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Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

by Loic Wacquant


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Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

The punitive turn of penal policy in the United States after the acme of the Civil Rights movement responds not to rising criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity generated by the fragmentation of wage labor and the shakeup of the ethnoracial hierarchy. It partakes of a broader reconstruction of the state wedding restrictive "workfare" and expansive "prisonfare" under a philosophy of moral behaviorism. This paternalist program of penalization of poverty aims to curb the urban disorders wrought by economic deregulation and to impose precarious employment on the postindustrial proletariat. It also erects a garish theater of civic morality on whose stage political elites can orchestrate the public vituperation of deviant figures-the teenage "welfare mother," the ghetto "gang banger," and the roaming "sex predator"-and close the legitimacy deficit they suffer when they discard the established government mission of social and economic protection. By bringing developments in welfare and criminal justice into a single analytic framework attentive to both the instrumental and communicative moments of public policy, Punishing the Poor shows that the prison is not a mere technical implement for law enforcement but a core political institution. And it reveals that the capitalist revolution from above called neoliberalism entails not the advent of "small government" but the building of an overgrown and intrusive penal state deeply injurious to the ideals of democratic citizenship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822344223
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/22/2009
Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 704,266
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Loïc Wacquant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Researcher at the Centre de sociologie européenne, Paris. He is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and recipient of the 2008 Lewis Coser Award of the American Sociological Association. His recent books include Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, and Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics. He is a co-founder and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Ethnography.

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Punishing the Poor

By Loïc Wacquant

Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4404-9

Chapter One

Social Insecurity and the Punitive Upsurge

Comparative analysis of the evolution of penality in the advanced countries over the past decade reveals a close link between the ascendancy of neoliberalism, as ideological project and governmental practice mandating submission to the "free market" and the celebration of "individual responsibility" in all realms,* on the one hand, and the deployment of punitive and proactive law-enforcement policies targeting street delinquency and the categories trapped in the margins and cracks of the new economic and moral order coming into being under the conjoint empire of financialized capital and flexible wage labor, on the other hand.

Beyond their national inflections and institutional variations, these policies sport six common features. First, they purport to put an end to the "era of leniency" and to attack head-on the problem of crime, as well as urban disorders and the public nuisances that border the confines of penal law, baptized "incivilities," while openly disregarding their causes. To do so, they claim to rely on the recovered or renewed capacity of the state to bend so-called problem populations and territories to the common norm. Whence, second, a proliferation of laws and an insatiable craving for bureaucratic innovations and technological gadgets: crime-watch groups and "guarantors of place"; partnerships between the police and other public services (schools, hospitals, social workers, the national tax office, etc.); video surveillance cameras and computerized mapping of offenses; compulsory drug testing, "Tazers" and "flash-ball" guns; fast-track judicial processing and the extension of the prerogatives of probation and parole officers; criminal profiling, satellite-aided electronic monitoring, and generalized genetic finger-printing; enlargement and technological modernization of carceral facilities; multiplication of specialized detention centers (for foreigners waiting to be expelled, recidivist minors, women and the sick, convicts serving community sentences, etc.).

Next, the need for these punitive policies is conveyed everywhere by an alarmist, even catastrophist discourse on "insecurity," animated with martial images and broadcast to saturation by the commercial media, the major political parties, and professionals in the enforcement of order-police officials, magistrates, legal scholars, experts and merchants in "urban safety" counseling and services-who vie to propose remedies as drastic as they are simplistic. Woven of amalgamation, approximation, and exaggeration, this discourse is amplified and ratified by the prefabricated productions of a certain magazine sociology that shamelessly lumps together schoolyard brawls, stairwell graffiti, and riots in derelict housing projects, in accordance with the demands of the new political common sense.

Fourthly, out of a proclaimed concern for efficiency in the "war on crime" as much as for proof of solicitude toward this new figure of the deserving citizen that is the crime victim, this discourse overtly revalorizes repression and stigmatizes youths from declining working-class neighborhoods, the jobless, homeless, beggars, drug addicts and street prostitutes, and immigrants from the former colonies of the West and from the ruins of the Soviet empire, designated as the natural vectors of a pandemic of minor offenses that poison daily life and the progenitors of "urban violence" bordering on collective chaos. Following which, on the carceral front, the therapeutic philosophy of "rehabilitation" has been more or less supplanted by a managerialist approach centered on the cost-driven administration of carceral stocks and flows, paving the way for the privatization of correctional services. Lastly, the implementation of these new punitive policies has invariably resulted in an extension and tightening of the police dragnet, a hardening and speeding-up of judicial procedures, and, at the end of the penal chain, an incongruous increase in the population under lock, even though their impact on the incidence of offenses has never been established other than by pure proclamation, and without anyone raising the question of their financial burden, social costs, and civic implications.

These punitive policies are the object of an unprecedented political consensus and enjoy broad public support cutting across class lines, boosted by the tenacious blurring of crime, poverty, and immigration in the media as well as by the constant confusion between insecurity and the "feeling of insecurity." This confusion is tailor-made to channel toward the (dark-skinned) figure of the street delinquent the diffuse anxiety caused by a string of interrelated social changes: the dislocations of wage work, the crisis of the patriarchal family and the erosion of traditional relations of authority among sex and age categories, the decomposition of established working-class territories and the intensification of school competition as requirement for access to employment. And how would the rolling out of the penal arm of the state not be popular when the parties of the governmental Left in all of the postindustrial countries have converted to a narrowly behaviorist and moralistic Rightist vision that counterposes "individual responsibility" and "sociological excuses" in the name of the (electoral) "reality principle"? It follows that penal severity is now presented virtually everywhere and by everyone as a healthy necessity, a vital reflex of self-defense by a social body threatened by the gangrene of criminality, no matter how petty. Caught in the vise of the biased alternative between catastrophic and angelic visions, anyone who dares to question the self-evident commonplaces of the pensée unique (one-way thinking) about "insecurity" that now rules uncontested is irrevocably (dis)qualified as a vain dreamer or an ideologue guilty of ignoring the harsh realities of contemporary urban life.

The Generalization of Social Insecurity and Its Effects

But reality, properly speaking, is not what we are made to think it is. The sudden proclamation of a "state of emergency" on the police and penal front in the United States starting in the mid-1960s, and then in Western Europe according to the same schemas a quarter-century later, does not correspond to a rupture in the evolution of crime and delinquency, which we shall see did not abruptly change in scale and physiognomy at the start of the two periods in question on either side of the Atlantic. Neither does it translate a forward leap in the efficiency of the repressive apparatus that would justify its reinforcement, as the zealots of "zero tolerance" now spread around the world would have us believe. And it is not the spawn of advances in criminological science authorizing a refining of deterrence and judicial pressure, as claimed by the myth of the "broken window." It is not criminality that has changed here so much as the gaze that society trains on certain street illegalities, that is, in the final analysis, on the dispossessed and dishonored populations (by status or origin) that are their presumed perpetrators, on the place they occupy in the City, and on the uses to which these populations can be subjected in the political and journalistic fields.

These castaway categories-unemployed youth left adrift, the beggars and the homeless, aimless nomads and drug addicts, postcolonial immigrants without documents or support-have become salient in public space, their presence undesirable and their doings intolerable, because they are the living and threatening incarnation of the generalized social insecurity produced by the erosion of stable and homogenous wage work (promoted to the rank of paradigm of employment during the decades of Fordist expansion in 1945-75) and by the decomposition of the solidarities of class and culture it underpinned within a clearly circumscribed national framework. Just as national boundaries have been blurred by the hypermobility of capital, the settlement of migration flows, and European integration, the normalization of desocialized labor feeds a powerful current of anxiety in all the societies of the continent. This current mixes the fear of the future, the dread of social decline and degradation, and the anguish of not being able to transmit one's status to one's offspring in a competition for credentials and positions that is ever more intense and uncertain. It is this diffuse and multifaceted social and mental insecurity, which (objectively) strikes working-class families shorn of the cultural capital required to accede to the protected sectors of the labor market and (subjectively) haunts large sectors of the middle class, that the new martial discourse of politicians and the media on delinquency has captured, fixating it onto the sole issue of physical or criminal insecurity.

Indeed, the generalized hardening of police, judicial, and correctional policies that can be observed in most of the countries of the First World over the past two decades partakes of a triple transformation of the state, which it helps simultaneously to accelerate and obfuscate, wedding the amputation of its economic arm, the retraction of its social bosom, and the massive expansion of its penal fist. This transformation is the bureaucratic response of political elites to the mutations of wage work (the shift to services and polarization of occupations, flexibilization and intensification of work, individualization of employment contracts, discontinuity and dispersion of occupational paths) and their ravaging effects on the lower tiers of the social and spatial structure. These mutations themselves are the product of a swing in the balance of power between the classes and groups that struggle at every moment for control over the worlds of employment and their proceeds. And in this struggle, it is the transnational business class and the "modernizing" fractions of the cultural bourgeoisie and high state nobility, allied under the banner of neoliberalism, that have gained the upper hand and embarked on a sweeping campaign to reconstruct public power in line with their material and symbolic interests.

Three trends implicate and intricate with one another in a self-perpetuating causal chain that is redrawing the perimeter and redefining the modalities of government action: (1) the commodification of public goods and the rise of underpaid, precarious work against the backdrop of working poverty in the United States and enduring mass joblessness in the European Union; (2) the unraveling of social protection schemes, leading to the replacement of the collective right to recourse against unemployment and destitution by the individual obligation to take up gainful activity ("workfare" in the United States and the United Kingdom, ALE jobs in Belgium, PARE and RMA in France, the Hartz reform in Germany, etc.), in order to impose desocialized wage labor as the normal horizon of work for the new proletariat of the urban service sectors; and (3) the reinforcement and extension of the punitive apparatus, recentered onto the dispossessed districts of the inner city and the urban periphery which concentrate the disorders and despair spawned by the twofold movement of retrenchment of the state from the economic and social front.

The Keynesian state, coupled with Fordist wage work operating as a spring of solidarity, whose mission was to counter the recessive cycles of the market economy, protect the most vulnerable populations, and reduce the most glaring inequalities, has been succeeded by a state that one might dub neo-Darwinist, in that it erects competition and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility-whose counterpart is collective and thus political irresponsibility. The Leviathan then withdraws into its regalian functions of law enforcement, themselves hypertrophied and deliberately abstracted from their social environment, and its symbolic mission of reasserting common values through the public anathematization of deviant categories-chief among them the unemployed "street thug" and the "pedophile," viewed as the walking incarnations of the abject failure to live up to the abstemious ethic of wage work and sexual self-control. Unlike its belle époque predecessor, this new-style Darwinism, which praises the "winners" for their vigor and intelligence and vituperates the "losers" in the "struggle for [economic] life" by pointing to their character flaws and behavioral deficiencies, does not find its model in nature. It is the market that supplies it with its master-metaphor and the mechanism of selection supposed to ensure the "survival of the fittest." But only after this market itself has been naturalized, that is to say, depicted under radically dehistoricized trappings which, paradoxically, turn it into a concrete historical realization of the pure and perfect abstractions of the orthodox economic science promoted to the rank of official theodicy of the social order in statu nascendi.

Thus the "invisible hand" of the unskilled labor market, strengthened by the shift from welfare to workfare, finds its ideological extension and institutional complement in the "iron fist" of the penal state, which grows and redeploys in order to stem the disorders generated by the diffusion of social insecurity and by the correlative destabilization of the status hierarchies that formed the traditional framework of the national society (such as the division between whites and blacks in the United States and between nationals and colonial immigrants in Western Europe). The regulation of the working classes through what Pierre Bourdieu calls "the Left hand" of the state, that which protects and expands life chances, represented by labor law, education, health, social assistance, and public housing, is supplanted (in the United States) or supplemented (in the European Union) by regulation through its "Right hand," that of the police, justice, and correctional administrations, increasingly active and intrusive in the subaltern zones of social and urban space. And, logically, the prison returns to the forefront of the societal stage, when only thirty years ago the most eminent specialists of the penal question were unanimous in predicting its waning, if not its disappearance.

The renewed utility of the penal apparatus in the post-Keynesian era of insecure employment is threefold: (1) it works to bend the fractions of the working class recalcitrant to the discipline of the new fragmented service wage-labor by increasing the cost of strategies of exit into the informal economy of the street; (2) it neutralizes and warehouses its most disruptive elements, or those rendered wholly superfluous by the recomposition of the demand for labor; and (3) it reaffirms the authority of the state in daily life within the restricted domain henceforth assigned to it. The canonization of the "right to security," correlative to the dereliction of the "right to employment" in its old form (that is, full-time and with full benefits, for an indefinite period, and for a living wage enabling one to reproduce oneself socially and to project oneself into the future), and the increased interest in, and resources granted to, the enforcement of order come at just the right time to shore up the deficit of legitimacy suffered by political decision-makers, owing to the very fact that they have abjured the established missions of the state on the social and economic front.


Excerpted from Punishing the Poor by Loïc Wacquant Copyright © 2009 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Tables and Figures ix

Prologue: America as Living Laboratory of the Neoliberal Future xi

1 Social Insecurity and the Punitive Upsurge 1

Part I Poverty of the Social State

2 The Criminalization of Poverty in the Post-Civil Rights Era 41

3 Welfare "Reform" as Poor Discipline and Statecraft 76

Part II Grandeur of the Penal State

4 The Great Confinement of the Fin de Siecle 113

5 The Coming of Carceral "Big Government" 151

Part III Privileged Targets

6 The Prison as Surrogate Ghetto: Encaging Black Subproletarians 195

7 Moralism and Punitive Panopticism: Hunting Down Sex Offenders 209

Part IV European Declinations

8 The Scholarly Myths of the New Law-and-Order Reason 243

9 Carceral Aberration Comes to France 270

Theoretical Coda: A Sketch of the Neoliberal State 287

Acknowledgments 315

Notes 319

Index 367

What People are Saying About This

Bernard Harcourt

"This masterful treatment of contemporary punishment policies relocates the entire field within the political sweep of the twentieth century ascendance of economic neoliberalism and evisceration of the welfare state. Wacquant skillfully weds materialist and symbolic approaches in the best tradition of Marx and radical criminology, on the one hand, and Durkheim and Bourdieu, on the other. This provocative book is the counter-manifesto to neoliberal penality, a must-read for all students of criminal justice and citizenship."--(Bernard Harcourt, author of Against Prediction: Punishing and Policing in the Actuarial Age)

Frances Fox Piven

"This powerful book shows that America's harsh penal policies are of a piece with our harsh social policies, and that both can be understood as a symbolic and material apparatus to control the marginal populations created by neoliberal globalization. A tour de force!"--(Frances Fox Piven, author of Regulating the Poor)

Jamie Peck

"Punishing the Poor is an incisive and unflinching indictment of neoliberal state restructuring and poverty (mis)management. It brilliantly exposes structural and symbolic consonances between 'workfare' and 'prisonfare,' and between emergent, transnational policy orthodoxies in social and penal policy. Loïc Wacquant delivers a trenchant, radical, and entirely compelling analysis."--(Jamie Peck, author of Workfare States)

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