Imprisoner’s Dilemma

Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity BY Loïc Wacquant. Duke University Press. Paperback, 400 pages. $24.

The cover of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

The world’s largest jail is the Twin Towers Correctional Facility of Los Angeles, which occupies two peach-colored structures in the center of the city. Within those walls are two gymnasiums, kitchens capable of serving seventeen thousand meals a day, medical and mental-health wards, and, of course, the inmates’ quarters—which are straight out of Michel Foucault’s darker imaginings, heptagons with a single security guard in the middle surveying ninety-six cells at once through glass doors and with video cameras. Five stories high, the jail connects its floors via an enclosed yard area with a basketball hoop; a small wire cage provides a recreational area for those prisoners who need to be kept apart from the rest. Telephone banks allow for what one nurse calls an “umbilical cord to the outside world.”

Once upon a time, jails might have been rotting, decrepit pits, but the Twin Towers are gleaming and new. As one inmate put it, they are the Hilton of correctional facilities. For UC Berkeley sociologist Loïc Wacquant, this only makes them all the more sinister and powerful. They are not a world apart—on the contrary, they represent an integral piece of American society, attracting major public investment even in an antigovernment age.

Wacquant’s new book, Punishing the Poor, is about prisons in America, but only on the surface. Its real concern is what Wacquant calls the “paradox of neoliberal penality”—the way in which the grandeur and power of the state as expressed in incarceration and punishment have grown over the past thirty years. The penal state, in Wacquant’s telling, has mushroomed up to take the place of the welfare regime, to control those populations at the margins of the market economy. In their classic book Regulating the Poor (1971), sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that welfare rolls fluctuate in response to social unrest, swelling when the poor become politically aware and more difficult to pacify. Wacquant takes their claim a step further, suggesting that in a neoliberal age, poor people are not bought off—they are locked up.

The first half of Punishing the Poor describes the fate of poor people in contemporary America, a marginal world of contingent labor. He observes that though far fewer are on the welfare rolls now than were before 1996’s federal welfare reform, the poverty rate has changed little over the same period. The second half of the book turns to the expansion of the prison system, and here the story Wacquant tells is deeply disturbing. The United States puts a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than does any other country in the world; it also incarcerates a larger absolute number—2.3 million in 2008. Most of these inmates languish in jail because of harsh sentencing laws and drug-related arrests. By 1997, county, state, and federal prisons had become the third-largest employer in the country.

The reach of the penal system extends beyond the walls of the prisons themselves—millions more people are subject to the surveillance of parole. They face exclusion from jobs, and police databases warehouse their fingerprints and images. And not even prisoners are able to evade the rhetoric of individual responsibility; in many states, they are compelled, via commissary-account deductions, to contribute financially to the prisons they occupy. What’s more, Wacquant notes, this incarceration boom has not made Americans feel safe or secure, their imaginations instead populated by archetypes of child molesters, welfare queens, and “superpredators.”

Although Punishing the Poor amasses a great deal of research, Wacquant is not writing primarily as a documentarian or an observer but as a theorist of the state under neoliberalism. He is hardly an elegant stylist, and Punishing the Poor spends a great deal of time fending off potential critics and proclaiming the originality of its own thesis, at times a bit too enthusiastically. Reportage and sociological observations alternate with lengthy discussions of the way in which the book seeks to marry “materialist” and “symbolic” approaches to an account of state power. There are few human subjects in Wacquant’s chronicle, and at times, the description of neoliberalism as the single logic of the modern era seems falsely coherent, leaving little room for choice, contingency, or genuine contradiction.

Despite these limitations, Punishing the Poor retains a certain power, reminding us of the hypermodern yet archaic world of prisons still in our midst. The book concludes with the story of another French sociologist in the United States—Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1831 trip began with the goal of studying our penal system. As he put it, even though the US gave “the example of the most extended liberty,” the jails of the country revealed a “spectacle of the most complete despotism,” spurring the people who claimed to care about freedom above all else into a fascination with the world of prisons. As Wacquant shows us, much the same is true of today’s America.

Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (Norton, 2009). She teaches twentieth-century American history at New York University.