Book of the week: Punishing the Poor

Louise Hardwick on the imbalance in the US social funding see-saw

August 6, 2009

The US prison system employs seven times more people than IBM. The correctional services system in California alone has 45,000 employees - twice as many as Microsoft. From 1980 to 1990, government expenditure on public housing in the US fell by more than half, while expenditure on operating penal establishments more than doubled. And this trend continues: indeed, argues Loïc Wacquant, "the construction of prisons has effectively become the country's main housing programme". Prisons are multiplying so quickly that it is proving impossible to recruit enough personnel to staff them at a pace that keeps up with the frenzied building programme.

In this resonant book, Wacquant describes the current withering of America's social state and the consequent burgeoning of its penal state. Boldly conceived and carefully constructed, the book details the grandeur of a penal state resourced by the plundering of the social one and dissects the attitudes that legitimate it in all its grandeur. Moreover, Wacquant not only chronicles the enthronement of the penal state in the US but also its imitative climb towards ascendancy in Western Europe.

They say that any decent doctoral thesis can be easily summarised in three sentences, and this weighty book takes wing because its simple central thesis is pervasive and persuasive. The author recurrently focuses on the motif of the penal state battening on the ailing social state like a greedy infant whose twin must go hungry.

Wacquant describes an America enthusiastically enslaved to the market. The "neoliberal government of social insecurity" 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.

And go down in droves. Wacquant marshals pertinent statistics to indicate the scale of America's penal expansionism. He notes that when Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1980 the US was spending $6.9 billion on operating its penal establishments but, by 1990, this had increased nearly fourfold to $26.1 billion. Add in the "tens of millions" of Americans trammelled in what Wacquant calls the "penal dragnet" of criminal databanks and judicial review and we see what a colossus the US penal state has become.

The unsurprising consequence of the US defaulting on social provision in favour of penal control is social fragmentation in what Wacquant terms "neighbourhoods of relegation". The cityscape he surveys is as ruptured and ill-lit as an urban earthquake, but his gaze is clear and steady.

Crucially, Wacquant always distinguishes between social presentation and social reality. Many politicians, including Michael Bloomberg, the Republican Mayor of New York City, have proved the truth of his assertion that "locking up the poor has the great benefit of being legible by (sic) the electorate". Inflating imprisonment presents itself as a commonsense initiative to protect the hard-working citizen from the parasitic criminal. But the reality is that it is an initiative founded on criminalising poverty so as to frighten people into submissive acceptance of the replacement of reliable wage-work with precarious labour, semi-wages and fractured hours. As the poor multiply and get poorer they seem to disappear, because their more spectacular and vociferous incarnations are hoovered from the sidewalk to be binned in the jail.

In exposing the rampant individualism and social Darwinism that atomises American society and threatens to do likewise to the societies of Western Europe, Wacquant lays bare the facile thinking that diagnoses criminality in purely individual terms. If there is no such thing as society, then there is no such thing as societal context, and Christophe Caresche, a member of France's National Assembly, can take himself seriously in declaring: "We know that delinquency has no social nature whatsoever and that it pertains to the individual responsibility of each person."

If crime has no social context and issues solely out of aberrant individual volition, then proactive social provision will only pander to the "welfare addict"; thus reactive criminal punishment is perceived as the only option. Here Wacquant deploys Pierre Bourdieu's model of the two-handed state. The state's left hand is its social aspect, proffering such provision as healthcare, social assistance and public housing. Its right hand is its penal aspect, pushing law enforcement through the courts and the police. And in contemporary America, the left hand does not know what the right is doing - but the right certainly knows what the left is doing, because it grips and controls it.

The American policy of penal grandeur is not merely a policy but also a creed and a blueprint. It is a blueprint admired and applied by the nations of Western Europe, France being the most ardent imitator. Here, back in 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy, then an ambitious Interior Minister, won plaudits by calling for "automatic baseline sentences" for "habitual offenders". In doing so he aped America, echoing the "mandatory minimums" that have resulted in the needless long-term incarceration of petty criminals. He also bequeathed to the country he now leads a network of prisons that are frequently overcrowded to double capacity - and last year, 115 people incarcerated in French prisons committed suicide.

However, Wacquant is too probing a critic to stop at detailing the physical miseries of penal expansionism and instead centres on the question of why America readily accepts poverty as the embedded condition for vast sectors of its population and also accepts - welcomes, even - the obliteration of its social state. Paradoxically, this acceptance of poverty is founded on the impregnable assumption that affluence is America's default position. Poverty is then explained as the decontextualised choice of the feckless individual, no matter how many millions of times such supposedly wilful individual choices are seen to accumulate.

Given the formidable qualities - both core and conspicuous - of Wacquant's book, any defects are necessarily going to be relatively minor. Yet a defect there is, in the form of Wacquant's prose style.

This reviewer has herself presented you, within a single sentence, with a penal state both enthroned and climbing, so she should not readily throw stones from her glass house. Nevertheless, it must be said that Wacquant's prose, while not consistently ungainly, is at its worst about as gainly as a John Sergeant pirouette.

One overspilling sentence features an amputated economic arm that is wedded and a "social bosom" that is retracted, and the book's editor should have sundered such couplings as "planetary spearhead", "tenacious blurring" and "rampant gesticulation".

Yet enduring these awkward phrases is a very small price to pay for any reader of this careful and impassioned work, whose strengths dwarf its defects. Urgent and timely, absorbing and alarming, Punishing the Poor should warn us that Britain's increasing dependence on our penal state and the accelerating erosion of our social state are one and the same thing, and may prove a disaster.

The author

Loïc Wacquant is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and researcher at the Centre de Sociologie Europeenne, Paris. His interests include urban marginality, the penal state, ethno-racial domination and social theory.

This month, he will receive the American Sociological Association's Lewis A. Coser Award for "theoretical agenda-setting work". His output on marginality, particularly his book Urban Outcasts (2008), helped to create an international research network.

Besides research, his great passion is chocolate, earning him the nickname "Monsieur Chocolat".

He also calls himself "an aficionado" of blues music, citing Freddie King as his favourite guitarist.

But he has no time for mobile phones. He says: "I am determined to be the last man on Earth without one."

Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

By Loïc Wacquant

Duke University Press

400pp, £70.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780822344049 and 44223

Published 25 July 2009

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