Book Review – Prisons of Poverty

Loïc Wacquant‘s Prisons of Poverty is the shorter, more reader-friendly and activist-oriented version of Punishing The Poor. It touches upon the same topics: the double-pronged way in which the neo-liberal state disciplines the poor: workfare and prisonfare. One cannot be understood without the other.

Contrary to Punishing The Poor, clearly directed at an academic audience, the audience for Prisons of Poverty (PoP) is the general public. In other words, PoP is more an exercise is public sociology.

On a symbolic level, it is the way in which the neo-liberal state, having divested itself of significant power in economic and social matters through privatization, for instance, reasserts its power against the powerless.

Social disinvestment → Carceral reinvestment

The book also deals with the spread of the ideologies that support this double-pronged approach to public policy directed at the poor from the United States, to Western Europe and to some semi-peripheral countries such as Brazil through the popularization of unfounded ideologies and phony criminology such as “the broken windows” theory promoted by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and his entourage.

In other words, having created conditions of precarization and of what Ulrich Beck has called the risk society, the neoliberal state makes a comeback against the poor by forcing them into the lower layers of the workforce through “welfare reform” and through mass incarceration through the criminalization of pretty much everything. As Wacquant puts it, it is the “new government of social insecurity” (1). This took place through five trends:

  1. Vertical expansion or carceral hyperinflation
  2. Horizontal expansion of the penal dragnet
  3. Onset of carceral “big government”
  4. Resurgence and prosperity of private incarceration
  5. Carceral affirmative action

But contrary to the “prison-industrial complex” theory (thoroughly debunked in this book), mass incarceration is only one side of new government of poverty. For Wacquant, mass incarceration contributes to the regulation of the bottom layers of the labor market in three ways:

  1. “Discipline the reticent fractions of  the working class by raising the cost of strategies of resistance to desocialized wage labor via “exit” into the informal economy” (79-80).
  2. “Help to “fluidify” the low-wage sector and artificially depresses the unemployment rate by forcibly subtracting millions of unskilled men from the labor force” (80).
  3. “Facilitate the development of subpoverty jobs and the informal economy by continually (re)generating a large volume of marginal laborers who can be superexploited at will” (81).

At the same time, whatever is left of social service programs are turned into massive mechanisms of surveillance where the poor have to abdicate their privacy in order to receive services, making the process as stigmatizing as possible.

As a sociologist, PoP is less satisfying than Punishing The Poor. And I certainly wish Wacquant would contrast this work to the treatment of corporate and financial criminality that has been unveiled in the context of the global recession where every possible rationalization has been offered to avoid the idea of systemic failure and class analysis. The only time where class has factored into the discussion of the recession, it is as potential culprit (all these poor people taking out mortgages that they could not afford). Thankfully, that argument has been thoroughly debunked.

In any event, it seems the US government found its economic power again to bailout the financial system without criminalization or stigmatization of an entire class. Compare and contrast.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – Prisons of Poverty

  1. Pingback: Debunking The Myth of the Prison-Industrial Complex | The Global Sociology Blog

  2. This book blames America and neoliberalism and “rightwing” ideas for poverty and prisons.

    Prisons are needed to punish crime–they are not a social welfare or to be viewed as such.

    In north america we are so lenient on crime that everybody can cry foul. Try going to a Malaysian, Jamaican, or Arabian prison and see if you have complaints about people being punished for crimes

    • 1. The fact that there are worse prisons in the world proves exactly nothing, except the capacity of some governments to violate basic human rights.

      2. If prisons worked so well in all these countries, they would be crime-free. They are not.

      3. American prisons fail at their most basic function: crime containment. They are more criminogenic, as passing familiarity with criminology would have shown you.

      So, go spread your idiotic and ignorant non-ideas someplace else.

  3. Pingback: Listening Loïc Wacquant « Emrah Göker'in İstifhanesi

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