Je Vous Dis, Merde! 21: American Democracy Without The Crime-&-Punishment Machine

In a fascinating New York Times article from 14 April 2017, “Power and Punishment: Two New Books About Race and Crime,” Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammed accurately and movingly describes what I’ll call The Crime-&-Punishment Machine in America:

Two new books offer timely and complementary ways of understanding America’s punitive culture and, in the process, stark pleas to abolish it. In “Locking Up Our Own,” James Forman Jr. explains how and why an influx of black “firsts” took the municipal reins of government after the civil rights movement only to unleash the brutal power of the criminal justice system on their constituents; in “A Colony in a Nation,” Chris Hayes shows that throughout American history, freedom — despite all the high-minded ideals — has often entailed the subjugation of another.

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Drawing heavily on personal experiences as a white kid growing up in the crack-era Bronx and attending a magnet school on the border of East Harlem, much of Hayes’s book unfolds along the axis of two “distinct regimes” in America. One for whites, what he calls the Nation; the other for blacks, what he calls the Colony. “In the Nation, you have rights; in the Colony, you have commands,” Hayes explains. “In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”

***

Many historians have long noted that black folk are simultaneously overpoliced and underprotected. Hayes writes that violence by police or by gangs are “two sides of the same coin.” As such, the Nation evinces a peculiar circular logic: The harm black people do to one another “justifies” the harm the state does in their name. By contrast, the premium on white victimization in the Nation is “painfully clear to people living in the Colony,” Hayes writes. “White lives matter, and it hardly needs to be spoken.”

In other words, what has happened in America is that coercive, punitive laws applying to everyone, whether white or non-white, are then specifically applied in a brutal, discriminatory way to non-white people, especially black people.

Notice, moreover, that the very idea of a “criminal act” is defined wholly in terms of the coercive, punitive laws that forbid that act, backed up by the threat of violence and punishment: without the coercive, punitive law that forbids an act, there is no such thing as a “criminal act” that violates that law, and therefore no ground whatsoever for legal violence or legal punishment.

Now in America, when anyone, especially non-white people and extra-especially black people, react against the coercive, punitive laws that are used to criminalize them, imprison them, or kill them — whether by police gun violence or by capital punishment — by committing even more “crimes,” then this fact, which has actually been caused and created by the coercive, punitive laws and their brutal, discriminatory application, is self-servingly used as a sufficient reason to create and justify harsher, more coercive, more punitive laws, that are then applied to everyone, but in an increasingly brutal, discriminatory way to non-white people and especially black people.

On top of that, as the two books discussed by Professor Muhammed show, it is not only white people in America who create and self-servingly “justify” these harsher, more coercive, more punitive laws, that are then applied to everyone, but in an increasingly brutal, discriminatory way to non-white people and especially black people: it is also non-white people and especially black people, who do this very same thing to other non-white and especially black people.

This bizarre, tragic, sociopolitical twist by which oppressed people become themselves the oppressors of other oppressed people is called “internalizing the oppressor.”

Is American democracy messed up, or what?

Here is how Professor Muhammed eloquently concludes his article:

Taken together “A Colony in a Nation” and “Locking Up Our Own” compel readers to wrestle with some very tough questions about the nature of American democracy and its deep roots in racism, inequality and punishment. Both authors find hope in a shared vision of a future society that protects human dignity and seeks accountability rather than vengeance. “What would the politics of crime look like in a place where people worried not only about victimization but also about the costs of overly punitive policing and prosecution?” Hayes asks. Forman imagines redefining our core values: “What if we strove for compassion, for mercy, for forgiveness? And what if we did this for everybody, including people who have harmed others?”

Because, finally, there may be no pathway to end mass incarceration without reconsidering our handling of all crimes, not just nonviolent ones. Fifty-three percent of all state prisoners are serving time for violent offenses, most commonly robbery. Racism and mass incarceration are systemic problems, but both Forman and Hayes show that the solution will lie not only with policy changes but with individual changes of heart too.

Forman recalls that a 16-year-old he defended was saved from incarceration by the testimony of the victim, who told the judge he didn’t want the teenager to be sent to prison. A system built to make “teeth rattle,” as described by Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, is not a system capable of transformation; we need to build a new foundation. We need to choose to do it. “Mass incarceration,” Forman writes, “was constructed incrementally, and it may have to be dismantled the same way.”

I couldn’t agree more.

So how can we go about dismantling The Crime-&-Punishment Machine in America?

I have three radical thoughts about that.

First, as I argued in “Je Vous Dis, Merde! 15: Trump As the Reductio ad Absurdum of US Democracy,” we most urgently need to get clear on what democracy actually is.

More specifically, I claimed, there are at least three different concepts of democracy:

(i) democracy as the rule of the majority of all the people qualified to vote,

(ii) democracy as the open process of critical discussion and critical examination of opinions and social institutions, and, simultaneously, the unfettered expression of different opinions and lifestyles, and

(iii) democracy as the unwavering commitments to universal respect for human dignity and autonomy, and universal resistance to human oppression.

And I also argued in JVDM! 15 that the only rationally and morally justifiable concept of democracy is the third one.

Therefore, in order to dismantle The Crime-&-Punishment Machine in America, we need to be guided solely by the third concept of democracy as the unwavering commitments to universal respect for human dignity and autonomy, and universal resistance to human oppression.

Second, as I argued in “Je Vous Dis, Merde! 8: The Second “Peculiar Institution,” Gun Abolitionism, and Trump,” for the sake of universally respecting human dignity and universally resisting human oppression, we need universally to abolish the possession and use of guns, especially including their possession and use by the police, by means of repealing the rationally unjustified and immoral Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

Believe it or not, there are five other countries in which most police don’t use guns — Iceland, Ireland, Britain, New Zealan, and Norway —and yet everything works out, pretty much gun-lessly, pretty much for the best.

In abolishing the possession and use of guns in the USA, we would thereby end gun violence, which is an essential feature of The Crime-&-Punishment Machine in America.

Third, finally, and most importantly, we should de-criminalize everything and shut down all prisons by simply getting rid of all coercive, punitive laws.

Non-coercive, non-punitive laws would still be acceptable, important, and even necessary for society: but their purpose would be solely to provide wise, apt guidelines for creating, operating, and sustaining all and only constructive, enabling social institutions for our mutual aid, benefit, and self-realization, guided above all by universal respect for human dignity and universal resistance against human oppression.

OK.

When your head stops spinning around on your stationary shoulders and smoke stops coming out of your ears, like satan-possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I’ll reply to the most obvious objection to what I’ve just argued:

Supposing that my radical proposals for dismantling The Crime-&-Punishment Machine in America were enacted, then how then could we ever defend and protect innocent people against the bad acts of bad people or prevent these bad acts from happening?

[Some time passes, while the smoke coming from your ears dissipates.]

Now, my reply to the most obvious objection is this.

As I argued in “Je Vous Dis, Merde! 20: On the Completely Messed-Up Immorality of Trump’s Syrian Missile Strike and Afghanistan MOAB Drop,” although all coercion is rationally unjustified and immoral, nevertheless what I call minimal sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force is morally permissible, precisely because its fundamental aim is to support and sustain human dignity:

  • as a last resort, only either using the smallest sufficiently effective level of violence or threat of violence, or deploying the smallest sufficiently effective threat of appreciable, salient harm, in order to defend against, protect against, or prevent, oneself or someone else being coerced, or having their human dignity directly violated.

In other words, we not only morally can but also morally should protect and defend innocent people against bad people: it’s just that this protection and defense would not involve crime-&-punishment, and, other things being equal, would never involve guns or incarceration.

Yes!, when other things are not equal, and things have reached a crisis situation, such that the well-being or lives of innocent people are imminently threatened, we might well have to use some minimally sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive means for neutralizing gun violence or other forms of violence, or for temporarily restraining someone.

But legal gun violence by the police, prisons, and capital punishment, would all be abolished.

Hence the violence-neutralizing or temporary restraining that would sometimes be necessary in crisis situations, would be as infinitely far from The Crime-&-Punishment Machine in America as utopia is from earthly hell.

— Which, sadly and tragically, is where we are right now, son.

And as usual, to anyone who says this is all simply impossible and can’t be done,

Je vous dis, merde!

***

“Je vous dis, merde!” (literally, “I say to you: shit!” or more loosely, “You’re so full of shit!”) is a morally and politically defiant slogan invented and first published by an early 20th-century Catalan anarchist who used the nom de guerre “Miguel Almereyda.” Almereyda, who was murdered in a French prison in 1917, was also the father of the famous French film director Jean Vigo, who immortalized the same slogan in his breakthrough 1933 film, Zéro de conduite, aka Zero for Conduct.

Here is the seven-part platform of The Wake The Fuck Up! Party , aka The WTFU Party —

1. Universal Respect for Human Dignity (URHD):

· Human dignity is the absolute non-denumerable moral value of every member of humanity, and everyone ought to try wholeheartedly to treat everyone else in a way that is sufficient to meet the demands of respect for human dignity, especially including (i) alleviating or ending human oppression, and (ii) actively engaging in mutual aid and mutual kindness.

2. Universal Basic Income (UBI):

· Anyone 21 years of age or over and living permanently in the USA, who has a personal yearly income of $50,000.00 USD or less, and who is capable of requesting their UBI, would receive $25,000.00 USD per year, with no strings attached.

3. A 15-Hour Workweek for Understaffed Non-Bullshit Jobs (FHW-for-UNBJs):

· Anyone 18 years of age or older who is living permanently in the USA, who has completed a high school education, and is mentally and physically capable of doing a job, would be offered an eco-job, paying a yearly wage of $25,000.00 USD, for fifteen hours of work (three 5-hour days) per week.

Thus anyone 21 years of age or older with a high-school degree and who is also mentally and physically capable of working, would have a guaranteed yearly income of at least $50,000.00 USD if they chose to do an eco-job.

The rationale behind the three-year gap between (i) being offered an eco-job at 18 and (ii) beginning to receive their UBI at 21, is that every young adult who has finished high school will have the option of pursuing three years of part-time or full-time free higher education without credentialing, i.e., for its own sake, after high school, before making longer-term decisions about what I call job-work and life-work.

***

Here are a few more details about UBI and eco-jobs.

(i) The UBI is to be paid by a monthly stipend check.

(ii) Eco-job income is not taxed.

(iii) For all individual yearly incomes of $50,000.00 USD or under, no tax will be levied; hence for someone receiving their UBI and also doing an eco-job, no income tax will be levied.

(iv) For all individual non-eco-job incomes, for every $1.00 USD earned above the standard UBI of $25,000.00 USD, the monthly UBI stipend is reduced by 50 cents, until the recipient’s UBI is reduced to zero; hence for those individuals with yearly non-eco-job incomes equal to or under $50,000.00 USD, the maximum UBI + non-eco-job income sum is always $50,000.00 USD.

(v) For all individual yearly incomes over $50,000.00 USD, for every $10,000.00 USD earned, that surplus income is taxed at the rate of 1%, with the highest surplus income tax rate being 50%; hence the maximum surplus 50% tax rate starts at individual yearly incomes of $550,000.00 USD, and applies to all higher surplus incomes.

***

4. Universal Free Higher Education Without Credentialing (HEWC):

· Everyone would be offered, beyond their high-school education, a free, three-year minimum, optional (but also open-ended beyond those three years, as a further option), part-time or full-time universal public education program in the so-called “liberal arts,” and also in some of the so-called “STEM” fields, including the humanities, the fine arts, the social sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences.

· For many or even most people, their HEWC would fall between (i) the end of their high school education at age 18 and the corresponding availability of eco-jobs, and (ii) the beginning of their UBI at age 21.

· But HEWC would be open to anyone with a high school degree, no matter how old they are, provided they are mentally and physically capable of doing the program.

5. Universal Free Healthcare (UFH):

· Every human person living permanently in the USA will receive free lifelong healthcare.

6. 2-Phase Universal Open Borders (2P-UOB):

· Phase 1: Starting in 2021, there will be universal open borders with Canada and Mexico, and everyone who moves across those borders and then claims residence in the USA, will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA and also full membership in the system of UBI, FHW-for-UNBJs/eco-jobs, and UFH in the USA, with the precise number of new temporary or permanent residents to depend on the current availability of (i) adequate funding for UBI, eco-jobs, and UFH , and (ii) adequate living accommodation, in the USA, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the USA and elsewhere in the world.

· Phase 2: Also starting in 2021, the USA, Canada, and Mexico will collectively form a Global Refugee Consortium (GRC), with three-way open borders to any political refugee, economic refugee, or asylum seeker from anywhere in the world (aka “global refugees”), who will receive temporary or permanent residence in the USA, Canada, or Mexico, and also full membership in the system of UBI, FHW-for-UNBJs/eco-jobs, and UFH in the three GRC countries, with the precise number of new temporary or permanent residents, and the precise distribution of new residents among the three members of the GRC, to depend on the current availability of (i) funding for UBI, eco-jobs, and UFH , and (ii) adequate living accommodation, in the three GRC countries, provided that all new residents also fully respect the human dignity of everyone else in the GRC and elsewhere in the world.

7. Universal No-Guns (UNG):

· No one in the USA, including police, internal security forces of all kinds, armies, and intelligence forces of all kinds, has the moral right to possess or use guns of any kind, for any purpose whatsoever, because the primary function of guns is coercion, and coercion is immoral.

· UNG would be implemented by repealing the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in 2021 and then universally banning the possession or use of guns thereafter.

I’m also assuming that Universal Public Education (UPE) — universal free access for all human persons of any age to good public education up to the end of high school — already exists in most countries, and needs no further justification.

Where UPE does not already exist, it would automatically become a necessary part of the seven-part WTFU Party package, thereby making it a eight-part package.

Mr Nemo, Nowhere, NA, 20 April 2017

The WTFU Party is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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