I would build... a new liberal politics

Emma Bell
Wednesday, 28 January 2015

In order to find our way out of the punitive straightjacket of current penal politics, it is necessary not just to understand the context in which such policies have developed but also to propose concrete alternatives. I would like to propose a genuinely liberal politics as a plausible alternative to the neoliberal politics that have fuelled the current penal crisis, characterised by mass incarceration and the criminalisation of social problems.

Neoliberalism as it is actually practiced has proved itself to be profoundly illiberal. It limits the freedom of those who are subject to measures of penal control, as the State relies increasingly on the penal system to mask the social problems created by neoliberal policies. It limits the freedom of those trapped in unemployment and low-paid jobs to enjoy the pleasures of economic security and participate fully in consumer society. It limits the freedom of all to enjoy an environment free of pollution in favour of the ‘freedom’ of big business to exploit the natural world. Perhaps most significantly, it imposes a certain way of thinking about the world, encouraging a ‘TINA’ (‘there is no alternative’) mentality, precluding freedom of thought about genuine alternatives. Nowhere is this clearer than in discussion about penal policy where restriction of liberty is regarded as the only viable punishment.

A genuinely liberal politics, on the contrary, would value effective freedom. It would favour a positive conception of liberty that recognises the need to limit the freedoms of large corporations in order to promote the freedom of individual citizens to enjoy real social and political freedom. Importantly, power would be effectively devolved from the State and big business to ordinary people. Power would not be equated with responsibility alone, as has been the case under the coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. It would mean real power to participate in, and influence, democratic debate. ALL citizens would be entitled to engage in such debate, especially those most affected by social problems, including offenders.

Such a liberal politics would be genuinely ‘new’, moving beyond the ‘new liberal’ politics popular at the beginning of the last century which sought to provide effective freedom for ordinary citizens though limited state intervention but proceeded from an extremely elitist view of politics and excluded certain ‘undeserving’ individuals, notably ex-prisoners, from their early social reforms. A new liberal politics would also move beyond the highly deferential politics of the post-war era which assumed that civil servants alone could provide the answers to social problems. It would entail formulating policies from below, giving ordinary people the freedom to engage in politics. Yet, the State would still be expected to provide the means to help implement policy proposals.

It is hoped that those who feel genuinely ‘free’, who have a positive experience of real liberty, may be capable of thinking outside the restrictive parameters of current neoliberal policies, proposing real alternatives to liberty-restricting policies of all kinds. With regard to penal policies more specifically, perhaps rather than imposing prison sentences, disempowering those who have already been disempowered by a neoliberal system that denies them effective freedom, offenders might be empowered.

The first step in this direction necessarily entails inviting them to participate in discussion about the future of penal policy and to propose appropriate changes as members of policy forums. Such an initiative should not be taken by institutions of the State but could be proposed and led by an organisation such as the CCJS or by offenders themselves. It is important not to constrain the direction such a debate could take, but policy forums might entail encouraging offenders to suggest ways in which they might redress any harm caused by their actions. This might resemble restorative justice but would importantly be driven from below, rather than from above, as has been the case with recent experiments in the UK. The approach would be genuinely reparative rather than punitive.

New policy forums might also encourage offenders to discuss the circumstances leading to crime, helping to focus attention on the structural causes of crime and thus highlighting the social harms which need to be remedied as a first step towards crime prevention. Furthermore, encouraging members of the public to participate in such forums may help to foster new understandings between all those involved, as they are engaged as equal partners in a common enterprise.