‘To Freedom That Blooms on Stumps: A Review of Jackie Wang’s “Carceral Capitalism”’, by Cher Tan

MIT Press

The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.

—Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?

One of the first zines I ever read, back in 2007, was Against Prisons by Catherine Baker. Still a new text at the time, the ideas outlined in this slim volume were at once humbling and mind-expanding. A family member of mine had just been released from prison, and having not gone to university (I still haven't), certain concepts that were perplexing and out of reach to me – in this case, ideas around criminality, innocence and justice – became coherent, like I was unlocking a new realm in a video game. After this, author-published zines became the decentralised medium that would act as a pathway between the previously-unknowable and a ravenous mind. This self-assembling of knowledge would help connect the dots, and help develop an attitude that would lead to inquiry and action outside the institution.

It was in this spirit that I came across Jackie Wang's zines On Being Hard Femme and The Phallic Titty Manifesto a couple of years later. These texts helped articulate what was only really vaguely grasped by a young adult who was questioning her gender and sexuality. Wang gave queerness a new language, even if the ideas themselves were not new. Accessibility was (and still is) key! When complex ideas are reconstituted into the poetic and the personable, the revolution comes home.

This is a story of two young punks from opposite ends of the world re-converging years later. It is a story of psychic foreshadowing, even if the characters in the story have never met: of ideas that would continue to develop. “By […] politicising our understanding of friendship, and engaging in other cooperative activities”, Wang writes in the introduction to her new essay collection Carceral Capitalism, “we suffused desire into our practices and moved politics beyond the compartmentalised realm of ‘organising’ and into our daily lives.” She wants to remind us that the personal is always political and it is how it begins.

As such, Carceral Capitalism is a treatise that is neatly neither academic nor literary. It's a unique blend of both that is at once lyrical and deadly serious. By fusing the practical and the abstract, Wang writes compelling essays that are a sum of her parts – “a student of the dream state, black studies scholar, prison abolitionist, poet, performer, library rat, trauma monster and PhD student at Harvard University”. The book ends up being a searing indictment of neoliberalism. How it has become enmeshed with Big Data tech (algorithms, predictive policing, facial recognition, data mining et al); perpetuates racial inequality; and upholds the prison system. It's also driven by lived experience: in 2004, her then seventeen-year-old, older brother was arrested and sentenced to life in prison without parole. This has been amended to a forty year sentence, the result of a plea deal in lieu of a resentencing hearing, after several years of being in juridical limbo that positioned time “within a context of uncertainty”. Her pain is palpable: “How does someone experience the passing of time when he is condemned to live out his entire adult life in prison?” Wang withholds information from us about her brother's alleged crimes, because they're not important; in concealing this knowledge she is also making us ask ourselves: why are we deliberating his ‘goodness’ (as opposed to a culpable ‘badness’)? The essays – all new, except “Against Innocence”, which was the catalyst for the collection – don't follow a traditional format: there are citations of other scholarly work, case studies and statistics as much as there are personal narratives and poetic missives.

Today, the function of the prison is inextricably tied to the state. In a world where social relations are directly and indirectly shaped by the penal system, Wang wryly asks if many see prison abolition as an “unrealisable dream”. Does one have to rethink their views on punishment, reconciliation and innocence to shatter the meaning behind imprisonment? She invokes Ferguson, the Attica prison uprising and the raid on Harper's Ferry as examples of how socially-accepted modes of thinking behind imprisonment and criminality are subverted. Closer to home in so-called Australia, incarceration serves to deny freedom to those deemed unworthy, as seen on Rottnest Island, Nauru, Don Dale. Which doesn't abate even as the facts keep rolling in. Innocence is conjured in a way that only appeals to empathy when someone fits the narrative of the tragic ‘good victim’, as a racialised person who is “thoroughly whitewashed, neutralised, and made unthreatening”. This is why the moral ‘goodness’ of some asylum seekers or convicts is so frequently underscored in the media after they have died. As Wang notes, “Using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address antiblack violence is an appeal to the white imaginary. […] When the ‘innocence’ of a black victim is not established, he or she will not become a suitable spokesperson for the cause.”

Elsewhere in the book, Wang writes incisively on the ways current technologies are applied to entrench racialised people in poverty and disenfranchisement. When presumably ‘neutral’ tech is utilised, it assumes a veneer of scientific legitimacy that is then deployed to uphold age-old racist policies. Already we see this unfolding via digital redlining, the ways non-white faces are interpreted by facial recognition software, and algorithmic policing (which predicts future crimes by looking at data from past crimes). Wang argues that when a general desire for order is sought after in an increasingly unpredictable world, it is manipulated by dominant bodies who ostensibly use ‘big data’ to solve the problem of uncertainty. By using tech to neatly embody bodies that are complex and messy, with data collected from a slew of already-existing prejudices, it cements current inequalities in even more insidious ways – especially if the tech is constructed as infallible.

In Australia, we see this usage of tech manifesting in the recent Centrelink ‘robo-debt’ controversy, as well as the “Suspect Targeting Management Plan”, used in New South Wales to justify stop-and-frisks of (largely Aboriginal) youth as young as eleven. In these instances of ‘unbiased’ tech, blatant discrimination becomes a rule of thumb: why would the tech be wrong? And, as Wang notes, “rather than viewed as vulnerable, the (racialised) juvenile was constructed as predatory […] a calculable risk that must be pre-emptively managed, for they have been deemed incapable of self-government and self-determination”.

It's the dawn of a predatory state. We're not just witnessing taxation and debt, but seeing these aspects of capitalism blossom as it works hand-in-hand with privatisation, tech and the elite. These factors continue to ensnare the poor in cycles of poverty within what Wang refers to as a “logic of exploitability and disposability” that inevitably penalises the already-marginalised. The book is very US-centric, but I nevertheless draw horrific parallels in Australia: ‘liar loans', rent-to-own scams, privatised prisons and an automated fines system surround me like spectres. And as banks act like salespeople and try to sell us indebtedness itself, debt continues to balloon. To use myself as an example, I have barely lived long enough in Australia (let alone make enough money) to build up a ‘good’ credit rating, yet I can get a loan approved online in mere minutes. Furthermore, how much debt have my peers racked up using ‘fintech’ (financial technology) like Afterpay, ostensibly targeted towards cash-poor millennials? For many without connections, money or power, we are increasingly living in a no-future era where we trade on the present to grasp upon an illusory sense of security. Who can we trust?

Despite the catastrophically dystopian tone in Carceral Capitalism, Wang's other vocations as a poet and zine-maker shine through, giving some of the essays a feeling of dream-like buoyancy. She quotes other poets and revolutionary thinkers such as Mahmoud Darwish, Assata Shakur and Rosa Luxemberg, as their visions of hope amid struggle link arms with her own. They're bound together by a sense that something can be achieved cooperatively, if “the spark [is] kept alive / underground, waiting for the right conditions”.

At this, I think back to my politics and the various people who have inspired me to build upon it. I can't see a certain future for myself, but perhaps mutual aid and an insurgent compassion will power me through. Helplessness and hopefulness are blended together to form a transcendental brew. Accordingly, Carceral Capitalism – while a chilling reminder of how vulnerable certain subsets of society can be to the predatory state – continues to be filled with dreaming and possibility, which if wielded cooperatively can perhaps be construed as cracks in the system.

Cher Tan is a freelance writer in Kaurna country/Adelaide. She writes mostly on tech, identity, politics and culture. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Right Now, i-D, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Runway, amongst others. She is the author of cultural criticism food/book journal Cooking The Books and can also be found at @mxcreant.