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riting in the wake of the Shoah and in the midst of the Cold War, Hannah Arendt reflected on the possibility of a world-destroying violence:
When a people loses its political freedom, it loses its political reality, even if it should succeed in surviving physically.
What perishes in this case is not a world resulting from production, but one of action and speech created by human relationships… This entire truly human world, which in a narrower sense forms the political realm, can indeed be destroyed by brute force… (The Promise of Politics, 161-2)
What sort of violence is capable of destroying the political reality of a people? Arendt calls it “total war”: a violence directed not just toward things or physical bodies but toward voices, relationships, and meaningful action. Total war is a form of violence against the political as such; it casts some people “outside the common world” and attacks the space of mutual appearance that political life presupposes (Origins of Totalitarianism, 302).
There are many ways to destroy the world, not all of which involve an obvious display of brute force. We recently witnessed such an attack on the possibility of a common world, and on the promise of politics itself, in the California Department of Corrections’ response to the prison hunger strike which took place from July 8 to September 5, 2013.
For decades, California has been a leader in mass incarceration and punitive isolation. By the end of 2010, there were over 140,000 people behind bars in California and a total of 300,000 people under correctional supervision; that’s almost 1% of the total state population. Since 2011, California has been in violation of a Supreme Court order to address its prison overcrowding crisis, which has produced conditions so intolerable that they violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment – a notoriously difficult standard to prove in court, as Colin Dayan and others have shown.
In addition to mass incarceration and unconstitutional prison conditions, California isolates close to11,000 prisoners for up to 24 hours a day in Security Housing Units (SHU) or Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg). Among these, 3,000 prisoners are isolated indefinitely as a result of being “validated” as gang members.
I have argued elsewhere that solitary confinement is a form of violence against the relational structure of Being-in-the-world; it exploits the prisoner’s capacity for perception, cognition, action, and social relations by blocking him from the worldly context within which these capacities could be exercised meaningfully, thus undermining his agency and turning it into a source of suffering rather than strength. The social and sensory isolation of Being-in-the-world amounts to a living death sentence.
I want to reflect on the impact of extreme isolation on the status of the prisoner, not just as a relational being but also as a discursive one, as someone who speaks, listens, and – ideally, at least – is heard by others who listen and respond to her in a meaningful way. This is what it means to share a world: not just the co-habitation of planet earth, but a sharing of meaning with others, and a co-constitution of the material and symbolic context for meaning.
Arendt’s account of the world as the locus of public appearance – as the space where words and deeds co-constitute the sense of reality – provides a framework for understanding the violence of excluding a group of people from the shared world, and blocking the effectiveness of their words and deeds.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt reflects on the status of those who have been deprived of their status as citizens of a nation, and therefore deprived of a meaningful political framework for enforcing their claim to basic human rights:
The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. (OT 296)
Without this “place in the world,” the stateless person is deprived not just of the right to freedom of expression but of the right to a voice, the right to exist in a community of others as a subject of meaningful words and deeds. The stateless are not just positioned “outside the pale of the law,” they are cast out of the common world and condemned to a kind of civil death:
The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion – formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities – but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. (OT 295-6, emphasis added)
Arendt contrasts the stateless person’s loss of “the right to have rights” with the convicted criminal’s loss of the right to freedom (OT 296). From her perspective, the convicted criminal is in a better position than the stateless because at least he is recognized as a legal subject with a specific (albeit limited) place in the common world.
But Arendt’s analysis reaches a limit in the age of mass incarceration, the hyper-incarceration of people of color, widespread felon disenfranchisement, and the indefinite isolation of “Security Threat Groups.” When does the convicted criminal cease to be a subject of law and a member of the common world? At what point does the (non)position of the prisoner converge with that of the stateless person, or the “enemy combatant,” or the “illegal alien,” or any of the other euphemisms we have invented for civil death in the 21st century?
When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) consigns thousands of people to indefinite isolation with no meaningful remedy – not on the basis of what they have said or done, but on the basis of who they are or are presumed to be – they are casting these people out of the common world and beyond the pale of the law. They are creating a grey zone of statelessness within the state, and within the institution that most fiercely expresses state power.
When they justify this policy through an appeal to the management of gangs or Security Threat Groups, and when they suppress the collective resistance of hunger strikers in the name of providing of protective care to “inmate-patients,” they are reducing political discourse to bureaucratic double-speak, and replacing the public sphere with what Arendt disparagingly calls “society.”
When the CDCR blocks media access to the SHU and other zones of punitive isolation, they are further eroding the public sphere, not just for the people inside but also for the citizens in whose name these people are “managed” into oblivion.
When they launch a public relations campaign to discredit the current hunger strike as a “gang power play,” they are criminalizing the collective action, and even the collective existence, of a group of people who, in spite of being condemned to civil death, risk their own biological death to reclaim their place in the world and the effectiveness of their words and deeds.
When the CDCR uses legal action to undermine the legitimacy of Do Not Resuscitate orders signed by hunger strikers reclaiming a minimal form of agency – to die on their own terms – they are annihilating the voices of people who no longer have a place from which to claim their basic human, or even civil, rights.
In short, the CDCR is destroying the possibility of meaningful political action in a common world – not just for hunger strikers, but for everyone who struggles to live, speak, and act in in a meaningful way. Because “the common world” cannot be reserved for a few without ceasing to be common, and even ceasing to be a world.
In The Promise of Politics, Arendt writes:
If a people or nation, or even just some specific human group, which offers a unique view of the world arising from its particular position in the world – a position that, however it came about, cannot be readily duplicated – is annihilated, it is not merely that a people or a nation or a given number of individuals perishes, but rather that a portion of our common world is destroyed, an aspect of the world that has revealed itself to us until now but can never reveal itself again. Annihilation is therefore not just tantamount to the end of a world; it also takes its annihilator with it. (PP 175, emphasis added)
The future of California prisons – and the possibility of a meaningful future for those trapped within them – is not just an issue for prisoners. It’s not even just an issue for Californians, or for Americans. It’s an issue for the world, and it’s an issue of the world. To accept the extreme isolation of prisoners and the annihilation of their political voices is to become complicit in our own annihilation and in the end of the common world.
To recognize this inextricable link between the future of the prisoners and the future of the world is different from proclaiming, “I am Troy Davis” or “I am a California Prisoner.” I am not a prisoner, and chances are, if you’re reading this blog online, you’re not either. It would be absurd, and frankly disrespectful, to identify with a social position that one does not occupy and with experiences that one has never had. But it would be equally absurd to deny that we share the world with people behind bars, whether or not we condone the path that brought them there or benefit from the structures that keep them there. And if we don’t take dramatic steps towards decarceration immediately, both in the US and in the many countries across the globe who have imported US policing strategies, sentencing structures, and other modes of securitization, there will be a lot more prisoners in the coming years with whom to (not) share the world.
Recently, on September 5, the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes were suspended in response to the promise of hearings on solitary confinement and other prison issues before the California Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees. We should be cautious about celebrating this concession as a victory. A hearing does not guarantee listening. We have been here before: On June 19, 2012, the US Senate subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, chaired by Sen. Dick Durban (D-Ill.). It seemed like a watershed moment at the time, but it was followed only eight months later by the announcement of a new federal supermax prison in Illinois. The deal was brokered by none other than Dick Durban.
If the hearings planned in California follow this precedent, then there will be no meaningful dialogue, no serious commitment to address the hunger strikers’ five core demands, and no real engagement with their words and actions as inhabitants of a common world. It will be a hearing without listening, and therefore no hearing at all.
Hannah Arendt understood the constitutive importance of words and deeds for the public realm, and for a meaningful sense of the common world. Such a world is possible:
only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence. (The Human Condition, 200)
Unless the California hearings engage with the words and deeds of the Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor Collective – not just as “inmates,” “offenders,” or “validated gang members,” but as powerful political actors and co-habitants of a common world – they will remain empty gestures that intensify, rather than resist, the brute force of world-destroying violence, both in the SHU and in the place we quaintly like to call the free world.