Posts Tagged ‘political economy’

“Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. 1776. Book 1, Chapter IX.

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“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.”

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. 1776.

Book I, Chapter X, Part II.

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“The pretence that corporations are necessary for the better government of the trade is without any foundation. The real and effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is not that of his corporation, but that of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence. An exclusive corporation necessarily weakens the force of this discipline.”

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. 1776. Book I, Chapter X, Part II.

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“Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. 1776. Book I, Chapter X, Part II.

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“The rich and opulent merchant who does nothing but give a few directions, lives in far greater state and luxury and ease and plenty of all the conveniencies and delicacies of life than his clerks, who do all the business. They too, excepting their confinement, are in a state of ease and plenty far superior to that of the artizan by whose labour these commodities were furnished. The labour of this man too is pretty tollerable; he works under cover protected from the inclemency in the weather, and has his livelyhood in no uncomfortable way if we compare him with the poor labourer. He has all the inconveniencies of the soil and the season to struggle with, is continually exposed to the inclemency of the weather and the most severe labour at the same time. Thus he who as it were supports the whole frame of society and furnishes the means of the convenience and ease of all the rest is himself possessed of a very small share and is buried in obscurity. He bears on his shoulders the whole of mankind, and unable to sustain the load is buried by the weight of it and thrust down into the lowest parts of the earth, from whence he supports all the rest.”

— Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence or Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (1763) reprinted by the Clarendon Press, 1896.

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“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” – Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin’s Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.

Bound labor has not always been associated with the fully developed chattel slavery oriented toward market production that gave the antebellum American South, for example, a distinctive character. In various guises this form of labor has both preceded and followed in the wake of chattel slavery. Forced labor has even developed in societies where the New World’s peculiar form of ownership of one person by another, rationalized by bourgeois property relations, was unknown. Consistent features of this form of labor have included the collusion of the state, penal servitude as an enforcer of work, and intensification and expansion during periods of rapid economic development or transformation.

Coercive labor relations frequently aim to control a population reluctant to enter wage labor relations freely, and encourage the consequent proletarianization of these recalcitrant recruits to the “free” labor market. The beneficiaries of this process often justify its harshness as necessary and efficacious discipline for this emergent working class. In advanced societies such labor coercion has even been legitimized by resort to the ultimate expression of capitalist free labor relations, the contract. And when not controlled by individuals, forced labor has frequently been concentrated by the state on public works — pyramids, waterworks, and roadways.

Involuntary servitude has also been reserved as the fate for conquered combatants in war, for indigenous peoples in the New World and Africa, and for races deemed "inferior” by Europeans (and those of European descent) or Aryans. Its victims include both “enemies of the people,” and those declared "criminal” by a judicial rationale derived from enlightenment principles and bourgeois social relations. Everywhere, as the criminologist Thorsten Sellin has argued, slavery and punishment have been an inseparable dyad, in advanced as well as primitive societies. Indeed, as the “right” for individuals freely to dispose of their labor power as they saw fit (within the dictates of the market) increasingly came to define capitalist social relations, as it began to in the New South, the revocation of that right became the ultimate sanction. In putatively “modern” societies, where citizens value the rule of law, that right can only be limited by legal procedures restrained by, for example, constitutional legality. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution expresses this bargain succinctly. But wherever the historical legacy of racialism has been conjoined to the identification of penal sanction with enslavement, as it was in the postbellum South, and really in the United States as a whole, the results for a society’s vision of equality and labor have been profoundly destructive. This has been true even — perhaps especially — when forced labor contributed to economic development.

One of the persistent themes of American history has been an abiding faith in progress and development; and one of the persistent themes of southern history has been the necessity for federal intervention to extend the benefits of progress to the nation’s less "developed” region. Whether carried out by the Union Army, carpetbaggers, northern capital, technocratic "experts,” the judiciary, or, today, the forces of postindustrial economic change, this process has frequently revolved around the inseparable issues of labor and race. Free labor triumphed over slavery in the Civil War, but in their effort to reshape the South it was the original prophets of a New South, the Reconstructionists, who fastened the convict-lease upon the region’s former bondspeople, as Hoke Smith took pains to remind the legislature when his administration finally abolished the system in Georgia. And it was those ersatz defenders of southern tradition, the Redeemers, who invited northern capital to help them reap the benefits of forced labor, as they developed the South’s extractive sector. Finally, as a wave of Progressive reform brought an end to the convict lease, it was the federal agents of progress, the civil engineers of the US Office of Public Roads, who helped articulate and exploit the enormous contribution of the South’s black forced labor pool to yet another vision of a New South.

This continual correspondence between the forces of modernization and the perpetuation of bound labor was no anomaly. Even chattel slavery in the Americas was a crucial component in the historical development of capitalism. The various extreme forms of labor coercion and control that supplanted slavery in the modern world continued to demonstrate a "progressive” quality; rather than constituting an “archaic” obstacle to capitalist development, destined to be swept away by modernity, unfree labor has frequently been an essential element in the accumulation process that made that development possible.


Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. New York: Verso, 1996. pp. 186-188.  

[The photographs are actually from New York State prison road gangs circa 1912-1913. There is much more of a connection between the use of road gangs in the North and the chain gang of the South than is generally admitted.]

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“The system of incarceration sucks up the most disadvantaged in society, disproportionately recruited from amongst foster kids, or kids with parents with a history of incarceration or drug abuse. 36 percent were in receipt of public assistance. 11 percent were homeless. 58 percent have mental health issues. Research compiled by the White House report shows that the individuals in question were on the whole marginalized from the labour market “even prior to conviction. Estimates from different data sources suggest that as little as 10 percent of this group have positive preincarceration earnings and that real pre-incarceration yearly earnings range from $3,000 to $28,000.” If the prison population has one thing in common, it is that they were poor on the outside.

“These disparities continue when we turn to the broader felony criterion. Nationwide, about 8 percent of all adults have had a felony conviction, but about 24 percent of African American adults share the same distinction. When parsed by gender, a staggering 33 percent of African American adult males have a felony conviction history (as compared to 13 percent of all men).”

This is a gigantic machine for destroying life chances. And the bitter irony, of course, is that it is immensely expensive. A prison bed costs between $ 14,000 and $ 60,000, varying by state and federal institutions. The cost of a single inmate in one of the higher-cost institutions is comparable to the cost of the police officer who puts them there. It is also, needless to say, comparable to the cost of the College education which virtually none of the inmates have enjoyed. Through the US criminal justice, the American state is spending more money on the inmates than it ever spent on them on the outside.

The impact of this machinery on education, employability and the possibility of forming stable family and social ties are obvious. The vast majority of employers conduct criminal background checks on potential recruits. Thousands of jobs require licenses and certification from which felons are excluded from the get-go. Not surprisingly, therefore, non-participation in the workforce for prime age men who have been incarcerated is three times higher than for those who have never been arrested. For white prime working-age men with a prison record, the non-participation rate in the labour force is 17 %. For black men with a prison record it is 27 percent. The non-participation rate for prime age men untouched by the criminal justice system is 6 percent. Once we include the multiply-disadvantaged groups who have been stigmatized by it, that percentage rises to 9 percent. i.e. by 50 percent.” 

– Adam Tooze, “America’s Political Economy: Lost Generations – cumulative impact of mass incarceration.” October 28, 2017.

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3. Societal Reaction 

The indictments of mindless correctionalism by internal critics (i.e.,
the enlightened positivists), combined with the disappointing results
of rehabilitative treatment modalities, led to a sobering of expectations
– if not to widespread skepticism – about the reconstructive
powers of welfarism and state control. The denouement of correctionalist
philosophy became official in Canada with the publication
of the Ouimet Report (1969), 25 which urged restrained use of the
criminal sanction and limited reliance on institutional corrections.
Around the same time, evidence that criminal justice powers were
being overworked in ways that amplified deviance and increased the
costs of social control came from new quarters – the growing legion
of sociologists and criminologists who had been schooled in the “labelling” (or societal-reaction) perspective which took hold in the
first flourishes of the National Deviancy Symposium in the United
Kingdom and in American west coast academic circles. 

Richard Henshel has been one of those instrumental, to some extent,
in re-directing criminological inquiry within Canada away from
familiar positivist accounts in which social problems (including crime)
are likened to an objective state of affairs, to subjectivist interpretations
of definitional activity. In his symbolic, interactionist
framework (a Ia Blumer, Becker and Schutz), notions of “moral entrepreneurs”
and “world-view” have much to do with the shaping
of criminal law. Henshel’s emphasis on definitional processes
underscores the importance of ideology and values in criminological
analysis, although his account disconnects them from class origins
and the relations of production. He is not unaware that dominant
economic fractions can more easily define situations and mobilize
law to their own advantage, yet the indubitable links between worldview,
social definition, and economic constraints are not dialectically
examined; consequently, his “perceptual perspective” is overweighted
at the phenomenological end of the theoretical spectrum.
In the paradoxical fashion characteristic of liberal-progressive
criminology, Henshel’s attention to subjective factors allows for a
critique of such matters as discretionary law enforcement and the
deleterious effects of state intervention, but the available range of
social definitions is not accounted for, as it might be by analysis of
the political-economy-generating ideational productions. 

Perhaps more exemplary of the interactionist perspective in Canadian
criminology is the work of Richard Ericson at the University
of Toronto Centre of Criminology- specifically, his three recently
published studies documenting the considerable influence of state
social control agents over accused, investigated, and patrolled
citizens. Ericson shows that in the course of reproducing organizationally
filtered semblances of order, court officials, detectives and
the police divest processed individuals of any significant autonomy,
and criminal law is used to “order justice” in ways that buttress state
authority. These studies go beyond mere illustrations of societal reaction
phenomena; they show the ways in which the powers of the state
far outweigh the resources of most ordinary citizens who have become
involved in the workings of criminal justice. Informed as they are
about the mundane oppressive tactics of state control, Ericson’s findings
do not lead readily to proposals for reform; rather, he is more
inclined to deprecate the possibility of authentic reform given the
entrenched bureaucratic interests opposed to change. 

More than in any of the works alluded to previously, notions of

state, law and ideology permeate Ericson’s writing, but as they are
examined almost exclusively on the micro-level of analysis, the
variable of economy is rarely addressed. Foucaultian metaphors and
interactionist vignettes are the preferred form, liberal criminology
is alternately embraced and rejected, and the new criminology alternative
is mildly scorned. Ericson’s modus vivendi suggests an accommodation
of scholarly aspirations to the requirements of institutional
detente (i.e., state-supported criminology centres) along with
an acute ambivalence about the role of academic criminologists.

4. Social Conflict 

Moving closer to a political economy of crime, some criminologists
working within, or writing about, Canada have adopted an orientation
that reinstates politics as being central to deviancy theory. The
labelling approach enabled an incipient critique of the biased origins
and enforcement of law, but it remained for those scholars interested
in larger societal questions to produce an understanding of crime
as being derivative of power struggles between opposing groups. Early
theoretical debates tended to polarize conflict and consensus orientations,
with the former conceiving law in terms of power rather than
authority, group struggle as ubiquitous and continuous rather than
unnecessary, social order as a temporary balance of power rather
than as a voluntaristic phenomenon, and the state as a ruling-class
instrument of coercion rather than as a value-neutral mediator of
multiple interests. This theoretical controversy has stimulated attempts
at empirical verification in support of one position or the
other, leading some researchers to a qualified acceptance of some
tenets of the conflict approach while eschewing the full impact of
its radical implications. 

One example of such work in Canadian criminology – one that
throws measured support to the integration-consensus side of the
argument – is Hagan’s Disreputable Pleasures, one of the first
texts on the sociology of crime and deviance in Canadian society.
Hagan effects a conceptual contrast between crimes of the consensual
and of the conflictual variety, with only the former invoking
broad societal agreement as to wrongfulness and severity, presumably
because consensual crimes (e.g., murder and rape) are perceived as
more harmful and, therefore, more serious. The distinction is
fallacious, however, since group interests also mobilize consensual
crimes, and conflictual crimes are no less serious to those who engage
in them or are victimized by them. Thus, Hagan’s conclusion that
interest-group activity is of little consequence with respect to serious
consensual crimes is unconvincing, and he is remarkably unreflective about the possibility that “consensus” and “conflict” categories
may, themselves, represent an ideological construction. 

A further example of criminological inquiry in this genre is the
work of Lynn McDonald, whose attempts to test empirically propositions
derived from consensus and conflict models persuade her
to embrace the latter as being most relevant to the exegesis of law
and order in western societies – particularly Canada. While not
professing a Marxist orientation, McDonald gravitates toward a
radical conflict position, although the conceptual linkages between
state, law, ideology and the economy are often obscured by use of
non-dialectical methodology and theoretical categories which, amidst
the current debates on the sociology of law, are partially obsolete. 

The dividing-line between consensus-minded social-conflict
theorists and the class-conflict-oriented Marxist criminologists is best
seen in the theoretical posture of Austin Turk, a colleague of Ericson
at the University of Toronto Centre of Criminology. Somewhat akin
to Dahrendorf’s notion of “imperatively co-ordinated associations,”
in which the basic units of social organization are amalgams of positions
of domination (possession of authority) and positions of subjection
(to authority), Turk identifies “stable authority relationships”
comprising norms of domination and defence as the linchpins
of social order. In each of these conceptions, the centrality
of “class” is relegated to a minor role in the development and
dynamics of late capitalism, with “authority” taking its place as the
main reason for lack of consensus. Both, therefore, are non-Marxist
formulations which enlarge the catalogue of integrationist questions
rather than pose any fundamental challenges to consensus theorizing.
Commenting on the ahistorical character of Turk’s formulation,
Taylor, Walton, and Young point out his failure to explain how
authority relationships are linked with or derive from the wider system
of social stratification. Lacking historical direction, Turk’s vision
is one of the permanent adjustment of the weak (“relatively unsophisticated”)
to the powerful (“sophisticated norm-enforcers”),
under present social arrangements.

Responding to the new criminologists’ description of his conflict
theory of deviance as an “elitist conclusion,” Turk has argued for
a Weberian, rather than a Marxist, brand of criminology. The former
is preferable, according to Turk, since it denies the necessity of focussing
on “class” analysis, favours probabalistic rather than deterministic
models based on the multi-dimensionality of power and
privilege, and establishes criteria of adequacy for empirical testing
of hypotheses. In fact, none of this is incompatible with the
methodological prescriptions of neo-Marxist theorizing, except for

the refusal to acknowledge the fundamental primacy of economic
processes. But through Turk’s subordination of the “economic,”
a political economy perspective is ultimately forsaken.

–  Robert S. Ratner, “Inside the Liberal Boot: The Criminological Enterprise in Canada.” Studies in Political Economy, Vol. 13, 1984. pp. 52-54

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1. Systems-Analysis

 In less sophisticated form, systems-analysis had its start in Canadian
criminology as the “multidisciplinary team approach.” Expectations
in the early 1960s for what might be achieved through the pooling of disciplinary and institutional resources were expressed unequivocally
by Hendry: 

My fervent hope is that conflict of interest can be avoided and genuine
collaboration achieved; collaboration between different levels and
departments of government; collaboration between government departments
and universities; collaboration between relevant university
departments; and collaboration between universities and voluntary
agencies, organizations and associations in the field. 

 A similar view of criminology as an eclectic, practical and reformoriented
enterprise has been argued by other leading figures in the
field. Cautioning against the adoption of unilateral disciplinary
perspectives, John Edwards, the former director of the Centre of
Criminology at the University of Toronto, has promoted a multidisciplinary
approach in order to synthesize the “totality of our existing
knowledge” and to allow study of the “total criminal justice
system."  But characteristically, the stock-of-knowledge and systems
orientation of this embryonic period were directed narrowly at the
control of illegal behaviour and treatment of the petty offender. State
definitions of crime usually went unchallenged, buttressed by the
demands of conventional morality.

 More-recent attempts to elaborate a systems perspective have
depicted the criminal justice system as a unified whole consisting of
interdependent parts and levels, operating according to specified
proprieties. Such analyses urge sensitivity to the reverberating effects
of sub-system relations (linking social control units to the local
communities in which they function) – thereby establishing their
claim to "liberal-progressive” ideology – but they fail to examine
the criminal justice system in relation to other societal institutions.
Consequently, they induce a simplifying myopia and mask the accommodation
of criminal justice to the central institutions of Canadian
society. While subsequent systems approaches have sought to
incorporate varied theoretical perspectives, including elements of a
conflict paradigm, the treatment of criminal

justice is radically depoliticized
in these accounts and unconnected to any class impregnated
description of the Canadian state. The major impact,
then, of the systems perspective has been to provide a quasi-scientific
framework for the proliferation of studies purporting to demonstrate
the interlocking functions of criminal justice components (police, corrections,
etc.). This has served to rationalize the growth of the state
coercive apparatus and the elaboration of its legal artifice; in turn,
this has enabled an increased co-optation of political conflict and
the consolidation of liberal hegemony as the triumphant centre
ideological formation.

2. Enlightened Positivism 

Rejecting the correctionalist ethos implicit in early American empiricism,
a contemporary wing of Canadian criminologists has directed
positivist inquiry towards the apparent excesses of orthodox reformist
attempts to rehabilitate individual offenders and ameliorate social
problems.  In this version of liberal-progressive criminology, shorn
of uncritical assumptions about the reciprocality of criminological
research and government policy, positivism has debunked conventional
wisdom about criminal justice matters such as imprisonment
and parole, delinquency prevention and capital punishment. Hackler, an exponent of positivist methodology, has objected to the
“commercialization of criminological research in Canada,” arguing
that extensive government-sponsored research (much of it ofthe
number-crunching variety) is not producing “systematic and high
quality knowledge in criminology.” In his own research on delinquency,
he therefore advocates a scaling down of experimental
research designs, an emphasis on professional restraint, and modesty,
which he also extends to the formulation of “middle-of-theroad”
social control policies that steer away from ideological
polemics. While Hackler properly attacks unreflexive empiricism,
his resistance to acceptance of an unambiguous theoretical position
creates new obstacles in sorting out, much less dispelling, the confusion
that he confronts in surveying the varied delinquency treatment
and prevention modalities. Thus, his reluctance to adopt a view
that would allow him to address the structural factors generating
delinquency blocks his own recognition that the goal of a significant
reduction in delinquency rates may be unattainable in a “system”
impervious to change by limited intervention. 

In his research on the impact of deterrent and retributive sanctions,
Fattah demonstrates the ineffectiveness of penal policies in
Canada; however, he attributes the failure of such control strategies
to the bewildering diversity of goals, functions, models and correctional
philosophies operative in the criminal justice system. Fattah
views the failure to priorize objectives as symptomatic of administrative
breakdown rather than as evidence of ideological conflict
and shifting economic constraints. Since the scope of his inquiries
are encapsulated by the institutional boundaries of the criminal justice
system, Fattah’s analysis of the obstacles to penal reform cannot
readily encompass such issues as the positive correlation between rising
unemployment and imprisonment rates. In reductionist fashion,
he interprets criminal behaviour situationally, in connection with
victim-precipitation models of criminality, rather than etiologically,
in terms of the structural factors which precipitate deviance.

Enlightened positivism of another variety is revealed in the work
of Denis Szabo and a number of his associates at the University of
Montreal School for Criminology, and the International Centre for
Comparative Criminology. The wide scope of research undertakings,
the methodological eclecticism, and the assiduous attempts to promote
close collaboration between applied social scientists and the
criminal justice system, have clearly done more to ensure a steady
infusion of research funds to these two centres than to bring about
Szabo’s liberal vision of a more just and humane society.

In sharp contrast to the “fully social theory of deviance” advanced
by the new criminologists, Szabo employs a biologically-based
model of human behaviour which tends to discount the potential
of human nature for sustained goodness and perfectability. Although Szabo urges a more holistic approach to the subject-matter
of criminology – thus avoiding the simplistic correctionalism of
earlier days – this endeavour is conducted around themes of
reintegration, resocialization and rehabilitation, belying Szabo’s
ideological support of the status quo. Yet Szabo’s professed concern
with providing “socially useful answers” leads him to dismiss
the new criminology as ideological and unscientific. 

The work of Hackler, Fattah, Szabo and others of the enlightened positivist
ilk illustrates a growing awareness and frustration with
social policy contradictions, along with an increased acknowledgement
that the “problem of crime” cannot be studied in isolation from
other social factors. But contradictions are not traced to their source,
assumptions about the invariant properties of “human nature” are
favoured over depictions of the flexibility of social arrangements,
and the analytic nomenclature remains defensive towards concepts
derived from political economy or neo-Marxist traditions.

– Robert S. Ratner, “Inside the Liberal Boot: The Criminological Enterprise in Canada.”  Studies in Political Economy, Vol. 13, 1984. pp. 47-49.

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