A Cyclical Theory of Punishment and Social Structure

According to a ‘long cycle’ or ‘long wave’ perspective, what is most significant in international socio-economic development, considered in terms of technological innovation and/or class conflict, happens in long cycles of roughly 50 years, where the ‘peak’ and the ‘trough’ of the cycle are separated by periods of about 25 years (very close to the span of a generation) (for classic accounts see Kondratieff 1935; Schumpeter 1939; Kalecki 1972 [1943]; more recently, see Wallerstein 1974; Arrighi 1994; and Rennstich 2002). Scholars of this view see the movements in the cycle as induced by the efforts of the actors in the economic and political arena—essentially entrepreneurs and workers. ‘The State’ is considered a third party, playing somewhat of a ‘relatively autonomous’ role between the first two. Each one of these actors tries to overcome the limitations imposed on its development and ‘freedom of action’ by the adverse activities of the other.

Innovation—Schumpeter’s ‘process of creative destruction’ (1943: 81-86)— constitutes a crucial tool by which entrepreneurs undercut and ‘destroy’ the power of labour when a prolonged spell of prosperity has placed workers in a privileged position. The result of such innovation—usually backed by political-legal power— is to disorganize the type of economy in which the former type of working class achieved its power. Likewise, adapting to the innovations implemented, the ‘new’ type of working class recruited under these conditions—often from ‘lowly’ ‘immigrant’ quarters—would eventually find the way to reorganize and bring increasingly effective action (at least as effective as the ‘old’ type of working class was able to bring) to the new setting of social relationships and power. At this point, the cycle starts anew, similar to the preceding one in pattern, but completely different, however, in detail.

The ‘peaks’ are of paramount importance in understanding the logic of the ‘long cycle’ argument in relation to changes in imprisonment. It is around the peak that a long spell of prosperity ends and turns into an ‘economic crisis’. From the standpoint of the working class, prosperity enables increasing power, stronger organization, and a robust capacity for wage demands. On the opposite side, that of entrepreneurs, the strength of the working class translates into reduced profit margins and the necessity for change and innovation. Innovation is often the technological result of widespread feeling that the boundaries of the ‘old’ social system are too rigid and suffocating for the development the long period of prosperity has made possible. The most enterprising sectors of the elite are thereby able to sidestep the long-established competitors and the type of working class that grew together with prosperity—not to mention what is most important in terms of class conflict, ie to destroy the given organizational forms of that working class.

During prosperous periods leading to the peak years when the ‘showdown’ between labour and capital takes place, punishment is less of a ‘necessity’ for the social system as a whole. When most people who look for work can find it, the general social attitude is favourable even toward the lowest members of the working class. Prison conditions will be decent, and it will be possible to work within prisons, both because this is deemed to be a good tool for ‘rehabilitation’ and because the high wages outside make it worth it to produce at least certain goods at ‘controlled’ prices (something that often the unions outside object to). The basic stability of periods of prosperity means that no ‘strangers’ have to be called in to work, and even if they are, the general climate of tolerance and the good disposition of society extend also to them.

At the same time, however, periods of intense economic development are also times when, especially toward the end of the growth phase of the cycle, the system’s hunger for labour stimulates a fast-increasing migratory movement, jealousies, and strong individualism. In the decade that would be seen as the most exemplary of this cultural temper, the American ‘roaring twenties’, the end to migration in 1926 following the introduction of a system of national quotas, preceded by three years, not followed, the Black Thursday of 24 October 1929! The new social phase generally has its roots in the preceding one. In the years of depression, for instance, the defeat of the ‘old’ working class as well as of the least competitive economic sectors translates into a progressive devaluation of human beings. Especially in the years before the ‘peak’, increasing recourse is made to a ‘new’ kind of working class—youth, women, immigrants—that does not share in the values and general ‘ethos’ of the old one, thereby creating resentments, conflicts, and, what is most important to entrepreneurs, divisions, within the working class. During times of depression, the number of the unemployed increases, ‘crime’ becomes more and more associated with the ‘newcomers’, tolerance disappears, prison work and ‘alternative programs’ are also shelved, and a generally mean feeling of envy and revanche takes hold in a society increasingly structured around lines of hierarchy, authoritarianism, and exclusion.

At the same time, however, as Ivan Jankovic pointed out when he realized that the relationship between unemployment and imprisonment did not hold during the Depression, ‘the extent of unemployment during the Depression and the conciliatory policies of the New Deal prevented the positive correlation between imprisonment and unemployment’ (Jankovic 1977: 27). In situations of economic crisis a kind of solidarity is established when the sharing of a common destiny among masses of people who once again come to see themselves as members of the working class[1] brings forth an attitude of tolerance that somehow mitigates the most envious tendencies. The importance of politics in this regard cannot be denied. After all, the American 1930s were the most left-leaning years in American history, and the deeds of such famous gangsters as John Dillinger or Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow assigned them true legendary status, almost the aura of rightful vindicators of a defeated and suffering working class (Gorn 2009).

More than a decade ago, Charlotte Vanneste identified the location of the ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’ of such long cycles over the last century and a half (Vanneste 2001: 56). In relation to Vanneste’s description of these cycles, it may represent a useful exercise to compare, if only in a merely suggestive way, the ‘slope’ prediction of the ‘long cycle’ model, which, according to Vanneste, is an ‘ideal type’ that applies to the generality of capitalist development in the most advanced countries, with the actual behaviour of imprisonment rates in two countries, Italy and the United States, for which we were able to collect the necessary information (see Figure 1). According to Vanneste’s reconstruction, the peaks would be located grosso modo around 1870, 1920, and 1970 (and 2020), and the troughs around 1850, 1895, the end of the Second World War, and the end of the twentieth century. Because, according to the hypothesis, the imprisonment rate should ‘behave’ in countercyclical fashion, we would derive the prediction of an increase in imprisonment rates in the three cyclical ‘downswings’, 1870-1895, 1920-1945, and 1970-1995, and a decrease instead in the three ‘upswings’, 1850-1870, 1895-1920, and 1945-1970. Today we would find ourselves in the middle of a new decrease (1995-2020).

When we look at Figure 1, the vertical axes correspond to the mentioned ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’. The behaviour of imprisonment rates seems (roughly) to correspond to the predicted rate only for the twentieth century, ie the last two ‘long cycles’, but not for the previous rate in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, whereas we may be able to predict the general direction of the slope, the specificity of the size of incremental change year by year may vary greatly in different countries and under different circumstances. But, how does migration fit into all of this?

Incarceration Rates in the United States and Italy (1850-2006) per 100,000

Fig. 1 Incarceration Rates in the United States and Italy (1850-2006) per 100,000

  • [1] In Italy recently the number of those who describe themselves as members of the working class hasincreased remarkably inverting a decade-long tendency toward the subjective ‘middle-classization’ ofclass distribution. I refer here to research results by Ilvo Diamanti and the Demos Institute (see ).
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