Punishing the Poor

The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

Punishing the Poor

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 408 Illustrations: 21 illustrations Published: May 2009

Author: Loïc Wacquant

Politics > Political Science, Sociology > Social Theory, Urban Studies

The punitive turn of penal policy in the United States after the acme of the Civil Rights movement responds not to rising criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity spawned by the fragmentation of wage labor and the shakeup of the ethnoracial hierarchy. It partakes of a broader reconstruction of the state wedding restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” under a philosophy of moral behaviorism. This paternalist program of penalization of poverty aims to curb the urban disorders wrought by economic deregulation and to impose precarious employment on the postindustrial proletariat. It also erects a garish theater of civic morality on whose stage political elites can orchestrate the public vituperation of deviant figures—the teenage “welfare mother,” the ghetto “street thug,” and the roaming “sex predator”—and close the legitimacy deficit they suffer when they discard the established government mission of social and economic protection. By bringing developments in welfare and criminal justice into a single analytic framework attentive to both the instrumental and communicative moments of public policy, Punishing the Poor shows that the prison is not a mere technical implement for law enforcement but a core political institution. And it reveals that the capitalist revolution from above called neoliberalism entails not the advent of “small government” but the building of an overgrown and intrusive penal state deeply injurious to the ideals of democratic citizenship.

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Punishing the Poor makes a novel and important contribution to welfare state scholarship, along with a host of disciplines and professions concerned with the plight of the urban poor. It should be read carefully and intentionally in graduate courses, in advanced undergraduate seminars, and among scholarly and professional circles alike.” — Rueben Miller, Journal of Poverty

Punishing the Poor offers a compelling analysis both of the state of law and order and of the law and order state in a hard land at the end of the twentieth century.” — Joe Sims, British Journal of Criminology

“A powerful polemic, which forces us to confront what it rapidly becoming a major contemporary crisis. Whether one accepts his analysis of the origins and functions of hyperincarceration or not, of its reality and its pernicious effects there can be little doubt.” — Andrew Scull, European Journal of Sociology

“[A]n engaging and essential book for readers interested in the intertwined evolution of ‘welfare’ and ‘prison’ during the period of neoliberalism.” — Paul Michael Garrett, Critical Social Policy

“[A]n important and timely contribution in bringing attention to prisons as a core political institution of neoliberal states. . . . Punishing the Poor is an important addition and counter-balance to existing literature addressing neoliberal penal and social policy. . . . Wacquant’s framework in Punishing the Poor can provide important insights for academic —and activist — interventions.” — Tia Dafnos, Canadian Journal of Sociology

“An intellectual tour de force of how the American state’s interaction with citizens of colour is non-random and, for many African Americans, harmful.” — Desmond King, British Journal of Criminology

“The book is often a good read. Wacquant is eclectic and smart. His writing is always lively. His argument is a very interesting one. . . . [Waquant] is brilliant and fascinating. His leaps of metaphor and his daring allusions are a continuous and often delightful spectacle. His passion ad commitment are laudable.” — Andrew Abbott, American Journal of Sociology

“[T]he story Wacquant tells is deeply disturbing. . . . Punishing the Poor retains a certain power, reminding us of the hypermodern yet archaic world of prisons still in our midst.” — Kim Phillips-Fein, Bookforum

“[T]his book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book.” — The Global Sociology Blog

“[Wacquant’s] book is an indispensable source for students of criminology, inequality, political sociology, ideology, and current affairs. It is a powerful light that illuminates the profound contradictions between the ideals that inform American society and the practices that render impossible the full effectivity of those ideas.”
— Martha E. Gimenez, Science & Society

“Amid a burgeoning field of both scholarly analysis and policy prescription, few writers can match the eloquence and passion with which Loïc Wacquant has identified, characterized and criticized the rise and rise of punishment. Combining a capacious and imaginative intellectual range with an unusual rhetorical gift, he has made a tremendous contribution to our awareness of these developments and of their implications, particularly for the poor and for other socially marginal groups. . . . [Punishing the Poor is] one of the most eloquent, and disturbing, assessments of the phenomenon of penal excess in the USA, and one which his communicative skills have made accessible to a wide audience. This in itself counts as a substantial contribution to an intellectually intriguing, politically pressing, and ethically troubling field.” — Nicola Lacey, British Journal of Sociology

“For punishment and society scholars who grapple with inconsistencies such as these, Prisons of Poverty and Punishing the Poor mark a potential paradigm shift in the scope of our analyses. They are the first to link welfare and penal policy together in a new conceptual framework since Garland (1985) coined ‘penal-welfarism.’” — Heather Schoenfeld, Punishment and Society

“I wish I could write like Loïc Wacquant. Not only in terms of the volume of published material, but also in terms of the quality of that rich output: how many articles and books in a relatively short period of time and on a variety of topics? Wacquant has made a massive contribution to social science, and has extremely rare qualities indeed. Passion and the power of persuasion drive his text repeatedly – sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of layered arguments on the materialist anatomies of post-Fordist society, its urban forms, and contradictions.” — Martin Jones, Criminology and Criminal Justice

“It is refreshing to read such scholarly works on the sociology of punishment which make explicit reference to women (and indeed, there are important references to masculinity in Wacquant’s work, too). . . . Wacquant has hugely enriched and extended existing analyses of regulatory control. . . .” — Loraine Gelsthorpe, Criminology and Criminal Justice

“Loïc Wacquant is probably the most theoretically provocative commentator writing on urban marginality today. Punishing the Poor further solidifies that reputation. . . . Punishing the Poor is an important book. It should be read—and debated.”
— Sanford F. Schram, Social Service Review

“Loïc Wacquant’s bold attempt to offer a new description of the neoliberal state is full of insights. . . . Wacquant has a provocative and interesting argument. He has spotted some things that are very important and that social scientists should take more seriously. His argument has made me consider whether there might be changes associated with the neoliberal state that bear perversely not just on the lower class, but also on the middle class.” — John L. Campbell, Theoretical Criminology

“Loïc Wacquant’s book – part of a trilogy exploring changing social and political formations in the United States and beyond – presents a powerful and cogent analysis of how social insecurity is produced and governed. Its core argument addresses the changing state formations through which the poor are being managed, highlighting the double movement towards ‘prisonfare’ and ‘workfare.’ He traces the rise of the penal state in the United States, but argues that this needs to be seen as interwoven with the transformation of welfare into workfare. For me, this is a powerful and important claim, not least because penality and welfare are typically studied by different groups of people. Grasping how the state’s different apparatuses are being reformed typically falls outside conventional disciplinary perspectives. I am grateful for Wacquant’s intellectual insistence on, and rich empirical demonstration of, the importance of this way of thinking.” — John Clarke, Social Forces

“The core argument of Punishing the Poor is compellingly documented and compellingly right: the punishment explosion in the USA over the last 35 years is intimately linked with the neo-liberal, market-oriented philosophy of government that came to the fore during the same period.” — James Q. Whitman, Critical Sociology

“This is fertile and challenging stuff for those wedded to the notion that prisons are there to contain 'bad people' and the criminal justice process there to make society safer and reduce crime. Wacquant's reminder that criminal justice and social security are interlocking means of regulating certain problems and populations, rather than distinct and separate policy realms, is also welcome. Punishing the Poor is worth a look for these reasons alone.” — Richard Garside, Renewal

“This powerful book is a valuable reference for further discussion and debate about how to understand the transition of welfare states as well as the meaning of prisonfare.” — Chang-Keun Han, International Journal of Social Welfare

“Urgent and timely, absorbing and alarming, Punishing the Poor should warn us that Britain's increasing dependence on our penal state and the accelerating erosion of our social state are one and the same thing, and may prove a disaster.” — Louise Hardwick, Times Higher Education

“Wacquant weaves together the narratives of American peculiarity and the global trends of neo-liberalism, and the amount of empirical detail demands that his arguments be taken seriously. His claim that ‘poor relief ’ has taken on a new meaning, relief not to the poor, but from the poor, ‘disappearing’ them from shrinking welfare rolls to expanding carceral dungeons, sums up the thesis of this timely and compelling book.”
— Barbara Hudson, British Journal of Criminology

“Wacquant’s comprehensive analysis proves, once again, not only that punishment is about more than crime, but also that criminology is too important to be left to criminologists. . . . Any attempt to build a strategy towards a political consensus for reducing needless punishment would be immensely strengthened by a careful reading of Wacquant’s work.” — David Nelken, Criminology and Criminal Justice

“Wacquant’s sweeping analysis provides an insightful overview of national policy trends and the interests behind them. . . .” — Tracy Fisher and Ellen Reese, Critical Sociology

[A]n engaging, transformative and systematically credible theory of twenty-first century poverty. Wacquant is, of course, a masterful writing talent, capable of expressing the same line of reasoning in a dozen nuanced renderings, and making use of a dazzling lexicon that never loses its intensity. . . . Punishing the Poor makes a convincing case for the failure of the American penal system, which has seen staggering expansion despite a reduction in crime rates. This book will be of great interest to Canadian sociologists, criminologists and policy makers in light of the recent moves of the Harper government to reform the prison system in Canada along the lines of the American model. . . . Punishing the Poor would also be well received by scholars interested in poverty and inequality, welfare reform, prison reform, political sociology and contemporary theory.” — Deirdre Mary Smythe, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Overall this book makes a significant contribution to radical criminology and is well worth reading. . . . [T]he work is extensively researched and represents a surprisingly convincing materialist-symbolic synthesis. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a strong radical analysis of the functional relationship between the penal system and neoliberalism.”
— Clinton de Bruyn, Journal of Sociology

Wacquant has published an incisive and useful book that many political scientists will find of interest. His normative critique of ‘‘’New Paternalism’’—the purposefully intrusive approach to poverty policy—provides a nice counterweight to the work of Lawrence Mead. Also, since Wacquant sees the developments in the United States as a harbinger of events in Europe, this book can act as something of a cautionary tale about the costs of building more coercive and punitive systems of governance.” — Zachary Oberfield, Journal of Politics

Punishing the Poor is an incisive and unflinching indictment of neoliberal state restructuring and poverty (mis)management. It brilliantly exposes structural and symbolic consonances between ‘workfare’ and ‘prisonfare,’ and between emergent, transnational policy orthodoxies in social and penal policy. Loïc Wacquant delivers a trenchant, radical, and entirely compelling analysis.”—Jamie Peck, author of Workfare States — Jamie Peck, author of Workfare States

“This masterful treatment of contemporary punishment policies relocates the entire field within the political sweep of the twentieth-century ascendance of economic neoliberalism and the evisceration of the welfare state. Loïc Wacquant skillfully weds materialist and symbolic approaches in the best tradition of Marx and radical criminology, on the one hand, and Durkheim and Bourdieu, on the other. This provocative book is the counter-manifesto to neoliberal penality, a must-read for all students of criminal justice and citizenship.” — Bernard E. Harcourt, author of Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age

“This powerful book shows that America’s harsh penal policies are of a piece with our harsh social policies and that both can be understood as a symbolic and material apparatus to control the marginal populations created by neoliberal globalization. A tour de force!” — Frances Fox Piven, co-author of Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Loïc Wacquant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Researcher at the Centre de sociologie européenne, Paris. He is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and recipient of the 2008 Lewis Coser Award of the American Sociological Association. His recent books include Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, and Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics. He is a co-founder and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Ethnography.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Tables and Figures ix

Prologue: America as Living Laboratory for the Neoliberal Future xi

1. Social Insecurity and the Punitive Upsurge 1

Part I: Poverty of the Social State

2. The Criminalization of Poverty in the Post-Civil Rights Era 41

3. Welfare "Reform" as Poor Discipline and Statecraft 76

Part II: Grandeur of the Penal State

4. The Great Confinement of the Fin de Siècle 113

5. The Coming of Carceral "Big Government" 151

Part III.

6. The Prison as Surrogate Ghetto: Encaging the Black Subproletarians 195

7. Moralism and Punitive Panopticism: Hunting Down Sex Offenders 209

Part IV: European Declinations

8. The Scholarly Myths of the New Law-and-Order Reason 243

9. Carceral Aberration Comes to French 270

Theoretical Coda: A Sketch of the Neoliberal State 287

Acknowledgments 315

Endnotes 319

Index 367
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4422-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4404-9
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