This piece originally published in Cosmonaut on 08/21/2019
Today the left has come to a common acceptance that the detention centers in which migrants are incarcerated are concentration camps. Despite its truth, this claim has been reduced to a popular point of partisan contention in the spectacle of institutional political theater. While it is important and necessary to expose the routine abuse and murder of those incarcerated in these camps, track ICE raids across the US, and organize legal support to confront these abuses in court, this is not enough. We also need an understanding of how these concentration camps are not merely an aberration of fascism alone but an organic development of late capitalism’s crisis management.
What we are witnessing is not a phenomenon that can be divorced from capital accumulation and the global production process in the imperial epoch. This brutal reality in the last instance is a product of capitalism in its stages of crisis. What we see in the border concentration camps and the privatization model implemented through them is a sustainability measure for capital in its spiraling descent into a new global fascism from which no extant faction of US institutional politics is exempt.
Private incarceration is often framed as a particular abuse within capitalist society so that it may serve as a point of contrast between the two major political parties. Yet from this perspective the crucial role private incarceration plays in the expansion of capital is obscured. A Marxist view of the situation reveals privatization to be an increasingly important mechanism for the appropriation of surplus-value created in production, especially in the past 40 years. It is a further development of the private-property relations fundamental to the capitalist mode of production and the reproduction of capitalist society. In its reproduction, capital overtakes and seizes conventional state functions. Capital here does not eclipse or obliterate the state but merely changes its form. Capital realizes its totalizing logic in the state, exceeds the state, and re-appropriates it as a mechanism for accumulation and concentration.
It is no surprise to see the familiar villains of this industry at work behind these atrocities. 72% of incarcerated migrants are held in privately-owned camps, the bulk of them owned by CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group, two of the US’s most enduring and powerful figures of the private-prison industry. The contracts these private entities have with ICE are extremely lucrative, the two companies earned a combined $985 million from them in 2017 alone. Even greater capital investments lie in the many other privately-contracted services necessary to the overall function of the camps, from telephone services to healthcare and everything in between.
The further integration of the concentration camp as a model for capitalism’s sustainability is these prison corporations’ function as sites for the accumulation of finance capital through bank investments, a practice in which many major banking institutions take part. Some have pulled out this year due to public pressure generated from direct action efforts, but they may just as easily creep back into the game. The finance capital that has already been accumulated is now strategically reserved in the form of money-capital as these corporations weather the PR crisis. We can be certain that they are ready for us to stop paying attention.
CoreCivic and GEO Group also heavily involve themselves in political lobbying. The proximity of these corporations to Trump and the GOP often takes center stage in public discourse, but left out are the many contributions they make to Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee received $350,000 in contributions from private-prison industry lobbyists during the 2018 midterm election cycle alone, and there are still instances of individual Democratic candidates accepting gifts and contributions from lobbyists for the industry. What is clear is that capital’s investment in the infrastructure for genocide has bipartisan support and that the false politics represented by the electoral spectacle must not cloud that reality.
America’s failing representative democracy is now infected with a resurgent nationalism that erects itself as a psychological support to the contradiction between capital’s free global movement across borders and the simultaneous restriction of similar movement of labor. Today, the stirrings of a new industrial revolution are already underway and, combined with the looming threat of climate-driven scarcity, are producing a fractured consciousness. People fall back on secure notions of identity and self found in the nation-state.
The political buzzword now adopted by Republicans and Democrats alike is “economic nationalism.” The old rallying cry of “American jobs for American workers” is also a bi-partisan talking point, revealing the reactionary one-party state that has always dominated the US working class. In the case of the concentration camps on the border, then, we should not be fooled by either party’s posturing in addressing the matter. The dual crises of capital and ecology, as well as the descent into fascism, is well out of the hands of any managerial bureaucracy. Behind their blithe opportunism, we must understand that any party will easily maintain the existence of these camps. The nomadic proletariat made real in the Global South’s displacement to the imperial core become a relative surplus population (or industrial reserve army) for the servants of capital, to be absorbed and managed, but not without the creation of an apparatus which can still capture surplus-value. Capitalist society must not waste a chance to further capital’s self-valorization, regardless of its current political commitments.
This holds true for the current upswing in popular support for social democratic reforms in US politics. Social democratic policy prescriptions for capital’s crises and growing racial and class conflict is gaining traction on the right. For example, Tucker Carlson, on his Fox News show, now engages with critiques of free-market capitalism previously foreign to US conservatives, even inviting Angela Nagle, a so-called leftist cultural critic, on as a guest. The manifesto of the El Paso shooter similarly criticizes the failures of American capitalism while supporting social democratic reforms, such as UBI and universal healthcare, to mitigate class conflict while also advocating for an increasingly popular ethnonationalism. In the politics of the nationalist project, to which social democracy unquestionably belongs, the left side of this debate deploys much of the same rhetoric and critiques of “corporatism,” and similarly will not be able to evade the question of border protection and immigration policy that its politics demands of it. Let us not forget that Bernie Sanders too reaffirmed in the last Democratic primary debate his commitment to “stronger border protections.” The project of social democracy, or more generally that of the welfare state, is situated in an imperialist world economy that relies on the exploitation and underdevelopment of the Global South, though it dare not say so out loud.
Furthermore, left projects organizing support on a grassroots level to support these reformist initiatives must remain conscious of the limitations of the nationalist project. Whether there is a claim to reject American nationalism or not, this is the sphere of political action these projects occupy. As Medicare For All gains traction and continues to poll well, dangerous coalitions will form. The migrant as nomadic proletariat here serves a dual function for nationalist politics.
On the one hand, the migrant is that from which the national subject itself must be separate from in order to constitute itself. This separation creates a sense of lack, which is supported by the need it institutes. This psychical manufacture of need supported by a lack finds its material mirror in capitalism’s “original sin” of primitive accumulation, the act of separating laborers from their means of production, initiating the productive consumption of means of subsistence in commodity form. This displacement is the base of capital accumulation and the origin of the proletariat. For capital accumulation to continue, this displacement must continually occur, and it is that which we see functioning in the nomadic proletariat’s creation. But this nomadic proletariat’s existence and movement to the imperial core is contradicted by the core’s reliance on the increasingly fragile social ties of nationality and citizenship wrought by internal displacements for capital accumulation. The nomadic proletariat as migrant becomes a visible sign of these weakening ties, and national identity disintegrates if it absorbs them. The social organization of citizenship must remain separate from the core’s global economic entanglements if displacement as a base of capital accumulation is to continue to function. To that end, it becomes a useful development for the bearers of capital to be able to point to that which is other from the national subject, to then displace the migrant psychically as well as materially, to make them a symbol of that which is lacking in the national subject and use the need thus manufactured to maintain the drive of productive consumption towards accumulation. The political fiction of the nation, therefore, relies on the construction of such lack, and the US national citizen of today is only constituted in so far as it is not the migrant.
This is where a further need for reform is injected. “American capitalism must be reformed, look at what it is doing to our jobs!” But, as we are not materially separate from a global production process, this return of the need for social democratic reform is then directed towards the consumption of the Global South, its people and its raw material, at the service of the imperial core’s appetite. We are comfortable, then, to see an infrastructure of state support as what we lack, and in turn to see the migrant as the visible manifestation of the state’s failures. This is the implication that the bi-partisan refrain of “economic nationalism” relies upon, for the ability to symbolize lack as such conceals the real process of production that truly directs the phenomena and the relations of which the nationalist project must conceal in order to sustain its fantasy.
This brings us to the other hand of this dual function. Forming amongst the anti-corporate strains of US politics is an understanding of the mutual share of responsibility that Republicans and Democrats possess in their inability to counter the tide of corporate influence, instead taking part in the full transformation of the state into a model of realization for capital. For both the rational actors of the right and the left, the clear reality is that the influence of corporations in politics has utterly compromised all positions on immigration, as many of these large corporations are reliant to some degree on the exploitation of cheaper labor from a nomadic proletariat. This is to an extent correct, but they fail to extend the analysis to encompass capital’s reproduction on a global scale and its role in producing the nomadic proletariat.
Considering the origin of these displacements that have created this nomadic proletariat, we must take into account the long history of US military and political intervention in the affairs of Latin American states which lays a foundation for current waves of migration. Latin American intervention, the intentional and violent arrangements of political power in those countries for the benefit of US interests, is a history with a clear end-goal, and that has been the dominance over the claim to ownership of surplus-value created in production by multinational corporations, that have in turn enforced monocultural agricultural production, super-exploitation, and further alienation of those laborers from that which they produce.
The agricultural production of Latin American countries is now being affected by climate change as well. This will continue to be a crucial contributing factor to the rise in migration to the United States. The ensuing displacement of these countries’ domestic labor populations is now already exacerbated by the hegemonic relationship, exercised through imperialist foreign and economic policy, between the United States and other such Western liberal democracies over said countries’ production. The result is an increasingly dispossessed and immiserated proletariat in frequently unstable social, political, and economic situations. Such trade agreements as NAFTA and the new USMCA consolidate private ownership of sites of production in Latin American countries, facilitating the capture of surplus-value and further strengthening the property and class relations that global capitalist society relies on for its continual and ever-expanding reproduction.
As capital is mobile on a world scale but labor is not, greater rewards are offered for labor in the core than in the periphery. With the ensuing concentration that the general law of capital accumulation demands, as well as the implementation of dispossession as a means of achieving this accumulation, the core increasingly becomes a site of convergence for the nomadic proletariat, the eye of capital’s global hurricane. But within the core, generations of internal accumulation by dispossession, mostly facilitated by the mechanism of privatization and histories of racialized terror and violence, have fomented unstable conditions and outbursts of revolt. Capital always produces a surplus, and the capital of a global production process in the imperial epoch produces a global relative surplus population. With the situation being as it is in the core, however, what must be done?
The concentration camps here are thus crucial to maintaining the stability of an economic nationalist political program. If “American jobs” are to be maintained for “American workers,” then these relative surplus populations must in turn be utilized so that capitalist society does not forego the opportunity to extract surplus-value from their exploitation. For-profit concentration camps are thus the productive consumption of the relative surplus population produced by capitalist accumulation in the imperial epoch. Privatization as a model of realization for capital here finds its critical place in the scheme of things. The state is merely a series of connective arterial passages for the infrastructure of capital. The concentration camp of today, therefore, is critical infrastructure for valorizing capital by absorbing displaced populations. The incarceration of migrants indefinitely produces absolute surplus-value, as does the indefinite lengthening of the working day.
This can also help to explain the statistics we find currently for ICE removals reported by ICE over the last two recorded fiscal years. In FY 2017 and 2018, total ICE removals numbered 226,119 and 256,085, respectively. These are not insignificant declines from much of the Obama era’s numbers, with ICE removals for FY 2013 and 2014 reaching such heights as 368,644 and 315,943, respectively. FY 2015 and 2016 saw relative declines to 235,413 and 240,255, respectively, as a result of minor reformist initiatives undertaken at the time. This period too, however, saw a solidifying hold on privatization for ICE detention. The Trump administration’s numbers retain the average closely, and it may very well be a result of the minimum necessary population levels that these privatized models of ICE concentration camps require for their functioning and stable capture of surplus-value in their incarceration. Some analyses often discuss these declines as a result of an overloaded immigration court system unduly burdened by the escalation of ICE raids of increasingly dubious legality. It is rather more likely that indefinite detention and procedural dysfunction are vital to the continual production of absolute surplus-value and give it the elasticity that it requires.
To see how profitable indefinite incarceration in the concentration camp model is, we can look at the cost per night of maintaining detainees. According to ICE’s FY 2018 budget, the average cost of a single bed is $133.99 a day, though this figure is disputed. For mothers and children together in so-called family residential centers, it is $319.00 a day. For the beds in the tent city camps made to hold children separated from their families, they are $775.00 a day. These costs are supported by federal contracts with the corporations that own these camps, and costs are re-evaluated per annum with the potential of increasing federal funding if deemed necessary and in turn supported by Congress’ allocation and at the same time being continually bolstered by private investments made from other corporations seeking to in turn valorize their capital through consumption of products in the concentration camp. The whole apparatus is one designed for the ruthless exploitation through dispossession of the migrant’s agency and movement. It is no surprise then that, as capital seeks its expanded reproduction within this model of realization, ICE’s body count climbs and climbs.
Any illusions as to the capacity possessed by the US state or capitalist society at large to address this current monstrosity must be extinguished. So long as migration intensifies on a global scale and the more developed core countries retain their trajectory of hyper-development by means of capital accumulated through the Global South’s continual exploitation and dispossession, the migrant concentration camp will be a stabilizing mechanism for the crisis of capital. The state machine, in pursuit of the stability of the nationalist project, seeks out structures to adapt our desires to the needs of capital and its drive towards accumulation, seen in the affirmation of the importance of the “American” worker. Even as left projects seek to better the lives of the US proletariat through social democratic reform, they are acting in the interior of the state machine in lock-step motion with the rise of fascist ideology. The incompatibility of this politics with a goal of universal emancipation that includes the abolition of the incarceration of the nomadic proletariat, therefore, necessitates a rupture with this procedural left so that we may combat the suicidal ideation of fascism. The project of border abolition is bound up with the self-abolition and emancipation of the proletariat, and affirming the importance of a national proletariat over the nomadic only sustains the lifeblood of capital.
History shows us that the only sufficient course of action to be taken then must be the liberation of these camps and the dismantling of their supportive infrastructures, and strategies to this end are still taking shape. In the fearless example laid for us by Willem Van Spronsen, we saw transportation vehicles of the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center taken out of commission. We must seek to continue to reproduce such models of direct action on a more expansive, mass scale, with the further coordination of such with the efforts of the incarcerated. Protests and direct actions organized on banks investing in the concentration camps have made said banks pull out of their contracts with them. Direct actions on massive corporations like Amazon and other tech companies are aiming to disrupt the critical data infrastructures that are being invested into and developed in the concentration camps, and this is a crucial space of engagement. We must continue to build the capacity, scale, and mass support for these actions that will become necessary if we do indeed succeed in impeding the concentration camps function as a model of realization for capital value.
This is where we find the kinetic movement of fascism forming, its material basis for potential genocide in capitalism’s organic adoption of the concentration camp as a model of realization. We may hear the right’s racialized rhetoric on immigration and criminality as a rejection and demonization of the migrant. Rather, this rhetoric is that which wills the caravan into existence, both as a result of and a driving force of capital accumulation. As a result, this relative surplus population is made into a model of capital’s realization by means of its bodily dispossession and a psychological support for nationalism. The transition to fascism is seamless, because the progression is inherent in capital’s crisis in the US where the capitalist mode of production is so highly-developed with heavily ingrained institutions of White Supremacy. Capital’s tornado reaches an intensity in magnitude of crisis to make the qualitative shift to the black hole of fascism’s suicidal state. The movement is not yet complete, and we may yet have time to prevent a new American holocaust. Its death will only be real if we act.