From: "Gabriel Ash" <Gabriel.Ash.1@xxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 02 Jul 98 13:51:48
On Wed, 1 Jul 1998 12:04:00 -0400, Doug Henwood wrote:
>When I first joined this list I asked if any Foucauldian (or is it
>Foucaultian?) had written on the evolution of the U.S. "criminal justice"
>system, which long ago left behind liberal notions of reformation for pure
>brutality, warehousing, and revenge. We now have crowds baying for blood
>outside prisons on execution nights (though the prisoner is inside, viewed
>only by a handful of lucky guests). No one answered. I'll try again.
I don't think I can answer, but perhaps join in the reflection with some hypotheses.
First, I doubt that a clear-cut division into "stages" is helpful, especially
if you don't take a Hegelian -Marxist perspective. I make this remark because
it is tempting to see the American prison as a pre-capitalist renmant. On the other
hand it is still true that the system is a point of contention between a professional,
technocratic elite: lawyers, social workers, sociologists etc., and a popular front
that unites various elements that deserve further investigation, but that include
impressionistically a rural and a religious element, suburbia, and elements of
the political and economic elites. The professionals would want to remake the
prison along disciplinary lines: a place for reforming delinquents, and are eager
to find substitutes for it, their opponents want a harsh, punishing and 'deterring' system.
I would see four main aspects to the special case of the American prison.
1. Race and History --. Historically, the American delinquent population has been mostly
black and other demonised minorities. According to Foucault, The emergence
of the prison answers the need to control the lower class produced by Capitalism
while masking its class nature. It is quite obvious that the American prison system
is also a tool of managing the urban poor population, yet it seems that there is not
much to mask here. To listen to TV talk, there is indeed an open war: between the
hard-working virtuous Americans and the parasitic, violent and immoral (non white)
underclass. Anavowed racism makes this war more natural, as well as the ideologies of
religion and individualism. White "middle-class" Americans seem to know quite well
that the prison is an instrument of "defense" in a war (cf. also "war on drugs".)
2. late-capitalism and the new "unemployable" --- The need to hide the "class" of
the managed population depends also on the economic importance of this
population. Discipline is a way to control and maximize the capacity of the
population. This is true as long as the prison and the factory cater, or at least
appear to cater, to the same population. It is debatable how much this was
true in early capitalist systems, but as capitalism matures there is a growing
segmentation of the labour market, and the creation of an economically
marginal underclass. Not only it becomes prohibitively expensive to attempt to
integrate this class into capitalism through discipline (though of course, professionals
constantly put forward such plans, and some might even work,) but the new
"enemployable" become integrated in the economy through the prison system itself,
which is a growth industry today, providing jobs and getting the protection of voters
and lobbies. This in addition to the fact that this underclass performs many unenviable
symbolic functions, both in defining normality (i.e. a disciplined life) and in providing symbols
of imaginary release from discipline.
3. Technocracy and Reaction --- Modern life is increasingly "managed" by
technocratic means and through technocratic ideology. Inevitably, there is
reaction, chanelled often through religion. One can see the fight between
professionals and moralists about the proper function of the prison -- discipline
vs. punishment -- as a symbolic war: a ritual symbolizing, mediating and
reducing conflict. The proper function of such a ritual is of course to channel
conflict into less dangerous forms. Given that the most important technocratization
of life involves the control of workers and consumers, not the underclass, the
debate around prison is real to a very small number of marginal people. To the majority,
and to the main capitalist structures, it is mainly symbolic. Thus, it may be that the
growing barbarism of the American prison is the necessary price payed by
technocracy to give its victims a sense of vicarious victory. If this is correct, convicts in
their cells not only expiate their own crimes, but through their punishment they preserve
for the rest of society an oasis of freedom and moral responsability.
4. Comsumption and Desire -- my last sugestion is to refer the question of the prison
to the growing importance of the manipulation of desire (consumption) in late
capitalism, and the transformation of disciplinary systems of control to systems
of manipulating desire. The prison, as a place of privation as well as discipline,
functions in both systems. But it may be that the increased importance of desire would
affect it. This nexus is not well developed in my mind, but worth consideration. any ideas?