The Resistable Rise and Predictable Fall of the U.S. Supermax

By Stephen F. Eisenman

In a recent article entitled “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis” (Monthly Review, June 2009), Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna sought to account for the surprising stability of civilian government spending (non-defense government consumption and investment) as a percentage of GDP during a period, roughly 1970 to the present, when the power of capital over labor increased, inequality grew, and cuts in government programs for the poor and working class continued more or less without abatement.1 One solution to the paradox, the authors persuasively argued, was the growth in spending for “the penal state,” a political regime marked by the mass incarceration of the poor and the vulnerable who posed risks to the stability of the prevailing economic and social order.

Indeed, the incarcerated population of the United States has grown markedly in the last three decades, from approximately 221 per 100,000 of population in 1980, to 762 per 100,000 in 2008. The United States now has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world (over six times higher than Britain’s or China’s and twelve times higher than Japan’s), an incarcerated population of 2.3 million, and a total correctional population (in prison or jail, or on probation) of 7.3 million.2 In other words, civilian government spending has remained constant during a period of capitalist-class consolidation, in part because an increasing proportion of that expenditure has gone to maintaining a penal state that disciplines the poor. One might add that the line of division between civilian and military spending during this period has become increasingly blurred, and that the same national security rationales for increasing the latter were marshaled for the former. Maintaining or augmenting what is euphemistically called a “strong defense” has, over the past four decades, become a core civilian priority.



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