Ghosts on the Precipice of Law and Order Avalanche: Ghosts of the Civil Dead in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism.

The prison film, Ghosts of the Civil Dead, was researched and made in the period 1984 –1988.

In economic terms the period from 1980 to the present (2006) is referred to as the ‘neoliberal ‘ era. Neoliberal ism began in 1981 and had as its most prominent public ideologues, Reagan and Thatcher. It has enjoyed, in mainstream western circles, an almost unassailable position of supposed self evident logic, as if it were the simple stating of a law of nature. Neoliberalism is (by choice in some cases, under duress or threat in many others) now the prevailing economic dogma of virtually every nation on Earth and the supra-national bodies guarding global matters (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization).

Neoliberalism is characterized by slashing of the role of the state from its broader public functions (welfare, public services, education, regulation); privatization of state assets; de-regulation of financial markets; assaults on labor; tax cuts to the rich; infiltration of ‘the market’ into every facet of human existence. It has resulted in two marked features across the world: a massive distribution of wealth upward (particularly to richest 1% who control between 35-50% of wealth and assets) and a vast increase in incarceration rates in the ‘west’ - the locking up of the growing ‘surplus population’.

In the USA, the homeland of the empire and from where this dictate to the world is issued (also the theoretical home of the film), this increase in incarceration rates has been massive. There are now over 6.5 million people inside the criminal justice system on any day in the U.S., 2.1 million of which are in prison. These are figures that are three and a half times what they were in 1981.

The ‘War on Drugs’ is the key source providing this stream of human product to feed the ‘justice’ machine. But this ‘war’ is but a ruse to camouflage what is effectively, in America, a race (and class) war. Consider this: one in three black American men between ages of 21 and 29 are under some type of criminal justice control on any given day.

And to house/ contain this expanding surplus population? A riot of prison construction has taken place. The U.S Justice Department budget grew
900% in this same twenty year period (1981-2001) as law and order became a compulsory high priority for any aspiring politician. New prisons sprang up all over and not so much the futuristic insidious ‘new generation’ prisons of our film, but super penitentiaries housing up to 5,000 inmates.

And it’s important to note that while Nth America is at the extreme end of the imprisonment curve (as it rigorously moves to make its domestic population malleable), this ‘trend’ is consistent across the west.

It’s also not just a raw rise in inmate numbers or new prisons we are witnessing, but also a qualitative jump in the use of harsher, more punitive incarceration. Welcome to the “Supermax” Penitentiary where up to 5,000 inmates are routinely confined to their cells 23 hours a day, seven days a week with 1 hour a day for solitary exercise. This ‘lockdown’ regime, which was formerly only an emergency measure, is now in wide practice in every state of the U.S. union and many more ‘civilized’ nations beyond.

Ghosts of the Civil Dead starts and ends when just such an emergency lockdown is imposed following “an outbreak of violence”. The film is based on events that occurred at United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois, at that time the highest level security prison in the USA, housing the “worst of the worst”. It’s plot – that guards and inmates alike are provoked by “the administration” in order to create that violence, in order to lock that prison down – is taken from the claims of Guards at Marion at that time.

The film is structured around the Committee that has been appointed to report on the events that led to that lockdown. That ‘report’ is largely taken from the Committee report into events at Marion which recommends (copied at our film’s end), that a “new supermax facility” be immediately built.

Those events at Marion occurred in 1983, right at the outset of the Neoliberal era and on the precipice of what was to become a law and order avalanche. They were a key component in preparing the ground for the incarceration explosion and the birth and rapid rise of the Supermax. For the containment of the unprecedented numbers of a growing surplus population in increasingly harsh conditions that we witness today.

While the state in this period has been mercilessly stripped, citing economic necessity, of much of its benevolent public function, it’s role and financial commitment to monitoring/ surveillance/ policing and incarceration has been exponentially stepped up.

Meanwhile, the Neoliberal era has delivered profit rates for companies that are up from the post war average of between 4-8% to the Neoliberal average of 8-16%.

These two facts are inextricably linked.

Evan English, September 2005.