This is the second installment on Loïc Wacquant's Prisons of Poverty; here is a link to the first; I also suggest that the interested reader check out Jason Read's review of Wacquant's recent Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009) at Unemployed Negativity.
My review of Loïc Wacquant's Prisons of Poverty, posted here last week, left out one important aspect of his book. In the chapter dedicated to showing how the social state became the penal state, Wacquant provides four arguments against the "demonic myth" of the prison-industrial complex, which designates either a supplement to, or intensification and transformation of, the military-industrial complex. While this concept has had some success in the critique of penalization, Wacquant argues that it is analytically flawed, and thus problematic practically. He presents four primary problems with the thesis of the prison-industrial complex; I will reproduce his summaries (without the italicization; from pages 84-87) and then add a few comments (with any additions in brackets).
- First, it reduces the twofold, cojoint and interactive, transformation of the social and penal components of the bureaucratic field to the sole "industrialization" of incarceration [The transformation in question is that of the transition of state intervention from welfare to workfare].
- Second, the imagery of the "prison-industrial complex" accords the role of driving force to the pecuniary interest of firms selling correctional services and wares or allegedly tapping the vast reserves of labor held under lock.
- Third, this activist vision is premised on a flawed parallelism between the state functions of national defense and penal administration, which overlooks this crucial difference: military policy is highly centralized and coordinated at the federal level, whereas crime control is widely decentralized and dispersed among federal authorities, one hundred state departments of justice and corrections, and thousands of county and city administrations.
- Finally, constricted by its prosecutorial approach, the woolly notion of "prison-industrial complex" overlooks the wide-ranging effects of the introduction, albeit in a limited and perverted form, of the welfarist logic within the carcereal universe itself.
At the time, I held off from discussing this critique because it might appear incongruous that Wacquant, who situates the transformations of the criminalization of poverty within the intensification of capitalism under neoliberalism, would also deny that profit motive is behind the 'boom' in incarceration. There are, I think, two sides two his critique, which I'm going to address as an ideological critique rather than a sociological critique.
First, we should view the ideological form of neoliberalism as an all-encompassing worldview. As we've discussed before, neoliberal theory pushes a philosophy (if we could even dignify it with such a word) of individual choice, sometimes with the twist that equates individual choice and moral behavior. Therefore one's success or failure is built upon making good choices in both an economic and moral sense, and some of these ideologues equate the two. This is why they argue (as I've mentioned before) that the welfare state "rewards sloth and causes the moral degeneracy of the lower classes," and foments so-called "urban violence" (12). With one focal point (individual choice) they can argue against the welfare state and for the penal state, or even for increased incarceration managed by private firms (from the point of view of neoliberalism, the state ought to force open previously public functions, whether in welfare or prison management).
Second, the analogy suggested by the slogan is very important, and thus a bad analogy will be misleading practically. I know that makes it sound like I read too much Lenin over the summer, which I did, but I think it's largely true. And the suggestion that the prison is like either the military or industry is today misleading. Rather military or industrial organization, the prison is better understood as part of what Deleuze called the 'society of control' in which ever finer methods of surveillance replace a strict division between inside and outside (in a manner similar to job 'flexibility'). This is why it's important to look not just at the number of those incarcerated to grasp the criminalization of poverty, but also those on probation or parole. In the United States, then, the number (in 2000) under the surveillance of correctional supervision then jumps from 2 million to 6.5 million, or 3 percent of the country's population (138-139). Given the arguments we've already discussed, a much more important slogan appears on the cover of the book: we need to fight the prisons of poverty.