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Lee State Prison and the New Slave Labor

lcf
Lee County Correctional Institution

Violence in South Carolina prisons is nothing new, and the problem has gotten significantly worse in recent years. Still, no one was prepared for the news of a “mass casualty event” that took place in Lee Correctional Facility on the night of April 15, 2018, when 7 seven inmates were murdered inside of a state run penitentiary.

Everything we know so far paints a grim scene: an inmate reported to the Associated Press that the dead and wounded bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other” and then ignored by guards and prison administrators. Hours passed as prison officials watched human beings bleed to death on the floor.

Bryan Stirling, the Director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, attributed the problem to an ‘argument over cellphones.’ But I believe serious observers will understand that the root of the issue is much more significant.

The ‘Massa’ runs his house; photo credit, NBC News

South Carolina is a relatively small state, and Lee County is one of South Carolina’s smallest. It is also one of our poorer counties, and over 60% of the people who live there are Black. Unable to find government funds to improve the schools or healthcare of this neglected community, donor-minded politicians still manage to hand large sums of taxpayer money over to privatized “security” firms, which have not only made prisons less secure but have made the situation deplorable. A cruel irony that our local government profits off the miserable conditions that it enforces on its most vulnerable citizens.

But if the communities outside the prison are struggling, it should be noted that the mostly White administrators who manage the prison (including Director Stirling) do very well for themselves. Like many prisons in South Carolina, Lee Correctional has a long list of privatized contracts that utilize cheap (virtually “free”) prison labor to manufacture various textiles. The low cost of production allows prison officials (as well as the state government) to generate fat profits and, because they are exploiting people who are convicted of a crime, they believe citizens will ignore the degradation of human rights occurring just next door.

At least until there is a “publicity” problem. But if we’re honest about what’s going on, and we have the basic decency not to lay the blame onto cellphones or ‘loosie’ cigarettes, then we have to confront a rather tragic reality: our for-profit prisons systems are the modern extension of our slave-profit plantation systems.

Lee County and Lee Correctional are named after the secessionist, slave-owning traitor Robert E. Lee. And why wouldn’t they be? The prisoners, who are disproportionately Black, are consigned by law to carry out the economic interest of the prison administrators, who are — if it can be believed — even more disproportionately White. We can plug our heads into the sand and continue to refer to it as “correctional facility,” or we could call it what it is: the New Slave Labor. If we do nothing to change this, then we have no right to be surprised when the violence gets worse, which I fear it will.

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The Wisdom of Chuang Tzu: how ancient Chinese philosophy can change your life

In the great sea of technology and innovation, does ancient Chinese philosophy have anything left to teach us? Or, like ornate calligraphy and old sheets of rice paper, has it become more of a beautiful relic than a useful tool?

Purportedly written by Lao Tzu (a name meaning “Old Master”), the Tao Te Ching expresses the harmonious life, a flowing of the Universe that is above our knowledge, the nature of reality that exist before language and even before thought.

The book (originally, probably a scroll) is brief and written in deceptively plain language. But behind the words, there is a reflection of the “Way,” the cosmic flow which can’t be named or described. Rather, Lao Tzu writes with an enigmatic simplicity, allowing the reader to reflect on the Tao without relying on a reductive definition.

As one might expect, interpreting the text can be a puzzling process:

“Great tone has no sound.”

Though simply put, the statement’s irony inspires questions that do not have simple answers.

The Tao Te Ching is one of the foundational text for Taoist philosophy. The other is the Book of Chuang Tzu. While much of the Tao Te Ching is written in short declarative sentences, Chuang Tzu strings together odd stories and parables, some funny, some interesting, and few that are inscrutable. How Chuang Tzu writes, as much as what he writes, reflects something about the nameless harmony in Taoism:

“When horses live on the plain, they eat grass and drink from the streams…This is all horses know how to do. But if you pile poles and yokes on them … they will learn to snap the crossbars, break the yoke, rip the carriage top, champ the bit, and chew the reins”

Many people will take this for granted; indeed, something about this observation seems to reflect an instinctual sort of awareness. A child can observe what state of nature a horse prefers without reading about it in a book or being told.

But I believe that is part of its significance. What Chuang Tzu observes is immediately recognizable to anyone. He’s not attempting to illustrate something unique to horses, but to show how our ability to recognize the innate nature of a horse is itself a kind of innate knowledge.

For a Taoist, the relationship is reciprocal; that is, the faculty that allows us to observe the Tao is actually the Tao itself, a fact which has profound spiritual, ethical, and philosophical implications.

Exploring the nature of this Taoist ability, a sort of mutual recognition, Chuang Tzu compares the sort of physical implements that corrupt the Tao of a horse with the conceptual implements that corrupt the Tao of a person:

“Knowledge enables men to fashion pitfalls, snares, cages, traps … but when this happens the beasts flee in confusion to the swamps. And the flood of rhetoric that enables men to bewilder the understanding of common men. So the world is dulled and darkened by great confusion.”

Chuang Tzu is not disparaging the concept of knowledge (which would be pretty hypocritical for a philosopher). Rather, he’s thinking about the forms of “knowledge” that tend to surround our lives. For example, our alarm clocks offer us a knowledge about the time (and our obligation to go to work); social networks give us knowledge about our friends (and our obligation to facilitate their interest), and so on.

Do such forms of “knowledge” truly improve our lives. Or, by accepting successive obligations, do we use technology to place “poles and yokes” onto ourselves as further burdens, corrupting our Tao, removing us further from what we truly desire.

Chuang Tzu ask us to reflect on what we desire before we consciously think about what we desire. If the technologies we adopt make our life better, then great. But reading Chuang Tzu will help us not be deceived, so that we can tell the difference between efficiency and distraction.

Perhaps by observing the Tao of the unencumbered horse, Chuang Tzu provides insight into what we might truly want, if relieved from the pressures entailed by modern conveniences.

No Walls, No Borders: 3 arguments in favor of open immigration

The Economic Argument

While the theory of capitalism has many problems (often displaced into the nebulous category of “externalities”) its defenders never fail to point to the advantages of free and open markets. And for the most part they are correct. The mobility of capital and labor can produce amazing gains in social welfare. However, capital mobility without labor mobility is anything but a free and open market.

The extent to which capital can be easily exchanged or transferred gives the owner of capital an incredible amount of leverage when it comes to supplying labor. Furthermore, the use of digital technology by financial institutions has made capital exponentially more transferable, exchangeable, and (thanks to Bitcoin) now translatable. As a result, capital will continue to increase in inverse proportion to labor mobility (such as a individual’s ability to move or buy a home). In liberal economics, this is considered reasonable, if one is willing to accept a race to the bottom scenario, where the lowest possible wages are tolerated for the sake of maximizing shareholder profit.

But in a economy where there are great barriers to labor mobility, such as a wall that must be violently maintained, the result of capital liquidity is not market efficiency. Capital then has a disproportionate effect on suppressing wages, pushing them far below the equilibrium wage rate.

As a result, wages become so low that workers experience severe privations in health and education, causing business growth, in the long term, to actually shrink, contrary to the interest of the owners of capital. In other words, when wages are less than the equilibrium wage rate, the market has become inefficient due to “external” constraints, and workers no longer have the health to profitably reproduce their labor nor the skills in order to adequately perform it.

While the owners of capital believe it is in their interest to drive down wages as low as possible, they incorrectly assume that the market has freely adjusted for the demand of labor without external constraints. The border is a significant example of a constraint.

Rights-Based Argument

The State is only useful (if it all useful) to the extent that it protects the natural rights of an individual. Otherwise it is totalitarian, for the State is nothing more than a collection of individuals, so for the State to discount an individual’s natural rights would be, by definition, a tyranny of the majority over the minority.

But what are an individual’s “natural rights”? It’s a complicated question and a longstanding debate in philosophy and ethics. But in order to even have a concept for rights, one must first make the initial assumption of individual freedom, for without a concept of freedom, a concept of individual rights is impossible. In other words, if freedom means anything, it means to be free from other people.

Freedom is often described as a negative right. Whereas a positive right is a right the State owes to an individual, a negative right is an individual’s freedom from an obligation to the State. Because the initial right of freedom is a prerequisite for natural rights, and because freedom is a negative right, then our natural rights must also be negative rights.

The ability to enter or leave a State is predicated on a negative right, at least to the extent that freedom and mobility are equated. With the exception of immigration between State borders, it is impossible to think of any example where a State grants negative rights to its citizens that it doesn’t de facto grant to every individual. This is because the initial assumption for negative rights is predicated on the right of freedom. Consequently, for the State to selectively grant negative rights discounts the concept of rights, instead promoting a tyranny of the majority over the minority.

The Pragmatic Argument

It would be impossible to calculate the waste on foreign aid and international assistance programs. Corporate bureaucracies and government red tape have failed to eliminate or even assuage poverty. And despite spectacular advances in technology, the problem remains as intractable as ever.

Opening borders would resolve generational poverty through simple market efficiencies that otherwise would have been mired in corporate government misspending. Even on the conservative end, economists predict that opening borders could more than double world GDP. Imagine owning a business, and all you need to do to double your profit is unlock the front door. Further, opening borders is a way to drastically reduce poverty without relying on the condescension of charity.

There is a strange belief among some that an open immigration policy would allow a flood of Third World refugees whose mere presence would somehow pollute the industrialized democracies. Despite the poorly veiled xenophobia behind such an idea, it is simply inaccurate: 1) In order to move, one must pay to travel, an incredibly steep entrance cost for much of the world’s population; 2) Most immigrants are motivated by economic factors, which indicates they have the intent of assimilating, at least enough to find and maintain a job; 3) Immigrants fleeing geopolitical conflicts should generally be welcomed, especially if it would relieve the pressure of the conflict in their home country— any inconveniences at home that may result from open immigration must be morally weighed against the relief it would cause abroad.

Just as we no longer live in the time of kings and queens, so will the era of state-tribalism end. We should embrace it. Currently, our doors are shrouded in Kafka-esque bureaucracies and maintained through the barrel of a gun. How tragically unnecessary, when we could simply put up a sign that says, “Open for business.”

Zeno, the radical: antagonist to Plato, founder of Anarcho-Stoicism

 

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr [CeCILL (http://www.cecill.info/licences/Licence_CeCILL_V2-en.html) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Zeno of Citium is credited as the founder of Stoicism, a philosophy that exhorts fortitude, reason, and self-discipline.

When it began in Athens, sometime in the 4th century BCE, it intended to help an individual live a virtuous and meaningful life. But from these humble origins, it evolved into a near ascetic practice, cultivated by the Roman state and manipulated for the service of its imperialist doctrines. A philosophy that began with self-reliance and logic had turned into a political ideology encoded for obedience and loyalty.

But at its outset, Stoicism contested the authoritative hand the Plato appeared to wield over all of ancient intellectual thought. Rather, scoffing at Plato’s abstractions, Zeno established a system where both ethics and logic are rooted in a materialist universe and can be explained with physical principles. This is an extreme departure from the Platonic notion of “Forms,” where a higher plane of Truth can be conceptualized without embodiment. For Zeno, the nature of Truth must be physical, something that can be touched, felt, and heard.

It is not too difficult to understand how Plato, who relaxed in private gardens discoursing with aristocrats, would come to such different conclusions than Zeno, who held his school at the Agora, a public marketplace. It’s unfortunate how little credit Zeno is given for revolutionizing the forum of the philosophical tradition.

Zeno’s Republic was written, in part, as a critique to Plato’s work (of the same name). Whereas Plato believed the majority of people needed to be guided by a lone ‘Philosopher King’ (a person who looks suspiciously similar to its author), Zeno’s Republic envisioned a city of more egalitarian relationships.

For example, he makes the radical claim that citizenship should be a closer bond than paternity (not even Engels would go this far in The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State). He envisions a city without temples, without courtrooms, and without the use of currency. Zeno believes men and woman should wear the same plain clothing, and given the association between dress and status in the ancient world, Zeno’s position is meant to emphatically undercut the hierarchies that intersect at class and gender.

But how can a Stoic, indeed the original Stoic, have had such a radical political philosophy? Unfortunately, we have very little of his work. It’s not a coincidence that Plato’s Republic has been carefully preserved by those who find it useful in government libraries, while there is a clear record (especially in the Middle Ages) to expunge Zeno’s political writings, in spite of its undeniable significance to ancient philosophy.

In one sense, it’s easy to understand why a philosopher who envisioned a city without law and other authoritative institutions would find it necessary to develop a philosophical system that privileges self-reliance, endurance, and — to a great extent — personal responsibility. However, Zeno and the Stoics are not idealist, and their philosophy does not attempt to arbitrarily place ascetic demands onto the ego. Rather, they see the ideology of Stoicism to be a fundamental part of human nature; that is, we embody these virtues naturally, and we forego them only because there are authoritarian structures that pervert our inherent motives. In this respect, it’s not a surprise that Zeno would suggest that the State is not the cure, but the cause of chaos and violence.