseph Fischel’s book Screw Consent to understand some of the complexities of “consent”). No one is advocating for sexual harassment here, but again, it’s tricky (check out Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances on campus harassment). I think progressives are pretty torn about sex work, split right down the middle between those supporting and those who believe all sex work is “trafficking.” Needless to say, I fully support OnlyFans’ explicit performers, and I hope the majority aren’t offended by the Nirvana cover. U.S. sexual mores are always in a state of change and many people are easily swayed one way or another. Nowadays, many teachers on American campuses are losing their job or being attacked for the slightest, sometimes inadvertent comments that some react to as if they came out of the mouth of a Nazi – these are “progressives” conducting these attacks. Progressives of course are not a monolith. In this section of my essay, I’m packing a number of sexual stereotypes under the word “progressives” together for rhetorical effect, to get people to think and react. I do suppose most progressives would hold at least one of these stereotypes.
There definitely are enthusiastic college kids who can get over the top in seeking justice, that happens sometimes. But I do think it’s hard to say if that’s an overall trend or some exaggerated that mostly exists in outrage internet land. I’m just not sure how big a deal this actually is, how accurate the twittersphre represents reality, is that valid?
And I do thank you for being thoughtful, for not going with the overly simplistic “Metoo has gone too far” take…
As for 17-year olds, there are those age of consent laws in state to state, and it is tricky. But when it comes to power differentials, perhaps erring on the side of caution is smarter these days. If anything, it takes longer to grow up and be an “adult” in the increasingly complex modern world, so best to not push the envelope with teenagers. If an historical figure married very young young, does that matter? Probably not. If an older adult dates someone in high school, is that wrong? Well, it can be a lot more wrong now than in the past. Mores do always change, of which hopefully they are evolving not regressing.
My concern in this essay is for the teenagers themselves, how easily and inadvertently THEY can get tripped up by the law in the sexually fascist state. I myself have zero interest in teenagers.