Punishing the Poor: The Neo-liberal Government of Social Inequality.

Author:Garside, Richard
Position:Book review

Loic Wacquant


Reviewed by Richard Garside

Between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s the number of prisoners in England and Wales doubled, from 20,000 to 40,000 inmates. A further 20,000 inmates had been added to the prison population by the mid 1990s, the eve of New Labour's ascent to power. The rising trend continued under the three Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, reaching some 85,000 by the 2010 general election.

Criminologists puzzle over these trends. For one thing the official crime rate fell from the mid 1990s, when the prison population was growing most rapidly. Should not the numbers in prison have fallen alongside falls in the crime rate? For another thing, it has been a puzzle to some that a supposedly 'progressive' Labour government has overseen rapid growth in prison numbers. Doubly puzzling given that the last period of sustained falls in the prison population--the early 1990s--was during a period of Conservative government.

The most significant attempt to make sense of these developments in the past decade has been The Culture of Control, the highly influential book by the British criminologist David Garland (Oxford University Press, 2001). Drawing on that most quintessential of New Labour thinkers, Anthony Giddens, Garland argued that rising imprisonment and a more generalised 'culture of control' was a governmental response to the social insecurities and cultural ambiguities of 'late modernity'. Buffeted and weakened by globalised capital, the US and UK governments (and by implication a number of others) resorted, in Garland's view, to law and order politics to manage growing social problems and restore their battered reputations.

The current financial crisis has rather put paid to the 'weak state' thesis underpinning Garland's account. Some might argue that they were rather over a barrel, but it was only governments that were in a position to restore the fortunes of capital, as the rescue of corporate behemoths like AIG in the US and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK made clear. There are now active discussions among the leading capitalist countries over changes to the regulatory framework for finance capital. Capitalism, it seems, is the product of political and historical forces, not the natural working out of an innate human tendency to truck and barter.

The crisis has also exposed the weaknesses in the socio-cultural flim-flammery of 'late modernity' theorising. It is not that...

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