The Death Penalty and Globalization in Nigeria, the United States, and Europe

By Federici, Silvia; Caffentzis, George | Monthly Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Death Penalty and Globalization in Nigeria, the United States, and Europe


Federici, Silvia, Caffentzis, George, Monthly Review


Introduction

The most ominous social phenomena shaping the U.S. political economy in the 1980s and 1990s have undoubtedly been: (1) the mass incarceration of young proletarian men and women, mostly black and Hispanic, and (2) not only the return to the death penalty (after the moratorium of the 1972-1976 period) but the constant escalation in the number of executions.

There are now two million people in U.S. prisons--by far the largest prison population in the world in absolute terms. More than four million are on probation or parole. Almost four thousand are on death row, and one hundred persons are executed every year. Their numbers are likely to increase despite the growing momentum of the campaign for a new moratorium.

It is as if U.S. politicians, judges, and prison administrators had conspired to produce a tableau vivant of the "Great Confinement" and the "spectacles of the scaffold" that characterized the period of primitive accumulation in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. The only missing element, the crowning of "King Death," was provided by the election to the presidency of George W Bush--the man who, as governor of Texas, signed more death warrants than anyone in the history of the country, and whose first message to the nation was the appointment of John Ashcroft--a staunch supporter of both capital punishment and the Confederacy--as the chief legal officer of his administration.

These developments have provoked many analyses connecting the restoration of the death penalty with either the country's legacy of racism, or with the unfolding of the neoliberal agenda, or, more specifically, with the general deterioration of workers' rights and living conditions. Only recently have the U.S. carceral (prison) regime and its return to executionism been attributed the to the structural changes which the present phase of economic globalization has brought about. [1]

In this essay, we investigate this connection. We argue that the correlation between the further global expansion of capital and the unleashing of a campaign of legalized state terror against the poor is not a phenomenon unique to the United States. In fact, it is the rule in many Third World countries that, in the 1980s and 1990s, have been affected by the debt crisis and consequently have been integrated into the global economy under the dictatorship of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is because, from a class viewpoint, globalization is a process of the internationalization of the labor market and, most important, a process of devaluation of labor carried on to the point of the enslavement of large sectors of the world proletariat. As such, it must rely on state-administered terror, as well as extra-judicial violence for its success.

We also argue that the use of legalized state terror has been especially prominent in the United States is a consequence of four related factors: (i) the planned increase of slave-like labor in the 1980s and 1990s at the core of the globalized U.S. economy, mostly achieved through the restrictions imposed upon immigration; (ii) the adoption of a neoliberal economic policy which deprives workers of rights (from employment and food subsidies to health-care and education); (iii) the institutional will to create new divisions within the U.S. proletariat, and to discipline the most rebellious sector of the U.S. citizen-population, black youths, leading to their disenfranchisement; (iv) the historic "American connection" between slavery and the death penalty that facilitates the construction of an apartheid society, justified now not by race but by the imputation of criminal behavior, although the victims of such policy are still primarily the descendants of the African slaves.

The U.S. political economy represents the fullest embodiment of globalization in its new forms, in addition to being the main engine propelling globalization worldwide. …

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