The dark limits of a nation's lock 'em up logic

LOCKDOWN AMERICA By Christian Parenti Verso 290 pp., $25

America has the smallest welfare state and the largest prison population of any Western industrial nation. This relationship is hardly accidental according to the logic outlined by Christian Parenti in "Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crises."

While he acknowledges and builds upon Dan Baum's documentation in "Smoke and Mirrors" that Nixon launched the war on drugs for partisan political motives, Parenti argues that the massive surge in imprisonment began in earnest a decade later, following a much deeper logic.

Zeroing in on the early '70s recession, he points to the persistence of wage gains in the face of high unemployment as evidence of working-class strength contributing to a crisis of profitability. There were similar problems in Europe, where "working class power, democratic political structures, and a cultural ethos of reform have maintained many strong welfare states."

But America's welfare state was never that well developed or well defended, and its working class was long divided on racial lines. Parenti writes, the "crises of over-production, declining profits, and the domestic challenge of racial and class rebellion required a move away from the politics of the carrot toward the politics of the stick."

The decisive period for this move was the late '70s recession engineered by Paul Volker, which broke union power - eliminating jobs and driving down wages - as it ushered in the election of Ronald Reagan and the initiation of a renewed drug war, along with a whole new "get tough" attitude toward crime, and a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor.

Since then, Democrats as well as Republicans have contributed to our current unique status as the most punitive industrialized nation on earth.

This viewpoint, sharply at odds with Beltway conventional wisdom, is not nearly so novel in academic circles. Last year, Janet Poppendieck's "Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Welfare" made a related argument about the explosion of hunger in America.

The hungry are certainly far more sympathetic than even the pettiest of criminals, yet both books turn on America's unwillingness to directly face the underlying economic crisis which ended the post-World War II boom and expelled millions of families from their once secure places in the middle class.

Unfortunately, Parenti plunges enthusiastically into attacking the criminal system, rather than carefully developing this underlying argument. He also neglects to humanize criminals, as, for example, James Garbarino did recently in "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them" (The Free Press).

Yet the folly and contradictions he exposes are impossible to ignore, as he examines political rhetoric, laws passed, and egregiously damaging results, which rarely result in any corrective action.

Thus a superficially attractive idea - such as using civil courts to confiscate the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins - ends up being used against a very different target: Between 1989 and 1992 Volusia County, Florida sheriffs confiscated $8 million in cash from hundreds of motorists, 85 percent of whom were African-American and 75 percent of whom were never charged - much less convicted.

The power of Parenti's argument derives from connecting a wide range of such seeming contradictions by exposing the racially and economically oppressive logic that undergirds them.

This dark, unflinching look at what our nation has become is sure to disturb, and most readers will disagree strongly with something that Parenti has to say. But they will also find other things that resonate deeply. The combination cannot fail to generate serious thought about issues we prefer to lock away in darkness, to our own inevitable peril.

*Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Prison mania?

What does the law-and-order regime achieve? And who is it really aimed at? One thing is crystal clear: poor people of color ... are the main target. By the year 2000 it is estimated that one in ten Black men will be in prison.

- From 'Lockdown'

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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