One measure of the effectiveness of critical analysis is its ability to shine powerful new light on the present by connecting it to our past in a way that draws out those patterns of thought and practice that lie deeply embedded in the fabric of our history. The present never simply mirrors our past, of course, but attention to the practices and voices of power and resistance resonating from history deepens our understanding of the moment in which we live and can reveal important, perhaps at times overlooked, violent continuities with that history. This is perhaps a banal observation to readers of this journal, yet it is not uncommon to hear from some quarters analysis of certain police practices detached from a deeper historical knowledge of policing and criminal justice interventions (read a newspaper article on indigenous people in Canada's prison system, for instance) or from others that our neoliberal conjuncture has witnessed a retreat of the state (as if capital has ever been able to reproduce itself without aid of aggressive state power or that cuts to social programmes equals a retreat).
It is with this context in mind that we should welcome the growth of a critical literature whose gaze targets the way in which ever expanding budgets for domestic security apparatuses, racist police violence, assaults on the visibly poor in public space and mass incarceration mark the neoliberal moment (inter alia Alexander 2010; Camp 2016; Camp & Heatherton 2016; Gilmore 2007; Gottschalk 2015). State power and law are being mobilized in extremely aggressive ways, its normalized character in no way diluting the violence experienced by its targets. As this agenda persists, if not expands, as we continue along our dystopic neoliberal trajectory, Adrienne Roberts' Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare should not get lost in the growing chorus of dissident voices.
Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare (Roberts 2017) is indeed a powerful study that brings a--largely hitherto absent--feminist-oriented historical materialist lens to bear on the subject. Law, Roberts insists, has a constitutive role in capitalist social relations, in producing disciplined working classes, compliant pools of the unemployed, deeply gendered relations of social reproduction, racialized subjectivities and so on. While the observation that law is internal to capitalist social relations--is 'part of the ontology of capitalism' (p. 4)--offers a much richer understanding of the relation between law in the making and remaking of capitalist societies than those that portray law as merely responsive to or independent of social relations, it is not in itself entirely unique. The real force of Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare is the way in which it situates that constitutive role within a broad historical sweep that, on one hand, connects the origins of capitalism in the United Kingdom and North America to the neoliberal period, while, on the other, stressing that capitalist orders, and law internal to them, have always been refracted not only through class relations but racialized and gendered ones as well.
There are many important arguments made in Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare that powerfully illuminate law's role in constituting racialized and gendered capitalist orders both past and present, which I cannot do proper justice to here. I will note a few broader arguments I think worth highlighting. One such observation is that while the American carceral state and political violence against African Americans has understandably received a great deal of attention, these kinds of developments--state violence in the form of aggressive policing, incarceration as a political and economic tool, and more generally the intensification of punitive laws--are in fact not...