Lessons from Stuart Hall on the Crisis of Mass Incarceration

In an advanced capitalist liberal democracy juridical practices are intertwined with economic, political and ideological foundations of society. Jurisprudence both reflects and reinforces hegemonic power relations. And those power relations are established around honoring and protecting property rights, above all else.

To maintain this notion of impartiality, as part of ideological struggle, the dominant narrative must strip power out of the equation. Opposition, struggle, conflict, resistance, also must be de-legitimized, set against the public interest. The current commonsense says positive changes occur because the law advances, on its own, toward more civilized and civilizing forms, making stability and order possible. Justice is ‘neutral.’ It serves the public interest.

In Policing the Crisis, written in the early 1970s, Stuart Hall and his colleagues predicted how this veneer of neutrality would combine with fear of rising crime use of othering to justify carceral control while also justifying cuts in services. 

The struggle to maintain or disrupt ruling hegemony is ongoing; the state has a big stake in it, to show that its repressive functions serve the broad interests of the governed –– note how people have responded to revelation of massive surveillance operations directed at the general public --- it keeps us safe from terrorists; the people who make us aware of it are traitors, etc.

The ruling bloc must maintain hegemony even while modes of consent are being challenged. In the mid 1970s, at the start of the neoliberal phase, the breakdown of the welfare state required a new commonsense to work out the relationship between social control and consent. The war on crime, on drugs, played a key role in resolving the conjunctural crisis and establishing a new neoliberal logic.

This formula needs an ‘other.’ Coercive power is deemed legitimate against the other. Neoliberal ideology promoted a theory of deviance in which deviant behavior reflects individual character flaws and that there are ungovernable populations that need to be controlled. “We have to protect public order.” The heavy hand of the law is expressed more lightly for groups that remain within the bounds of acceptable economic relations.

The current phase of global capitalism marginalizes groups of people who are no longer needed in a contingent workforce. The experience of precarity is spreading, and with it, the potential for greater numbers of people to resist, because a viable path to a decent life is being blocked. And, as precarity spreads, more groups of people could potentially align with the marginalized. 

Mass deportations and incarceration are mechanisms of social control that have their roots in the racialization of both citizenship and labor relations going back to colonial times. The uses of race to undermine the social safety-net and to argue against government intervention in the economy goes back to colonial times as well. The old ‘state’s rights’ doctrine comes back to haunt us again and again, constraining both democratic control of corporations and efforts to address structural racism and eliminate disparities. And now, we are seeing some states expand coercive power, in neoliberal fashion, by legitimating acts of vigilantism through Stand Your Ground and other phenomena.