This dissertation explores the urgent concerns over crime, captivity, and surplus labor in postwar U.S. political discourse and black radical thought, particularly in the wake of civil rights legislation. By the mid-1960s, after years of experiencing the criminalization of black resistance, crime and captivity began to take on new valences within the black freedom movement, contributing to an emerging crisis of state legitimacy and its capacity to punish. The combination of intensified police repression, growing black unemployment, and a broader philosophical concern with the role of prisons in capitalist societies facilitated the emergence of a political and intellectual movement among prisoners, whose primary aim was to challenge the constitutive function of captivity in the formation of U.S. racial capitalism.
Chapter 1, "Black Liberation and the Specter of Confinement," examines how confinement became a critical concept-metaphor for postwar black intellectuals theorizing the modalities of exclusion and state formation across U.S. history. Chapter 2, "Theorizing Black Captivity," explores how the figure of the prisoner in the early 1970s became a symbolic force grounding the critique of the racial-capitalist state. Chapter 3, "'Pouring Water on a Drowning Man,"' shows how the manifestos composed by prisoners in revolt in 1970-71 exposed the dependence of modern punishment on the liberal humanist distinction between "rehabilitation" and violence. Chapter 4, "'Attica is Every Prison,"' turns to the Attica prison revolt in 1971, examining its historical significance in reconstituting the racializing capacities of a post-civil rights U.S. state.
I argue that critical attention to the radical prison movement and its critique of racial capitalism revises the tendency to view U.S. prison growth as either a wholly novel phenomenon or as a replication of historical modes of racial exclusion. Rather, the discursive practices of prisoners in revolt help recast U.S. prison growth as an instrument and outcome of post-Keynesian class struggle. At the same time, their critique of the liberal human rights distinction between "rehabilitation" and violence locates today's increasing reliance on extreme forms of bodily disintegration, such as solitary confinement, as a recalibration of a modern history of racial captivity inaugurated by plantation slavery and colonial conquest.