Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Social Disintegration

"If you go to Malaysia, there's sexual slavery going on in places like that, but I'm more concerned about the slavery that is going on in America," Tarantino said backstage at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards. "The drug laws that have put so many black males in jail that wouldn't have existed in the '70s, that is slavery. It is just straight up slavery as far as I'm concerned."

- Quentin Tarantino

There is a school of thought that maintains that as modern fossil fuel based industrial civilization breaks down, we will regress to some sort of primitive, feudal order. That social instituions like chattel slavery, hereditary aristocracy, debt bondage and the like, previously thought to be eliminated forever in the name of “progress”, will make a return, while things like universal suffrage and democratic political structures will go the way of the dodo. That universal  human rights will be essentially eliminated, and we will return to a pre-Enlightenment type of social order. Many of the more imaginative dystopian writers have even envisioned a future world similar to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, or worse.

I have to say that if you had asked me a couple years ago, I would have found such ideas laughable. Technological regression does not mean cultural regression, I would have said. That it's a sort of reversalist fallacy, or a technological determinist fallacy – that our social structures are entirely dictated by the means of technology at our disposal. I would have called such people doomers and chicken littles.

But I have to say, the last few years have really made me reconsider my position. The social disintegration of the United States is simply breathtaking.  In the United States, the use of such institutions as police, courts, prisons and universities to impose a brutal new class structure has made me wonder if we really are headed to a social order more similar to that of thousands of years ago, with hereditary rulers and serfs, than we like to imagine. I admit, it sounds a bit implausible, but we’re already seeing the very early inklings of this on the horizon.

Consider things like mass incarceration in the United States. It essentially creates a vast store of second-class citizens, deprived of their right to vote and many other fundamental civil rights, and unemployable forever, meaning that once a felon, always a felon. Increasingly, prisoners are used as virtual slave labor in American corporations. The United States even has a school-to-prison pipeline, using things like search and raid missions and the drug war to send students directly to prison, never even granting them the inconvenience of freedom. A quarter of the world’s prisoners are housed in America’s jails, most of them minorities due to selective enforcement. As legitimate avenues for work disappear, more and people are forced into the black market and underground economies, where they can be arrested and turned into bonded labor for corporations in brutal rape factories, with their upkeep paid for by the taxpayers. This is not some dystopian future scenario, this is happening right now.

Many college students are held in a modern form of debt bondage. College loans are essentially no more than buying a right to work, and much of your income goes to servicing that debt and the interest payments, constraining the freedom of the debtor. The laws have been rewritten so that this debt can never be discharged, even in bankruptcy. The grantors of this “work chit” have become wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, turning schools into country clubs, collecting seven-figure salaries, running modern day gladiator games (college sports) and recruiting wealthy foreign students from abroad. Schools like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, etc. are six-figure gateways to the upper class.

Unions are being eliminated even in the old industrial Midwest; indeed, they are nearly gone already. ”Right to work” laws strip labor of any rights whatsoever, except to enter into lopsided contracts with entities who have an almost infinitely more powerful bargaining position. This lack of worker protections is almost unique among the developed world. States are played against each other in a race to the bottom in wages and benefits. More and more workers rely on food stamps to survive, and unpaid internships and work-release programs provide a source of labor earning no wages whatsover.

The right to vote is being slowly, selectively stripped from large segments of the voting public, particularly minorities and the poor. First by voter ID laws, then by underequipping and understaffing select areas, than by redrawing voting districts to take advantage of America’s balkanized residential/income pattern. Some have even alleged that certain voting machines, owned by private industries, cook the vote outright.

A long, sustained, and well-funded campaign has been waged for years to eliminate any inheritance taxes (the “death tax”). The tax burden has been transferred from the investor class (whose income is growing) to the working class (whose income is shrinking), driving a permanent budget crisis whose chief resolution is sold as eliminating the social safety net for the working class. Those with the remaining jobs are played against those who have lost theirs.

The nation’s infrastructure, built over the last two centuries, is being sold off piecemeal, often to some sort of investment fund, to provide a permanent income stream to a rentier class rather than taxpayers. This permanent rentier class functions as the landholding aristocrats of times past – deriving their income from ownership over the essential functions of society rather than any sort of useful work. Their ownership can be passed on to their heirs in perpetuity (see above).

Debtor’s prisons are returning. As BoingBoing points out, "Though it is technically no longer legal to jail people for failure to pay their debts, the debt-collection industry has figured out how to game the courts to create a series of jail-able offenses related to nonpayment. These are largely legal tricks by which debt-collectors get court orders regarding debtors with which the debtors find difficult to comply, resulting in jail for violation of the court order, often over trifling sums."

Health care, considered a human right almost everywhere outside of the United States, is inaccessible to one in five Americans and bankrupts millions more every year. Health care is tied to employment, unique among the world’s developed nations. All health indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, and the like are declining for a growing permanent underclass. The U.S ranks at the top in violent deaths, including gun deaths and suicide, while at the bottom in nearly every other health indicator. We are in a company with Mexico, Chile, Turkey and Russia rather than Great Britain, Canada, France and Japan, and those former nations are actually making inroads into reducing wealth inequality.

Now of course all of these are “backdoor” instances of these things. Student debt is not literally indentured servitude in the eighteenth century sense. And you’re not literally going to prison for debt as you would in Dickens’ London. Prisoners aren’t literally slaves – in theory they have violated the law in some way. Today’s aristocrats do not literally have titles and landholdings.  But there’re all effective facsimiles of the real thing. And two things about that, one, that’s why they’re allowed to continue without a fuss. And two, that this is probably how all the institutions I named above originally got their start: a slippery slope between something reasonable – putting someone into prison for a crime, and turning an entire race or class of people into slaves. It’s creeping normalcy – what was once an outrage simply becomes normalized. Eventually, the people who object to it become a minority – a minority that is easily corralled and silenced.

And consider all this happened without any form of effective resistance whatsoever. One form of resistance, the Occupy movement was brutally suppressed. And we now know that it was suppressed by a coordinated effort of the FBI -an organization paid for by our own taxes supposedly to protect us from crime. Is free speech now a crime? I think it's the classic case of "first they came for..." As long as these things are happening to the other guy - especially if that other guy is someone different from you in skin color, sexual orientation, religion, class status, etc., it's rationalized away. But the appetites of authoritarian regimes are never satisfied, and by the time they come for you, it's too late - everyone just accepts the "new normal."

So with those happy thoughts, here are the articles which brought these thought to my mind:
The Jim Crow segregation laws denied black people their voting rights, told them who they could not marry and where they could not eat, sit or use the bathroom. This legal regime criminalized and dehumanized an entire group of people by promulgating laws that only applied to them, with penalties including imprisonment and death. These were what Martin Luther King Jr called unjust laws – "a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal." The civil rights movement was an effort to eradicate unjust laws. And now, the Republican party is blatant in its efforts to undue the work of that movement by enacting unjust laws with a different name, but an identical purpose.

Yet there is no denying that if your goal were to consign African Americans to a permanent underclass—one which the rest of us would be culturally and legally permitted to discriminate against in employment, housing, voting rights, and government benefits—the war on drugs would be a great way to do it.

Alexander spouts statistics with which we are all familiar. Approximately half a million people are in prison or in jail for a drug offense today, compared to around 41,000 in 1980. Four out of five drug arrests are for simple possession, 80% for marijuana. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence.

At the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans were behind bars, on probation, or on parole, many whose initial violation of the drug laws spiraled into a life of crime. This is a level of mass incarceration unprecedented in history. And despite the fact that surveys show that whites are just as likely to use illegal drugs as blacks, one out of every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared to one in 106 white men.

It is that last bit that deserves attention. Through a series of anecdotes accompanied by a steady drumbeat of statistics, Alexander makes a compelling case that one of the key pillars of the fruitless war on drugs is selective enforcement coupled with plea bargain-driven judicial railroading.

Police patrols of inner-city African-American neighborhoods are characterized by a degree of hyper-aggressive vigilance, constitutionally dubious intrusiveness, and occasional brutality that would absolutely not be tolerated in the white suburbs. The vast majority of the people I went to college with smoked marijuana. Were law enforcement evenhanded, instead of growing up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, we would all be unemployable former felons.

It is this mark of Cain, the brand of the former felon, which Alexander claims is the tool that a racist society uses to turn young black men foolish enough to get involved in drugs into permanent members of the underclass. Unable to re-integrate into society because of the legal and cultural barriers that permit former felons to be treated the way Jim Crow treated African Americans, the 650,000 people released from prison every year are virtually driven into a life of crime through the systematic elimination of other options.
Is Drug War Driven Mass Incarceration the New Jim Crow? (Forbes) And, related, How Jim Crow Worked (Understanding Society):
What this shows is that at a relatively recent time in the history of the United States these organizations competed in the full light of day, without embarrassment, and with a rhetoric that encouraged violent enforcement of the racial status quo. To see video of the faces of the young men and women who opposed the integration of the Little Rock schools following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, is to see a kind of widespread, committed hatred of another social group that is more familiar to us from Rwanda or Bosnia. (Here is a short clip of the integration of Central High School from Eyes on the Prize; link.) The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 is just the most extreme example of this kind of murderous hatred and ferocious defense of the racial order. (The murderer of Medgar Evers was a member of the Citizens' Council.)

There are several hard and important questions raised by this history. How could an otherwise decent society have created the willing participation of so many millions of people in such a cruel and unjust system? Where did the virulence of the emotions of racism and aggression come from? How is it that the moral culture of the American south was such a fertile and welcoming ground for organizations like the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan? And most crucially -- can these strands of hated, intolerance, and violence emerge again?

This last question is perhaps the most urgent one.  Are racism and white supremacy once again threatening to become parts of mainstream politics? The NAACP has tracked connections between the modern descendant of the White Citizens Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the Tea Party (link). There are some very notable connections. This suggests that white supremacists continue to attempt to achieve their goals through politics and political mobilization.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric of some strands of contemporary conservative thought, the hyperbolic opposition to Federal legislation for equality of rights, and the equation of a politics of equality with "Communism" all have enormous resonance with the racialized platforms of the WCCs of the 1960s.
And those in the prison system are effectively non-persons:
Over the years I’ve written about the work of Bruce Western, Becky Pettit, Chris Uggen, and other scholars who study mass incarceration in the United States. By now, the basic outlines of the phenomenon are pretty well established and, I hope, widely known. Two features stand out: its sheer scale, and its disproportionate concentration amongst young, unskilled black men. It should be astonishing to say that more than one percent of all American adults are incarcerated, and that this rate is without equal in the country’s history and without peer internationally. Similarly, it may seem hard to believe that “five percent of white men and 28 percent of black men born between 1975 and 1979 spent at least a year in prison before reaching age thirty five”, or that “28 percent of white and 68 percent of black high-school dropouts had spent at least a year in prison by 2009″.

Those numbers come from the first chapter of Becky Pettit’s new book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. You can read the first chapter for free, but I recommend you buy the book. Pettit’s argument is that mass incarceration is such a large and intensive phenomenon that it distorts our understanding of many other social processes.

Pettit and others have been arguing for a long time that incarceration is by now a modal event in the life-course for young black men. Black men are more likely to go prison than complete college or serve in the military, and black, male, high-school dropouts are more likely to spend a year in prison than to get married.
Invisible Men (Crooked Timber)
The US comprises less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet US prisons hold more than 25 percent of all people imprisoned globally. Many of these prisoners labor at twenty-three cents per hour, or similar wages, in federal prisons contracted by the Bureau of Prisons’ UNICOR, a quasi-public, for-profit corporation, which is the US government’s thirty-ninth largest contractor. As incarceration rates explode in the US, thousands are placed in solitary confinement, often for having committed minor disciplinary infractions within prison.
Prison Slavery In Today's USA (Project Censored) See also: The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor (The Nation)
Across the nation, 33 states have proposed laws restricting voting, including a requirement that citizens present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Spurred by conservative Republican legislators and their American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), these laws are promoted under the pretext of combating voter fraud. Yet, voter fraud is exceedingly rare, with a 1 in 2.3m chance of occurring in a federal election, according to the NAACP. In a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's draconian voter ID law, lawyers representing the Republican-controlled commonwealth conceded there is no evidence voter fraud exists.

Meanwhile, Mike Turzai, the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives, has proclaimed that voting restrictions will enable a Republican victory in the upcoming presidential election. "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done," he said. The states that have enacted such laws account for 78% of the electoral votes needed to elect the president, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In Texas, where the state's discriminatory voter ID law was recently overturned by a federal appeals court, the state Republican party platform calls for a repeal of the Voting Rights Act. Supporters of repeal claim section 5 of the Act places an undue burden on some states and not others. And yet, the scourge of racially-motivated voter disenfranchisement legislation throughout the country, a potent example of Republican hubris and overreach, provides ample proof that the act is needed now more than ever.

In its 2012 platform, the Republican party endorses the voter ID laws, stating: "Voter fraud is political poison. It strikes at the heart of representative government." But the real poison is the politically-inspired, extremist assault on civil rights in the US. And the real poisoners are those Republican lawmakers leading the charge.
Republican voter ID laws' threat to US civil rights (Guardian)
A host of stories document how the New York Police Department operates outside the very laws it is charged with enforcing. In October 2011, a former NYPD narcotics detective testified that he regularly saw police plant drugs on innocent people as a way to meet arrest quotas. The NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” program has invested seventy-five million dollars to arrest suspects for possessing minimal amounts of marijuana. Each arrest costs approximately $1,000 to $2,000. Although NYPD use of unlawful restraints and disproportionate force to arrest peaceful Occupy protesters has received some news coverage, police brutality directed against people of color continues to go underreported.
New York Police Plant Drugs on Innocent People to Meet Arrest Quotas (Project Censored)
America is dangerous to your health. A recent international commission reported that U.S. men rank last in life expectancy for the 17 industrial nations in the study; U.S. women rank next to last. When it comes to health, the United States is exceptional — exceptionally bad.

The stunning report on “America’s health disadvantage” received virtually no attention in Washington and far too little in the media. Washington is fixated on “fixing the debt.” Americans are dying sooner than citizens in other industrial nations. We rank at or near the bottom in nearly every category — deaths from heart and lung disease, diabetes, infant mortality, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, car crashes. Yet Washington focuses on bookkeeping.
This deficit obsession not only saps attention from our shameful health failures, but also contributes directly to them. Our sorry life expectancy is a classic example. “Something fundamental is going wrong,” said the panel’s leader, Dr. Steven Woolf, chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Human Needs. “This is not the product of a particular administration or political party. Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries. And it’s getting worse.”

The panel identified many culprits. We don’t offer universal health insurance, so primary care resources are limited and many go without insurance. We have the highest poverty rates, and one of the worst high school graduation rates. Our safety net is less generous at protecting the poor. Millions are “food insecure.” We’re number one in sexually transmitted diseases, in deaths from gun violence and car crashes.

This is literally a question of life and death. So you would think Washington would be focused on what should be done. The first steps would include implementing health-care reform — challenging the obstructionist Republican governors who are elevating ideology over public health — both to bolster public-health programs and to get costs under control. That would require taking on the entrenched interests that drive up costs — the drug companies, the insurance companies and the private hospital complexes.

Instead, Washington is debating not how to fix our broken health-care system, but how to cut what government spends on health care — largely through Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration system. The goal is cuts that can be “scored” for budget purposes, not reforms that will lower costs and strengthen care, and certainly not steps that might be taken to help Americans survive longer.
The Troubling State of America's Health (Washington Post)
With the average cost of attending college in America at $120,000, a family of four should expect their children’s college to cost more than a home. Yet, optimism about the value of education provided justification for students to borrow $42 billion from the US this year. And many of them will end up as student-loan debt slaves.

With the estimated cost of attending a four year state college in America at $120,000, the average family of four should expect their children’s college to cost more than buying a home.  Even though only 24% of Americans believe college is affordable, 97% still believe getting a college degree is financially important to improve your life.  This optimism regarding the value of education has provided the justification for 60% of the 20 million students in college last year to borrow $42 billion from the United States government this year to stay in school.  But with the reward for a college degree falling and default rates sky-rocketing, many students and their parents will end up as the student loan debt slaves.

In 1970, when the overall unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, unemployment among college graduates was negligible, at 1.2 percent.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that with the current national unemployment rate of 7.9%, unemployment for college graduates is substantially better at 3.7%.  But many college graduates over the Great Recession have been forced to “trade down” to take $9 an hour starting jobs at Wal-Mart, FedEx and Starbucks.

Student loans just passed the $1 trillion dollar mark and continue to be the fastest growing consumer debt in the United States.  The total percentage of Americans with 1 or more student loans has increased from 12.1% to 19% over the last seven years.  Average student loan debt was $17,233 in 2005, but the level has swelled by 58% to $27,253 in 2012.  In contrast, outstanding consumer credit cards and car loans balances in the U.S. actually shrank during the same period.

A generation of Americans has gone deep into debt for their education.  Some will pay-off their loans, but many will default or seek loan modifications.  Those defaulting on a student loans will face dire consequences, beyond a bad credit record -- which can tarnish hopes of getting a car, an apartment or even a job.  Under law, the U.S. government can attach their wages, tax refunds and even inheritance.  Unlike other consumer borrowers with onerous debt, student loans are specifically ineligible for compromise or rejection under the United States Bankruptcy Code.  Going to college may still be the best time of a person’s life, but millions of students and their families are doomed to a life as student loan debt slaves.
College Graduates Are The New Debt Slaves (Testosterone Pit)

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