This is a three part essay detailing the contexts, consequences and casualties of  the US government’s War on Drugs. Part three will be published at a later date.

Part I

Though comprising 5% of the world’s population, the USA imprisons nearly 25% of its inmates, bearing the unenviable title of world’s largest national jailer. The incarceration rate is notably skewed towards the impoverished and those of colour; ethnic minorities account for three quarters of the US prison population.The rate of incarceration among black males is seven times that of their their white counterparts. Civil rights expert Michelle Alexander’s book ‘The New Jim Crow’ finds that there are currently more black inmates imprisoned than there were slaves in 1850, who, as inmates, are

denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits

A 2012 paper published by the Center on Sentencing and Corrections remarks that the “country’s state prison population [has] grown by more than 700 percent since the 1970s”. The total population of imprisoned persons in the US is 2,200,000, in 1970 it was less than 200,000. Such a state of affairs has not been the result of any spike or trend in criminal behaviour, which has fluctuated, but is the intended consequence of a racist, abusive expansion of state power and corporate welfare initiated by the administration of Nixon, and fully realised by that of Reagan, and which has been presumed and expanded upon by each successive American government.

Not nine months following his ascension to the presidency of the USA, Ronald Reagan appealed to long standing public grievance over the “losing war against the menace of crime”, announcing “a new legislative offensive…an intensive and coordinated campaign against international and domestic drug trafficking”. Use of illegal drugs, hitherto tolerated, was aggressively criminalised; mandatory prison sentences for possession of illicit substances were imposed, and huge new federal policing bodies created, dedicated solely to what was termed the ‘War on Drugs’. The comprehensive application of these laws was twinned with a concomitant increase in incarceration rates.

The incarceration of nonviolent drug users was not, however, followed by any discernible effect on the availability of drugs, use thereof, the functioning of the international drug trade or public safety; non-profit watchdog group The Sentencing Project reports that only a tiny minority of prisoners convicted on drug charges are “high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense”. Drug offenders “comprise half of the prison population” at a federal level, while only 8% of all federal inmates are “violent offenders”. The ‘War on Drugs’ is a war on liberty.

The disproportionately high black prison population is a deliberate phenomena. Human Rights Watch reports that “people of colour are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs” than white people, yet they are the drug war’s biggest casualty by a wide margin. The assault on the black community came as a happy and caustic convergence of domestic and foreign policy; the 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug abuse acts adopted what The Sentencing Project calls “excessive mandatory penalties for crack cocaine that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses”. Criminologist William Chambliss, writing the 1990’s, illustrates this disparity;

possession of five grams of crack cocaine (the drug of choice of people in the Black community) carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole, while possession of 100 times that amount of cocaine powder (the drug of choice of the white middle class) has no mandatory sentence.

The two drugs are pharmacologically identical, the main difference between them being the class and colour of their respective users. Chambliss reports of institutional brutality from the police in their application of these racist laws;

the typical arrest is accompanied by violence, racist slurs and disrespect for citizens and suspects alike…[occurring in] crowded areas where both children and adults bear witness to the racism and violence of the police as often as they witness the violence of drug dealers

This has a predictably devastating effect on the black community; Barreras, Drucker and Rosenthal, in a study published in the Journal of Urban Health report that

incarceration impacts the life of a family in several important ways: it strains them financially, disrupts parental bonds, separates spouses, places severe stress on the remaining caregivers, leads to a loss of discipline in the household, and to feelings of shame, stigma, and anger

The high conviction rate among black males allows potential employers to be actively discriminatory. This causes massive unemployment rates among black people who have criminal records, and quickly eliminates the possibility, for many, to legitimately sustain themselves. Becoming a street dealer is an ugly means by which to alleviate impoverished conditions, but is of relative unimportance to the functioning of the drug trade. Concentrating police efforts against petty dealers is an ineffective strategy if one wishes to address the issue of drug use or trafficking, but an incredibly effective strategy if one wishes to address the ‘problem’ of poor people. The American drug trade, an overwhelmingly corporate and middle-class business, has an inexhaustible supply of desperate, young black people willing to hustle on street corners, in spite of the likely prospect of death, injury or incarceration. These petty dealers are the face of the drug trade when reported in the media, and provide a smokescreen behind which the transnational banks and corporations who control drug flows and banks who launder the vast spoils can continue their business without fear of molestation. We may conclude, therefore, that the domestic efforts of the US Government function as a self fulfilling prophecy, ensuring the impoverished circumstances which inform the desperate decision to sell drugs.

As an aside we might briefly note the circumstances which begat the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980’s and devastated innumerable lives and communities. In the early 80’s Reagan’s administration supported a variety of right wing counterrevolutionary groups (contras) in Nicaragua in a covert attempt to overthrow the democratically elected socialist government of the country.  The US government spent millions of dollars training and arming these contras. The contras were massively unpopular among both Nicaraguan and American citizenries, owing to their murderous and cruel acts; a huge US government propaganda campaign in favour of the contras failed to convince the American public to support acts of murder, rape and infanticide. Consequentially, in 1985, congress voted to block all public funding to the Contra groups.

As revealed by Gary Webb, in his infamous ‘Dark Alliance’ essays, in absence of more direct means of funding these groups, it is likely that the CIA turned a permissive blind eye to the wide scale trafficking of crack cocaine from the Nicaraguan contras to US mainland, and its consequent sale in ghettos and inner-city areas. This was largely responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80’s. 1989, the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, headed by senator John Kerry, concluded after a lengthy investigation, that “Senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems”. Those same policy makers were given an irresistible pretext to viciously isolate crack possession and sale as worthy of the harshest legal punishment among all drugs, despite the Government’s own direct role in the availability and prominence of the drug. The insurmountable damage that the crack epidemic and drug war has inflicted upon the black community and the government’s responsibility for both of the collective assaults has not been satisfactorily addressed by any subsequent president, and is barely known publicly, being incompatible with the media narrative of blacks as culturally, if not genetically inferior and infantile.

Part II

The motivations that gave rise to such zealous and totalitarian legislation are not difficult to discern, and we will now turn to an analysis of the fundamental ideological precepts which informed them. Depending on where upon the political spectrum one places one’s ear, Ronald Reagan is most famously known for either his remarkable stupidity, his murderous and criminal foreign policy in Latin America, or his principled dedication to liberty, democracy and free-markets. Of the three claims pertaining to Reagan, two are supported by a vast body of evidence and largely absent from serious commentary on his presidential legacy and one is totally, demonstrably false and also the only claim widely permitted in mass media and mainstream political discourse.

Reagan, and those politicians in his mold, are identified fatuously as ‘libertarian’, a word, which much like ‘socialist’ before it, has been debased so thoroughly and with such propagandistic calculation that it refers quite precisely to the antithesis of its originally intended definition. This is useful as a power play, condemning the swamps of political discussion to further obscurity, but it is also as a means by which we may gauge the actual beliefs held by Reagan and his ilk; if an established politician is referred to as ‘Libertarian’ it quite simply means that they believe in the unrestrained right of business to profit, with all other rights subordinated to that one elementary rule. Accordingly, these ‘libertarians’ advocate the cutting of publicly funded programs aimed at assisting poor, disadvantaged people, wishing them to be offset by a huge increase in public funding and aid to the corporate sector, which is granted massive subsidy, reductions and breaks in tax, and further enriches the entitled wealthy class.

Reaganite ‘libertarians’ loudly espouse the virtues of the fallacious doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’, and are contemptuous of ‘something for nothing culture’, all the while isolating themselves from the former and exemplifying the latter. Of course this is not so much the intellectual distinction of the ‘libertarian’ as the ruling paradigm of state-capitalism, but the neoliberal trend  (fundamentalist worship of state power and corporate welfare) gives the necessary framework within which Reagan’s policy can be fully understood.

This ideological impetus is implicitly acknowledged in the public address made by Reagan to announce the new drug policy; though largely a postscript to empty fear mongering rhetoric, the eighth initiative of Reagan’s proposed legislation would consist of “millions of dollars …[to be] allocated for prison and jail facilities”. Obviously any apparent statement of truth made by a pathological liar must be subjected to intense scrutiny, and as such the ‘millions [of] allocated’ dollars for ‘prison facilities’, might have more accurately been rephrased as “a permanent dedication to billions of dollars annually spent in the service of dramatically expanding state power”.

The predicted increase in incarceration required the construction of new prisons, thereby gifting billions of dollars in public subsidy to the construction industry and the huge legal and administrative costs associated therewith. The magnitude of expansion is not easy to comprehend; there has been a 1712% rise in the federal prisons budget since the 1980’s, which as of 2012 was well above $6 billion – the 2013 budget request by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) stands at just below $7 billion, two thirds of which is direct subsidy to

prison construction, modernization and repair, institution security and administration, contract confinement, management and administration

The minority of the budget (35%) is dedicated to ‘Inmate care and programs’, though, according to findings from The Sentencing Project, the term is largely a smokescreen referring to the outsourcing of “medical services, food preparation, vocational training and inmate transportation”. Any serious initiative regarding inmate care would not give rise to a situation whereby

federal prisons are operating at 35% above capacity…double and triple bunking is commonplace, as is the utilization of non-housing areas for sleeping quarters

Not all areas of prison spending show signs of growth; the Marshals service boasts of having reduced inmate medical care costs (only 5% of the budget) by $171.6 million, through “innovative cost saving projects” in the provision of basic health needs for incarcerated individuals. Such ‘innovation’ is patently lacking in the rest of the BOP, which has requested a 4.2% increase over the 2012 budgetary total, so as to reflect

the activation of two completed prisons, beginning the activation of two newly constructed prisons, expanding contract confinement, and increasing onboard staff at existing institutions.

Financial pipelines are then directed towards interests which happily convene with powerful industries and pockets of wealth, and away from the provision of Human dignity and health, which has poor returns on investment.

Reagan’s corporate fetish birthed the phenomena of the American private prison, when in 1984 the Corrections Corporation of America (founded 1983) won a contract to take over a correctional facility in Tennessee. There are currently over 250 privately owned prisons in America; private companies are contracted by the Government, who pay a monthly rate per-prisoner. These private companies take their massive public endowment and turn it to private profit in truly entrepreneurial spirit. The consequences for liberty and human rights are hardly surprising; Mark Evans, writing for the Tucson Citizen notes that to be profitable, these institutions “pinch pennies everywhere – scrimp on security, save on food [and are] parsimonious with guard salaries”, citing reports by local Arizona news outlets that detail “escapes, riots, deaths and beatings…corruption, high guard turnover…[and] prisoner mistreatment”. The Sentencing Project cites numerous examples of private prisons endangering inmates by “providing inadequate healthcare services”. Included among other examples is a claim leveled at CCA’s medical department that an inmate died “after officials allegedly refused to fill a $35 prescription for his hereditary angioedema”. Cost ineffective factors such as the provision of humane conditions or human rights are, rightly by capitalist logic, given negligible attention. Inmates are comprised of mostly what Chomsky terms the “surplus population” – poor, black folk whose market value is nonexistent, and who therefore must be put to effective use somehow. The ability to confine and control these people gives private companies an environment in which they can openly unharness this desire; Fraser and Freeman’s 2012 report ‘Locking down an American Workforce’ finds that

The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S…two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM…nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day…rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance

Labour is not organised and regulation is barely tangible. The surplus population of poor people with no market value can be put to use in many ways. They are put to use by the drug trade, who use them for undignified and violent street dealing, and then they are put to use, when arrested,as a pretext for prisons to be built and corporate pockets to be lined. If they are lucky enough to land in a private prison, they can be put to use by providing additional profit to their owners, who are not obliged to pay them anything close to a minimum wage.

The obvious comparison to be made here is to the antiquated slave trade, but it is an inadequate analogy. The truth bears more resemblance to an inverse slave trade, whereby auctioneers do not sell slaves, but pay plantations to own them, and do so with money gifted from the public purse. The new slave trade is not so much a ‘trade’ than it is a nationalised industry. The institution of the new slavery is but another pipeline funneling public money to the petulant and expectant hand of the corporate sector, with the divide-and-conquer approach to humanity and  civil society a terrible yet predictable consequence.

– Harry Burgess



4 thoughts on “The New Slavery

  1. A hopefully intriguing and stimulating provocation (a great good faith and good will is behind all my words): There is something ironic about your highly controlled and intellectual writing style in relation to those who you defend. And I admire your values, what you stand for; I myself am in the same area. I want justice and fairness for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, a distribution of wealth and resources which provides as many individuals as possible at least the bare necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. Indeed, anything less, and we’re talking about something criminal going on. But your writing style isn’t one that would generally appeal to the exploited working class, the sweat and toil producers, the average man and woman. This is a conundrum. Those who are victims of greedy capitalist policies, forced into labor to make ends meet and for shit pay and shabby benefits, at the end of the day, are so burned out that few come away with any deep and probing concentration of mind. How does one reach the average worker? What kind of language would get through? Unions and companies fight over the soul of the average worker. The average worker doesn’t know what the hell is going on most of the time, is too tired and scared and frankly has no time to investigate, and so is whipped around like a top, spinning in confusion, until he doesn’t care anymore. He resigns himself and just wants to be left alone. I’ve met such individuals and in myself feel the same tug of resignation. Many old workers at the same job for a long time become cranks, and even turn against the idea of a union, something that might be to their advantage, sucking up instead to the company heads even if their policies keep him and his coworkers stuck in place, slowly grinding and sucking the life out of them and turning every new worker too into fellow drones. It’s a strange phenomenon, and I wonder in the face of it who you write for, to whom do you address your words? Who is your intended audience? Print out one of your politically oriented critical pieces and give it to a factory worker, or to someone who works two jobs, and see if he responds thoughtfully and at length. He may glance at what you worked so hard to write and craft into a well-researched and unique text, maybe get no further than the fourth sentence, getting snagged on words he never saw before, then sigh and crumple it up, grumbling, and keep walking. It doesn’t change anything for him. It wouldn’t incite him to organize and rebel. It’s not enough. I think this is one of the traps of intellectualism, how in ways it may backfire when originally the intention was to help by clearing up and instructing. A man pressed for time and energy might grow a little resentful and offended, angered, by the kind of text which seems to add additional labor to the labor he already feels barely able to endure. If the logic is not clear and simple enough, the language not physical and palpable, but too cerebral and abstract, no bold and direct slogans in the body of the text which can be lifted out and shared and passionately rallied behind, then your average man will still only see and feel that he has to set his alarm clock early the next morning, wake up groaning, and to plod back into the maw of a work situation which consumes him body and soul. Same goes for how he sees and feels living on the shadow-side of all the exploitive and destructive policies of unchecked capitalism put in place by greedy politicians and business people for their own benefit. Many who are actually being exploited, if you tell them so and try to provide details, since they know it all too well, their first reaction will be, “Yeah? Is that right, Einstein? Fuck off.” They don’t want to hear it, and they certainly don’t want to be lectured about it. No matter what is thrown at people down at bottom – faced with no choice – they simply struggle as best they can to adapt and cope in impoverished and depraved conditions beyond their personal power to change while isolated and alone, and amazingly, many do it with remarkable resourcefulness and resiliency, though too many are destroyed in the process; and of course those responsible at the top always wash their hands clean as if they had nothing to do with creating the conditions of hopelessness and despair which contributes to increased drug abuse, mental breakdowns, wild eruptions of anger and violence, deviancy, theft, burglary, domestic abuse, the outbreaks of crime which in fact are a looking glass reflection of their own much larger scale and “abstract” criminality, staring them right back in their faces ugly and monstrous like the Picture of Dorian Gray; but harsh punishment they’re so many times able to evade because they have power and are able to buy the law, displacing all their guilt while pointing down like Zeus through the parted clouds, and thunderously exclaiming, “Look there! They’re the ones! We need to build more prisons. Look at all the vermin. Lock them up and throw away the key.”

    • Johndockus, thank you for your kind and constructive comments. I am in agreement with much of your substantive argument; reconciling the need to inform with the need to be thorough and appealing is a necessity when writing for public consumption. I am well aware of the pitfalls associated with using abstruse language and convoluted prose; accordingly, I attempt to avoid doing so.

      Obviously no piece of writing is perfectly comprehensible, and so there comes a point where one has to suppose that a reader’s interest will be sufficient enough to forgive long words. In the case of this article, I took numerous safeguards to ensure that my writing could be easily understood; I made very simple substantive claims, and liberally cited those claims with authoritative or public sources. The central line of argument was informed by elementary human values which are known by practically anyone.

      I think you have constructed something of a straw man in your embittered proletarian who can suffer no more than four sentences of my torturous prose. Your implication, as I understand it, is that it is the task of writers to alleviate the jaded stupor of people who are exhausted and dispassionate by their very definition, according to your description of them. I can’t imagine how this would be anything other than a hugely Sisyphean objective, doomed to failure from the outset. No language is simple enough to persuade people who are unpersuadable by nature. However, such a disposition is not suffered by the whole of the working class, and I consider it somewhat arrogant to consign them to indignity by their economic status alone.

      Poor people are perfectly capable of possessing the necessary volition to want to educate themselves, despite the numerous fetters designed to prevent such liberation. Any writer has to presume that a reader of his work will come with a desire to learn and approach it with an open mind. Stirring such an interest in the first place is a task of which I’ll admit to being incapable, but fortunately not a skill I need learn; this article was received with interest by a number of people, all of whom could be appropriately described as ‘working class’.

      However, I happily concede that there is something to your criticism – bad writing habits, like any habits, are hard to break and easy to lean upon. I will be more conscious of this when writing in the future. Once more – thank you for your kind and well crafted words

      – HB

  2. Thanks very much for your response, Colossus. You’re a curious man. I wonder if you speak in person in the same way you write. I can’t imagine it to be so. If you and I were together and you started talking as you write, because in person I’m something of a free associating jester, I’d start laughing. You write in such a measured way, like ticker tape results coming out of an intelligence machine. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a personal reaction. But this goes both ways. I’m aware that my own writing sometimes gets a little too tight, is elevated and impassioned, but maybe needs to breathe a little more so that others aren’t afraid to jump in and express what they really think. It’s a problem for me too. I want individuals to respond in a way that helps me improve myself. I want to become a better artist, and I want to experience meaningful and alive connections. What good is all this blogging if all we get are individuals sending up smoke signals from great distances, none daring to make the journey and actually joining each other to sit around the same fire. I could sit here feeding logs and twigs to my fire, make it blaze brilliantly for periods of time, getting many people to look in my direction, but the purpose is defeated if this is all I do and no one comes to sit with me sometimes for a conversation. Anyway, you have a really fine mind, potently concentrated. I concede straightaway that you’re probably much more learned than I am. My own intelligence is largely instinctive and intuitive. I write from my guts and heart and bones. I have a terrible memory, which I’ve actually learned to work to my advantage as an artist. I go skinny dipping in Lethe, and crawl back to shore, standing up and toweling off as if reborn. Frankly a little bit of Adamic ignorance, good willed naivete, is essential to the functioning of a poetic mind. I could never write academic papers. I’m too impatient to do research. My mind flies all over the place. When I do walk and crawl, I tend to keep my mouth shut, or I take up pen or pencil and it’s then that I exercise my patience. I’m probably at my least poetic when I’m working on some piece of art. One thing we do share in common, I think, is abhorrence of redundancy, prolixity, pretension. When a wind bag fills the room, I take the rusty pin I found in the pelvis of the straw man, blunt, not really sharp anymore, and try to pop the wind bag, and it just bounces off. I then stand aside, your turn to give it a go. You parry and thrust: Pop! And I must say, you do it with impeccable manners. You bow afterward toward he who is deflated. You have pointers of your own to give me, suggestions of technique. The more I get to know you, the more I like you. I’m sincerely glad for this acquaintance because I have something to learn from you, and you seem to be a willing teacher. Hey, Colossus, warm regards to you.

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