Punishing the poor

Having considered the surveillance and control of previously' autonomous professional middle-class groups via the new public management in the interests of neoliberal society, we now turn our attention to mechanisms to control the poorer and often ‘socially excluded’ groups in society invariably via the use of the criminal justice system - in this complex, risk-bound, fragmented modernity.

Loi'c Wacquant rhetorically' asks why' it is that the prison in the twenty-first century has returned to the institutional forefront of the advanced societies, when four decades previously' penological analysts were convinced that it was on the decline and perhaps terminally'. In his book Punishing the Poor (Wacquant, 2009b) makes three arguments to resolve this historical conundrum. First, the expansion and glorification of the police, the courts and the penitentiary are a response not to criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity caused by the casualization of wage labour and the disruption of ethno-racial hierarchy. Second, we need to reconnect social and penal policies and treat them as two variants of poverty policy to grasp the new punitive politics of marginality. Third, the simultaneous and converging deployment of restrictive ‘workfare’ and expansive ‘prison fare’ partake of the forging of the neoliberal state. We next consider each of these arguments further.

Ramping up the penal state in response to social insecurity

Wacquant’s first argument is that the ramping up of the penal wing of the state is a response to social insecurity, and not a reaction to crime trends. He observes that in the three decades after the peaking of the civil rights movement, the US went from being a leader in progressive justice to an apostle of‘zero tolerance’ policing, architect of‘Three Strikes and You’re Out,’ and world champion in incarceration. But why? The conventional answer is that this stupendous expansion of punishment was driven by the rise in crime. Yet victimization at first stagnated and then decreased during this entire period. Consider this simple statistic: the US held 21 prisoners for every 10,000 ‘index crimes’in 1975; 30 years later, it locked up 125 prisoners for every 10,000 crimes. This means that the country had become six times more punitive, holding crime constant.

Wacquant argues that to explain this punitive turn in penal policy, we need to break out of the crime-and-punishment box and pay attention to the extra-penological functions of penal institutions. We then discover that, in the wake of the race riots of the 1960s, the police, courts and prison were subsequently deployed to contain the urban dislocations wrought by economic deregulation and the implosion of the ghetto as a medium of ethno-racial containment and to impose the discipline of insecure employment at the bottom of the polarizing class structure. As a result, the resurging prison has come to serve three missions that have little to do with crime control: (1) to bend the fractions of the post-industrial working class to precarious wage work, (2) to warehouse their most disruptive or superfluous elements and (3) to patrol the boundaries of the deserving citizenry while reasserting the authority of the state in the restricted domain it now assigns itself.

Wacquant observes that rates of confinement in Western Europe are comparatively modest compared to the US but adds that this must not hide two crucial facts. First, penalization takes many different forms and is not reducible to incarceration. Second, incarceration rates have shown steady and sturdy growth across Western Europe since the early 1980s: they have grown by more than one-half in France, Italy, and Belgium; nearly doubled in England and Wales, Sweden. Portugal, and Greece; and quadrupled in Spain and the Netherlands, the latter long lauded as a model of humane penality. In reality, he observes, a drift towards the penalization of urban marginality has swept through Western Europe with a lag of two decades, albeit on a smaller scale (commensurate with the makeup of the state and social space in these societies).

This drift presents three distinctive features. First, the new penal laws embraced by European governments typically ‘bark’ louder than they ‘bite’ because the texture of social and economic citizenship is more robust, human rights standards thwart excessive criminalization and judicial professionals have been able to resist penal extension from within the state apparatus. But hyping ‘insecurity’ and promoting crime-fighting in and around districts of dereliction to the rank of government priority, in preference to fighting unemployment in these same areas, has definitely shifted government priorities in favour of penal posturing and action.

Second, European societies endowed with a strong statist tradition are using the front end of the penal chain, the police, rather than the back end, the prison, to curb social disorders and despair in low-income districts. One example: in France, the inmate population has risen by one-third over a period of ten years, but during that same period, the number of persons arrested and held overnight for a ‘garde à vue' in a police lockup nearly tripled to approach the extravagant figure of 1 million.

Third, instead of a brutal swing from the social to the penal management of poverty as in the US, continental countries have intensified both, expanding welfare protection and police intervention simultaneously in a contradictory thrust that has both stimulated and limited the extension of the punitive mesh.

Wacquant observes that these three features define a ‘Western European road’ to the penalization of poverty which is not that of the US. Yet, from a longer macro-political perspective, the dominant trend is similar: a punitive revamping of public policy that weds the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to the ‘iron fist’ of the penal state.

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