“Keeping up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare,”
By Vijay Prashad.
South End Press, 2003,
Softcover, 214 pp., $17.00.

Over the years, Vijay Prashad, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has established himself as one of this nation’s leading writers and intellectuals.

His previous book, “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity,” was a revelation, deeply researched and argued persuasively, bringing to life a multicultural history forgotten by all too many.

His latest book maintains his high standards as it adds crucial insight on a number of contemporary matters of pressing concern. He begins by explaining the ubiquitous Dow Jones stock index, a barometer of the health of Wall Street, and how playing in this “fixed” casino has led to the immiseration of so many. Certainly the latest revelations about mutual funds, which have vacuumed up the funds from millions, as they have looted “small fish” on behalf of “big fish,” confirms further Prashad’s insight.

Prashad also pays close attention to what he terms the “sweatshop economy,” i.e., “unskilled work, deskilled labor, low wages, poor working conditions, and an intensified supervision regime to extract the maximum labor for the minimum expenditure.” Wal-Mart, the retailer, is the symbol of this new economy. It has made the Walton family of Arkansas fabulously wealthy, as it has busted union drives, paid skimpy wages and benefited handsomely from cheap labor abroad.

This assault on the working class has plunged all too many into deep pools of debt. This is particularly true of the “reserve army of labor” which “in the contemporary U.S. is maintained at high levels of readiness in the prisons (where incarcerated workers toil for private corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America) and in the low-end service sector (either in desperation, as part of the workfare packet or else as legal and illegal immigrants, unable to find better occupations).”

In short, in a brilliant tour-de-force Prashad “connects the dots,” linking “debt, prison and workfare.”

All of these sections are valuable, but readers are likely to find what the author says about prisons particularly enlightening. Right now there are prisoners who “do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret.” The “list of companies that hire prison labor includes American Airlines, Boeing, Compaq, Dell, Eddie Bauer, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, IBM, J.C. Penney, McDonalds, Microsoft, Motorola, Nordstrom, Pierre Cardin, Revlon, Sony, Texas Instruments and Toys ‘R’ Us. The top dogs of the corporate world are well represented behind the walls of Uncle Sam’s pens.” This does not include juvenile detention centers, immigrant detention centers and other institutions that routinely deprive persons in this nation of liberty.

In other words, this book is a “must read.” It is valuable ammunition in the ongoing struggle to transform the nation by beating back the right wing and their corporate patrons.

The author can be reached at gchorne@email.unc.edu.