Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Liberal v. Radical Criminology, cont.: A Reponse from Tony Platt

I'm posting this for Tony Platt since its a wee bit too long for the comment field
Thanks for your comments on the "Politics of Protest" session.

You might have pointed out that the heart of my comments focused, not on the School of Criminology at Berkeley, but on the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas in the original POP, and a critique of Skolnick's introduction to the new introduction (in which, in my view, he minimizes ongoing problems of racism and uncritically praises the Obama regime.)

I have a few initial comments on your views about liberalism and radicalism (below):

(1) By "liberalism" I assume you mean social democratic liberalism, that occupied a central role in American politics from early 20th century through the Clinton government. For most of its run, it was a managerial political ideology, focused on regulating rather than eradicating inequality. There are moments when this kind of liberalism gets pulled left during times of mass political activism (for example, 30s and 60s), but mostly it revives as top-down managerialism. (There's a huge historical literature on this issue.)

(2) It's just name-calling to suggest that "radical criminology" was a "rhetorical disaster" and "highly ideological" while liberalism was "more robust" and measured. Do you really think that liberalism as political ideology was somehow value-free and apolitical? You may prefer liberalism to radicalism, but then just say so. But whatever you think, its heyday is long over here (and soon in Europe).

(3) As to the excesses of radical criminology, I've written about this topic (in Oppenheimer et al., Radical Sociologists and the Movement), and there's much to be said about what we did wrong. But your preachy one-sided comments don't help our understanding. Radical criminology at Berkeley was part of and responded to a much larger left movement that exposed the injustices of criminal justice, took on the inadequacies and cowardice of liberalism, created debates about the ideology of criminology, humanized the incarcerated population, and educated millions about the ties between imperialism, militarism, racism, and criminal justice. In the 1970s there was at least a national debate about crime and justice, and for a short while liberalism was pushed left by radical movements.

(4) The rise of the Right and neo-liberalism (beginning with Nixon) has nothing to do with what radical criminology did or did not do. It represents a significant shift in regimes of power, and a rise of new political forms to deal with the deepening contradictions of capitalism. As you and others going back to Stuart Hall have noted, governing through law and order is not so much about crime as about a crisis in political authority (and the demise of social democratic liberalism).

(5) My debate with Skolnick is partly personal (because he and colleagues benefited from the demise of the School of Criminology; and because of his disrespectful treatment of our colleague Paul Takagi), but it's primarily political. He thinks the country is moving in a good direction; I don't. He believes that academics have to choose between a professional career and progressive activism; I don't.

Tony Platt


  1. I greatly respect Tony Platt and his work. I personally would have benefited enormously had he remained on the Berkeley faculty. We differ in our view of how criminologies relate to penal policies. I believe crime policy is more than an imposition of power and that criminological discourse can influence (at least at the margins) the kinds of policies we end up living with. Skolnick's brand of liberal criminology with its emphasis on the rule of law was and, in my view, continues to be one of the most promising lines of critique of the contemporary penal state. Resistance to mass incarceration today remains burdened by a superficial radicalism that associates crime control with racism and Neoliberalism.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. posted for Tony:

    Jonathan Simon and I have our differences, but not the ones suggested in his post. (1) I don’t think that criminal justice policy is simply the result of the imposition of power. (2) I do think that public discourse is an important shaper as well as reflection of policy, and have thought so since the publication of Stuart Hall et al.’s
    “Policing The Crisis” in 1978. (3) I support an independent judiciary, rule of law, due process, etc. I have no idea what he means by “superficial radicalism” or why it is more of a problem than “superficial liberalism.” And I’m surprised that he minimizes the
    relationship between racism,neo-liberalism, and crime control policies.