Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Loïc Wacquant: "Prisons of Poverty"

(University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Not so long ago, in a post about David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism, I noted that one of the faults of contemporary continental political thought is that many of its key figures "have not attempted  too many in-depth analyses of the functions of the neoliberal state form;" instead they have largely focused on revitalizing a theory of the subject. To think militant subjectivity, however, we need a clear view of what militancy is up against. At the time, I noted, following Harvey, that
when faced with a decision between 'fostering' a 'good business' or 'good investment' climate and labor or environmental concerns, neoliberal governance chooses in favor of business and investment. Not that on all levels these decisions are specifically made with class motives behind them. Rather neoliberal political economy is structured to coerce competition between cities, regions, countries; so while not all decisions need exhibit class motive (often at the local levels they are made to preserve a collapsing set of social relationships), the structure does. [...] One of the prime difficulties of confronting neoliberalism is that it uses competition between regions and improvements in communication and investment flow to break social solidarity.
The question that I left unanswered at the time is how governments deal with the fragmentation of social solidarity and the collapse of the social safety net created by the welfare state. In Prisons of Poverty, Loïc Wacquant argues that prison is the neoliberal answer to the poverty and unrest created by the increased precarity of work, the reduction or privatization of public services, and the collapse or hyper-gentrification of urban areas. First published in 1999 in France, the book was meant as intervention against the growing 'Washington Consensus' of neoliberalism and, in terms of crime, of 'zero tolerance.' He argues that the 'punitive turn' in dealing with crime is a consequence of the neoliberal turn.

The first part of the book analyzes how conservative think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute captured the "common sense" account of penalization. Far from being an obvious way to deal with poverty, Wacquant shows how a small set of well-connected figures pushed scrapping the welfare state and 'get tough' penalization (figures including Charles Murray, who also co-authored the notorious The Bell Curve, George Kelling, and James Q. Wilson). I can't retrace the whole network, but the purpose of a think tank's 'intellectual' output is to dress up the varying aspects of the neoliberal class project with pseudo-academic accoutrements. Whether it is 'zero tolerance' or the 'broken window theory' (which holds that fighting "small visible disorders...will vanquish the major pathologies of urban crime"), these attempts to criminalize poverty argue that criminality must be understood as a problem of moral behavior rather than as the result of the inherent structural inequalities of capitalism, much in the same way that neoliberal ideologues advocate scaling back state intervention so that individual choice can drive decision making in the marketplace. But here's the connection: for the poor that 'choice' is often restricted to precarious and underpaid work; any attempt to redistribute wealth through the informal economy comes with increasing punishment. As Harvey argues,  for the neoliberal ideologue social success or failure is "interpreted in terms of personal entrepreneurial virtues or failings rather than attributable to any systemic properties." [1] State intervention, this ideologue could also argue, "rewards sloth and causes the moral degeneracy of the lower classes," and foments so-called "urban violence" (12).

Wacquant follows these misguided 'theories' as they are implemented from New York City (with much fanfare), to the UK, and finally to Continental Europe. What he shows is that, whether they work or not (and there's little proof that they do), they are accepted by politicians and other opportunists who seek to project and image of being tough on crime, while increasing security and surveillance measures on suspect populations. You're probably wondering what kind of proof Wacquant has to challenge such entrenched and well-funded 'common sense.' Here's one example: a comparison of the results of NYC's zero tolerance policy with
San Diego, a metropolis that applied community policing during the same period: from 1993 to 1996, the Southern California city posted a drop in crime identical to that recorded by New York City, but at a cost of only a modest increase in police staffing of 6 percent. The number of arrests effected by the forces of order diminished steadily by 15 percent during those three years in San Diego, whereas it increased by 24 percent in New York City (18).
The results of this comparison are hardly an aberration. Wacquant spends the latter half of the book showing how the prison population quadrupled (10; 138-139) during a period in which rates of violent crime remained flat and even declined (see 145). How did this happen? Wacquant identifies three causal series: first, the decline of the rehabilitative model of incarceration; second, there is political and mediatic opportunism to reinscribe social unrest under the category of criminality (and, historically speaking, the replacement of social critiques of inequality with the 'war on crime'), and third, as he writes "the penal system has partly supplanted and partly supplemented the ghetto as a mechanism of racial control" and segregration (155-156). Each of these factors has contributed to the turn to hyper-incarceration; the apparatus holding it all together is, of course, the war on drugs.

With this in mind, I will constrain myself to three more comments on the wide range of material covered in Prisons of Poverty.

First, it is easy to see how the so-called war on drugs figures into the push for hyper-incarceration. Dealing drugs, for the neoliberal ideologues, falls afoul of their (incorrect) stress on moral behavior as the root of criminality, and reinforces the threat posed by illegal substances, although this ultimately confuses two problems: first, the problem of consumption; and second, the problem of exchange and production. I don't want to suggest that either problem is necessarily about morality, but it is very clear from the side of the sale of illegal substances that many people enter into the trade as part of the informal economy because it pays better than the precarious work available to marginalized members of society. Wacquant argues that the war on drugs patrols this informal economy.

Second, the steep rise in prison populations deflates the official unemployment rate: "It is estimated that penal confinement shaved two full percentage points off of the U.S. jobless rate during the 1990s":
when the differential between the incarceration level of [the U.S. and European Union] is taken into account, the United States posted an unemployment rate higher than the average for the European Union during eighteen of the twenty years between 1974 and 1994, contrary to the view propagated by the adultators of neoliberalism and critics of "Eurosclerosis" (80).
Which leads to my third remark: the purpose of Prisons of Poverty is, according to Wacquant, to intervene in debates about whether or not other countries should adapt either the 'zero tolerance' model or the more draconian measures of neoliberal structural readjustment. Wacquant argues that the tough on crime ideology does not correspond to any crisis in criminality, but rather responds to the attempt to control socially and economically marginalized populations. He also shows that far from being a monolithic project, that the punitive turn has proved, like neoliberalism in general, to be adaptable to local traditions and concerns; one is not surprised to see that French opportunists (including Régis Debray) have had little difficulty in phrasing increased surveillance and penalization in French Républicain terms.

Prisons of Poverty ends with an afterword describing both the (strong and approving) international reception of the original edition, Les Prisons de la misère after its publication in 1999, and the ways in which he has strengthened his original theses in his more recent Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009) by analyzing the transformations of both welfare and criminal justice "not just as a consequence of neoliberalism [as argued in Prisons of Poverty] but an integral component of the neoliberal state itself" (174). I would not think that Prisons of Poverty could be so easily superseded-- not only because Wacquant has made an effort to produce an English language version of the original book, but also because it presents a sharp rebuttal to the punitive turn in so-called criminal justice.

1. The Space of Global Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006), 27.


Anonymous said...

Man, one more book I must read - looks like a good one too!

Did you get a chance to read Harvey's latest book - The Enigma of Capital?

Devin Z. Shaw said...

It's on my shelf, but I'm reading through 'Spaces of Global Capitalism' first as an introduction to his work on space and uneven geographical space.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

Matt (one of our other authors) and I participated in a panel this summer on Marx, Heidegger and Benjamin, and he spent most of his time expanding on Harvey's discussions on the compression of space and time in capitalism (he posted a bit on it here (if you haven't seen it):

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference. I haven't read the Spaces book, but I did read the one on Cosmopolitanism which wasn't as good as I hoped it would be, but decent anyway.