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Carceral Capitalism: A Conversation with Jackie Wang

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Jackie Wang: In the carceral municipality you are followed in your car by a police officer as you drive to your shit job simply because you are not white. While you are being given a ticket for $300 the cop realizes there is a warrant out for your arrest for an unpaid fine for the length of your grass being three inches too long (though you cannot recall having ever received such a fine). In jail, you call your aunt to bail you out, but she doesn’t have the money and it takes her a day to secure your release through a commercial bondsman. Since your aunt lacked financial assets, she had to list her car as collateral. When she misses a payment due to low-waged and precarious employment, she will be charged additional fees by the bondsman. After you are released from jail, you are reprimanded by your boss for missing work without calling in, and you are written up. Because your license has been revoked for traffic violations and an unpaid ticket, you now have to use the unreliable and underfunded public transportation system to get to work. You arrive late on the day you have been summoned to appear in court because the bus did not arrive on time, and thus you are forced to reschedule your court appearance and pay an additional fee. This scenario could go on and on and on…

What would an alternative look like? I invoke Fred Moten toward the end of the chapter on municipal finance because he reminds me that in the cracks of the carceral society, insurgent socialities already exist. People have an urge toward life, a need to gather, to jam, to conduct experiments in care when the welfare state and health-care system have failed us. It could be comrades taking turns to take the poet Anne Boyer to the hospital while she undergoes cancer treatment, or the creation of mental health collectives, or things more quotidian, not necessarily bound up with our brokenness and deteriorating bodies. It could be the sociality created in the Baltimore Feminist Reading group I was part of, the different mode of engagement we invented there, based on friendship and not the performance of mastery found in the academic seminar. This is not to glorify informal structures of care that emerge in the crucible of a capitalist system that would grind us all to pulp if it weren’t for our friends. But this is the unexpected underside of social precarity: its production of need and dependence can sometimes be socially binding.

Still, some people fall through the cracks. These informal structures are not always sustainable or functional. We don’t always have the resources to catch each other when we fall, when someone is laid off from their job or evicted. I would like a world where housing and food are not commodities, where everyone has health care and guaranteed basic income rather than compulsory debt, and everyone is free to move (without being policed or surveilled) and travel using reliable green transportation infrastructure. As for the city, it should not consist solely of commercial space, but also include true commons: public space for people to gather, for teens to loiter to their heart’s content. Who knows what will be created when congregation is not met with regulation. More here.

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