Van Jones’s Blind Spot

In the Sacramento Bee, Van Jones, an activist turned Democratic Party official in the Obama White House, and now a CNN political contributor, critiqued America’s “massive incarceration industry.” He cites many of the carceral and racial details Michelle Alexander delivers in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). According to him, the industry “locks up too many people, wastes too much money, ruins too many lives and violates our sense of racial fairness—all while failing to make our communities much safer.” The devil lies in the real economic conditions of imprisonment, which Jones sidesteps. For instance, detainment and imprisonment creates employment in the private and public sectors. At the same time, detainment and imprisonment reduces the official employment data as those awaiting trial and sentenced to prison are uncounted in government employment data.

The American government’s (federal, state and local) race to incarcerate black and Latino communities exists within the struggle between capital and labor. The former has triumphed over the latter in the past 40 years through deindustrialization, deregulation and privatization. Class interests propelling U.S.-style capitalism have shaped imprisonment and punishment, a trend in which capital has restructured labor along what African American author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called “the color line.”

A post-WWII era of shared prosperity saw a 33.2 percent rate of union membership in 1956, with the top 10 percent receiving 31.8 percent of national income for the same year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The opposite trend followed. The top 10 percent received 47 percent of national income while the rate of union membership fell to 11.2 percent in 2013.

The postwar period dominated by corporate monopolies such as the Big Three carmakers brought a rising standard of living to a heavily unionized working class. The fruits of industrial productivity trickled down to working families, though poverty festered in union-free regions, notably the South, where centuries of chattel slavery left its mark in ways big and small, no more so than the caging of blacks, the origin of the current prison-industrial system.

Industry’s postwar demand for black workers in the Midwest and Northeast was robust. Off the radar screen, weak marketplace competition from global competitors, (e.g., the defeated rivals in Germany and Japan) was ending. One impact was the end of an accord between American capital and union labor. The “last hired and first fired” fractions of the working class, national minorities, would incur the worst of the accord’s unraveling as the sun set on popular movements of the 1960s. What in part propelled this defeat, according to author Immanuel Ness, was “left movements in the United States that prioritized cordial relations with business and state over the organization of the U.S. working class—especially African Americans,” New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, (PM Press, 2014).

While the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union raged, President Richard M. Nixon dismantled the postwar Bretton Woods system of financial regulation away from the gold standard on August 15, 1971. A week later, a memo titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System” to Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chair of the Education Committee, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce from Lewis F. Powell, Jr., later a Supreme Court Justice, sounded an alarm for corporate capital to politically respond to organized working class agitations, in and off the job. The Powell memo, in effect, is the forbearer of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Today, ALEC provides corporate-friendly bills to lawmakers such as Wisconsin’s GOP Governor, Scott Walker.

The political influence of the black freedom movement, lighting fires of rebellion under other oppressed minority groups, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and women, to oppose the status quo, posed major threats to what author Noam Chomsky has termed a “corporate-run and propaganda managed” democracy. Meanwhile, the postwar economic model was grinding to a halt. Something had to happen. It did. The ruling-class hammer landed sharply on the non-white populace, primarily blacks, via conscious policy formation—the Drug War.

African Americans saw industry’s demand for their labor services wither. For the overall U.S. labor force, “the percentage of all nonfarm workers in manufacturing declined from 24 percent in March 1973 to 10 percent in March 2007,” according to Marlene A. Lee and Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau.

In the U.S., the shift to a deregulated global monetary regime spurred the economic conditions for what author-activist Angela Davis termed the prison-industrial complex. Unionized factory workers, including blacks who had tenaciously clawed their way up the occupational ladder, watched their employment vanish, due to automation and capital flight. Automation is baked into the system.

Capital fled the U.S. to the Global South for its lower wages and weaker environmental laws. Under this one-two punch, the U.S. industrial heartland states withered, so much so that a new term for such decay became part of the nation’s language: the Rust Belt. An unnecessary labor force of former industrial workers became the raw material, or commodity, in the over-policing and hyper-incarcerating system.

The unemployment and social decay that followed resulted in the rate of imprisonment rising in all 50 states, so that for the nation as a whole the rate of imprisonment rose from 75 persons per 100,000 in 1970 to just shy of 450 per 100,000 in 2010, or a six-fold increase, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The racial disparity gives meaning to the phrase “a wide margin.” The U.S. incarceration rate by race per 100,000 in 2010 was: white 380; Latino 966 and black 2,207.

Robynn J.A. Cox is an assistant professor at Spelman College and RCMAR Scholar at the USC Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. In her report “Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” she writes: “From 1979 to 2009, there was a decrease in the share of individuals sentenced to state facilities for violent crimes and property crimes, but large increases in the proportion of individuals serving time for less serious crimes such as drug crimes and other crimes. This shift in focus occurred after the federal government increased federal funding and resources to state and local law enforcement to support the war on drugs. In order to obtain economic gains from the resulting prison boom, impoverished rural communities—and the private sector—began using prison construction as part of their economic development strategies, with hopes that prisons would be a recession-proof industry that would help to stimulate their economy through job creation and regional multiplier effects.”

As factory jobs with livable pay faded, a fraction of the working class found employment in the emerging prison-industrial complex. A part of the labor force made a living guarding another section of workers. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1988, the earliest year data is available, there were 142,200 correctional officers and jailers employed nationally. This occupation grew to a total of 382,150 in 1997 and 432,680 in 2013.

To describe the nation’s incarceration boom, as Jones does, as an enterprise wasteful of taxpayer dollars is to focus on one side of the public purse: fiscal spending. This serves to disguise a basic fact of the capitalist political economy. Whether money’s source is the public treasury or private pockets, there is always and everywhere an exchange of dollars between sellers and buyers for goods and services. Jones ignores this, as well as the fact that those receiving the money have political influence. For instance, the money-power of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association shapes bipartisan state politics in ways big and small. Jones’s blind spot speaks volumes in his critique of the prison-industrial complex.

I recall asking a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson background for their employer’s top vendors by payment. The reply for fiscal year 2009-10 does not reflect the total funding available in the vendors’ contracts, only first-quarter payments made:

  • County of Los Angeles Sheriff—$6,560,317.06
  • Healthtrans LLC—$5,011,271.47
  • GEO Group, Inc.—$3,575,632.89
  • Amerisource Bergen Drug Corp.—$3,470,477.87
  • Rosen, Bien and Galvan, LLP—$1,425,159.95
  • Cornell Companies, Inc.—$1,369,494.01


Under the Obama White House, the GEO Group is a company expanding into the detention of immigrant detainees. This is a for-profit operation. Here, we see displaced peasants and workers from Central America and Mexico seeking paid work in the U.S., absent such opportunities in their homelands. Like stateside national minorities, these apprehended individuals become commodities in the prison-industrial complex. Their imprisonment produces a revenue stream for the GEO Group. To earn its investors a return on their capital, the company must spend less money than it takes in.

As Jones correctly writes, there are two groups of hyper-incarcerated U.S. prisoners—blacks and Latinos. This fact speaks volumes about America’s so-called post-racial moment, and a divide that fragments the working class. The current moment of crime and punishment, therefore, reflects an inter- and intra-class conflict. Employment of and investment in this status quo won’t go gently into the night without a sustained campaign of militant dissent and alternate social order.

The social position of non-white prisoners—relative to buyers of their labor services, or employers, prior to incarceration—cries out for attention. These imprisoned individuals, according to Loïc Wacquant of the University of California at Berkeley Sociology Department, come from the ranks of the economically marginal. This is the slice of the U.S. working class superfluous to the employer class.

“Fewer than half of inmates [in U.S. prisons] held a full-time job at the time of their arraignment and two-thirds issue from households with annual income amounting to less than half of the so-called poverty line,” Jones writes. Official employment data ignores the imprisoned. Counting them would up the rate of unemployment. Their swelling the ranks of the un- and under-employed would, all things equal, increase the supply of potential workers relative to job openings. This is a surefire way to depress wage levels under the current status quo of the labor market.

Further, the rate of blacks’ unemployment is double that of white workers in and out of economic expansion and recession. Latino unemployment is regularly higher than whites though not at the extreme level of blacks. If there is, as Wacquant asserts, a correlation between labor force participation, incarceration, and immiseration, such intersecting forces of class, gender, and race suggest sites for mobilization and organization to push for progressive change.

It is not as if members of both political parties have ignored expanding the national and state policies to detain and imprison marginalized people. These are bipartisan policies on the local, state, and federal levels. Why? Follow the money. Prison industrial complex-friendly policies profit corporate America. Jones’s claim that this system “wastes too much money” simply sidesteps the political- economy of the prison-industrial complex. For him to ignore the power of the business lobby at all levels of government is stunning. Why are so many individuals kicked to the curb of U.S. society, rendering them outside the capitalist labor market? What makes marginalized individuals redundant to employers? From a left viewpoint, the aim is to air publicly and act collectively on what is at stake with the downward mobility of hiring and living patterns built into imprisoning trends for U.S. society.

Professor Hadar Aviram—Harry and Lillian Hastings Research Chair at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, the author of Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (University of California Press, 2015)—draws out the “lights and shadows” of post-2008 criminal justice policy. Her special focus is fiscal spending and taxing after this 18-month period, e.g., the Great Recession, ended.

“The 2008 financial crisis has not uniformly led to more punitivism,” Aviram writes in her book’s Introduction. “In fact, as the rhetorical devices, political alliances, and criminal justice policies presented in chapters 4–7 of this book argue, the effect of the financial crisis on penal and correctional policies in the United States has been more complex and nuanced. In some criminal justice sites the recession scaled down the punitive project, whereas in others it has led to tough policies. These mixed trends require an explanation in light of the literature suggesting that in times of austerity governments tend to recur to greater, not lesser, reliance on punishment and oppressive social control.”

We might also consider what an attack on the conditions of poverty might do to reduce the power of the prison-industrial complex. There is no right to food, shelter, and water for Americans. All exist in adequate supply.

In terms of the real estate bubble—commercial and residential—that ignited the 2007-08 financial crisis, it was the third such speculative expansion and contraction of last decade. Why? Look to the slowing growth of the U.S. economy. “Comparing economic growth between the 1950s and 1960s with the subsequent decades, the real GDP growth rate slows down from over 4 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, to around 3 percent for the 1970s to 1990s, to less than 2 percent for the 2000s,” writes Fred Magdoff in Monthly Review, May 2014.

As growth slowed, investment capital faced a dilemma. Where would it go to grow? It has shifted, slowly, from the industrial arena to the financial field. Financial booms and busts became the new normal. That trend masks an underlying structural flaw in the economy. In brief, that is the scarcity of profitable returns on industrial capital investment stateside. As a result, financial markets absorbed the surplus investment capital. Wall St. grew. We see the rise of the finance industry, from 1950’s 2.8 percent of GDP to 4.9 percent in 1980 and 7.9 percent in 2007, as William K. Tabb writes, citing the International Monetary Fund

Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, describes the harmful impacts to black communities nationwide after postwar prosperity ended in the 1970s. Black unemployment spiked. By contrast in the postwar decade, business demand had been robust for African Americans. Citing Troy Duster, “Pattern, Purpose, and Race in the Drug War: The Crisis of Credibility in Criminal Justice” in Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice, (ed., Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine, Berkeley, University of California. Press, 1997), Alexander writes: “In 1954, black and white youth unemployment rates in America were equal, with blacks actually having a slightly higher rate of employment in the age group sixteen to nineteen. By 1984, however, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally.”

According to her, the collapse of the economy that devastated black communities cried out for Keynesian- style stimulus policies and politics. “A new War on Poverty could have been launched,” she writes, pushing past Jones’s proposals, for economic justice as a means to end the prison-industrial complex. Well, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s did in fact develop and propose a kind of Marshall Plan—the postwar policy to rebuild Europe (and benefit U.S. capital)—to eradicate domestic impoverishment. Figures from that era of the black freedom struggle, from Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr. to A. Philip Randolph, played leadership roles in support for the Freedom Budget.

A recent book fleshes out the details. We turn to A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today by Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates (Monthly Review Press, 2013). The Freedom Budget of 1966 was “a practical step-by-step plan for wiping out poverty in America during the next 10 years.” This document arose from the 1963 March for Jobs and Justice in Washington DC. The Freedom Budget took a Keynesian social spending from economic growth policy approach to eradicate poverty and inequality. It died in the disinterest of the Democratic Party and the economic class it represented (the top one percent in the parlance of the Occupy movement), in no small part due to the central dilemma of social conflict to end the Vietnam War, which Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was busy escalating.

It is fair to say there are intertwining causes and consequences to the triad of employment, imprisonment and impoverishment. On that note, Jones’s goal to reduce the nation’s prison population by 50 percent in 10 years is laudable. It is also limited if unemployment and impoverishment are off stage.

A popular movement can marshal its power to shape the investments that determine job creation. First up is interring the purpose and role of racially-biased incarceration and immiseration of the black and Latino populace. In 2010, the national incarceration rate by race was 831 for Hispanics and 2,306 for blacks per 100,000.

We turn to young black people’s efforts to oppose their mistreatment after Darren Wilson, a white officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in Ferguson, Missouri on August 2014. This movement for equality with justice shows, as Le Blanc and Yates argue in A Freedom Budget for All Americans, what matters most to forging working-class alliances and winning people’s victories. They write: “Governments react to power. Those who wield it tend to get what they want; those who lack power do not.”



Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email (This article first appeared in the April 2015 print edition of Counterpunch.)