Volume 11, Issue 1, 2008
Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge
The sudden growth and glorification of the penal state in the United States after the mid-1970s (and in Western Europe two decades later) is not a response to the evolution of crime, but a reaction to—and a diversion from—the social insecurity produced by the fragmentation of wage labor and the destabilization of ethnoracial hierarchies following the discarding of the Fordist-Keynesian compact. It partakes of a new government of poverty wedding restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare,” which ensnares the precarious fractions of the postindustrial proletariat in a carceral-assistential net designed to steer them towards deregulated employment or to contain them in their dispossessed neighborhoods and in the booming prisons that have become their satellites. This policy of penalization of urban marginality guided by moral behaviorism partakes of a broader reengineering and remasculinizing of the state that has rendered obsolete the traditional scholarly and policy division between welfare and crime. It must be grasped, not under the narrow rubric of repression, but under the generative category of production, as it has spawned new state agencies, social types, knowledges and experts. It makes the study of incarceration an essential chapter in the sociology of the state and social stratification in the era of triumphant neoliberalism.