A Q&A With Loïc Wacquant
By KAREN J. WINKLER
Loïc Wacquant has always been somewhat unusual. A well-known ethnographer and award-winning social theorist, he is a white Frenchman who has been teaching race relations at the University of California at Berkeley since 1993 (a time when that combination was highly controversial). He earned dual graduate degrees under the American sociologist William Julius Wilson and the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu; he is a professor of sociology at Berkeley and a research associate with its Boalt Hall Law School, as well as a researcher at the Centre de sociologie européenne, in Paris. And oh yes, he is a past MacArthur fellow, a former member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University — and an amateur boxer.This month Duke University Press brings out Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, the second volume in a planned trilogy on the urban poor. The first volume, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Polity, 2008), compared the evolution of the black American ghetto and the urban periphery in Western Europe after the riots of the 1960s. The issue, said Wacquant, was not the emergence of an urban underclass — the focus of much scholarly research — but the rise of a new regime of urban marginality created by the fragmentation of wage labor, the retrenchment of the social programs of the state, and the stigmatization of certain geographic areas.Punishing the Poor takes up state policies that respond to that new marginality: how restrictive social measures and an expansive penal system combine to "discipline" the poor at a time when society is more and more afraid of social unrest. The third volume, Deadly Symbiosis (to be published by Polity in late 2009 or early 2010), will look at the relationship between race and poverty. Following is an edited version of The Chronicle Review's interview with Mr. Wacquant about his new book.
Q. You write that public agitation over law and order has grown in the last quarter century in the United States and is now spreading to Europe. Why in America first? How has concern manifested itself differently in the two areas?
In the three decades after the civil-rights movement peaked, the United States went from being a leader in progressive justice, poised to show humanity what some penal experts called "a society without a prison," to advocate for vengeful punishment and world champion in incarceration. Why? The conventional answer is the rise in crime. Mais voilà, victimization first stagnated and then decreased in this period. Consider this simple statistic: The United States held 21 prisoners for every 10,000 "index crimes" in 1975; 30 years later, it locked up 125 inmates for every 10,000 crimes. That means that it has become six times as punitive, holding crime constant.To explain that upsurge, we need to break out of the crime-and-punishment box and pay attention to the extra-penological functions of penal institutions. In the wake of the ghetto riots of the 1960s, the police, courts, and prisons have been deployed to contain the urban dislocations wrought by economic deregulation and to impose the discipline of precarious employment at the bottom of the class structure. The punitive turn in penal policy responds not to criminal insecurity, but to the social insecurity unleashed by the fragmentation of wage labor and the disruption of traditional ethnoracial hierarchies.A similar drift toward the penalization of urban marginality has swept through Western Europe with a lag of two decades and a couple of distinctive twists. European societies endowed with a strong statist tradition are using the "front end" of the penal chain — the police, rather than the prison — to curb social disorders and despair in low-income districts. Their embrace of law and order has been more virulent at the level of rhetoric than actual policies. And, instead of a brutal swing from the social management to the penal management of poverty, they have intensified both, expanding welfare protection and police intervention simultaneously. But the dominant trend is similar: a punitive revamping of public policy that weds the "invisible hand" of the market to the "iron fist" of the penal state.
Q. How is the law-and-order campaign linked to other policy changes?
The sudden growth and glorification of punishment partakes of a broader re-engineering of the state, which also entails the replacement of the right to welfare by the obligation of "workfare" (forced participation in subpar employment as a condition of public support). The downsizing of public aid and the upsizing of the prison are the two sides of the same coin of political restructuring at the foot of the social and urban order.In 1971, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote a classic of social science, Regulating the Poor, in which they proposed that poor relief expands and contracts with the cycles of the labor market. That model worked for the half century opened by the New Deal. But, in the age of hypermobile capital and flexible work, that cyclical alternation was replaced by the continual contraction of welfare and the unleashing of a diligent and belligerent penal bureaucracy.I use Pierre Bourdieu's concept of bureaucratic field (the set of organizations that define and distribute public goods) to bring these developments in social and penal policy into a single analytic framework. Welfare revamped as "workfare" and the prison stripped of its rehabilitative pretension now form a single organizational mesh flung at the poor according to a gendered division of control: "Workfare" handles the women and the children, and "prisonfare" handles their men.Welfare and criminal justice are two modalities of public policy toward the poor. Recall, first, that poor relief and the penal prison have a shared historical origin: Both were invented in Western Europe to corral vagrants detached from their social moorings by the passage from feudalism to capitalism and to teach them the ethics of wage work. Second, the social profile of public-aid recipients and inmates (in terms of class, ethnicity, education, housing, family and medical history, exposure to violence, etc.) is nearly identical, save for the gender inversion, as both are recruited among the marginal sectors of the unskilled working class. Third, supervisory "workfare" and the neutralizing prison are guided by the same philosophy of moral behaviorism and the same techniques of control, including stigma, surveillance, punitive restrictions, and graduated sanctions to "correct" the conduct of their clients.
Q. How do you define "prisonfare"?
The state can seek to remedy undesirable conditions and behaviors in three ways. It can "socialize" them by tracking their roots in the collective organization of society. It can "medicalize" them as individual pathologies. Or it can "penalize" them by ramping up its law-enforcement agencies. Think of the three ways of responding to homelessness: build low-income housing, offer mental-health services, or throw street derelicts in jail."Prisonfare" is the stream of policies that responds to urban ills by rolling out the police, the courts, jails and prisons, and their extensions. Those include probation and parole, which today supervise five million individuals, but also the computerized diffusion of criminal databases, which cover some 30 million, and the schemes of profiling and surveillance they undergird (like "background checks" by employers and realtors)."Prisonfare" also encompasses the whirling images of criminals diffused by scholars and politicians and by the cultural industries that trade on the fear of crime and feed a public culture of vituperation of felons. (Think "reality shows" like Cops and America's Most Wanted and the round-the-clock rantings of Nancy Grace on CNN.)
Q. You say scholars of criminal justice, on the one hand, and of welfare policy, on the other, have ignored each other. Why?
That mutual ignorance reflects the fact that most scholars accept their object of study as it is preconstructed in reality and prescribed by the concerns of state officials. But it's also an effect of institutional inertia and intellectual lag. The late 19th century witnessed the disjunction of the social question from the penal question, with the rise of trade unions and social work, on the one side, and the development of criminal courts and the correctional prison, on the other. As the two problems came to be treated by separate institutions, they were also studied by different academic disciplines.But nowadays you can't track penal policy without reckoning with social policy, and vice versa. You can't understand trends in crime without factoring in the sea changes in welfare provision, public housing, foster care, and related state programs that set the life options of the populations most susceptible to street crime (as both perpetrators and victims). Conversely, you can't chart the trajectory of welfare recipients if you ignore the fact that they're embedded in households and neighborhoods involved in illicit activities and destabilized by the continual intrusion of the police and the prison.The penal state has become a major engine of stratification and a powerful cultural machine that decisively impacts the fate of the poor. No serious scholar of poverty and inequality can afford to overlook it. So I say, students of welfare and criminal justice, unite, you have nothing to lose but your conceptual chains!
Q. How are these developments part 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." Well, that's the ideology of neoliberalism, not its reality. The sociology of neoliberalism as it exists reveals that it involves the building of a "centaur state," liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom. The neoliberal Leviathan practices laissez-faire toward corporations and the upper class, at the level of the causes of inequality, but is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation at the lower end of the class spectrum.Against the "thin" conception of economists, I propose a "thick" sociological characterization of neoliberalism that adds three components to market rule: supervisory "workfare," an invasive police and prison apparatus, and the cultural trope of "personal responsibility" to glue them all together. The hypertrophic and hyperactive penal state built by America to contain the reverberations of social insecurity and inequality is not a deviation from neoliberalism but one of its constituent ingredients.
Q. Were such policy changes deliberate?
That's a tricky question: All public policies result from a mix of leadership intention, bureaucratic groping, organizational slippage, practical trial and error, and electoral profiteering. So there is political intent operating at multiple levels, but the overall shape of the neoliberal state is not subject to rational design. Not in America, at least, if only due to the extreme fragmentation of the bureaucratic field.I emphatically reject the conspiratorial view of history that assigns the punitive turn to a deliberate "plan" pursued by omniscient rulers, or derives it from the systemic necessities of some grand structure, whether it be capitalism, racism, or panopticism. Against the demonic myth of the "prison-industrial complex," I demonstrate that the prison boom is not driven by the search for profit but partakes of a political project of state-crafting. Against the tentacular vision of punishment derived from Foucault, I show that the deployment of the penal state is not diffusing throughout the whole social body capillary-style but aimed at stigmatized populations trapped at the foot of the hierarchy of classes and places. Like neoliberalism, the gargantuan penal Moloch invented in America is not a preordained necessity. Other historical paths out of the turmoil of the 1960s were open — and remain open.
Q. Is that why you see the campaign for law and order as a symbolic exhibition that you compare to pornography?
One of the challenges of Punishing the Poor is to overcome the ritual opposition between materialist approaches, descended from Karl Marx, and symbolic approaches, inspired by Émile Durkheim. The former see welfare and criminal justice as instruments for class control while the latter construe them as vehicles for communicating norms and binding communities. In reality, the prison is complex enough an institution to operate in both registers simultaneously.It is essential to heed the symbolic dimensions of punishment at a time when penal policy is increasingly driven by expressive considerations running amok. Crime fighting has mutated everywhere into a grotesque theater of civic morality that elected officials use to stage their masculine fortitude and vituperate against the "undeserving" poor, in order to shore up the deficit of legitimacy they suffer for abandoning the protective mission of the state on the social and economic front. Politicians will advocate measures — like youth curfews, automatic life sentences for recidivists, or chain gangs in striped uniforms — that are utterly worthless for reducing crime. But they are well suited to venting vengeful sentiments and to drawing sharp boundaries between "us," the law-abiding working families, and "them," the loathsome underclass.The feverish campaign to blacklist and banish sex offenders just when the incidence of sexual crimes is dropping, for instance, is incomprehensible from the strict standpoint of rational crime control. The diffusion of statutes like Megan's Law pushes sex offenders into clandestinity and increases their chances of reoffending. But it makes a good deal of sense if you consider that treating sex offenders like moral trash to be incinerated displaces collective anxiety from jobs, the family, and sexuality toward heinous lawbreakers.
Q. What will the third book in your trilogy argue?
Deadly Symbiosis disentangles the two-way relationship between racial division and the rise of the penal state in America to explain an apparent paradox: that prisons "blackened" rapidly after 1973, even as cohorts of criminals "whitened." I say "apparent" because, from its historical inception, the prison has never been a tool to fight crime: It is an instrument to manage deprived and dishonored populations, which is quite a different task. And so, after the acme of the civil-rights movement, the black lower class stuck in the crumbling ghetto became its privileged clients as they were made economically redundant by deindustrialization, politically expendable by the great white migration to the suburbs, and tainted by the triple stigma of race, poverty, and immorality.I show that by tracing the arc of racial domination in the United States from the colonial era to the present through the succession of the four "peculiar institutions" that have defined and confined African-Americans: chattel slavery, the Jim Crow regime of racial terrorism in the agrarian South, the urban ghetto in the industrial North, and the novel device formed by the joining of the hyperghetto and the neutralizing prison after the 1970s.The thorny political question that arises now is: Will the first black president break that noxious nexus and decouple blackness from dangerousness, not just on the political stage with his presence and performance, but in public policy? It is urgent to roll back the penal state because of the devastation it wrings on the black lower class, but also because it debases the ideal of justice for all citizens. http://www.marxmail.org/msg64569.html