There Should Be a Jailbreak I: Prison as Vengeance, Research Time, 26/08/2014

Moving forward by a few decades in my exploratory journey through the great figures of the anarchist tradition, I’ve hit across Emma Goldman, particular the book of essays she published in 1910. Anarchism as a political movement in Europe and America had taken a particularly violent turn by that point, articulating itself most notably as a series of assassinations. Self-identified anarchists had, by the time this book was released, successfully killed Czar Alexander II of Russia, King Umberto I of Italy, and American President William McKinley.

Goldman herself was hounded by the law enforcement agencies of the United States for this last assassination, even though McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, had no material connection with her. This circumstance of an intellectual leader in a movement persecuted for terrorist activities in which that leader played no part would repeat in the case of Antonio Negri’s being declared responsible for the murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro nearly eight decades after the McKinley assassination.

Emma Goldman, one of America's most
prominent anarchist activists, a woman who
should be properly legendary.
While I am thinking further about the identification of the anarchist movement with violence, and how this continued, I’d prefer to talk about another curious kind of historical repetition I found in her work. One of the essays in the collection I’m reading is about the serious need for prison reform. Goldman is intensely concerned that the prisons of America are becoming overpopulated, fed a steady diet of people who are so badly mistreated during incarceration, all in the name of punishment, that their recidivism is inevitable.

Goldman is incensed that prisoners are made to perform forced labour for which they are pathetically reimbursed, for the benefit of a corrupt collusion of state governments and contracting private enterprises. She is also extremely concerned that the state is spending such a terrible amount of money on prisons every year, a sign that the priorities of the government are severely schizophrenic at best, and outright hostile to the people it ostensibly serves at worst. The annual expenditure that worries her is $1-billion per year.

It is, to make the biggest understatement that I think I possibly could in the circumstance, a sad state of affairs that nothing has changed regarding the pathetic nature of American imprisonment. In fact, the problem has grown so terrible that it is an objective worry that the United States has become a police state in some regions, with 1% of its population currently living in prison. The problem has grown worse, but the majority still believe that incarceration is necessary.

More than this depressing analysis of a state of society that has only grown to more catastrophic proportions since then, Goldman makes a philosophical analysis as well. I’m quite impressed with how she has combined philosophical analysis with the blistering language of modern polemic. It’s a style that I think most philosophers who are interested in the political effects of their concepts should develop.

The heart of her analysis of why we all believe so deeply in the necessity of prisons lies in our need for revenge. She shares this notion with Friedrich Nietzsche, and has in other places mentioned her debt to his philosophical mind. But Goldman, whether rhetorically or sincerely, says that most people in our society have lost the nerve and fortitude to carry out an act of violent revenge ourselves. So we entrust the state to do it on our behalf, rationalizing its behaviour through the impersonal machinery of law and the excuses provided by philosophical argument.

Robert Nozick once argued that Nietzsche’s idea made little sense because one could build a concept of retributive justice that could stand on its own without having to be justified by virile desires for revenge. However, this was precisely not the point. Nietzsche’s and Goldman’s arguments are not about what can be justified. Goldman herself mocks the notion that retributive justice has its own argumentative justification as precisely missing the point about the ubiquity of the need for punishment in our own justice system.

Clayton Lockett's execution in Oklahoma unfortunately let
spectators see how much he suffered as he died. Like
cowards, we were appalled at his pain.
You can use the mechanical arguments of philosophy to justify any moral or political position. What matters politically is what actually lies at the heart of the motivation to punish. Revenge is the essence of the punishing soul which dry philosophical arguments for the rightness of retributive models of justice coldly permit. Just as most of us no longer have the stomach to pull the trigger of the gun that blows a hole in the head of the man who murdered our spouse,* most of us can no longer face that, despite all philosophical chicanery, the visceral motive of retribution and punishment is that we crave vengeance and blood.

* And we are even so squeamish that we no longer allow death penalties by firing squad or other bloody methods, but use poison gas or injections so the dying man appears more peaceful and we can believe the lie that he’s dying painlessly. That way, we can feel sanctimoniously merciful as we condone the state-sanctioned killing of a fellow citizen.

As well, Goldman identifies an aspect of the philosophical arguments and concepts that justify retributive justice that I find similarly disgusting. . . . To Be Continued.

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