Marxism, Racism, Sexism and the American Penal System

Applying Marxist theory to any social institution begins with locating the power center of that social institution. The most frustrating problem with the criminal justice system today for a Marxist is also the most overarching problem, and the easiest to describe: those who design and legislate the laws are the ones who stand to benefit the most from those laws. To deny that there is an ideological bias to punishment is to ignore the blatantly obvious; can anyone really deny a causal connection between the massive amounts of money big business contributes to politicians and the disparity in severity between robbing a convenience store and robbing a pension fund?

The corrections facilities may very well be the most explicit example of how ideology saturates the penal system. A central tenet of Marxism suggests that the dominant class has naturalized an unnatural perception of the quality of crime. White collar crime that affects hundreds or thousands, but from which the criminal is detached by time and geography is not punished in the same way as a blue-collar crime that may, in fact, be less oppressive not only in number, but to the individual. Whereas a member of the ruling class may destroy the lives of thousands he’s never seen and be sentenced to a “country club” facility, the poor person who steals that man’s car is sentenced to a violent, maximum-security prison.

If society can be viewed as an interdependent system of social institutions that all rely upon each other to maintain equilibrium, then clearly things are well out of balance. The number of prisoners in America continues to rise to heights with which our facilities are unable to keep pace. As a result, appropriations are being taken away from other needs to meet the needs of maintaining the prison system since every politician regardless of party is disinclined to suggest increasing taxation. The problem, of course, is that far too large a percentage of people in prison are there due to drug-related charges. Even those prisoners for whom drug use was only tangentially related to the crime committed must still be viewed as merely a symptom of a much larger problem that is not being addressed. Perhaps if more instead of less money were earmarked for educational and rehabilitative programs–after all, jail time won’t solve the problem of addiction–the resulting imbalance in the funding of those programs would bring forth a much more productive lack of equilibrium. Unless the intent is to turn every prisoner into a lifer, the current system of penal correction offers no solution to the problem of recidivism, which in turn merely creates a revolving door process by which the imbalance will only get worse.

The central problem of a capitalist society, when judged from a Marxist position, is the need to establish ideologically created opinions and beliefs that are then naturalized by citizens. Through literature, images, advertising and various other subtly coercive measures, the dominant ideology is inculcated into a value system that is protected mightily even when it does not serve one’s own interest.

Despite the true revolutionary ideals inherent in the founding of America, this naturalization of sexist and racist attitudes was mandated in the foundation of our legal system. Sexism and racism was institutionalized from the earlier beginnings of America and over time those perverse beliefs became naturalized among citizens as not just being the way things are, but being the way things are supposed to be. Marxism’s greatest complaint about non-socialist societies is that it engenders a class system based on ownership that is then perpetually recreated. From the beginning, women and non-whites were denied ownership; in the latter case they were actually the property to be owned itself. This ingrained devaluation of the worth of women and African-Americans is, for the most part, no longer sanctioned by law, but it is still a long distance away from being unsanctioned by the naturalization of ideology.