Thinking about prisons and political economy

Richard Garside
Friday, 19 March 2010

Between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s the number of prisoners in England and Wales doubled, from 20,000 to 40,000 inmates. A further 20,000 inmates had been added to the prison population by the mid 1990s, the eve of New Labour’s ascent to power. The rising trend continued under the three Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, reaching some 85,000 by the 2010 General Election.

Criminologists puzzle over these trends. For one thing the official crime rate fell from the mid 1990s, when the prison population was growing most rapidly. Should not the numbers in prison have fallen alongside falls in the crime rate? For another thing, it has been a puzzle to some that a supposedly ‘progressive’ Labour government has overseen rapid growth in prison numbers. Doubly puzzling given that the last period of sustained falls in the prison population – the early 1990s – was during a period of Conservative government.

The most significant attempt to make sense of these developments in the past decade has been The Culture of Control, the highly influential 2001 book by the British criminologist David Garland. Drawing on that quintessential of New Labour thinkers, Anthony Giddens, Garland argued that rising imprisonment and a more generalised ‘culture of control’ was a governmental response to the social insecurities and cultural ambiguities of ‘late modernity’. Buffeted and weakened by globalised capital the US and UK governments (and by implication a number of others) resorted, in Garland’s view, to law and order politics to manage growing social problems and restore their battered reputations.

The current financial crisis has rather put paid to the ‘weak state’ thesis underpinning Garland’s account. Some might argue that they were rather over a barrel, but it was only governments that were in a position to restore the fortunes of capital, as the rescue of corporate behemoths like AIG in the US and RBS in the UK made clear. There are now active discussions among the leading capitalist countries over changes to the regulatory framework for finance capital. Capitalism, it seems, is the product of political and historical forces, not the natural working out of an innate human tendency to truck and barter.

The crisis has also exposed the weaknesses in the socio-cultural flim flammery of ‘late modernity’ theorising. It is not that social and cultural factors are irrelevant in explaining the intensification of punitive interventions. The disproportionate targeting by criminal justice agencies of young men of black and middle eastern appearance and ethnicity can not be explained without reference to the sometimes latent, sometimes overt racism that is deeply embedded within British society. But whatever the material realities of social change and cultural differences, they are articulated by the underlying social relations and economic processes of capital accumulation. This is a point famously made by Marx in his Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy:

'In the social production of their existence, men (sic) inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises the legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.'

One way of reading Punishing the Poor is as a development of certain of these Marxian themes in the criminological and sociological fields. ‘The sudden expansion… of the penal state,’ Wacquant writes:

'is not a culturally reactionary reading of “late modernity”, but a ruling-class response aiming… to establish a new economic regime based on capital hypermobility and labor flexibility and to curb the social turmoil generated at the foot of the urban order by the public policies of market deregulation and social welfare retrenchment that are core building blocks of neoliberalism.'

The ‘root cause of the punitive turn,’ he argues, ‘is not late modernity but neoliberalism’. Economic deregulation twinned with an ideology of individualism and personal responsibility has provided the material and symbolic basis for a roll back of the welfare state and a corresponding roll forward of the penal state. Previously regulated and controlled by the welfare system, the poor in America have increasingly found themselves subject to regulation by the criminal justice system in general and the prison system in particular.

This is fertile and challenging stuff for those wedded to the notion that prisons are there to contain ‘bad people’ and the criminal justice process there to make society safer and reduce crime. Wacquant’s reminder that criminal justice and social security are interlocking means of regulating certain problems and populations, rather than distinct and separate policy realms, is also welcome. Punishing the Poor is worth a look for these reasons alone.

But having identified the neoliberal turn as pivotal Wacquant struggles to get to the bottom of what neoliberalism is really about and what its emergence as a hegemonic project means for criminal justice developments and wider public policy. Take, for instance, his definition:

'Neoliberalism is a transnational political project aiming to remake the nexus of market, state and citizenship from above. This project is carried by a new global ruling class in the making.'

As a workaday description it is fine as far as it goes. But it is peculiarly detached from any consideration of the underlying economic imperatives that have driven the neoliberalization agenda. Compare, for instance, David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism as ‘a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites’. This correctly locates the nature of the project in relation to the fundamental processes of capitalist societies in a way that Wacquant’s does not.

Wacquant dismisses such ‘economic’ conceptualisations as ‘thin and incomplete’, and this despite his own distinctly ‘economistic’ explanation for the ‘punitive turn’. He aims to ‘reach beyond this economic nucleus and elaborate a thicker notion that identifies the institutional machinery and symbolic frames through which neoliberal tenets are being actualized’. In Marxian terms, therefore, his interests lie in the analysis of the legal and political superstructure rather than the economic foundation. And while these are certainly worthy of study, such an analysis does need to be integrated with an underlying political economic perspective if it is to have any real critical purchase. This Wacquant does not do, which leaves his overall analysis incomplete and his conclusions distinctly underwhelming.

This review of Punishing the Poor, a book by the French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, first appeared in Renewal magazine.