Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism: Is Capitalism Compulsory?

Jackie Wang considers the impact of biopolitics, racialization, the economy of fines and fees, and biased AI in her Carceral Capitalism.

Oct 4, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy

jackie wang carceral capitalism


Jackie Wang is an acclaimed contemporary thinker and writer whose work focuses on the political, social, and personal implications of emerging technologies. Her work explores a variety of topics, including biopolitics, surveillance, and the power dynamics embedded within technology and its implications for everyday life. In her work Carceral Capitalism, she lays out the ways in which capitalism is still compulsory in nature and is not entirely supported by its ideological hegemony alone.


Race and Capital in Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism

People queuing outside a Northern Rock branch in the United Kingdom to withdraw their savings during the financial crisis, photo by Dominic Alves, 14 September 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons


Jackie Wang investigates the connection between the expansion of financial capital in the US and racialized accumulation. According to Wang, these two forces are inextricably linked and mutually supportive, with each advancing the goals of the other.


Wang begins by outlining the background of racialized accumulation and pointing out that it has its roots in previous imperial and colonial endeavors. She contends that this type of accumulation, which depends on exploitation, racialized subjugation, and dispossession, has been utilized as a means of capital accumulation and has been a major factor in the rise of finance capital, which has become increasingly important to the global economy over the past few decades.


Wang then looks at how racialized accumulation has impacted the housing market, noting that predatory lending practices that disproportionately harmed people of color were a major cause of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. She contends that racialized accumulation was the primary cause of this crisis, which was made possible by the financial sector’s deregulation.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Portrait of a homeless black man by Wirestock, via Freepik.


Wang also looks at the part that racially biased law enforcement and mass incarceration play in this procedure, noting that both of these mechanisms contribute to racialized accumulation. Wang concludes by examining how race and class interact to shape the structure of financial capital, noting that the prioritization of some forms of capital, such as real estate and private equity, has led to a further entrenchment of racial inequality and wealth disparity. The poor and people of color are further marginalized as a result of this process of racialized accumulation.


According to Wang, the debate on whether capitalism works through differentiation or homogenization is a false one, for, as she argues, capitalism simultaneously does both. Capitalism has a dual character and operates on two axes: homogenizing in one and differentiating in the other. People of color are, therefore, at once homogenized under the structure of capital through wage-labour and also differentiated through racialized policies.


Municipal Finance

Inmates stand outside at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, by David Paul Morris, August 2016, via Getty Images.


Jackie Wang examines how municipal governments are increasingly relying on fees and fines to generate revenue in the chapter “Notes on Municipal Finance and the Political Economy of Fees and Fines.” She also looks at how this has led to a kind of “carceral capitalism” in which local governments use the criminal legal system to collect money from the most vulnerable members of their communities.


According to Wang, the use of fees and fines is a form of neoliberal governance in which the state abdicates its duty to provide public services and instead relies on individuals to fund their own services through punitive fees and fines. She contends that this is a form of neoliberalism that is particularly oppressive to low-income people, people of color, and other marginalized groups because they are frequently unable to pay these fees and fines and are consequently punished with jail time and other forms of criminalization.


Wang also covers the ways in which fines and fees, such as those for probation and parole, court costs, and fines for moving violations, are used to finance the criminal justice system. According to her, this has produced a system in which the criminal justice system is employed to make money, punish, and repress those who are already vulnerable and marginalized.


Image of a person being handcuffed, via the Guardian.


One example taken here is that of Tom Barret, a person arrested for stealing a can of beer. He was sentenced to one year of probation and a 200$ fine. During this time, Barret had to wear a bracelet that monitored his alcohol level. He had to rent the bracelet from a private company and pay them all sorts of fees: monthly, daily usage fees, and start-up fees. His only source of income came from selling his blood. To pay for the fees, Barret starts skipping meals and became ineligible to donate plasma. Unable to make money from blood donations, he was sent back to jail for not paying his fees.


Wang contends that the use of fines and fees to raise money is an example of neoliberal governance that is oppressive to low-income individuals, individuals of color, and other marginalized groups. According to her, this type of neoliberalism has led to the development of “carceral capitalism,” in which the criminal justice system is employed to punish and oppress those who are already vulnerable and marginalized while also generating income.


“Packing Guns Instead of Lunches”

Virginia Tech massacre memorial on the campus of Virginia Tech, by Userb, 15 September 2007, via Wikimedia Commons.


Jackie Wang investigates the growing criminalization of youth and the part that carceral capitalism plays in this process in the chapter “Packing Guns Instead of Lunches.” To show how the “war on crime” has been used to justify stifling youth voices and the use of oppressive policing and surveillance tactics to control their behavior, she draws on the concepts of biopolitics and carceral capitalism.


Wang starts off by pointing out that the “war on crime” has been used to criminalize youth and to defend more harsh and oppressive policing methods. She makes the case that this war is based on the notion that children and young adults are dangerous and need to be controlled, and that this control is a form of biopower.


She continues by arguing about how carceral capitalism, which sees youth as a source of profit, is an example of how this biopower manifests itself. This is evident in the growing use of youth surveillance and tracking, as well as the increased involvement of private businesses and the criminal justice system in regulating youth behavior. Wang continues by analyzing how this system affects youth, contending that it has silenced their voices and prevented them from having opportunities to express themselves. She contends that this contributes to the criminalization of youth and the oppressive policing strategies employed to maintain control over them. She also points out that because young people are treated like mere commodities to be bought and sold, this system has dehumanized them.


The Politics of Crime Statistics

Inmates on the Gwinnett County, Georgia, work crew cutting grass, by Johnny Crawford via AP Photo / Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


Wang also explores the ways in which crime statistics and data are used to justify and perpetuate the prison industrial complex. She argues that crime data is not neutral, but rather is shaped by political and economic interests, and that it is used to reinforce racial and economic inequalities.


Wang begins by examining the history of crime data and its use in the United States. She notes that crime data has been used since the 19th century to justify the expansion of the criminal justice system and that it has been used specifically to target marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. She also notes that crime data is often manipulated to support political agendas and that it is often used to justify increased funding for law enforcement and the construction of new prisons.


Wang then turns to a discussion of the ways in which crime data is collected and analyzed. She notes that crime data is often collected through biased policing practices, such as racial profiling, and that it is often analyzed in ways that reinforce racial and economic inequalities. For example, she notes that crime data is often used to justify the over-policing of low-income communities of color, which predictably leads to higher rates of arrest and incarceration.


Wang is interested in the ways in which crime data is used to justify the use of predictive policing technologies. She notes that these technologies are often based on biased data, which leads to discriminatory policing practices. She argues that these technologies are not only ineffective but also perpetuate racial and economic inequalities.


Wang argues that mass incarceration is not simply a response to crime, but rather a deliberate strategy of economic exploitation. She traces the roots of mass incarceration to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s, which saw a shift towards privatization and deregulation. This shift led to the emergence of the prison industrial complex, which transformed the prison system from a means of punishment and rehabilitation to a profit-driven industry.


Jacke Wang on Algorithmic Racism

A demonstrator is arrested while protesting the Staten Island, New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, photo by Andrew Burton, December 8th 2014 via Wikimedia Commons.


The last point made by Wang is that this system of “carceral capitalism” is a form of structural violence that disproportionately affects communities of color. She asserts that these neighborhoods are more likely to be the target of oppressive policing strategies and surveillance, which help turn youth into criminals and silence their voices. Wang offers a compelling analysis of how the “war on crime” has been used to criminalize youth and to support increasingly repressive policing and surveillance practices.


Wang examines the idea of algorithmic policing, focusing in particular on the business PredPol. Wang explains the fundamentals of predictive policing, which employs artificial intelligence (AI) to foresee potential criminal activity and make attempts to prevent it. PredPol analyses data using AI to forecast crime by predicting where it will likely occur and when.


PredPol and other predictive policing technologies, according to Wang, are a component of the larger carceral capitalism system, which she defines as “a system in which the government and corporations collaborate to use imprisonment and surveillance as a source of profit.” She makes the case that PredPol and other AI-based systems are made to boost the criminal justice system’s effectiveness and profitability, and, consequently, the profits for the participating corporations.


PredPol and other predictive policing technologies, according to Wang, are founded on “the assumption that crime is driven by certain spatial and temporal patterns,” and as a result, “the data that PredPol uses to create its crime forecasts is inherently biased and racist.” She notes that PredPol is based on historical crime statistics, which frequently reflect historical patterns of police targeting particular communities based on race.


Wang advocates for a radical rethinking of the criminal justice system, one that is based on a commitment to social justice and human dignity. She argues that we need to move away from punishment and towards healing, rehabilitation, and community-based solutions.

Author Image

By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.