Reading Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

Italian translation available here

Next week, on the 11th and 12th July 2019, I will be contributing to the Carceral Ecologies workshop in Nottingham. This free event will allow us to explore colonialism, environmental disaster and the punitive state from an abolitionist perspective. Over the two days we will be discussing Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; Henry Thoreau’s Walden; Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag; Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes; and listening to contributions from a former prisoner as well as Lisa Selby and Elliot Murawski speaking about their Blue Bag Life project.

The text I will be introducing is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Originally published in 2007 (a second edition is published this month) Golden Gulag seeks to explain the massive increase in the number of people incarcerated in California in the final two decades of the 20th century. The book provides a compelling account of, and explanation for, California’s carceral explosion. It is an analysis which places the expansion in political, economic and geographic context. It is this theoretical grounding that can help us understand penal economies elsewhere and, equally importantly, how we can develop strategies of resistance to the carceral state.

Explaining penal expansion

Golden Gulag locates the explosion in the number of people incarcerated in California as a response to ‘four surpluses – of finance capital, land, labor, and state capacity’ (p. 57). What it definitely had nothing to do with was ‘crime’, public safety or justice. Criminal law and the criminal justice system may have been the enabler of this expansion but they were not its cause. That lay in these four surpluses, the crisis they represented and the responses to this crisis. But what were these surpluses?

By state capacity Gilmore is referring to both what the state can do both technically and politically. The neoliberal turn, she argues, has not led to less state but a withering away of ‘the state’s legitimacy to act as the Keynesian state (p.84). The dismantling of much of the state’s welfare provision reflected a reduction in the state’s political capacity rather than its technical capacity. In reality welfare cuts generated a surplus of state technical capacity, a surplus that became available for carceral expansion.

The significance of labour is highlighted by Gilmore’s observation that ‘most prisoners are modestly educated men in the prime of life’ (p. 111). Whilst the post-war Keynesian boom and unionisation had provided widespread secure, relatively well paid, working classes jobs, the last quarter of a century saw capital restructuring, the decline of manufacturing jobs, and a determined attack on unions. The ‘surplus’ labour generated was disproportionately working class, brown and black, male and urban. It was these young men that were incarcerated.

The ‘surplus’ land was in rural California. In particular those areas, that in the period after World War 1 had been used to intensively grow cotton. It was both a capital- and labour-intensive industry. However, starting in the 1970s severe droughts, El Nino winters, other environmental changes and growing debts undermined the cotton economy and as land was taken out of production, it became surplus. Local towns declined as the economic effects were felt, shops closed, property prices slumped, unemployment increased. Communities needed investment and had ‘surplus’ land; the building of prisons offered a solution.

The state has always been an important (and risk-free) client of finance capital, in particular providing a market for capital in times of economic recession. From the late 1970s private corporations were increasingly funding their declining investment from retained income. This resulted in the generating of surplus Finance Capacity. Finance capital had money, lots of it, that it needed to lend. Building cages requires finance and California, by issuing $5 billion in bonds to fund prison construction solved this problem (p.126).

In short, the crisis of four surpluses were resolved by building prisons. Mass incarceration therefore needs to be understood not in terms of crime, law or justice but as a mechanism for resolving capitalism’s crisis of surpluses.

The Limits of Prison Abolition

The publicity for the Carceral Ecologies workshop presents abolitionism as ‘prison abolition’. For me, such a characterisation, although common, is highly problematic. Firstly, it isolates prisons from their social context, focusing abolition on strategies for decarceration and the removal of the prison. It allows challenges to the culture and social structure which not only sustains prisons, but makes them essential, to be avoided. Secondly, by defining prisons as the problem, it inevitable invites a debate about what else to do with prisoners who must also be a problem. Prison abolitionism invites discussions about alternatives (sometime radical alternatives); effectively endorsing the idea that prisons have a legitimate function that needs replacing and that those incarcerated are also problems that need disposing of. Thirdly, a focus on the prison as an isolated institution fails to recognise, as Gilmore points out ‘prison is not a building “over there” but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere’ (p. 242). Recognising that the impact of incarceration falls as much on those outside, as inside, is vital to coalition building and crucially for how abolitionist organise. As Gilmore highlights: ‘Most of those fighting in the trenches have little time for activism motivated solely by abstract political or ethical rhetoric. Rather, they are fighting for their lives, their families, and their communities’ (p. 250-1). Fourthly, it reduces abolition to a single issue remove the need (and opportunities) of engaging with wider struggles and social movements. If, as Gilmore (2007) highlights ‘prisons are partially geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis’ (p. 26) then their abolition can only be achieved by an alliance of social justice movements. Abolition must extend beyond prisons, including not only radical or other alternatives, but also encompass anti-racist; anti-colonial; feminist, trans, climate emergency and anticapitalist struggles. To succeed abolition must be revolutionary.

Towards abolition democracy

Gilmore was writing about a specific place at a specific historic time. What is happened elsewhere is different. So how can this analysis inform abolitionists elsewhere? I would argue in at least five important ways.

  1. Understanding
    To understand the penal landscape where we live, we need to recognise that is shaped by social structure, geography, economics and politics. It is not an inevitable response to crime, necessary for justice or effectively protecting us. That is not to say that many of the behaviours that are criminalised are not highly problematic and harmful. Nor is it to say they don’t need responses and solutions. But it is vital to recognise that prisons and other penal sanctions are about completely different things. In developing our analysis, we need to explore how the current penal economy functions in the interests of capital, the state and other powerful interests. In particular who benefits from carceral expansion?
  2. Use this understanding to inform how we engage with prisons and resist new prison building
    Recognising that prisons are not an isolated ‘single-issue’ problem does not mean we do not engage with them or participate in the resistance to proposals to build new ones. Gilmore’s account of the resistance of communities in California to new prisons is inspirational. In particular we need to consider prison construction ‘as an antidevelopment problem’ that leads to ‘the underdevelopment of regions’ (p.179). As someone who lives in a rural community suffering decline that will be dramatically escalated by Brexit it is easy to see how local people may initially be excited by the potential economic benefit of a prison. However, what the campaigners Gilmore writes about can tell us is not only how to highlight how these economic benefits are much more limited than is claimed, but that a prison brings high social costs. For example, the impact of prison guards relocating into the community – ‘households with higher than average rates of domestic violence’ (p. 177) – was a fear highlighted by local people faced with a prospective prison. In areas where prisons had relocated, parents observed ‘an increase in their own kids’ use of fear to settle differences’ (p. 178). Prisons are always toxic, inflicting pain not only on the incarcerated but on the local communities where they are situated as well as those from which the incarcerated are snatched from.
  3. Leadership
    The activism Gilmore details in Golden Gulag is led by those in the community most impacted by incarceration. Predominately Black and Brown women, ‘fighting for their lives, their families, and their communities’ (pp 250-1). Prison abolitionism has too often been the domain of academics. Effective abolitionist campaigning needs to be led by prisoners, their families and friends, and built around alliances with other communities that experience both the oppression and the failures of criminal justice. Academics have a role, but it is far more likely to about putting their expertise at the service of the movement rather than ‘offering’ leadership and direction.
  4. Alliances
    Prisons and other penal sanctions are part of a wider problem. They exist to maintain an unjust social order. The struggle for the abolition of prisons is in reality part of a wider struggle of liberation. In practice, both those most oppressed and those involved in liberation struggles will also experience criminal justice and the prison. 1,000 Extinction Rebellion activists are arrested whilst capitalist continue to destroy the planet immune from any sanctions. Criminalisation continues to be used against migrants, people of colour, sex workers, the homeless, queer people and other oppressed people. At the same time, it continues to be ineffective at best, and counter protective at worse, in protecting these communities from harm. Effective abolitionist work needs to be inclusive of all these communities and campaigns, build alliances and highlight the structural links that underpin the oppression and inequality that characterise our contemporary social order.
  5. Solutions-not-alternatives
    Criminal justice claims legitimacy by appearing to be a response to real problems. As communities we do experience behaviours that are harmful, violent and oppressive. However, as Gilmore points out, ‘increased use of policing and state intervention in everyday problems hasten the demise of the informal customary relationships that social calm depends on’ (p.16). Police intervention, prosecutions, convictions and imprisonment make things worse. They increase harm. Abolitionists cannot ignore these problems and harms and one of our biggest challenges is developing our responses. However, we need to be careful not to create alternatives which replicate criminal justice. Alternatives, even radical ones, to punishment which accepts existing definitions of what constitutes problematic behaviour and who should be the targets of interventions will end up being counter-productive and reinforcing the unjust status quo. They, ultimately only seek to oppress more effectively. A liberatory abolitionist approach requires us to return to the problem or harm as it presents to the community (not the state) and seek to develop solutions that are emancipatory and anti-oppressive.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s writing and activism continually emphasises the wider context of abolition work. Our target may be the prison and other institutions of social control but our inspiration is the possibility of a better, more sustainable, equal and just, world. As Ruthie eloquently points out in an interview with Jenna Loyd (2012: 52):

if abolitionists are, first and foremost, committed to the possibility of full and rich lives for everybody, then that would mean that all kinds of distinctions and categorizations that divide us – innocent/guilty; documented/not; Black, white, Brown; citizen/not-citizen – would have to yield in favor of other things, like the right to water, the right to air, the right to the countryside, the right to the city, whatever these rights are. Of course, then we have to ask ourselves: What is the substance of rights? What is a right anyway? Is it a thing, or is it a practice? If a right is a practice rather than a thing, then that requires that these little instances of social organization in which people work on behalf of themselves and others with a purpose in mind, rather than a short-term interest that can be met through a little bit of lawmaking or other haggling, changes the entire landscape of how we live.

The Carceral Ecologies Workshop takes places at the Nottingham Contemporary, Weekday Cross, Nottingham, NG1 2GB on Thursday, 11 Jul 2019 and Friday, 12 Jul 2019. The event is supported as part of the AHRC-funded research project Postcards from the bagne, led by Sophie Fuggle at Nottingham Trent University.

Attendance is free. However, please register to attend and to receive advance reading materials here:


Gilmore, R. W. (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California Berkeley: University of California Press

Loyd, J (2012) ‘Race, Capitalist Crisis, and Abolitionist Organizing: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, February 2010’ in Loyd, J.M., Mitchelson, M. and Burridge, A. (eds.) Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders and Global; Crisis Athens: The University of Georgia Press. pp. 42-54


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