Read below a very incomplete and half-baked case for building an economics of abolition, or abolitionist economics. This will be a work in progress, and I hope other radical economists are interested in building this research agenda and approach, especially those working on stratification economics, feminist economics, institutionalist approaches, post-Keynesian economics, Marxian economics, and economic alternatives to capitalism.
As uprisings across the United States against racism, police brutality, and the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, calls for defunding, dismantling, and abolishing the police, as well as dismantling prisons and other forms of incarceration in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, have all gained interest- in short, the people have spoken in support of abolition. For economists, this begs the questions: why should economists care about abolition and what would an economics of abolition entail? Police violence and mass incarceration are in fact economic issues, and the principles of abolition should inform economic analysis and policy. Abolition intersects with many ongoing discussions in economics including the care economy, racial justice, reparations, access to housing, environmental justice, schooling, and so on. Further, the abolition of police and prisons seeks to ultimately remove the state’s capacities for upholding the racial order, upholding gendered and patriarchal relationships, upholding and protecting private property, and upholding global imperialism- all of which have profound implications for our economic systems.
Abolition, like any transition such as one to a sustainable green economy, is a long-term process of transition and transformation. So I’m asking- how can economics as a discipline begin to work towards abolition?
Why Economists Should Care About Abolition: Racial Capitalism and the Carceral Economy
Policing, prisons, and other related topics are widely discussed across disciplines, yet minimally discussed within the field of economics and even political economy, though subsets of scholars are exceptions. While a mainstream economics of crime subfield exists the primary focus of this field is an evaluation policies and laws and their impacts on outcomes, rather than examining the scope of the carceral state as an economic institution in and of itself. Further, much of the economics of crime in embedded in the rationality model of Gary Becker which supposes punishment as a Pareto efficient way of dealing with crime (presumably deterring), without consideration for the social construction of crime itself and its roots in anti-Black racism.
Within fields that do explicitly engage in understanding the role that police, prisons, and criminality play in society- such as critical criminology, sociology, geography, anthropology, and so on- there are varying, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, ideas about conceptualizing these institutions, their origins, and relationship to capitalism. The work of Dylan Rodriguez conceptualizes the centrality of a prison regime of bodily immobilization, while others center the prison-industrial complex, or center policing in their analyses. But, for succinctness, I will refrain from summarizing these debates, and instead identify the carceral state as the totality of state apparatuses including, police, prisons, jails, and surveillance that incapacitate individuals and result in premature civic and biological death. In other words, the institutions that embody (state) violence. Many view this carceral state as a domestic extension of military Keynesian- in this case carceral Keynesianism as it was dubbed by Mike Davis- that is an economic strategy of state led investment in the state’s capacities for violence. The economics of abolition seeks to dismantle and abolish capacities for violence by dismantling apparatuses of policing and imprisonment, and investing in practical alternatives, especially care.
Racial Capitalism/Carceral Capitalism
In Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang synthesizes some of the competing approaches to understanding policing and mass incarceration, as well as surveillance, by drawing both on Cedric Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism (described here by Robin D.G. Kelley) and Afropessimism’s focus on the role of gratuitous violence. In this synthesis, racial capitalism describes as economic system rooted in the racial order of white supremacy and organized by two logics: the logic of capital accumulation to maintain capitalist’s exploitation of labor for surplus, and the logic of gratuitous violence to maintain the racial order. In describing economies of predatory inclusion and exclusion, Wang notes that “While the first three categories (of financialization, automation, and looting) represent exclusionary processes that proceed by way of inclusion (subjectivication as citizen debtors, incorporation through the extension of credit), confinement and gratuitous violence are examples of exclusionary processes that result in civic and actual death. In other words, in the first three instances the parasitic state and predatory credit system must keep people alive in order to extract from them; in the latter two instances it must confine and kill to maintain the racial order.” (Wang 80)
Why is it important to understand the dual logics of capital accumulation and gratuitous violence and premature death when analyzing the carceral state? Competing ideas about the carceral state debate whether or not mass incarceration is consistent with being driven by a purely profit motive, either to warehouse surplus labor and manage the reserve army of unemployed or the direct profit motive of prisons that engage exploiting prison labor. But, as Wang explains, mass incarceration is more nuanced than a singular guiding profit motive and the lens of racial capitalism provides a more accurate generalization:
“Yet to reduce mass incarceration to the profit motivate would be misleading, considering that most inmates are held in publicly operated state and federal facilities as well as public local jails. Though as many as seven hundred thousand prisoners are employed in a variety of jobs (ranging from facility maintenance to manufacturing jobs in industries such as furniture production), the majority of those in prisons and jails don’t work. A question that a purely economistic view fails to address is why, when the welfare state was being dismantled, and there was an ideological pivot away from “big government”, was the public induced to believe that a prison binge was legitimate while spending ons social services, education, and job creation was not?” (82)
The rollback of the welfare state is an important factor in analyzing the rise of the carceral economy, particularly one that shifted away from the War on Poverty and towards increased policing and imprisonment, as Elizabeth Hinton writes in From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs. Wang writes that, “This evolution in the social function of the state from provider of social services to provider of security also represented an evolution in how racialized populations in the United States would be managed.” (83) At the same time, backlash to the Civil Rights movement- especially he more radical aspects- was stymied through the use of criminalization. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, ““The more militant anti capitalism and international solidarity became everyday features of U.S. antiracist activism, the more vehemently the state responded by, as Allen Feldman (1991) puts it, “individualizing disorder” into singular instances of criminality.” ( Wilson Gilmore 25)
The two logics of capital accumulation and gratuitous anti-Black violence coalesce into the carceral state, where the vested interests of the prison-industrial complex, the white backlash against Civil Rights, the reconfiguration of antiBlackness through colorblind laissez-fair racism especially via criminality, a growing so-called surplus population due to deindustrialization and stagnation, the political interests of prison development, and the growing power of policing combine ideologically and economically to transform the welfare state into the carceral state (Footnote: one might also add military surplus to this mix). Wang concludes, “All of this is to say that antiBlack racism is at the core of mass incarceration and the transformation of the welfare state not only into the (neoliberal) debt state, but into the penal state as well. At the dawn of the carceral era, the United States chose the path of disinvestment the United States chose divestment in social entitlements and investment in prisons and police.”
While some may consider the carceral state to be outside the field of economics, it is in fact an economic institution governing access to economic life and profoundly intersecting with race, gender, class, and ability- and to emphasize again, as Wang notes, it is rooted in anti-Blackness. How does the carceral state govern economic activity and outcomes?
Criminal records limit labor market prospects, exclude individuals from labor markets, as well as access to voting and Federal financial aid. Increasingly the use of parole and e-carceration works as ‘parolefare’ crowding individuals into low wage work. Policing and the threat of incarceration can be viewed as a form of labor discipline. Incarceration leads to great family food insecurity. Fines and fees associated with arrest and incarceration pose exorbitant penalties, often garnished from the wages of those who do work but often contributing to prolonged incarceration. Mass incarceration absorbs the surplus reserve army of unemployed. Mass incarceration worsens the impact of recessions especially for Black households. Certain economic activities such as sex work and informal drug trade are deemed illegal, and disability, queerness, being gender non-conforming, and being unhoused are often criminalized. Citizenship status for those without documentation is too criminalized, and subject to ICE detainment and deportation. Policing, when it is subbed for care or social work such as in the case of wellness checks, can be deadly especially for Black and brown folks. The prison system routinely exploits prison labor for reproducing living conditions within the prison, public works projects, and for for-profit industries. For-profit prisons themselves reap profits directly from local, state, and Federal finance, as do underwriters of state and municipal bonds, construction corporations, and land developers. Service providers to prisons- such as food services, medical providers, telephone and video conferencing providers- many now owned by private equity firms-, also benefit financially. Police often lack any true community accountability, and race and geography in part determine this. Military surpluses often find their way to prisons, police departments, and even schools through the 1033 program, where the carceral state absorbs the excesses of global imperialism and segregatated areas procure more military vehicles and SWAT tactics.
While the carceral economy may not strictly be shaped by the profit-motive and logic of capital accumulation, coupled with the logic of gratuitous state violence that has driven its expansion and the opportunism of capital, the state has created an entire sector of the economy- the carceral economy.
What does the carceral economy uphold? The carceral state and economy work to uphold key features of racial capitalism:
1.) the racial order of white supremacy (read: whiteness)
2.) private property necessary for exploitation (Footnote: property crimes as a category is worthy of its own examination) and the coercion of labor through violence and incapacitation
3.) (hetero)patriarchal relations through disproportionately burdening women- especially Black women- and disrupting families, criminalizing sex work, gender non-conformity, and queerness. Further women’s imprisonment, its origins, and its impacts should not be overlooked, and Angela Davis writes further of the gendered structure of the prison system.
4.) normalizing violence and reliance on the carceral state to deal with violence (read: carceral feminism) despite that many reports show police having high rates of being domestic abusers.
Measuring the Carceral Economy
A challenge and research agenda is to measure the existing carceral economy- the totality of spending and economic activity dedicated to maintaining these systems of state violence. What do we know about the scope of the carceral economy, in terms of macroeconomics, applied microeconomics, as well as public finance? The following sections briefly discuss an outline of describing the carceral economy, however I should not that conceptualizing this will be a discussion and debate in and of itself. These are just some broad notes on the scope of the existing economic activities associated with policing and prisons.
Arjuan Jayadev and Samuel Bowles (2004) estimate the extent of guard labor in the U.S. economy. In their definition, protective guard labor refers to “supervisory labor, private guards, police, judicial and prison employees, military and civilian employees of the department of defense (and those producing military equipment), the unemployed, and prisoners” (10). Supervisory labor refers to bosses whose main role in workplaces is to discipline against shirking and guard against property theft. In general, the term guard labor seeks to identify occupations associated with the enforcement of property rights, with an analysis of economic power stemming from property rights central to their analysis. From 1890 to 2002, guard labor in their definition increases substantially as a share of total employment in the U.S. economy, from 6% to 1980, 6.9% in 1929, 18.9% in 1948, 20.9% in 1966, 23.4% in 1979, 24.9% in 1989 and 26.1% in 2002. Their work estimates that guard labor as of 2002 is composed of 15.7% supervisors, 2.2% guards, 1.8% military, 4.8% unemployed, and 1.5% prisoners- the highest percentage of prisoners of any advanced economy in their analysis and a sharp increase from 1989 which included 0.5% prisoners. They note that while the military fraction declined after 1966, the fraction of prisoners and guards (police, correlations officials, and private security personnel) increased rapidly thereafter. Their data does not include related civilian employees of the military. The authors also note that “Ideally we would also include those producing guns for private use, locks, security systems and the like, but we are not able to do so because of the lack of data.” Jayadev and Bowles. The growth in guard labor, especially that labor directly associated with the carceral state of police and prisons, is striking and the paper finds notable association between measures of guard labor and income inequality.
In the U.S., law enforcement is primarily funded through individual municipalities as well as through states in the case of state police. According to the Urban Institute’s analysis, in 2017 $115 billion was spent on policing, but with wide geographic variation in spending. For example, for 2020-21 the Los Angeles city budget proposed $3.14 billion to the LAPD out of a total budget of $10.5 billion- which is a substantial proportion of spending. To contrast, the L.A. city budget for housing and community investment, including affordable housing and rent stabilization was less than 1% of the total budget in 2016-17 and the budget for other general city purposes like youth homelessness and substance abuse was less than 2%. The Center for Popular Democracy reported in a survey of city budgets that the highest percentage of general fund expenditures for police was Oakland, California at 41.2 percent, and that amongst the cities profiled police spending ranged from $381 per capita to $772 per capita. Policing budgets, particularly in cities, appear to crowd out expenditures on critical care and housing programs. Additional studies examine the relationship between local politics and spending on police, including how ethnic fragmentation shapes policing spending, the potential spillover effects of this relationship,
Prisons and Courts
The Urban Institute in 2017 estimated $79 billion on corrections. Other estimates show larger costs when accounting for not just corrections, but the costs of the court system and other aspects of the prison system, with the Prison Policy Initiative estimating a cost of $182 billion in 2017. They also estimate the totality of costs for prisons, courts, policing, and so on to be roughly $265 billion. In terms of the growth of spending on prisons, state and local spending on corrections has quadrupled since 1980, starkly outpacing the growth in spending on P-12 education according to the Department of Education.
Schools, Services, and other spaces of the Carceral Apparatus
As I argue in my dissertation, schools are a site of the carceral state, with portions of school budgets dedicated to policing, security guards, and metal detectors and other physical security measures which act as an enclosure to economic opportunity. Schools too have been recipients of 1033 program military surplus, including grenade launchers. These costs of creating carceral school environments are difficult to quantify, but compose a growing segment of the carceral economy particularly as concerns about school violence ramp up the fortification of schools, largely at the expense of Black and brown students. Angela Davis observes this contradiction of schools oriented towards the carceral state: “Schools can therefore be seen as the most powerful alternative to jails and prisons. Unless the current structures of violence are eliminated from schools in impoverished communities of color- including the presence of armed security guards and police- and unless schools become places that encourage the joy of learning, these schools will remain major conduits to prisons. The alternative would be to transform schools into vehicles for decarceration.” (108)
In relation to the PIC, juvenile justice facilities and alternative schools are often operated by independent for-profit corporations under contract with state governments, such as Community Education Partners and have business relationships with corporations within the prison-industrial complex such as CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). A further research question that I have is to understand how alternative schools have proliferated due to concerns about metrics on disciplinary disparities for schools, and how this has contributed to tracking. Another question, related to the PIC, is to understand the connections many alternative schools have to the PIC and how these independently operated and contracted schools relate to the charter school movement, which employs a similar model.
The Prison-Industrial Complex
The prison-industrial complex (PIC) is often described as centering the profit-motive as the central logic of mass incarceration. However, in synthesis with the dual logics of racial capitalism, the prison-industrial complex represents a coalescence of private business and political interests benefiting from investment in state-sanctioned violence., rather than a central logic or driver of expansion. However, further mapping of these economic interests is important, regardless of whether we believe these interests are the central driver of the carceral state. Read further on the prison-industrial complex and its ties to the military-industrial complex in New York’s prison boom. Further, we also know that central to the PIC has been the role of state, municipal, and private finance including private equity firms, which have been nimble opportunists in skimming profits from the state’s investment in policing and prisons. Other interests include the corporations servicing prisons, corporations providing equipment to policing and prisons, contractors constructing facilities, and land developers benefiting from the geographic placement of prisons.
Military Keynesian and Global Imperialism
An innate connection between the military and the carceral economy exists. Gilmore discusses the rise of post-war military Keynesianism and its moprhing to carceral Keynesian- both representing state investment in state-sanctioned premature death. For those that theorize the U.S. as having internal colonies, this analysis of the military and imperialism’s connection to the carceral state is clear. In discussing the relationship between the military and prisons, Davis writes “What may be even more important to our discussion is the extent to which both share important structure features. Both systems generate huge profits from processes of social destruction. Precisely that which is advantageous to those corporations, elected officials, and government agents who have obvious stakes in the expansion of these systems begets grief and devastation for poor and racially dominated communities in the United States and throughout the world. The transformation of imprisoned bodies- and they are in their majority bodies of color- into sources of profit who consume and also often produce all kinds of commodities, devours public funds, which might otherwise be available for social programs such as education, housing, childcare, recreation, and drug programs.” (88) Including the military budget to estimate of the carceral economy adds nearly an additional $1 trillion of public spending. It also intersects the analysis of the carceral economy with that of global imperialism.
Costs of the Carceral Economy
An alternative examination of the carceral economy would be to examine its costs. Costs to be calculated could be in forgone economic output due to investment in the carceral state, forgone earnings of those with criminal records, and forgone multiplier effects due to investments in prisons and policing instead of education, social services, and other public services. The true costs of incarceration in terms of employment, health, and other outcomes, we know are disproportionately burden on African American women. Could we also examine the costs of aggressive policing and incarceration in how these activities of the state impact neighborhood housing values, therefore deplete wealth, especially for Black communities and communities of color? How do we measure and conceptualize these costs of the carceral state?
An Abolitionist Approach to Economics
Given the potential scope of the existing carceral economy, abolition proposes the need for an economic transition away from the carceral state in a similar way to which many environmental economists call for a green transition away from resource extraction and towards the principle of sustainability. Abolition entails the transition of the economy away from one based on the use and proliferation of state-sanctioned violence and towards care, consent, accountability, democratic participation, cooperation, and solidarity.
Abolition also entails, ultimately:
- the abolition of anti-Blackness (read: whiteness) and racial hierarchy, with practical steps including reparations to descendants of American slavery, defunding of police, decarceration of prisons, coupled with first and foremost reparations, social reinvestment in health, social, community, and educational services, and so on
- the abolition of hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and so on based on patriarchal relations, and investment in care work that is not undervalued in society
- and the abolition of private property therefore class exploitation (footnote: this could be restated as the abolition of the coerced capitalist fundamental class process of exploitation)
- What else?
Further, Ruth Gilmore Wilson discusses the connection between prisons and economic and environmental justice: “Racism is the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Prison expansion is a new iteration of this theme. Prisons and other locally unwanted land uses accelerate the mortality of modestly educated working people of all kinds in urban and rural settings and show how economic and environmental justice are central to antiracism.” (Golden Gulag 247) An abolitionist economics is also an economics that calls for environmental and economic justice.
Abolitionist Principles for Economic Institutions: Planned Obsoletion of Policing and Incarceration
In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Y. Davis describes plainly a central principle of abolition: to build a society in which the need for prisons, policing, and other forms of violence are rendered obsolete.
Davis writes, “An abolitionist approach that seeks to answer questions such as these would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment- demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” (107)
This principle of obsoletion should be a key guiding notion for creating abolitionist economic policy. For example, a reinvestment in the care sector of the economy and housing- healthcare, mental health resources, social work, community organizations, housing- would work to eliminate the need to policing and prisons altogether. Additional conceptualizing of these practical alternatives is discussed in Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing. Angela Davis writes, “The alternatives toward which I have gestured thus far- and this is only a small selection of examples, which can also include job and living wage programs, alternatives to the disestablished welfare program, community-based recreation, and many more- are associated both directly and indirectly with the existing system of criminal justice…As they contest racism and other networks of social domination, their implementation will certainly advance the abolitionist agenda.” A reinvestment in the care economy intersects with many analyses from feminist economics, that seek to understand and remedy the devaluation of care work (but again, a debate exists here that can too be informed by an abolitionist lens).
Second, investment in social services around conflict mediation and resolution, reconciliation, and other trauma-informed practices would make obsolete some of the central concerns many have about a world without policing and prisons, mainly those of how to handle domestic violence. The ultimate goal however of abolitionist policies will be the eliminate of gender-based violence altogether. Further, many of these practices can be informed through a decolonial lens, for example, some restorative and transformative justice programs in schools are informed by Indigenous practices of conflict and grief circles. This is an important approach in part due to the disproportionate impact the carceral state has on Native and Indigenous peoples. The relationship between the carceral economy/state and imperialism implies that abolitionist economics intersect with decolonial and post-colonial approaches.
Third, but maybe perhaps first, abolitionist economics must bring those from the so-called margins to the center, as bell hooks described. That means centering the needs, voices, and communities of those most marginalized by the system being dismantled- Black women and communities, Indigenous and Native women and communities, trans and gender non-conforming, and so on. Similarly, Davis writes:”To reiterate, rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society. Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the financial analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.” (Davis 108)
What else would an economics of abolition intersect with?
From Abolition to Care and Cooperation ?
An economic transition to abolition would similarly facilitate other transitions in the economy. For example, abolitionist practices would work to build economic relationship based on consent and accountability rather than coercion and violence. Abolitionist community alternatives also work to foster community solidarity, accountability, cooperation and democratic processes which would further facilitate new economic alternatives based on cooperation and other post-capitalist approaches. Many of these principles mirror the principles of cooperation and the solidarity economy such as voluntary membership, mutual cooperation, community solidarity, and democratic control.
“When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined towards ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the ground. In other words, movement happens.” (Wilson Gilmore 248)
But many questions- economic questions- about this transition remain. For example, is a transition away from the carceral economy and towards care state-led or community-led and what are the implications for both? How does such a transition work to economically foster global solidarity without the use of state sanctioned violence? How do we discuss the debates about conceptualizing the carceral state, police state, prison-industrial complex and other approaches into our economics of abolition?
What economic policies, alternatives, and ideas should we re-evaluation through an abolitionist lens such that they do not perpetuate policing, prisons, and violence and instead work to render them obsolete?
These half-baked thoughts map out the very beginnings of thinking how to integrate abolitionist thought and principles into our approaches and analysis in economics, particularly heterodox economics, but to the broader fields of economics and public policy in general. There are many other resources I failed to mention here and I am interested in finding and learning about if other economists have explicitly discussed integrating an abolitionist perspective into our work. I suspect much of the work we already do can be considered abolitionist, however for radical economists, I am asking that we consider how to center abolition as a goal in our economics. Further, we also carefully discuss the meaning of abolition itself and explicitly center the the goal of eliminating the racial hierarchy and premature death of racialized peoples.