We are at extraordinary change moment in American history, far more so than when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon eight years ago. A catastrophic failure of the highly leveraged US financial system has put into question a dominant view of political economy that has highly favored unregulated markets and minimizing efforts to socialize some of the individual risks. It has also favored a financial economy generally, over retaining a significant engineering and product development sector (let alone a major manufacturing sector), an economy which has seen massive income inequality and a redistribution of wealth (relative to the post-World War II norm) from the stratified middle classes to the very top of the pyramid. If Barack Obama is elected President, this economic crisis will coincide with the passing of political leadership to one who grew up after Vietnam and Watergate, and to the first African-American and mixed race American to win the Presidency.
Do these momentous changes suggest the possibility for a course change away from the politics, policies, and laws that have fed the rise of mass incarceration?
Mass incarceration is the practice of imprisoning residents in a manner that relative to both historical and comparative dimensions is in many respects shockingly indiscriminate as to the individuals confined, and of such a scale that it has become a major life-course gateway for a substantial portion of men in our communities. This institution is only about 30 years old (in contrast to incarceration which dates to the post-Revolutionary period of American history) but which has come to constitute a challenge to the character of American democracy. Does the crisis of neo-liberalism and the victory of a genuinely post-racial (or at least post-racist) American political coalition (the first successful one in its history) provide reason to believe we are at a turn away from mass incarceration?
Those following the political scene might question whether any change here is at hand. Neither Obama or his opponent John McCain have made incarceration or criminal justice issues generally a big theme in their campaigns. To the extent that it comes up, as when the Supreme Court issued a decision last spring banning the extension of capital punishment to the cases of child rape without homicide, both candidates cleaved to a pro-punishment position. It is true that minority communities have been especially hard hit by mass incarceration (with a third of African American men experiencing prison in their lifetimes), but Obama has generally stayed away from emphasizing a politics of racial justice.
On the other hand, for those following the scholarship on the American mass incarceration, both of these changes, the crisis of neo-liberalism and evidence that America is becoming less racist, might seem like very promising signals indeed. Among sociologists of punishment the most popular theories of mass incarceration emphasize that prisons and a "penal state" have replaced welfare (for the poor) and insurance (for the middle class) as primary mechanisms for governing (e.g.s, Katherine Beckett, Bruce Western, Ruth Gilmore, Loic Wacquant,James Dignan and Michael Cavedino). Almost equally popular is the notion that mass incarceration reflects at best a backlash against the civil rights gains of minorities in the 1960s and 1970s, and at worst a comprehensive regime of race domination (e.g., Katherine Beckett, Loic Wacquant, Bruce Western).
In Governing through Crime I offer an account of mass incarceration that de-emphasizes both of these factors as major causes in favor of focusing on the legitimation problems of the post-New Deal state and its major political and civil institutions (chapter 5). From this perspective, neo-liberalism, if by that we mean the abandonment of the major 20th century tools of social welfare governance (public welfare for the poor, but also the structuring of an insurance anchored middle class life with pensions, insurance policies, and generous civil justice), is a co-variant, along with mass incarceration, of the crisis of the New Deal state and its political and civil institutions. Likewise, White supremacy (and its political and civil institutions) should be seen as one of the anchors of the post New Deal, and its undermining by the civil rights movement one of the causes of the delegitimation of the post New Deal state.
From this perspective the change moment is a potentially hopeful one, but not as directly as the sociology of punishment might suggest. Over the next few posts (delivered erratically until November 4th) I hope to sketch the path that change from mass incarceration might take and the opportunities created by both the financial crisis and by a dramatic manifestation that White supremacy (like General Franco) is still really dead in America.