Thursday 25th January
Loïc Wacquant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Researcher at the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, Paris. His interests include urban marginality, the penal state, and ethno-racial domination. Recent books include Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (2004), and Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of the Penal State (forthcoming, 2007). He co-founded and edits the interdisciplinary journal Ethnography.
Professor Wacquant gave a highly energetic and lucid lecture that centred on the use of the penal system by the predominantly Neo-Liberal capitalist west and the concurrent withdrawal of state sponsored welfare for the most marginalised members of society.
Claims by modern states that they are increasingly liberal are actually limited to their reduced intervention in the market and in welfare. As the economy of much of the west has become deregulated there has been a movement away from the rights of the individual to welfare; replacing this is the obligation of the individual to ‘workfare’ – to provide for themselves, even in the face of poor rates of pay and increased taxation.
The disestablishment of the welfare safety net has resulted in the state use of prison as a catch-all for the marginalised: the homeless, unemployed, mentally ill and other vulnerable underclasses such as the economic and social migrants from former colonies. The shrinking of welfare provision has resulted in desperation driving the marginalised to illegality, often on a petty level, which is punished increasingly harshly. The US prison population has risen at an alarming rate since the mid 1970s, yet crimes committed have actually fallen. In the UK incarceration rates have doubled in the same period. Professor Wacquant offered three examples of the way in which prison now performs the function previously filled by social care.
A 63 year old man in the US chose to rob a bank as a way of obtaining a three year jail sentence to remove him from a society where he was effectively unemployable. On his release he would be eligible for social security. Chicago’s prison population shows a regular 10% rise at the onset of winter as homeless people commit petty crimes to ensure they are fed and housed during harsh weather. A French prisoner killed and cannibalised a cellmate, despite warnings from psychiatric staff that he was a risk to the safety of others and should not be in a shared cell. Frightening and depressing statistics.
Most sinister is Professor Wacquant’s reading of government motivation for this use of the penal system as a catch-all solution. In an increasingly deregulated society, where personal responsibility replaces state sponsored care and nationalised industry is privatised, there is less obvious governmental intervention. Why vote for them then? Especially the predominantly ’left’ leaning liberal governments of Europe? What grabs the headlines is a claim to be ‘tough on crime’, even if the causes of crime – poor education, poor housing, unemployment – are a direct result of the state’s dismantling of social care. The proliferation of alarmist discourse by ‘security experts’ and the rise of ‘victims of crime’ as a highly vocal quasi-ethnic pressure group all serve to increasingly marginalise, and so criminalise, the poor, homeless, mentally ill and unemployed. The resultant tide swell carries the required spending on a bolstered penal system through at the expense of spending in lower visibility social areas. Consequently there is only prison to serve the three classes: the poor are swept up and ‘warehoused’ out of sight and mind; the workers/middle classes can be controlled, punished or re-educated to accept their position; those in a position of power are able to reassert the power of the state.
In conclusion Professor Wacquant urged us to fight this process on three fronts:
· Linguistics – to recognise the inherent falsehood of such rhetoric as ‘zero tolerance’ when it means criminalising people for minor transgressions
· Policies – to actively seek the investment in the welfare structure that has been neglected at the expense of diverting the funds to the penal system that is only necessary because of the neglect of the welfare system
· Expansion – of social and economic rights for all members of society
A splendid, highly informative, but somewhat disquieting lecture.