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Exercise, Training, and Getting Rid of the Fat

Increasingly, capitalism breeds the idea that bodies that are deformed, hindered, or crippled are -- like those worn-out old shoes, the car with the leaking roof, the spoiled food -- worthy of being thrown away, junked, disposed of.
Rashad Shabazz

Issue #55, May 2001

Unable to balance needs and wants, substance and waste, human consumption under late capitalist conditions has reached unconscionable proportions. The contemporary capitalist regime of hyper consumption is predicated upon ideas of 'the bad', 'the impure', 'the rummaged', the 'wasted' and, most importantly, 'the rejected', and it ceaselessly exploits the attraction of consumers to notions of beginning anew and rebirth. The fact that individuals so quickly toss away the rejected but not necessary useless for the gleam of the new but by no means useful testifies to capitalism's well-developed power to produce and reproduce at speeds much faster than the speed of need and even want. Yet, if we are to truly understand how waste and ideas of waste figure into capitalist consumption, we cannot simply examine how consumers view and consume non-human products like cans, beer bottles, cars, clothes and the like. We must explore the increasing tendencies to consider humans being thought as waste and to discard them as such. Increasingly, capitalism breeds the idea that bodies that are deformed, hindered, or crippled are — like those worn-out old shoes, the car with the leaking roof, the spoiled food — worthy of being thrown away, junked, disposed of.

During my childhood, I lived in a working class African American neighborhood. Although predominantly black, a small number of white families lived in the neighborhood, too. Often these families were targeted by both blacks and other whites as 'white trash.' Even then as a young child I found this reference disturbing. "If these families were 'trash'", I asked myself, "what did that make the rest of neighborhood's residents?"

The 'white trash' label perpetuates the idea that poor or working class whites are lazy, shiftless and dumb-witted. By applying it, middle and upper class whites imply that poor whites should be 'doing more with their lives.' Carrying with it some heavy racist baggage, the label also implies that poor whites by 'doing nothing with their lives' have failed to exercise both their moral agency over people of color and the political power of their whiteness. They lack dedication to the American dream, capitalism, and white supremacy. According to the cultural logic that supports the white trash label, "doing something" means employing whiteness to validate their humanity engage in capitalist production of wealth, and, subsequently, to maintain an invisible yet strictly guarded line between whiteness and non-whiteness.

Prison has become the disposal ground for society's hated and despised subjects, the holding pen for the abjects. When we talk of prison, we no longer talk about rehabilitation. In fact rehabilitation is no longer an accepted term when talking about prison, even for those who support incarceration. Rather, to talk about prison is to talk about one thing: ridding society of what it feels is waste.


Global capitalism's rampant production of goods in pursuit of rampant profits overwhelms any tendency to conserve or re-cycle. Take, for example, the local fast-food joint. There, napkins, wrappers, and half-eaten food are thrown away, dumped into the garbage disposal, or chucked into the streets; this continuous activity of disposal testifies to capitalism's ability to, within seconds, make a valuable commodity, like food, simply waste. Like those cold stale french fries and the empty catsup packages, prisoners are nothing more than waste on the plate of capitalism.

Another means of thinking about these issues is to deploy metaphors based on exercise culture. Similar to the idea of 'shedding a few pounds' (another example of the West's fetish with disposal), the prisoner is seen as 'fat' on the body politic, which must be thrown off, abandoned, in order to maintain the smooth, efficient operation of social control, racism and capitalism.

It is as if under racist and capitalist frameworks prisoners represent 'fat', which is shed in modern day concentration camps. Prisons/criminal justice system represents the systems of 'exercise', and 'diet' used to shed 'fat'/prisoner/person of color/the poor/the mentally ill. Body politic/western capitalism/the state, represents the 'body' that is transformed through rigorous 'diet' and 'exercise.' Hence like the body of the disciplined soldier, the continuous process of training, exercise and diet are essential to maintaining a 'healthy physique' (here we should be reminded of the late 1980s commercials, "Milk, it does a body good", which could be understood today as "Mass incarceration, it does a body politic good"). So in order for the body politic to stay "fit" it must "diet" and maintain a rigorous "exercise" routine to "keep the fat off". But such actions will prove to be disastrous for certain communities, namely impoverished and communities of color.

The history of colonization reveals that colonizing nations throughout history believed the colonized to be "others", less than human, expendable. The world witnessed the "extermination" of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals under the Nazi regime. Driven by anti-Semitism, hate, racism, and German white supremacy, Nazi soldiers gassed and slaughtered millions. These subjects: Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were non-humans and were treated as such. Similarly, the United States in its bombast of boasted liberty and equality, conducts many atrocious acts that eliminates the possibility of "others" such as Native Americans, Chicana/Chicano's, African Americans, the people of Iraq (the recent bombing of civilians by the new Bush administration is an example), the poor, and gay and lesbians. "Otherness" doesn't allow for one to maintain person-hood; rather they are stripped of their humanity and reduced to conquests, economic expansions, and causalities of "military strike targets."

As industrial and capitalist countries consume and throw away more and more bodies, the way in which we understand garbage will inevitably alter. Coke cans, candy wrappers, and broken glass will hold the same epistemological value as prisoners. Employing the Darwinian notion of the strong shall survive, capitalism incorrectly comprehends poverty and crime as "inability", "choice" and "weakness." Political prisoner and activists George Jackson articulated brilliantly, however, that those poor people who commit crimes are the "most abused victims of an unrighteous order." It is imperative that we understand that garbage is no longer a non-human thing; rather it is a concept, an idea, an ideology, and a technique used by racist, colonialist and capitalist structures of power to justify destruction and mass incarceration. We must push for a world without waste.

Originally from Chicago's Southside, Rashad Shabazz is a prison rights activist. He currently holds a fellowship with the Justice Studies program at Arizona State University where he is working on his M.A. thesis on prison intellectuals of color.

Copyright © 2001 by Rashad Shabazz. All rights reserved.