August 6, 2011
In The punitive regulation of poverty in the neoliberal age at Open Democracy Loïc Wacquant argues that the ramping up of the penal wing of the state (eg., “zero tolerance” policing and Three Strikes and You’re Out) is a response to social insecurity, and not a reaction to crime trends.
Wacquant, who is the author of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, goes on to argue that under a neo-liberal mode of governance 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. He says:
we must re-link shifts in penal and social policy, instead of isolating them from one another. The downsizing of public aid, complemented by the shift from the right to welfare to obligation of workfare (that is, forced participation in sub par employment as a condition of support), and the upsizing of the prison are the two sides of the same coin. Together, workfare and prisonfare effect the double regulation of poverty in the age of deepening economic inequality and diffusing social insecurity.
He then links his contention that welfare and criminal justice are two modalities of public policy toward the poor to the making of the neoliberal state.
Economists have propounded a conception of neoliberalism that equates it with the rule of the “free market” and the coming of “small government” and, by and large, other social scientists have adopted that conception. The problem is that it captures the ideology of neoliberalism, not its reality. The comparative sociology of actually existing neoliberalism reveals that it involves everywhere the building of a erection of a Centaur-state, liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom. Then neoliberal Leviathan practices laissez faire et laissez passer toward corporations and the upper class, at the level of the causes of inequality. But it is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum.
The reason for this is that the imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process, it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; and it practically undermines the authority of the state.
The argument is that "neoliberal mode of governance abandons the Keynesian-Fordist legacy of state safety nets and stable wage structures in favour of sweeping deregulation and the precarious, piecemeal work that comes with it. It shrinks its social state, leaving people to fend for themselves. But in order to do so without ruinous social rupture, it multiplies its control functions. Hence the aggrandisement of the penal state: those many misfits exposed in the gap between deregulated labour and the reined-in social state must neither get uppity nor go under completely. Instead, they must go down.
This criminalising of poverty has the objective of frightening people into submissive acceptance of the replacement of reliable wage-work with precarious labour, semi-wages and fractured hours. The increasing dependence on our penal state and the accelerating erosion of our social state are two sides of the same coin.