Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Clément Petitjean: In Golden Gulag, you analyse the build-up of California’s prison system, which you call “the biggest in the history of the world”. Between 1980 and 2007, you explain that the number of people behind bars increased more than 450%. What were the various factors that combined to cause the expansion of that system? What were the various forces that built up the prison industrial complex in California and in the US?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Sure. Let me say a couple of things. I actually found that description of the biggest prison building project in the history of the world in a report that was written by somebody whom the state of California contracted to analyse the system that had been on a steady growth trajectory since the late 1980s. So it’s not even my claim, it’s how they themselves described what they were doing. What happened is that the state of California, which is, and was, an incredibly huge and diverse economy, went through a series of crises. And those crises produced all kinds of surpluses. It produced surpluses of workers, who were laid off from certain kinds of occupations, especially in manufacturing, not exclusively but notably. It produced surpluses of land. Because the use of land, especially but not exclusively in agriculture, changed over time, with the consolidation of ownership and the abandoning of certain types of land and land-use. It also produced surpluses of finance capital – and this is one of the more contentious points that I do argue, to deadly exhaustion. While it might appear, looking globally, that the concept of surplus finance capital seemed absurd in the early 1980s, if you look locally and see how especially investment bankers who specialised in municipal finance (selling debt to states) were struggling to remake markets, then we can see a surplus at hand. And then the final surplus, which is kind of theoretical, conjectural, is a surplus of state capacity. By that I mean that the California state’s institutions and reach had developed over a good deal of the 20th century, but especially from the beginning of the Second World War onwards. It had become incredibly complex to do certain things with fiscal and bureaucratic capacities. Those capacities weren’t invented out of whole cloth, they came out of the Progressive Era, at the turn of the 20th century. In the postwar period they enabled California to do certain things that would more or less guarantee the capacity of capital to squeeze value from labour and land. Those capacities endured, even if the demand for them did not. And so what I argue in my book is that the state of California reconfigured those capacities, and they underlay the ability to build and staff and manage prison after prison after prison. That’s not the only use they made of those capacities once used for various kinds of welfare provision, but it was a huge use. And so the prison system went from being a fairly small part of the entire state infrastructure to the major employer in the state government.
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