Two years ago I wrote about extractive democracy. I used the term to describe America’s recently acquired habit of extracting wealth from the poorest of us, in order to shift those monies to the wealthiest, using mechanisms of state. I cast the model as a form or element of plutocracy. Sean Andrews neatly summarized it as “roughly the use of the state to extract public resources for private benefit.” And I suggested the model would be important for the future.
Two years later, how does this hold up?
tl:dr version: sadly, very well.
To explain, I need to lay out more evidence. This is a topic I find most people are intuitively aware of, but rarely discuss, so some examples are in order. In my initial post I laid out ten components of the system. 4-10 seem obviously present, but 1-3 less so. Let’s see how increasing fees and policing, scaled-up bureaucracy, and militarizing the police are faring.
One reliable way to extract revenue from the poor is to levy fees for their interactions with local governments. Increasing privatization means increasing user fees for (formerly) public services, which disproportionately hits the poor (pdf).
The police and penal system offers even more extraction opportunities. A number of American states charge people processing fees when they enter the penal system yet are not actually charged or incarcerated. States can also criminalize the poor by sentencing them to jail when they can’t afford fees in Texas, Washington state, Alternatively, sttes and localities can charge poor people for their jail time (!), sometimes driving them into bankruptcy as a result.
We’ve learned that the government of Ferguson ordered its police to ramp up ticketing in order to generate more cash from fines. Nearby another St. Louis municipality escalated its jailing of citizens for the same reason.
[T]he city issued more than 2.1 arrest warrants per household in 2014 and nearly 1.4 for every adult, adding that if the rest of the St. Louis area generated revenue at the same rate as Jennings, cities would have made more than $670 million in five years.
This can rise to the level of basically criminalizing the working class and working poor, especially when black:
a little-known but pervasive shift in the way debt is collected in America: Companies now routinely use the courts to pursue millions of people over even small consumer debts. With the power granted by a court judgment, collectors can seize a chunk of a debtor’s pay. The highest rates of garnishment are among workers who earn between $25,000 and $40,000, but the numbers are nearly as high for those who earn even less.
People convicted of crimes who live in states that privatized aspects of their prison systems may have to wear GPS-equipped tracking devices, and also pay for them. Failing to pay on time can lead to more criminal charges. In short, using state power to exact money from the poor is a reliable business model.
Authorities can tweak that model to draw differently from separate strata within the bottom 60% or so of the population; California is experimenting with letting prisoners pay money for slightly better jail experience. (This was standard practice in the 18th century; everything old is new again) Others have figured out how to make money from virtual visitations. Call it extractive entrepreneurship.
Once people are brought under penal administration, states and local authorities can benefit from their involuntary labor (cf Michelle Alexander). For example, California recently relied heavily on prison labor to fight wildfires.
To conduct this kind of extensive extraction, local, state, and federal authorities need greater powers. We’ve seen that in widening surveillance through the course of the (ongoing) War on Terror. We’re also seeing surveillance conducted by local police, with examples like Chicago’s cops surveilling protestors. Police are now lobbying for extra legal protections for officers, beyond those afforded to mere citizens.
This article points out ways courts and police can combine to expand and exploit civil asset forfeitures:
In this century, civil asset forfeiture has mutated into what’s now called “for-profit policing” in which police departments and state and federal law enforcement agencies indiscriminately seize the property of citizens who aren’t drug kingpins. Sometimes, for instance, distinctly ordinary citizens suspected of driving drunk or soliciting prostitutes get their cars confiscated. Sometimes they simply get cash taken from them on suspicion of low-level drug dealing. [emphases added]
Simple economics and a touch of ideology encourage extractive regimes to expand not only the types of extraction, but also the population affected. For example, police and jail authorities in some areas are now worried about not having enough prisoners to pay their bills. Vera has done important research showing rural counties and towns drastically increasing incarcerations, and the fiscal rewards therefrom. Scranton offers a good example of this.
The extractive regime can go still further. One legal scholar describes a “penal pyramid” wherein public officials (in this case, teachers) increasingly treat the public as criminal, while public defenders increasingly function as social workers. Abolishing the distinction between criminal and non-criminal was a key principle for expanding the NSA’s surveillance since 2001, under the “gotta catch ’em all” mantra. Florida and other states are experimenting with another way of criminalizing everyone through widespread DNA collection (that research comes from the excellent and underappreciated ProPublica team).
Where is this large machine headed? We can extrapolate some tendencies. Externally, state budgets keep growing, due in part to demographics (older people consume more health care, statistically; there are also underfunded public pensions) and to our inability to rein in medical costs. This should keep the hunger alive for more revenue. In my first posting I mentioned other supporting factors, and they seem vigorous: financialization, some rising costs, rising inequality, privatization, slowing economic growth, political support, and surveillance.
A law and order mentality is crucial for maintaining the policing side of the extractive apparatus, so we should expect that ideology to be frequently expressed. The current president can use his bully pulpit to keep that going.
What does this mean for education?
First, students are increasingly subjected to these extraction systems, sometimes in schools. In short, states, localities, and the federal government can criminalize students. In one Florida case a science fair presenter was investigated for terrorism. The University of Mississippi apparently turned university students into informants by threatening them. Back to Illinois, a program teaches teachers how to interrogate by deploying tactics “used across the country by police officers, private-security personnel, insurance-fraud investigators”.
Second, as income inequality escalates, extractive democracy will play out differently for different populations. The upper reaches of the economy will tend not to experience it on the extraction side, while the bottom sectors will increasingly be subjected to it. Imagine the difference in student attitudes towards, say, authority, policing, or economics from these two populations colocated on the same campus or taking the same classes.
Third, public higher education may benefit from the extractive system, to the extent that funds derived from fees, policing, jailing, etc. make their way into the budgets of community colleges and state universities. Perhaps public higher ed won’t feel much incentive to examine or oppose this growing system.
Fourth, the connection between extractive democracy, society, and schooling may further weaken our cultural support for meritocracy, according to Scott Andrews.
The notion that we live in a meritocracy is one of the few things that all sides agree on, and education has long been the lever we claim will lift any impoverished person out of their hovel, no matter how structural the inequality is. So we all dutifully pay our local taxes… under the argument that this is our contribution to the poor person’s bootstraps.
What happens to education and its public presence when we start viewing it as anti-meritocratic, as a system for perpetuating class division and state power?
Fifth, we should expect academic programs that support the extractive system to continue to win faculty, students, and staff. Think of criminal justice majors, along with computer science, economics, business, and political science. Not everyone in those fields works to promote extractive democracy, but if a student or researcher wanted to get into the business, those are fine avenues.
So what is to be done?
An Alabama story offers one glimmer of hope. Alexander City (no relation) jailed poor people who couldn’t pay fines. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit, and the reaction was immediate:
Almost immediately after the suit was filed, the city of 15,000 changed its policies to allow poor people to pay off fines differently, either in installments or through community work, Alexander City’s lawyer, Larkin Radley, said.
And now, as a result of the suit?
A small Alabama town has agreed to dole out $680,000 among nearly 200 poor people it had jailed for failure to pay court fines, settling a case that embodied a national movement to fight what reformers call the criminalization of poverty.
So the courts may prove useful in blocking some of the extractive system.
Perhaps there are political alignments and currents which could take steps in state legislatures and townships. Black Lives Matter has thrown a spotlight on race-based policing, and retains some support in Democratic circles. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have reignited class-based politics on the left, and they could stoke a movement to shift the burden of paying for state services more to the wealthy. Further, the gradual decriminalization of marijuana could reduce opportunities for fees and jail time.
I’m skeptical of this, however, because such alliances would occur within the Democratic party. The Dems are thoroughly out of power, thanks to the November election catastrophe. They are split by divides stemming from the 2016 primaries and new politics. How effective can they be?
I started this topic in 2015. To my disappointment the extractive democracy model looks to be viable and growing. What do you make of it in 2017? Where do you think it’s headed?