More than a year since reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, my head’s still spinning trying to come to grips with the concept of debt, which once seemed very simple to me and now seems deeply nebulous. Just recently, I was trying to recommend that book to a friend and found myself unable even to explain what it was “about.”
Atwood’s book, which started as a series of lectures and reads very conversationally, might be a better place to start than Graeber. It’s not nearly as detailed or researched, and there’s a much lower ratio of mindblowers-per-page, but it’s also far more approachable and comprehensible.
Unsurprisingly, Atwood’s particularly good at exploring the ways debt appears in literature, with shrewd and lively analyses of Middlemarch, Faust, and — of course — Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol.
Breezy, smart, recommended.
I knew that the American “war on drugs” had led to extraordinary numbers of people being imprisoned for little reason; I knew that a highly profitable and job-creating prison industry depended upon a system which delivers torrents of new inmates to correctional facilities; I knew that sentences for inexpensive crack were absurdly and punitively higher than those for expensive cocaine; I knew that police organizations literally profit from being able to seize assets from drug arrests (or even drug suspicions), and that many law enforcement agencies depend upon these funds for their budgets; I knew that African Americans were far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drugs than whites. In short, I wasn’t totally uninformed. But this book still provided me with a lot of fresh information, and — more importantly — a framework by which to understand in sum a lot of phenomena I had known about but not really understood. Alexander’s thesis is that America’s mass incarceration of African Americans represents the third great wave of racial control in this country, the first two having been slavery and Jim Crow. The genius of this system is that it professes not to be race-based at all. It’s not African Americans who are being put under state control and surveillance; it’s criminals. Everyone knows that we are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of race any more, but everyone also knows that we are universally free to despise criminals. So if you can see to it that vast numbers of African Americans are branded as criminals, you can achieve a system of de facto racial control and discrimination while at the same time professing that your laws and processes are colorblind. There are some line-level problems with Alexander’s reasoning here and there, but on the whole she presents a devastatingly effective and well-documented argument, one which has fundamentally altered how I think about our legal system and the state of racial discrimination in this country. I highly recommend the book, and if you lack the time for that, urge you to see Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In; the film explores many of the same issues, and also features interviews with Alexander.