The Prison System and Its Historical Context

The apparatus of the state—in particular the courts and legal system—are in the hands of the class that is dominate in the economic relations of society. The state is never natural: It is always an instrument for protecting and preserving the existing system.”
Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?

As a species we must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves if we are to procreate and perpetuate our existence, i.e., we must engage in “production” and expend our labor power, and in the process transforming our material conditions. We do this not as isolated individuals but rather as an organized collective. Our survival necessitates cooperation and coordination of our productive labor, which is the source of all our social essence. It is upon the basis of this labor that we develop our consciousness and language. Moreover, it is from this that all other aspects of our society develops—the superstructure which includes culture, religion, arts, sciences, education, philosophy, politics, the legal system and law, and the various state institutions. As Karl Marx put it:

“In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce not only by cooperating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only in these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production take place.” (Marx and Engels, Vol. V, p. 429.)

In specific reference to the legal system and the conditions necessary for its development, Frederick Engels revealed that:

“At a certain, very primitive stage of the development of society, the need arises to co-ordinate under a common regulation the daily recurring acts of production, distribution and exchange of products, to see to it that the individual subordinates himself to the common conditions of production and exchange. This regulation, which is at first custom, soon becomes law. With law, organs necessarily arise which are entrusted with its maintenance—public authority, the state.”

Both the legal and prison systems are an economic phenomenon with their own historical existence that are inseparably bound with our reproduction as a species. Yet the state in all of its institutional forms is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Production is the basis and foundation of all societies. Social development in all its different manifestations is ultimately determined by the particular mode of production of a given society.  In other words, all societies without exception, be it a slave-owning society of antiquity, feudalism, or modern day capitalism in its current stage of imperialism, all societies consist of an economic base and a corresponding superstructure. The economic base and superstructure are a unification of opposites, in that both complement and struggle with the other—the source of society and its development. Both create the conditions for the other’s existence and together they create and give identity to society. This is the first meaning of identity in the Marxist-Leninist conception of the two meanings of identity.

In the initial stages of a newly emerging economic system, the superstructure facilitates and pushes the development of the economic base forward. Production and technological advancements surge forward, and in correspondence to this, new social needs and wants arise as there is always a need and a want to develop and improve upon that which has already been produced. Did the staircase not give rise to the escalator, as well as the knowledge and technology for its production? And did not an increase of food goods, agricultural produce and advance farming techniques, give rise to the social need to feed more people? Of course it did. And in the initial stages of a new economic system, this process is facilitated and assisted by the superstructure, i.e., religion, arts, sciences, education, philosophy, politics, the judicial system, laws, the state, etc.

Although in time, as the economic base and the productive forces (the laboring masses, technology, factories, resources, mines, knowledge, etc.) push forward in their progress, the superstructure begins to drag on progressions and increasingly loses pace with the needs of the productive forces. It becomes a brake on progress and hinders society’s overall development. The proactive function of the superstructure now becomes reactionary, as it now only reacts to those progressives forces in an effort to prolong its inevitable demise.

To understand the state and the prison system we must first understand class-divided society and the irreconcilable antagonisms of class struggle. Chairman Mao taught us that:

“…the world outlook of materialist dialectics holds that in order to understand the development of a thing we should study it internally and in its relations with other things; in other words, the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement is interrelated with and interacts on the things around it. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes.” (Mao Tse Tung, On Contradictions, emphasis added)

Every stage of economic development has progressed according to the laws of dialectics, from society’s internal struggle between the economic base and the superstructure, between the productive forces and the relations of production. This contradiction becomes increasingly antagonistic and increasingly manifests itself in open conflict, in social upheavals, such as the so called immigration debate, student protests against tuition hikes, worker strikes, demonstrations against imperialist expansionism, and even our current struggle against the oppressive tendencies of the prison system. All societies eventually culminate in a quantity-quality transformation that ushers into being both a new superstructure and unleashes a new economic system based upon different forms of ownership.  As F. Engels stated in concise terms:

“…a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange — in a word, of the economic conditions of their time….” (Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

We must never forget that the prison system is not only a side effect of class divisions and socio-economically created inequalities, but the prison system is likewise a concentrated expression, a condensed manifestation of the class and racial contradictions inherent in a profit driven class-divided society.

But before there were class divisions, we homo sapiens occupied this earth in various forms and stages of primitive communalist societies for nearly 200,000 years, slowly transforming it, literally reshaping it, and ourselves, in this interacting ascendency from lower to higher.

In primitive communalism the instruments of production are collectively owned. Primitive technology and low production output excluded the possibility of people combating the elements and forces of nature effectively. In order to clothe, hunt, gather food, and shelter themselves, people had to produce in common if they were to survive. Labor in common led to ownership in common, and this was reflected in their brains through their five sense organs, giving shape to a collective consciousness. As Marx captured it in Das Kapital:

“The ideal is nothing more than the material world reflected in the human brain and translated into forms of thought.”

The exploitation of man/woman over others did not exist at this stage. And the conditions necessary that would give shape to the idea of private property in the consciousness of people did not yet exist, at least not beyond the most basic implements of production owned by individuals, such as stone tools, bows and arrows, animal skins on their backs, etc. And because of the extremely low production rates people not only died often due to starvation and exposure, this primitive form of economic production lasted thousands of years. Until relatively recent times all energy was devoted to mere survival and no time was left to pursue other aspects of social development. At this stage of primitive economic development the conditions necessary for the creation of a state were not yet present. As Engels elaborated:

“The state has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that did without it, that had no idea of the state and state power”

But then he goes on further to say:

“At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the split of society into classes, the state became a necessity owning to this spit.”

Of our nearly 200,000 year existence as a species, scratching and clawing our way through life in primitive communalist societies, it was only about 10,000 years ago that we discovered farming, i.e., the ability to concentrate a significantly large quantity of food supply in a small area, thus greatly reducing out necessity to expend large quantities of energy and labor hunting and gathering our large areas for very little in the way of pay-off.

Now one man or woman was capable of producing a surplus beyond what was necessary for his/her own survival. And this surplus only increased over the next several thousand years in correspondence with the steady advancements in both the instruments of production—tools, tillage, pasturage, and animal husbandry (the domestication and raising of farm animals).

As was addressed above, the material world around us and its processes is what gives shape to our consciousness, our ideas and ways of thinking.

This transformation in our material productions, specifically the increase of the individuals overall output, that is, the ability to produce a surplus over and beyond what was needed to sustain the individual’s mere survival, was in turn reflected in the consciousness of the society’s members in the shape of a concept known as slavery. And as a means to implement slavery, property rights were also formulated to give legitimacy to the small rising class of slave owners, who had in turn created the state, in all its various forms, as a means to direct the economic affairs of society and insure the economic interests of this emerging class that would rule over society. This society which had previously defended itself collectively was now disarmed with the exception of the privileged few. A standing army and various forms of security and policing were created separate from the common people, under the control of the state, which itself a tool of repression designed to protect the property rights (slaves, land, resources, etc.) of the ruling classes. As Engels summed it up:

“…an institution that would not only safeguard the newly-acquired property of private individuals against the communistic traditions of the gentile order, would not only sanctify private property, formerly held in such light esteem, and pronounce this sanctification the highest purpose of human society, but would also stamp the gradually developing new forms of acquiring property, with the seal of general public recognition; an institution that would perpetuate not only the newly-rising class division of society, but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing classes and the rule of the former over the latter. And this institution arrived. The state was invented.” (Engels, Origin, pp. 238-239)

The development of the state apparatus consisted primarily of the army, policing, intelligence, the judicial system and corresponding laws, etc., including the prison system. Marriage was also institutionalized. Prior to class divisions, in most societies we recognized our blood lineage through our mothers’ line. Owing to the split of societies into class divisions, we now recognized our blood linage through our fathers. Societies now become patriarchal as a means to amass wealth and property in the hands of men though the practice of inheritance laws. Women’s influential role in society’s direction and development was essentially stripped, as they were now relegated to a secondary role as the property of the husband. The primitive commune was now replaced by this new economic phenomenon, a unit we call the family. The family was first defined by the slave-holding Roman state as the “famulus”, which was used to denote the number of domestic slaves a man owned, including his wife and children of whom he had a legal right to kill or sell into slavery at will. The catalyst upon which all of this rested was agricultural development and the introduction of private property into society. And yet, had this not occurred we’d still be in the Stone Age or extinct.

The split of society into classes whose economic interests are diametrically opposed to each other is the source of class struggle. The financial gain benefiting one class is the financial loss of the other classes. Due to the inevitable rise of hostilities between the different system, economic base and superstructure (their forces of production and the property rights of the ruling classes), there is a qualitative shift in the class struggle and violence is introduced becoming the new order of the day. Societies are propelled into and out of old and new economic stages based on shifts in ownership. The long day of communalism comes to an end. Out of which slave-owning society of antiquity emerges, eventually giving way to feudalism, which in its own turn comes to an end. And out of which develops capitalism, now in its current form of imperialism.

It was correctly observed that “…theory becomes purposeless if it is not connected with revolutionary practice, just as practice gropes in the dark if its path is not laminated by revolutionary theory.” Knowledge is not only accumulated and passed down through successive generations, we augment this knowledge through our own concrete struggles as well. Likewise, there are many examples of past organizations which, like us, struggled against the oppressive nature of solitary confinement. There were some failures and many victories, both of which contain invaluable lessons if we only take the time to study them. And no doubt such knowledge would help prevent us from making unnecessary strategic mistakes. There were the successes of the I.R.A. in Ireland, Spain’s Basque separatist movement E.T.A., and of course the domestic struggles in places like Attica, Lucasville, etc.

As a side effect of capitalist economics they all understood Lenin’s statement that “politics are concentrated economics” and they used this knowledge, hitching their struggles to other political struggles and international movements and gaining support from various international entities, such as Amnesty International, etc. The I.R.A. succeeded in abolishing solitary confinement, and in other cases they were successful in achieving “association”, that is group-housing of up to fifteen prisoners.

What makes us who we are as individuals is our individual personalities, and this individuality can only develop through social intercourse. Again, cooperation and coordination between us is how we survive. And it is in this social context that we have evolved into social beings—the essence of who we are. Solitary confinement deprives us of this intercourse and deprives us of the ability to develop the personality and who we are as individuals. The more isolation of the individual increases from other human beings, in both intensity and duration, the more our personalities and who we are as individuals in essence disintegrates and erodes away. This is social extermination; while preserving us biologically, it is an attack on our existence and we retain the right to defend and preserve ourselves.

We are the product of the historical development of society’s economic and class struggles. The dialectical law of the unity and struggle of opposites that pushed society forward is the same law governing the direction and development of our current struggle. As Lenin correctly said, “Development is the struggle of opposites.”

The long-term conditions of our confinement will ultimately be determined by our long-term goals, whether they are revolutionary or reformist. Lenin also stated that:

“People always were and always will be the stupid victims of deceit and self-deceit in politics until they learn to discover the interests of some class behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. The supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling class.” (V.I. Lenin (1913), The Three Component Parts….)

Whether our goal is revolutionary with the objective end of transforming the economic base and society as a whole, or if we’re simply looking for some “adjustments” (reforms), the bottom line is, so long as we and the guards exist, creating the conditions for the other’s existence, so too will the prison system exist, and all gains will be “reformist” despite our ultimate goals.

On the other hand, what is important to comprehend, with a revolutionary objective, our goals will also transcend these walls and we will continue to perpetuate our struggle within the prison so long as this current state exists. And in spite of inevitable setbacks, our overall trajectory will be one of progress, simultaneously transforming the prison system into a university for the oppressed.

With only “reforms” as our goal we have to look no further than our current circumstances, for the situation we find ourselves in today is the result of reforms as a final objective. With reforms not only do we not seek to change the conditions, those forces and influences, that were necessary for this situation to emerge, but at some point we become content and cease our struggle, and then start all over again—the situation repeats itself, and each time the state becomes more effective at repression.

We must have a revolutionary goal, even in this embryonic stage, no matter how overwhelming it may initially sound to the virgin ears new to such concepts. This is what will likewise keep our struggle alive and our conditions progressing.

There are no such things as prisoner rights, only power struggles.

Chad LandrumChad LandrumChad Landrum

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