Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is a book that had been recommended to me by many people. I have not read anything else by Wacquant, nor have I read much in the emerging studies of the prison or “prison-industrial complex” (a term that Wacquant rejects, by the way). Like many trained in philosophy, my understanding of the politics of the prison begins and ends with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I have, however, read and written some on neoliberalism, so it is primarily from that perspective that I approach the book.
First of all, it is worth saying that the book presents an exhaustive and depressing picture of the United States as a country that has increased the penal population drastically in the last thirty years (from 1.84 million in 1980 to 6.47); an increase that has nothing to do with any corresponding rise in crime. It is fueled by the “war on drugs” and a get tough on crime attitude that enforces mandatory sentencing and harsh penalties. This increase is coupled with a massive gutting of social spending and a transformation of welfare to workfare. The end result, and this is Wacquant’s central argument, is that there has been a fundamental shift in the way in which America deals with its subproletariat, the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, burdened by racial discrimination and longstanding marginalization. We lock them up: prison is our social program.
However, I am not really prepared or able to assess the book at the level of statistical and historical analysis. I am more interested in viewing it at the level of political philosophy, as a theory of the state. Wacquant makes it clear that he intends to view the rise of penal technologies economically, rather than as part of some new regime of power, but at the same time, they cannot be viewed simply economically. This is why Wacquant rejects the term “prison-industrial complex,” which too easily reduces the rise of the prison to the economic interest of a dominant industry. The materialist explanation must be understood along with the symbolic dimension, or, in Wacquant’s terms, Marx must be read with Durkheim.
“Weaving together concerns for control and communication, the management of dispossessed categories and the affirmation of salient social boundaries, has enabled us to go beyond an analysis couched in the language of prohibition to trace how the expansion and redeployment of the prison and its institutional tentacles…has reshaped the socio-symbolic landscape and remade the state itself. Tracking down the conjoint material and symbolic effects of punishment reveals that the penal state has become a potent cultural engine in its own right, which spawns categories, classifications, and images of wide import and use in broad sectors of government action and civic life.”
As Wacquant argues, despite its overarching rationale, the transformation from welfare to penalization is not necessarily efficient. Welfare spending, what Wacquant refers to the charitable state, was always a small part of federal spending, dwarfed by aid to middle and upper class families in the form of mortgage tax credits. Everyone knows the often-cited statistic regarding the cost of incarceration versus the cost of education. Wacquant’s point is that such purely economic analyses miss what he refers to the symbolic dimension. The destruction of the remnants of a social safety net and its replacement with a punitive dragnet are both justified by a moral idea of individual responsibility, in which everyone must be held individually accountable. This moral individualism is reinforced by a racism that is wise enough to remain more or less implied: all of the deviant subjects that inform the contemporary discourse of responsibility, from welfare queens to delinquents, are black. As Wacquant writes, detailing the racist dimension of “welfare reform,” “As the poor grew darker in the collective conscience, they were also cast in an increasingly unsympathetic and lurid light, as irresponsible, profligate and dissolute.”
This is not to say that this moral individualism does not have an economic function. Wacquant’s central point with respect to neoliberalism is that the destruction of social services and increasing powers of surveillance have as their ultimate function the regulation of population exposed to the precariousness of labor conditions. It is a matter of a new regime of discipline; a new regime of discipline to produce a new laboring subject, one that must accept instability and poverty as facts of life. For Wacquant the neoliberal state is a police state through and through. (He thus rejects Harvey’s analysis which leaves the security/penal dimension to the side, or others who see in the repressive arm of the state some sort of hybrid of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.) The only legitimate interventions into social life are those attached to the ideas of security and discipline, and these interventions are quite extensive, but any other intervention, any attempt to ameliorate the precariousness of life under market conditions, is immediately suspect.
Wacquant’s thesis of the symbolic dimension of prison reverses Foucault’s claim that we have done away with the spectacle of the scaffold. We may have done away with public executions and the chain gang, but that does not mean that the prison has retreated from public view. The prison has reemerged as part of a “law-and-order-pornography” that appears in campaign slogans and in a criminal culture made up of such shows as Cops and America’s Most Wanted. Wacquant says more about the former than the latter, which is unfortunate since the cultural dimension would seem to be integral to understanding the contemporary regime of penal power.
What interests me the most, at least theoretically, about Wacquant’s book is his assertion that prison and “workfare” most be viewed twice: materially at the level of economic structures and symbolically at the level of values, meanings, and images. These two dimensions follow each other, as Spinoza argued that the order and connection of ideas follows the order and connection of things, but they do no always coincide. As Wacquant argues voters in the U.S. do not want to pay for the penal state that they support. Moreover, one could say that the entire effort to “change welfare as we know it” was based on an entirely fictitious understanding of the overall cost of the government’s rather minimal expenditure on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. To this day one still sees the bumper sticker which reads, “Keep Working: Millions on Welfare Depend On You.” The symbolic dimension of welfare far exceeds the economic rationale. What matters most is not the economic justification, the reduction in state spending, but the symbolic dimension of the economy itself, the values of work and discipline. The same could be said for demand to be tough on crime, which continues to be a necessary refrain of elected officials despite decades of decline in crime. The destruction of the welfare safety net and the tightening of the security net are political strategies that exceed any strictly economic utility. They intersect with the economy obliquely only through their common denominator, that of the disciplined subject of labor.
Two (hurried) conclusions follow from this:
First, I think that much could be done with Wacquant’s general point that institutions should be viewed in terms of both the symbolic and material dimensions. One could apply this analysis to the “market” itself, which functions as a powerful symbol and image more than a reality. The image of the market has gone beyond “freedom, equality, and Bentham” to become the site of a massive libidinal investment, it is a free place where desires are realized. Such an image is at odds with its mundane functioning as the distributor of all kinds of materially necessary goods, not to mention the labor market, which produces insecurity and fear rather than desire.
Which brings me to my second point, one could conclude that the state is not only thoroughly repressive, but that “we” who support it are thoroughly fascist in our desires. We cry again and again for more cops and less bread. However, following the maxim that there is a utopian dimension in even the most repressive ideology, it is possible to perhaps see a glimmer of liberation in this desire for repression. It is possible that our obsession with “welfare queens” and prisoners watching cable television might just be our own muted revolt against the current regime of work. Not to mention the fact that this obsession with people who do not work, who live off of the work of others, is a Marxist critique inverted. I have often thought about making my own version of the bumper sticker mentioned above. It would read, “Keep Working: The Capitalist Class Depends On You.”