EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Jordan Camp

The Cultural Studies Program’s colloquium (CSC) series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student Austin Gallas interviewed Jordan Camp, Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University.  See below for the transcript.

Gallas: You’re currently working on a new book, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (University of California Press). Describe the methodology.

Camp: The book is based primarily on archival research. For example, I went to the Tamiment Library at NYU, the Reuther Library at Wayne State University, and the Southern California Library. I also conducted oral history interviews with activists and artists who were participants in the events in the study including the Detroit uprisings (1967), the Attica revolt (1971), and post-Katrina New Orleans (2005). At the level of methodology, I deploy what Antonio Gramsci called conjunctural analysis. It’s a methodology that differentiates between periods of stability and moments of social crisis. In this respect, I’m in dialogue with Stuart Hall and his Birmingham colleagues, who emphasized its relevance for study of race and class for decades. My book looks at two conjunctures. One conjuncture is the early Cold War period that was shaped by the suppression of the Black freedom and radical labor struggles. The second period is the neoliberal era defined by the dialectics of insurgency from the late 1960s and early 1970s to the present. Drawing on archival research and oral histories I look at the struggle in language and ideology over the meaning of events in these conjunctures to tell a story about the rise of the neoliberal state.

Gallas: Talk about the origins of this project.

Camp: It started as a dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I worked with scholars in Black Studies and Sociology. In that study, The Sound Before the Fury: A Genealogy of Neoliberal Racial and Security Regimes, I explored how the world’s largest prison-building project was legitimated in response to instances of revolt. I was interested in the dialectic between the “poetry of social movements”—that is, the visions that come out of social struggle, revolt and insurrection—and the state’s narrative of counterinsurgency. The book builds on that foundation. It begins in the early Cold War and terminates with the crisis of U.S. policing in 2014-2015. It concludes with a discussion of how the neoliberal project of incarcerating the crisis is now potentially in crisis. I suggest that there are no guarantees in how this crisis might be resolved. This openness presents significant opportunities for alternative futures. Conjunctural analysis is premised on this idea that outcomes are not determined in advance, but rather, are the products of political and ideological struggles. This is the sense of possibility that I’m trying to inject into scholarly and public debates about racism, neoliberalism, and carceral state formations.

Gallas: Clearly your focus is on conjunctural moments of crisis. What do these periods reveal for you? How do you conceptualize crisis?

Camp: Antonio Gramsci was thinking about crisis with some specificity, and I draw deeply from his insights. He argued that “crises of hegemony” or “crises of legitimacy” are produced when the masses are no longer in a state of passivity, such as when they take to the streets in protest. Their activity can add up to a revolutionary moment or a crisis of authority for the state. I’m trying to think about how the expansion of policing, prisons, and urban security as strategies of racialized crisis management get legitimated in reactions to such moments of crisis.

Take for example the Watts uprising of 1965, which was then the largest urban uprising in U.S. history. The uprising occurred within days of the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965. While the old racial regime of Jim Crow was officially ending through such legislation, the African American working class of Watts was expressing their rage at the unemployment, police brutality, poor housing, and poverty they continued to experience. Rather than address these underlying structural issues, the state elected to develop a new distinct mode of racialized crisis management through increased mechanisms of policing. I’m interested in capital and the state’s response to Watts as a critical moment where political and economic anxieties became translated into racialized regimes of security, law and order. I argue that this reaction represented a turning point that provided the foundation for the rise of the neoliberal state. In this way, I believe this event has ramifications for understanding the world we are living in now.

Gallas: Earlier this semester, our program held a colloquium event inviting faculty to describe how they employ the concept of neoliberalism differently in their work. How do you define neoliberalism? In what sense is it a useful category of analysis?

Camp: Neoliberalism is a useful category of analysis. I deploy the concept of “neoliberal racial and security regimes,” by which I mean the modalities of relationships between racialization, capital accumulation, massive incarceration, and the militarization of urban space. I argue that neoliberalism is a political and ideological project to undo the access to the social wage that was won during long civil rights movement. It is part of a long vendetta against Black freedom, radical labor, feminist, and socialist movements.  As such, I see the unprecedented expansion of policing and prisons as political expressions of neoliberal racial capitalism.