Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare: Feminist Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Law, London: Routledge, 2017; 204 pp.: ISBN 1138678422, 115 [pounds sterling] (hbk)
Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare is a book in transition. It has outgrown but not discarded a framework of Coxian 'critical' IPE with a twist (power, production and social reproduction), law as an aspect of the social ontology of capitalism, and patterns of incarceration in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. Within it, a powerful and potentially path-breaking gendered historical materialist perspective is struggling to be born. But it is not taken far enough, and one of its strengths--a focus on the connection between the law and primitive accumulation--becomes a weakness in relation to the present era of global competitiveness arising from the completion of the world market. As recent revolutions in production and concomitant global social and institutional change are underexplored, it is weak on the 'post-male-breadwinner' gender order, and it is this that I address.
First, though, I touch on the prominence accorded to rates of incarceration in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Although these are described 'not as a reaction to neoliberalism but rather as constitutive of this particular configuration of capitalist social relations' (p. 4), they are a small, heavily overdetermined and relatively minor aspect of this, and the claim that these countries have 'some of the highest rates of imprisonment and oppressive policing practices' (p. 3) is contrived. The United States ranks first, in a league of its own, among leading states; England and Wales rank 103rd, with Scotland and Northern Ireland lower, and Canada 140th (World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck, at prisonstudies.org, accessed 1 March 2017). What is more, the rising trend dates from the 1970s in the United States, but the early 1940s in the United Kingdom (Allen & Dempsey 2016: 4), suggesting different logics at play. Recent studies make it clear that the US 'carceral state' is highly specific in its structure (federal, state and local) and social and racial dynamics (Camp 2016; Gottschalk 2015). And Roberts herself shows that current female prison populations are also highly specific (and differently racialized) in the United States and Canada, making any direct association with neoliberalism problematic. I focus away from this material, and also set aside the Coxian 'neo-Gramscian' ideas-institutions-material capabilities approach, and concentrate on the gendered historical materialist perspective, which is the books signal contribution.
Roberts sees the 'production of gender difference' as 'foundational to the emergence of capitalism and its reproduction over time', and argues that conceptions of capitalism must therefore be widened 'to include the social relations of gender and the feminized relations of social reproduction, which are integral to capitalist reproduction yet rendered invisible in most literature in the social sciences' (pp. 4-5). She approaches this by associating successive phases of capitalist development with related (and to an extent mutually constitutive) gender orders. A 3-century long transitional phase in which women and households retain some (diminishing) role in production gives way to a male-breadwinner model which emerges as a predominant tendency and an idealized norm during the 19th century with industrial capitalism; this in turn begins to erode in the mid-to-late 20th century, giving way to a 'dual-earner' model in which women still bear primary responsibility for domestic and 'reproductive' labour. These gender orders are integral parts of successive institutional and ideological forms of the 'gendered social ontology' of capitalism, in which liberal political economy gives way to penal-welfare paternalism (with the male-breadwinner model emergent in the first, and solidified in the second), and then to neoliberalism in the current period. Although the liberal and neoliberal periods are characterized by reliance on markets, the state actively shapes social...