The current persecution of Chelsea Manning is worthy of note not only as a target for activism, but as a measure of how power works in modernity — and the wider assumptions about our own lives that the culture relies on.
Manning, famously, was the source of the half-million or so files leaked to WikiLeaks, and that formed the basis of the organisation’s War Logs, the Cablegate and Guantanamo archive, and the “Collateral Murder” video. For leaking those, while stationed as a low-level intelligence operative in Iraq, Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years prison at a military court-martial.
During the trial and conviction process, Manning redefined self as a woman, took the name Chelsea, and began a process petitioning the US military to be allowed to undertake the process of physical gender reassignment.
In July this year, beaten down by various aspects of the prison regime — particularly as regards unwillingness to recognise a self-redefinition as a woman — Manning attempted suicide, and survived the attempt. That act has now resulted in fresh charges and a hearing, being held on Friday — a hearing that, since it is on matters of internal discipline, Manning must attend without legal counsel, observers or advisers. The proposed punishment is indefinite solitary confinement, a regime that was one of the contributing factors to Manning’s suicide attempt in the first place.
Suicide (and attempted suicide) is not a crime outside prison — although it was until as late as the mid-20th century. But it remains so inside total punishment institutions. Indeed the logic of the punishment in the modern form demands it — for the change in your status, from citizen to prisoner, is one from being ostensibly free to that of being wholly possessed by the state.
“The term of your natural life” persists in the understanding. Modern prisons present themselves as places that detain dangerous people, but their purpose is really to use time and duration as a form of torture. As physical punishments have been removed, prisons — especially in Anglo-American countries — have made it their business to keep people alive in order that they may contemplate the waste of their one life on Earth, the purposeful existence foregone. Solitary confinement is that process raised to the highest degree.
That Chelsea Manning would thus be condemned to a punishment that makes meaning and purpose yet harder to achieve, for the crime of concluding that there is nothing to live for, is not a paradox of the system but its essence. So, too, is the disjuncture between the treatment of Manning as subject and Manning as person. Manning the subject — i.e. the one subjected to a regime — has adequate food, shelter and other conditions, and most likely enjoys better healthcare than millions of poor people in Republican states that did not accept increased Medicaid funding under Obamacare. The system has recognised Manning’s gender self-redefinition, to some degree. What it cannot abide is any act of refusal — through suicide — of this disjuncture between the bare life of a system-subject, and the full life of a person. Its key sanction against the refusal of such is more of such, and an intensification of it.
[How did so many indigenous Australians end up in prison?]
This is simply a military version of a process that has developed over the past half-century or so across the Anglo-American world. Because it has an ostensible humanity — no bodies are being tortured by the state itself, no hard physical labour — it slips under the radar of much social concern. People rightly protest when there are revelations about physical abuse in places like Don Dale.
Yet the regimes that many current and former prisoners attest to as worse than physical assault — solitary confinement and total surveillance with in-cell cameras, 24-hour lighting, etc — spread throughout society. Indeed, many people who have spent time in both Third World and Western Anglo-American prisons say that the latter are worse, even though Bolivian, Indonesian, etc, prisons are violent and dangerous places. There survives in them, however, notions that the removal of human sociality and some sort of texture and commerce of life constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
That applies perforce to the US civilian system, where the horror of mass solitary confinement has been masked as a source of social concern by the more visible horror of the death penalty. As the latter fades, it’s become clear that solitary confinement, for years or decades at a time, has been applied to hundreds and thousands of prisoners.
The “penitentiary” system of punishment introduced in the US in the 1800s — whereby prisoners were separated from one another, surveilled in panopticon surveillance systems — was introduced with the idea that the incarcerated would eventually develop a relationship with God, and thus a real atonement for their sins and self-reform. As the idea of a real and present God faded, the horror dimension of the system came to the fore.
Today, many US prisoners convert to fundamentalist forms of Christianity not out of an evolved relationship to God, but of psychosis born of loneliness — they simply choose Jesus as their imaginary friend. Increasingly, many black prisoners convert to Islam, the most purified and direct form of monotheism there is (the minaret is the first panopticon) — which is one reason why Republican state administrations have developed a sudden interest in prison reform.
[Rundle: Don Dale, Nauru — this is who we are]
In the Manus/Nauru system, the solitary element is missing, while the employment of a sense of futility, waste and surveillance as a collective is amplified beyond measure. Because there is no explicit punishment-for-crime component, the supposition of the system is reversed: buried within the Manus/Nauru system is the implicit supposition that everyone within it will eventually commit suicide, thus achieving a case resolution rate of 100%.
Why do these systems persist, above all in Anglo-American countries? Because they derive to a significant degree from the philosophical form — liberal individualism — from which our culture, and the form of personhood deriving from it, originate. For us to “enjoy” our individual, purposeful lives, conceived in terms of competition and reward, there must be an other — persons who have lost everything, even the chance to be persons at all.
Those who are condemned to such a bare existence are our counterweight, the intolerable pressure under which they live matching the unbearable lightness of ours. Were there no prison, the lives we live might not look very much like freedom at all. If now-vanishing factory life was a prison built by industrial capital, office life is a minimum-security day regime created by its successor. But hey! You’re free to go elsewhere! To another office!
So far as reform goes, those last few sentences may have opened things a little wide.* The takeaway — quite aside from advocating for Chelsea Manning, whose symbolic and central-historical role cannot be escaped from — is to question the degree to which such systems have spread in Australia, less remarked upon and challenged than in the US.
Crucially, modern prison systems are supported by both the right and progressivists — by the former, because they like individual punishment, and the latter because they support surveillance and cultural-psychological engineering. In Victoria, the prison population has grown from 2000 to 6000 over the past 15 years. What horrors go under among us, as we reassure ourselves that we are not like the US? Or the horror of non-horror, the steady accumulation of waste, futility and dead time.
*Since the remedy is to overthrow the ontological order instituted by the transformation of written-language from a Phoenician-style tallying/recording system into its Greek instantiation as a forum for the unfolding of ontological essences ungrounded by undifferentiated Being. Hard to put on a sticker, and a little self-defeating to do so, tbh.