15 June, 2002Issue 1.1PhilosophyPolitics & SocietySocial Policy

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The Poverty Trap or the Political Trap

Brad Henderson

David Garland
The Culture of Control
Oxford University Press, 2001
336 pages

How does one describe a book that combines an insufficient understanding of sociology, a tainted account of criminology, an even more appalling grasp of cause and effect, and a biased, politically-charged presentation of evidence that might leave a censor in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth blushing? Fortunately, the venerable Times Literary Supplement provides an answer to guide the intellectual lilliputians of the lay reading world: ‘Garland’s analysis of the profound social and cultural shifts of recent decades… is a tour de force.’

In his new book, The Culture of Control, David Garland describes changes in crime control and criminal justice in the United States and Britain during the past half century. Detailing the new politics of law and order, he argues that controlling less fortunate citizens has become the priority in these ‘so-called liberal, non-oppressive states.’ By vilifying the undeserving poor, increasing incarceration rates, imposing mandatory sentencing, and more frequently executing criminals (US), contemporary society contemporary society is more an ‘Iron Cage’ than an open democracy.

Two social forces, he argues, shaped contemporary crime control arrangements: the distinctive social arrangements of what he labels ‘late modernity,’ and the politics of free markets and social conservatism that gained prominence in the 1980s in the UK and the US. Garland compares present-day policies and practices to those before the 1970s to create what he calls ‘a history of the present.’ He describes his approach as holistic rather than piecemeal. This method attempts to create a single framework for viewing drastic changes in criminological theory, penal philosophy, penal politics, policing sentencing, punishment, private security, crime prevention, and the treatment of victims.

Not surprisingly, Garland claims Michael Foucault as his greatest inspiration and Discipline and Punish as the prototype for his argument. Garland, unfortunately, mimics Foucault’s propensity to provide tenuous evidence and his willingness to disregard competing facts at his own discretion, but he does not always share Foucault’s ability to generate original, provocative interpretations. While Garland’s thesis has promise, his overarching argument and evidence is more becoming of a political pundit’s op-ed in The Guardian than as the work of a disciple of the great French structuralist.

Garland describes the decades of crime policy immediately following World War II as the ‘Golden Age’ of penal-welfarism. This period consisted of two fundamental ideas: (1) ‘social reform together with affluence would eventually reduce the frequency of crime,’(2) ‘the state is responsible for the care of offenders as well as their punishment and control.’ It embodied a belief in the perfectibility of man and a faith in the ability and good intentions of professionals and public officials. Offenders were viewed as unfortunate rather than evil.

Why did the penal-welfare system of the pre-1970s period abdicate to the new culture of control? According to Garland, problems arose because of the prevalence of high crime rates and disorder and the recognition that criminal justice limited ability to control crime and ensure security. In response to this evolving environment, actors developed new strategies that appealed to political, popular and professional sectors.

The rise of the culture of control corresponded to a new economic style of decision-making, new criminology of control, and a new conception of penal-welfarism. This new system reinforced the emergence of anti-welfare politics and the conception of the poor as undeserving. The new culture was also created by images in the media, by political rhetoric, but most importantly by the collective experience of crime in everyday life. Private citizens adapted to this prevalent crime with their own adaptations of prevention and control.

Crime policy, Garland argues, currently operates in two distinct manners. The first includes community organizations and preventive measures such as auto theft deterrent devices. Garland calls these the ‘criminologies of everyday life.’ He also describes the ‘criminology of the other,’ which echoes the notion of moral panic. This includes high profile crimes that summon drastic, symbolic and pervasive action by policy makers.

This response, he asserts, represents a fundamental contradiction: ‘The odd fact that punitive “law and order” politics have co-existed, in both countries, with an entirely differently strategy — of preventative partnerships, community policing and generalized crime prevention — is explained by reference to the public’s ambivalence about crime and crime control: an ambivalence that gives rise to quite divergent forms of action’.

Garland struggles to clearly delineate cause and effect. In one instance, he argues that ‘social organization created political and cultural change that resulted in a change in the way that citizens, corporations and governments act.’ In the next, he asserts that his account adumbrates the influence of social and economic forces on public policy, criminological thought, and the cultural meaning of crime and criminals. He also states that his argument reveals the way in which ‘today’s crime control arrangements reproduce a new type of social order.’ He further states, “The most important changes [in crime control] have been in the cultural assumptions that animate them.” Far from perspicuous, Garland’s strategy of determining explanatory value consists of periodically creating sentences by jumbling social, political, culture and crime and then inserting the word causes
somewhere in the middle.

Garland’s argument suffers from methodological weaknesses. In his preface, Garland writes, ‘While these endnotes will be essential (and, I hope, enlightening) reading for the professional scholar, those readers who simply want to follow the book’s story and grasp its explanation need not be disturbed by their intrusion.’ As we will soon see, and as the book demonstrates repeatedly, the disturbing dearth of evidence in the main body of text should alarm the most casual readers, and the misleading and unconvincing citations in the endnotes vitiate support for some of his most crucial claims.

Garland provides insufficient evidence to establish the existence and significance of the key indicators of control. He cites an increase in incarceration rates, but does not compare incarceration rates as a percentage of population between periods. He refers to greater levels of community policing and activism, yet does not provide any quantifiable evidence of an increase in community groups. (I thought Robert Putnam, whom Garland cites, said that contemporary society bowls alone. Maybe society now bowls alone, but looks for bad guys together.) He also cites the increasing use of capital punishment, ignoring that even these increased number of executions represent a statistically infinitesimal aspect of modern crime policy.

Garland demonstrates additional weaknesses in his research methods. He states, ‘Tough crime policies are not without costs. The policies currently being pursued in the US and Britain entail unprecedented levels of correctional expenditures. Public spending on “law and order” either increases the tax burden or else reduces other heads of public expenditure, such as education, healthcare or job-creation programs.’ This comment embodies much of what is wrong with Garland’s approach.

First, Garland does not identify the specific costs and does not give any explanation of which level of government and by what means the policies are paid for. In the US, policing is often paid for by the local community, education is often paid for by a separate local levy and health-care is funded primarily through the federal government. Thus, it is difficult to claim that these goals compete with one another directly for funds.

Second, the empirical evidence (if Garland had bothered to consult any) suggests that investment in policing provides more benefit than costs. Research by Steve Levitt indicates that although the marginal cost of imprisoning a convicted felon is $30,000 a year, while the average benefit in terms of crime prevention is $50,000 a year for each additional convicted criminal. And while an additional officer costs about $80,000 a year, the average officer produces about $200,000 in annual crime prevention benefits. Looking at the elasticities, Levitt finds that a ten percent increase in the police force results in a ten percent decrease in violent crime and three percent reduction in property crimes.

Does Garland have evidence to refute these claims? In fact, Garland provides two footnotes to the above passage. Yet these citations leave much to be desired, referring to an obscure audit from Her Majesty’s Prison Service and a lengthy book on a seemingly unrelated topic (with no specific page number cited).

Garland provides an equally spurious account of the economic and social changes in the 1980s and 1990s: ‘The decline of public institutions through underfunding, the reduction of state benefits, the disinvestments in the inner cities, the social and economic marginalization of the poor — these are policies that engender insecurity. The neo-liberal choice has been a fateful one in emotional as well as economic terms. Every individual is more and more obliged to adopt the economic attitude of the responsibilized, competitive entrepreneur. The corresponding psychic posture is that of tensed-up, restless individuals, regarding each other with mutual suspicion and no great deal of trust.’

This statement reveals the fundamental flaw with The Culture of Control. Burdened by stale thinking, unsophisticated generalization, and inexcusable hyperbole, Garland undermines his potentially cogent hypothesis by failing to move beyond the political ideal-types of the 1980s. Public expenditure hasn’t declined significantly since 1980; it has merely failed to continue to increase as a percentage of GDP. State benefits have been reformulated, not necessarily reduced. Most major cities have experienced significant revivals associated with increasing tax bases in the past decade. Both financial and attitudinal studies do not confirm that contemporary social and economic marginalization differs in magnitude from previous periods in history, and empirical work does not suggest that ‘neo-liberal’ policies are the key variable in explaining contemporary marginalization.

Certainly, neo-liberalism has created its share of problems, just as the welfare state did. But one can’t sufficiently identify the relative importance of these problems by following Mr. Garland’s apparent research method (rereading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.)

Garland does raise several interesting questions. Despite the poor answers and spotty evidence he provides for these questions, he nonetheless encourages more productive ways of thinking about crime control in contemporary society. First, he takes an interest in the perception (no cited proof) that politicians play a more prominent role in crime control than in the period of high modernity. Second, he identifies an interesting dialectic between freedom and control, although he does not carefully define what makes this dialectic unique for a discussion of current crime policy.

Garland provides a provocative thesis that undoubtedly describes a portion of the current environment of crime control. This culture of control has serious implications for the development of a more inclusive, prosperous nation, be it the UK or the US. Unfortunately for the readers, The Culture of Control does not live up to the hype. Confounded by ideology and exiguous evidence, his inchoate argument promises to mislead politically charged readers and excitable literary critics.

His questions merit answers. Hopefully, a more objective researcher will explore them and provide more accurate and helpful responses.

Brad Henderson is a graduate student in Economic and Social History at Balliol College, Oxford. He did his undergraduate degree in Economics at the University of Chicago.