Penal Populism: The End of Reason
John Pratt and Michelle Miao
John Pratt, LLB (Hons) (London University), MA (Keele University), PhD
(University of Sheffield), Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Professor
of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
Michelle Miao, LLB (East China University of Politics and Law, Shanghai), LLM
(Renmin University, China), LLM (New York University), DPhil (Oxford
University). Assistant Professor of Law,
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
Penal populism has become a much discussed characteristic of punishment in
modern society. Most such commentaries, however, take the rather myopic view
that this phenomenon represents some localized event within the social body, to
be diagnosed, theorized and exorcized there. This article, however, argues that
the emergence of penal populism is neither the endpoint of nor the limits to
populism and its consequences in modern society. Rather, it marks only the
beginnings of its more general resurgence in the early twenty first century. In
these respects, penal populism should be understood as only a convenient
incubating phase in which populist forces found vigour and strength before
flowing much deeper into mainstream society from that gestation. If it might be
thought that penal populism represents an attack on the long established link
between reason and modern punishment, this has been only the prelude to the
way in which a much more free flowing political populism now threatens to bring
an end to Reason itself, the foundation stone of modernity. This shift from penal
to political populism has been precipitated by two interconnected factors: the
impact of the 2008 global fiscal crisis and the mass movement of peoples across
the globe. The article concludes with a discussion of how political populism
continues to transform punishment in modern society, as well as the broader
social consequences and implications of its emergence.
Key words: penal populism, reason, punishment, risk, politics, insecurity
The phenomenon of penal populism was first identified as a characteristic of
English speaking Western democracies around the end of the twentieth
century—specifically, the USA, UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada (see
Roberts et al, 2003; Pratt, 2007). Since that time, however, various strands of
it—the exact form that it takes and the impact it has varies from society to
society—have been identified in a diverse range of countries. Generally, it
demands a much more punitive approach to law breaking. This has been
manifested in the form of dramatically rising imprisonment rates, as in the
Anglophone world; but it has also led to clamourings for more vigorous use of the
death penalty in some Asian societies, particularly Japan (Johnson, 2006), or
chemical castration of child sex offenders, as in South Korea (Koo et al, 2014)
and the Czech Republic (Haney, 2016).
With each society it touches, it is as if penal populism undermines the very kernel
on which modern punishment had been built: the way in which, from the time of
the Enlightenment, science, rationality and expert knowledge were expected to
outweigh emotive, uninformed common-sense, thereby ensuring that reason
outweighed anti-reason in the development of penal policy. Now, though,
slamming the door in the face of reason, penal populism drives up imprisonment
rates when the detrimental effects—social and economic—of imprisonment are
well known; or it reaffirms the place of capital punishment in modern penal
systems when it is well known that there is no conclusive evidence about its
deterrent effect; or it targets the bodies of offenders, in a reversion to punishment
of the premodern era, rather than compelling them to forfeit time or money in line
with the expectations of punishment in the modern world.
Most analyses of these developments have treated penal populism as a kind of
localized event within the social body, as an aberration from the direction of
punishment in modern society, as an infection that can be diagnosed, provided
with treatment and exorcized: at which point, it is thought, the voice of reason will
once again be allowed to drive modern penal arrangements in a progressive,
humane direction and away from such excesses (Roberts et al, 2003; Pratt,
2008; Neto, 2009; Müller, 2010). There is, though, a myopia to these
approaches. It is as if populism has burrowed into this sector of modern society
alone and is then somehow confined there. It may wreak havoc in that location,
but it cannot escape from it. This article, however, argues that the emergence of
penal populism is neither the endpoint of nor the limits to populism and its
consequences in modern society. Rather, it marks only the beginnings of its
more general resurgence in the early twenty first century. In these respects,
penal populism should be understood as only a convenient incubating phase in
which populist forces found vigour and strength before flowing much deeper into
mainstream society from that gestation. And penal populism was only a warning
of the much greater chaos that was to come when populism was fully unleashed.
If it might be thought that penal populism represents an attack on the long
established link between reason and modern punishment, this has been only the
prelude to the way in which a much more free flowing political populism now
threatens to bring an end to Reason itself, the foundation stone of modernity.
The article begins with an examination of the way in which, around the early
1990s, populism initially surfaced in the penal systems of the main English
speaking countries. It then argues that the shift from penal to political populism
has been precipitated by two interconnected factors. First, the impact of the
2008 global fiscal crisis that greatly exacerbated the way in which globalization
had eroded economic security. Large sections of modern society have since
been left resentful and marooned in their own helplessness before such forces,
while governments seem unmoved by or oblivious to their concerns. Second,
threats to both individual and national identity brought about by the mass
movement of peoples across the globe—from East to West, North to South and
South to North. As this has occurred, crime is no longer the main signifier of
threats to well-being and the breakdown of order and authority. Rather, crime
concerns have become conflated with concerns about ‘difference’ and
‘otherness’—of which being a stranger, a foreigner, or an immigrant, legal or
otherwise, have become one of the most potent symbols.
Beyond the controls of the penal system itself, there are thus demands that
borders have to be defended, new boundaries need to be put in place—walls,
electric fences, surveillance mechanisms have to be built or installed, terrorists
must be ‘eliminated’ and registers have to be kept of those with suspect religions
or ethnicities to meet these more diffuse, amorphous threats. Individuals and
organizations that stand in the way of what seem to be these necessary
defences to individual and national health—on civil liberties or humanitarian
grounds usually—are cast as traitors and ‘enemies of the people’, a people now
prepared to look beyond existing democratic structures and modes of
governance for solutions to restore security. In so doing, they are prepared to
abandon Reason and put their trust in populist politicians to take them along a
path—their leaders have no need of roadmaps or itineraries to guide them, they
just tell their followers to have trust and belief in them—that will make them safe
from such existential threats.
Punishment, Reason and Anti-Reason
The Age of Reason announced the dawn of modern society. A world without
reason, John Locke (1690/2016, p. 89) had written, gives rise to ‘despotical
power … which neither nature gives, for it has made no such distinction between
one man and another; nor compact can convey: for man not having such an
arbitrary power over his own life, cannot give another man such a power over it;
but it is the effect only of forfeiture, which the aggressor makes of his own life,
when he puts himself into the state of war with another: for having quitted reason,
which God hath given to be the rule betwixt man and man, and the common
bond whereby human kind is united into one fellowship and society; and having
renounced the way of peace which that teaches, and made use of the force of
war, to compass his unjust ends upon another, where he has no right; and so
revolting from his own kind to that of beasts, by making force.’
Reason, it was thought by Locke and subsequent Enlightenment scholars, would
thus bring an end to the tyranny, absolutism and arbitrariness in the exercise of
sovereign power in the premodern world, the world without Reason: ‘the freedom
then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his
having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by,
and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will’ (Locke,
1690/ 2016, p. 35). For Thomas Paine (1794, p. 1), ‘the most formidable weapon
against errors, of every kind, is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I
never shall.’’ Similarly, Montesquieu (1914/ 2011, p. 6): ‘law in general is human
reason, inasmuch as it governs all the inhabitants of the earth: the political and
civil laws of each nation ought to be only the particular cases in which human
reason is applied.’
But if reason was to bring justice for all, it must also bring an end to the
inconsistencies and uncertainties of the criminal justice order that reinforced the
premodern exercise of sovereign power through brutal, public punishments to the
human body: ‘we must overturn the barriers that reason never erected’, Diderot
(1751/1967, p. 93) argued. To do so, legal theory had to disengage itself from
the previous associations it had made between Divine Law and the absolute
monarchs who had ruled the pre-modern world. From being some mysterious,
incalculable and unpredictable force, decipherable only to those who ruled, law
became, instead, man made. It represented a contract between all citizens in a
society rather than the dictates of a despot: ‘laws which surely are, or ought to
be, compacts of free men, have been, for the most part, a mere tool of the
passions of some, or have arisen from an accidental and temporary need. Never
have they been dictated by a dispassionate student of human nature’ (Beccaria,
1764, p. 12). The quest of legal theory then became one of showing what law
ought to be, rather than what the Sovereign decreed it to be. It ought to provide
security and order for all rather than merely the sovereign; and it ought to provide
fundamental rights protected in inviolable ideas of justice that no ruler or
government would be able to take away in the future. Beccaria (1764, p. 24)
thus argued that law had to be made certain and knowable to all and applicable
to all, in the form of criminal codes: ‘when a fixed code of laws, which must be
observed to the letter, leaves no further care to the judge than to examine the
acts of citizens and to decide whether or not they conform to the law as written:
when the standard of the just or the unjust, which is to be the norm of conduct for
all; then only are citizens not subject to the petty tyrannies of the many which are
the more cruel as the distance between the oppressed and the oppressor is less,
and which are far more fatal than that of a single man, for the despotism of many
can only be corrected by the despotism of one; the cruelty of a single despot is
proportional, not to his might, but to the obstacles he encounters.’
In drafting these codes, science and rationality began to be applied to criminal
justice. Rather than making law on the basis of the religiosity of priests or the
sycophancy of courtiers, Diderot (1753/1966, p. 30) wrote that , in the Age of
Reason, ‘there are three principal means of acquiring knowledge … observation
of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection
combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination. Beccaria
(1764/1872, p. 46) thus urged that punishment should be efficient rather than
spectacular. It should be proportionate to the crime committed rather than
unnecessarily brutal: ‘the intent of punishments is not to torment a sensible
being, nor to undo a crime already committed … Can the groans of a tortured
wretch recall the time past, or reverse the crime he has committed?’ Rather than
simply being a demonstration of sovereign power, ‘the end of punishment,
therefore, is to prevent others from committing the like offence’ (ibid, p. 47). This
meant that the amount of punishment should be proportionate to the crime
committed: ‘if an equal punishment be ordained for two crimes that injure society
in different degrees, there is nothing to deter men from committing the greater’
(ibid, p. 32).
Kant (1797/1887, p. 195) then reinforced what the limits to modern punishment
should be: ‘[it] can never be administered merely as a means for promoting
another Good, either with regard to the Criminal himself or to Civil Society, but
must in all cases be imposed only because the individual on whom it is inflicted
has committed a crime.’ It was not only that there should be no punishment of the
innocent; in addition, punishment of the guilty had to be an end in itself:
punishment inflicted for other purposes might only lead to the excesses and
iniquities redolent of the pre-modern era: ‘what, then, is to be said of such a
proposal as to keep a Criminal alive who had been condemned to death, on his
being given to understand that if he agreed to certain dangerous experiments
being performed on him, he would be allowed to survive if he came happily
through them?’ (ibid, p. 196). Normative prescriptions for the operation of
criminal law and punishment in modern society were initially set down and
developed through the work of such scholars. From there, matters of law
enforcement and punishment would be determined by secular experts, able to
draw on collections of government statistics from the early nineteenth century to
make scientific judgments when determining policy and its likely effects.
This did not then mean, of course, that Reason-driven policy and this alone made
a straightforward linear progression throughout the modern period. It faced
numerous impediments and took numerous detours. The emotive force and
symbolic power of punishments to the human body (Hay, 1976) meant that the
death penalty was not removed from the penal agendas of the main English
speaking societies until the 1970s. The emphasis on fixed and certain
punishments did not preclude the introduction of indeterminate sentencing laws
around the beginning of the twentieth century (Pratt, 1997). The initial emphasis
on punishment as retribution gave way to a focus on treatment and rehabilitation
for much of the twentieth century, often leading to the injustices that Kant had
warned of when extra-punitive purposes are attached to punishment (von Hirsch,
Nonetheless, after the post 1945 revelations of Nazi atrocities, the need to
protect individual human rights in criminal and penal law was given a renewed
emphasis. The UN General Assembly Universal Declaration of Human Rights
1948 stipulated that ‘everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person.
No-one shall be deprived of his liberty [except by] the lawful detention of a
person after conviction by a competent court’ (Article 5); and ‘no-one shall be
held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did
not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time
when it was committed’ (Article 7). In 1960, the European Court of Human
Rights heard its first case, ‘a leap forward in the history of human rights’ (Howard
& Morris, 1964, p. 153). The protection of individual rights was also reflected at a
jurisdictional level. In the US, prosecution because of status rather than crime
was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
In O’Connor v Donaldson
it was held that involuntary commitment of a non-dangerous individual
capable of looking after themselves constituted ‘a massive curtailment of liberty’
and was unconstitutional.
Even those areas of penal development that had resisted or departed from the
expectations of Reason gradually succumbed to its demands. It had always
been assumed anyway that indeterminate prison sentences (at least in the
English speaking countries) would be kept at the periphery of the penal system
and rarely used. In England, Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise (1921, p. 58, our
emphasis), Head of the English Prison Commission, was at pains to point out
that such provisions ‘do not touch that large army of habitual vagrants, drunkards,
or offenders against bye-laws who figure so prominently in the prison population.
[These are] weapons to be used only where there is a danger to the community
from a professed doer of anti-social acts being at large, and reverting cynically on
discharge from prison to a repetition of predatory action or violent conduct.’
Thereafter, the US sexual psychopath laws, providing as they did for a fixed term
of imprisonment for the original crime after those so diagnosed were first ‘cured’
in a mental institution, were periodically struck down as unconstitutional or fell
into disuse (Tappan, 1957). Other forms of indefinite, preventive sentencing
experienced a similar fate (Bottoms, 1977). Their arbitrary and inconsistent use
made their retention seem unjustifiable and their abolition seem inevitable (see
the New Zealand Report of the Penal Policy Review Committee, 1981).
As for the death penalty, Reason and its attributes—science, rationality,
humanitarianism—eventually triumphed over the emotive, punitive excess it had
Robinson v California 370 US 660 (1962)
422 US 563
come to represent to policy makers in the post war period. It was eventually
abolished in these Anglophone societies during the 1960s and 1970s.
Government was prepared, at that time, to rid itself of punishments that were
thought to have no rightful place in modern democratic society: ‘[the death
penalty] is the one remaining relic in our penal world of the old system of
complete repression which was tried against criminals and so badly failed …
these instruments have no proper place in the institutions of a free democracy …
repressive punishments belong to the systems of totalitarian states and not
democracies. It was no accident that the chief exponents of violence and
severity in the treatment of criminals in other times were the Nazi and Fascist
states’ (UK Hansard 449, 14 April 1948, col. 1014–1015). In imposing a
(temporary) moratorium on the death penalty in the USA, the Supreme Court in
Furman v Georgia (1972)
affirmed that ‘one role of the constitution is to help the
nation become ‘more civilized’. A society with the aspirations that ours so often
asserts cannot consistently with its goals take the lie of any human being, no
matter how reprehensible his past behaviour.’
Around 1980, Reason had reached its high-water mark in the development of
punishment in modern society. Imprisonment had come to be regarded very
much as a ‘last resort penal option’: too expensive, inhumane and inefficient
(Home Office, 1989). For much of the twentieth century, barriers had been
steadily erected in front of it to keep out a broadening range of offenders for
whom it was though that such a sentence was too harsh and would do more
harm than good: first offenders, young offenders, child offenders, those who
suffered from some sort of mental instability, drunks, vagrants and ultimately
virtually all non-violent offenders. Not only this, but the ‘back to justice’
movement (von Hirsch, 1976), with its emphasis on consistent, limited and
proportionate punishments reaffirmed the continuity of the penal expectations
from the Age of Reason. These were still the yardstick against which a society’s
alignment or otherwise with the presumptions and expectations of modernity
could be judged.
In shaping these developments, an establishment elite, made up of senior civil
servants, judges, university professors, and authoritative sections of the media
such as the BBC and The Times newspaper as it then was, were greatly
influential on government, and able to make pronouncements on the way forward
for punishment with little fear or prospect of these being contested. The Home
Office (1959, p. 13) White Paper Penal Practice in a Changing Society—the
leading statement of the aims of British penal policy in the post-war period—thus
determined that punishment should take the form of ‘more humane and
constructive methods.’ Furthermore, the axis of penal power that the elite had
formed with governments not only excluded any representatives of those who
claimed to speak on behalf of the general public, but took the view that
governments should move ahead of public opinion. Abolition of the death
penalty had become an illustration of strong government, prepared to act as it
408 US 238, 296–7
saw fit and irrespective of the wishes of public opinion to the contrary. As one
speaker in the British parliament explained: ‘I doubt very much whether at any
time during the last one hundred years a plebiscite would have carried any of the
great penal reforms that have been made. The appeal in the time of [Sir Samuel]
Romilly was always the belief that public opinion would not stand it, but there are
occasions when this House is right even if public opinion may not at that moment
agree’ (UK Hansard 536, 10 February 1955, col. 2083). Seemingly closing any
further discussion, The Times editorial (13 March 1975, p. 5, our italics), opined
that ‘it has been said that parliament is a good deal ahead of public opinion …
this is to a large extent true …it is certainly not our business to wait for public
opinion on such an important issue.’
From this time, though, many of these trends and characteristics have been
reversed: as if a resurgent anti-Reason now drives modern penal development.
The growth of imprisonment, in some of the Anglophone countries especially, is
perhaps the most obvious illustration of this. In the US, the rate of imprisonment
has increased some 700 per cent from 1975 to 2012 (from 110 per 100,000 of
population to 762).
It has come close to doubling in the UK (from a rate of 80
per 100,000 in 1990 to 147 in 2016); and has more than doubled in New Zealand
(from 85 per 100,000 in 1985 to 208 in 2015). Furthermore, indeterminate prison
sentences have been refurbished and reactivated. In New Zealand the number
of prisoners serving the indefinite term of preventive detention has increased
from 12 in 1985 to 284 in 2015. One in five English prisoners in 2012 were
serving indefinite sentences, dramatically undermining the previous emphasis on
proportionality and consistency.
There have also been innovative penal measures that strike at the very core of
what had become inviolable values of punishment in modern society. Three
strikes laws, sometimes two strikes, punish prior record in addition to the crime
committed. Retrospective legislation—punishing behaviour that was not criminal
at its commission—is justified on the grounds that the need for public protection
supersedes individual rights. The principle of no double punishments is
contravened by ‘civil detention’ provisions (that is, indefinite imprisonment) for
some sex offenders at the end of a finite prison term, as is the principle that only
the guilty can be punished: they are being detained because not because they
have committed more crimes but because they are thought to be at risk of
committing crime in the future. These moves to controlling risk at one end of the
penal system have been matched at the other by controls on movement in public
space of a variety of those who live their lives on the street (gang members,
vagrants, beggars etc) in the form of supervision and surveillance to prevent
future crime—but before they have actually committed one.
In addition, the language of punishment is now much more redolent of the voice
of Anti-reason rather than Reason. ‘Three strikes’, ‘life means life’, ‘no parole’
The World Prison Brief has been used as the source for all prison statistics. Here, the US rate
represents a decline from its high of 755 in 2008
and so on put into legislation raw, vengeful common-sense rather than humane
objectivity and rationality. At the same time, the authority of the central state has
weakened (Garland, 1996). Now, rather than being prepared to move ahead of
public opinion, it is ready to implement some of its wildest demands. Even so,
this has not been sufficient to hold back some sections of the public from
vigilante activities that challenge the state’s previous monopolistic power to
punish (Pratt, 2000).
Explaining the rise of penal populism
One explanation of these transformations attributes them to the rise of penal
populism. This needs to be distinguished, first, from ‘authoritarian populism’
(Hall, 1979). The latter was seen as involving the imposition of ‘a new regime of
social discipline and leadership from above in a society increasingly experienced
as rudderless and out of control’ (Hall, 1988, p. 84, our italics). But such an
account does not involve any recognition of the way in which populist social
movements have broken up the existing axis of penal power and formed a new
one with government that, having expelled establishment elites from influence,
now puts its own illiberal stamp on punishment. Second, it also needs to be
distinguished from ‘populist punitiveness’ (Bottoms, 1995). This involves
politicians ‘tapping into’ the public’s seemingly punitive stance on crime for their
own electoral advantage, by manipulating this with extravagant promises about
what more punishment will achieve. Here again, though, the dominant political
class are still seen as being in control of events, rather than responding to the
demands of outsider law and order activists and so on.
In contrast, penal populism specifically addresses the role and influence of these
hitherto outsider individuals, groups and organizations on contemporary penal
development. Developing the work of political scientists such as Shils (1956)
and Canovan (1981) on populism, it is as if crime and punishment issues act as
magnets that draw together those who see themselves as disenfranchised by
governments thought to have allowed the unworthy and undeserving to prosper
at their expense. In the criminal justice field, it was as if the establishment had
been pulling the strings of government, prescribing generous treatment and
lenient sentences for law-breakers while ignoring the well-being of crime victims
and law-abiding citizens. From the 1980s, these concerns turned into howls of
rage from newly emerging social movements that now claimed the right to speak
on behalf of those whom government had forgotten. Their primary demands
included terminating the baneful influences of the establishment and replacing
them with their own representatives. In the new axis of penal power that began
to be forged, crime control policy should take the form of protecting the public
from crime risks and punishing those who pose them, rather than safeguarding
the individual rights of offenders and potential offenders.
Initially taken to be an almost exclusive characteristic of the main Anglophone
societies, penal populism emerged out of the tensions and dynamics created by
the neo-liberal restructuring that took place in these societies from the early
1980s (Pratt, 2007). It was seen as having five underlying causes:
(i) the decline of deference.
This helps to explain disenchantment with establishment power structures. It
means that the values and opinions of elites which had previously been accepted
without question are now not only respected but can provoke outrage and
derision. Nevitte (1996) argued that the decline of deference is a natural
consequence of post-1945 social reforms that raised the living standards of the
whole population. Before the 1980s, it was assumed that establishment
figures—in the universities, the civil service and so on—formed a natural class of
government on the basis of their lineage, education and wealth and the positions
of power that these characteristics then guaranteed for them. Thereafter,
however, those in government or government bureaucracies would no longer be
viewed as the social superiors as the rest of society, having the exclusive right to
pronounce on issues of the day, and would accordingly be challenged by those
outside these Establishment circles.
However, the extent to which this supposed equalization has occurred in some
societies (Britain, for example) would seem debatable. What seems more
pertinent to the decline of deference is the way in which the criminal justice
establishment failed to address issues of rising crime from the 1950s and in so
doing seemed remote and detached from the concerns of ‘ordinary people’
(Margaret Thatcher’s successful use of ‘law and order’ in the 1979 British
election was one of the first illustrations of the political potency of this issue).
The subsequent decline in crime from the early 1990s across most of Western
society (for example, Zimring, 2012; Farrell et al, 2014) could not displace the
way in which rising crime had by then become a taken for granted ‘social fact’—
to which the establishment had no answer. Attempts by its members to explain
that it was in decline rather than rising simply became proof of their own
irrelevance and duplicity. By the same token, the developing area of risk control
through penal measures has come to symbolize the way in which governments
were prepared to jettison previous ties to the Establishment, with its now derided
concerns about ensuring individual rights rather than protecting community
rights. Introducing the British anti-social behaviour legislation, the Home
Secretary stated that this ‘represent[ed] a triumph of community politics over
detached metropolitan elites’ (UK Hansard 310, 8 April 1998, col 370).
(ii) the decline of trust in politicians and existing democratic processes
Electorates grow increasingly cynical of politicians’ promises and guarantees of
better futures when these regularly fail to materialize (especially when this is
compounded by evidence of their own scandalous conduct, as with the
revelations of extensive fraudulent expenses claims by British MP’s in 2009).
Indeed, rather than bringing better futures, government policies may bring
disaster to those citizens who loyally adhere to them. In the aftermath of
economic restructuring, worthy citizens who had followed government advice and
invested, often for the first time, on the stockmarket (making fortunes in this way
was advertized as no longer being the prerogative of the already rich), were likely
to have been the ones hurt most when the first of the great post-restructuring
crashes occurred in October 1987.
Using the experience of New Zealand as an illustration, this had been one of the
countries at the forefront of the restructuring. The crash then contributed to a
dramatic decline of trust in both its Left and Right mainstream political parties
that had been committed to it—support falling to nine and 12 per cent of the
electorate respectively in opinion polling in the early 1990s (see Pratt & Clark,
2005). This decline of trust simultaneously led to a surge of support for the right
wing and populist New Zealand First party. It promises to place ‘control of New
Zealand’s resources in the hands of New Zealanders, by restoring faith in the
democratic process’, alongside ‘common-sense decision-making in the best
interests of all’ (New Zealand First, 2014). The decline also brought a change to
the electoral system that has virtually guaranteed this party permanent
representation in parliament. Following a referendum, the ‘first past the post’
system was changed to proportional representation in 1996. New Zealand First
will almost always be able to attract a disaffected core of the electorate sufficient
to take it over the five per cent threshold it now needs to gain parliamentary
seats. On two occasions since, it has become ‘kingmaker’ in coalition
Much of this party’s initial success came through speaking to public anxieties
about crime and promising magical solutions to the problem (more police,
tougher sentencing, Pratt & Clark, 2005). The major parties have been prepared
to accede to these demands to win their support in parliament (Lacey, 2009).
Furthermore, the popular appeal of ‘law and order’ that it had demonstrated
encouraged the mainstream parties (as in Britain and the USA, see Jones &
Newburn, 2006) to compete with each other on these terms, thereby building
penal populism into government policy.
(iii) the rise of global insecurities and anxieties
From the 1980s, the modern world has become a much riskier, threatening place
(Beck, 1992), in many ways a consequence of the same restructuring. If this has
brought new possibilities of pleasure and fulfilment in everyday life, these are
also beset with new risks—terrorism, new kinds of cancers, credit card fraud and
so on. This has occurred in conjunction with fragmentation or disappearance of
many of the old and familiar symbols of security and stability. The permanence
of employment and all that comes with this has disappeared for many (Standing,
2014). Family life has become much more tangential, with increased likelihood
of divorce amidst the growth of impermanent de facto relationships.
Hence, again, the utility of crime and punishment in remedying these deficiencies
in social capital. During the 1990s and early part of the twenty first century, it
seemed that crime was the most obvious and immediate source of risk and
danger, the most obvious and immediate symbol of the inability of governments
and their experts to do anything about making everyday life more secure. As
Tyler and Boeckmann (1997) demonstrate, the more social cohesion seems to
be unravelling, the more likely it is that there will then be support for severe
punishments—not simply as a response to crime but as a way of providing
consensus and solidarity and the restoration of authority which seems to be
missing elsewhere in the social fabric. The intensity and ferocity of the new
language of punishment (‘three strikes’ etc) reflects the enhanced and extended
role punishment has had to play in these societies in this regard.
(iv) the influence of the mass media
Life in modern society has come to be characterized by ‘the sequestration of
experience’ (Giddens, 1991, p. 244): ‘the separation of day-to-day life from
contact with those experiences which raise potentially disturbing existential
questions—particularly experiences to do with sickness, madness, criminality,
sexuality and death.’ As most people in modern society became uncomfortable in
dealing with these aspects of everyday life, so these matters were steadily
hidden behind bureaucratic screens, with the mass media vicariously informing
their publics about them. Or rather, for much of the twentieth century, what
information they were provided with was shaped by authoritative sections of the
media, allowing the establishment to remain largely in control of public
understandings of them.
However, from the 1980s, structural changes in the media meant that this was no
longer possible. Changes in media technology, the advent of satellite television,
Marriage rates (i.e. number of marriages occurring among the population of a given
geographical area during a given year, per 1,000 mid year total population) are as follows:
Australia, 1980: 7.4, 2013, 5.1; Canada, 1981, 7.7; 2008, 4.4; New Zealand, 1980, 7.3; 2014,
4.4; UK, 1980, 7.4, 2012, 4.4; USA, 1985, 10.1; 2012, 6.8. Ratio of marriages to divorce over
the same period is as follows: Australia, 1980, 2.75:1; 2013, 2.3:1; Canada, 1980, 3:1; 2008,
2:1; New Zealand, 1980, 3:1; 2014, 2.5:1; UK, 1980, 2.7:1; 2012, 2:3:1; USA, 1980, 2:1;
2012, 2.2:1. Couples in de facto relationships in Australia increased from 5% in 1982 to 15%
in 2006; in Canada, 6% in 1981 to 16.7% in 2011; in the UK, from 8.9%in 1996 to 16.4% in
2014. One parent families increased in Australia from 8.6% in 1981 to 15% in 2011; in
Canada, from 11.3% in 1981 to 16.3% in 2011; in new Zealand from 12% in 1981 to 17.8% in
2013in the UK, 13.9% in 1981 to 25% in 2014; in the USA, from 19.5% in 1980 to 29.5% in
2008. Meanwhile average household size declined across all these societies: in Australia,
from 2.8 in 1986 to 2.6 in 2006; in Canada, from 3.3 in 1981 to 2.9 in 2011; in New Zealand
from 3.0 in 1981 to 2.7 in 2013; in the UK, from 2.7 in in 1981 to 2.4 in 2012; in the USA,
from 19.5 in 1980 to 29.5 in 2008.
and the deregulation of broadcasting had brought about a much more diverse
and pluralistic set of understandings about the world—at a time when the decline
of organic community life has meant that individuals have become much more
reliant on the news media rather than friends, family or work colleagues to inform
them about the world. These structural changes in the media then meant that
the onset of the fall in crime had little public impact. It was not really newsworthy.
Instead, crime continued to be defined as the most obvious and immediate
source of risk and danger. Deregulation of state broadcasting amidst the advent
of new media technology meant that news reporting had become more simplified,
more competitive, more readily available and more sensationalized: more than
ever before, a sensational story about crime—its menace not its decline—would
beat off competitors, attract the public and thereby attract more advertising
revenue (Jewkes, 2004). Amidst this restructuring, the criminal justice
establishment found itself unable to control the parameters of public debate and
knowledge about such matters.
(v) (v) the symbolic importance of crime victims
The importance of crime news in the new framework of knowledge also gave
much greater emphasis to victims’ accounts of their experiences, rather than the
detached, objective analysis of experts. In this respect, crime victims were given
a new kind of authenticity and authority. Their personal experiences outweighed
the statistical realities of crime. In most cases, these experiences were
presented as something that could easily happen to anyone: going to school,
journeying home from work and so on became the starting point for a catalogue
of horrors that were then inflicted on these unsuspecting victims. When such
catastrophes could befall respectable, ordinary citizens in the banality of their
everyday life, it was as if what had happened to them became a universal
experience and a universal danger.
Hearing, reading, watching their traumas led to demands for more emotive and
expressive punishments that sufficiently reflected public anger and revulsion at
such crimes; and demands, as well, for more opportunities for victims to express
their own anger at their suffering, as opposed to the carefully measures tones of
court room professionals. In a number of jurisdictions, such demands have
necessitated a spatial and emotional reorganization of criminal justice
proceedings, with victims at their centre, rather than their offenders, going
through the detail of their victim impact statements. But when judges seem more
swayed by reason rather than the pain victims when passing sentence (in reality
their hands are likely to be tied by legal constraints anyway on what they can do),
this further divides the criminal justice establishment from victims and potential
victims and their expectations of justice. It becomes more evidence of how out of
touch such elites are from everyday life.
Legitimacy deficits and the rise of populist politics
While these were the forces that combined to drive penal populism, other modern
societies were seen as having built-in defences against such intrusions: a much
greater deference to the criminal justice establishment and trust in government in
Finland, for example, had prevented its emergence in that country (Pratt, 2007).
But since the publication of Pratt’s Penal Populism, it is clear that populism no
longer confines its influence to the penal sector of the Anglophone countries.
Instead, it cuts across much of political life in modern society as a whole,
transforming wide-ranging areas of governance. Historically, populist
movements have been found on both the left and right of the political spectrum
(Betz, 1994). In Greece, for example, it brought the left-wing Syriza party to
power, in opposition to EU and IMF demands for economic restructuring and
massive reductions in government expenditure. It is usually the case, though,
that when populism surfaces in a particular society, it moves the political agenda
well to the right (see Haney, 2016 on the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland,).
Even so, there are important nuances and differences within right wing populism.
In some cases it professes to be anti-big state (as in the UK); in others (as in
Sweden and Finland), it wants to preserve extensive state services—but only for
its own authentic nationals—new arrivals will not be welcome. In addition,
contemporary populism has brought into being a new era of anti-democratic
‘strong man’ politics (as in the Philippines, Turkey and Russia).
What is it, though, that has brought about the rise of this populist politics? Again,
the specific mix of its causes varies. In China, for example, penal populism
became a testament to the Party-state’s determination to protect its citizens from
evil crimes and uncertain risks associated with the profound transformation of the
Chinese society to a market economy from the late 1970s (Miao, 2013).
Nonetheless, what remains at the core of populism is the sense of
disenchantment and disillusionment amongst large sections of society with the
way in which political power has been exercised by governments, seemingly in
collusion with establishment elites—favouring the unworthy and the undeserving
at their expense. Initially, the penal system had been a useful receptacle for this
‘legitimacy deficit’—the tension and anxiety that is generated amongst those who
feel powerless, ignored, or left behind by the way in which the dominant class
exercises power (Beetham, 1991). In a bid to compensate and restore their
legitimacy, governments were happy to direct that antagonism towards criminals
and prisoners—unpopular outsiders who played the role of useful scapegoats.
Thereafter, though, the much greater potency of political populism has been the
product of the way in which two of the elements necessary for penal populism
have become much more deeply entrenched in the fabric of modern society.
These not only give a distinctive texture to the already existing cauldron of
mistrust and anger on which populism feeds but ensure that it spills out of the
penal sector altogether.
First, economic insecurity and uncertainty. The global fiscal crisis of 2008 has
deepened already existing inequalities in modern society brought about by the
globalization of trade and capital from the 1980s—between the winners in the
casino economies that were created and its losers (Reiner, 2001). At one level, it
had been thought that the 2008 crisis would impose greater financial rectitude on
governments, thereby blocking penal populism and its financial profligacy (Pratt,
2008). If, to a degree, this has occurred,
the crisis itself had a much deeper
impact on everyday life than this. By and large, winners continued to win.
Indeed, the winnings of some of them greatly increased because they bought up
cheap property or shares that came on the market in the subsequent recession.
The number of losers, however, became greatly swollen due to attendant
redundancies and intermittent unemployment, permanent underemployment, or
reductions in employment conditions for many others, alongside cuts and
restrictions on welfare expenditure.
At the same time, opportunities for employment in the public sector—a previous
safe haven, offering longevity and security, generous pensions and regular wage
increments—have significantly diminished as a result of the new limits imposed
on government spending post-2008. The full extent of the changing nature of the
labour market, from the beginning of restructuring in the 1980s to post-2008
economic stringency is reflected in the decline of public sector employment: from
27.6 per cent of the Australian workforce in 1989 to 16.5 in 2014; from 25.9 per
cent in New Zealand in 1981, to 17.1 in 2013; from 27.4 per cent in the UK in
1980 to 17.2 in 2015. For most, employment in the much more precarious and
quixotic private sector awaits—if anything awaits them. The general
expectations of inexorable progress associated with modernity, of betterment, of
always improving living standards, have also evaporated. The Governor of the
Bank of England has thus warned that ‘Britain is experiencing its first “lost
decade” of economic growth for 150 years [and that] real incomes had not risen
in the past ten years’ (quoted in Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2016).
This ‘precariousness’ (Standing, 2014) has deepened the already existing
distrust of establishment elites and supra-national governmental organizations,
such as the IMF, EU, World Bank and so on (for Donald Trump, the UN has
become nothing more than ‘a good time club’).
These are seen as either
powerless to prevent the 2008 crash, or helplessly caught up in it, or responsible
for it: but still flourishing themselves, all the same. The expertise they profess
and its associations with reason, rationality and science is not even considered
worthless any more. It has a negative value instead. It damns and condemns
them in the eyes of the public at large. ‘People in this country have had enough
of experts’, was the claim made by leading campaigner for Britain to leave the
EU in 2016, Michael Gove.
In addition, the crash further burnt away traditional political loyalties. Even
democracy is no longer seen as a precious gift of modernity, with built-in
guarantees of good government. Instead, it is pictured as a quagmire by
See note 4 regarding the decline in the US imprisonment rate. See also Goode (2013).
Quoted in Daily Mail, 27 December 2016
Quoted in The Financial Times, 3 June 2016
populists that drags many deserving but not prospering citizens down to its
depths, while members of the Establishment can always find escape routes.
Attempts to bridge the legitimacy deficit by extending democratic processes only
bring disinterest and disdain. In Britain, elections to the European parliament
have turnouts of less than 50 per cent, while the first elections there in 2012 for
local police commissioners saw less than a ten per cent turn out in some
constituencies. It seems that it is only in plebiscites, referenda and, in the US,
citizens’ propositions that are understood and trusted as authentic expressions of
public will. The 2016 British EU referendum had voter turnout of 72 per cent,
compared to 66 per cent in the general election of 2015, and only 59 per cent in
that of 2001. Alternatively, electorates may be prepared to give their support to
aspiring politicians who claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ rather than the
establishment, who present themselves as independent minded ‘strong men’
rather than party loyalists, and who, as with Trump, promise to ‘drain the swamp’
of central government and career politicians altogether rather than add more
layers to the existing democratic process.
Second, the emergence of a new kind of victimhood. This is something more
than being a crime victim, or fear of becoming one, which governments had tried
to offset by promising tougher punishments on the perpetrators. While cries for
law and order have not been prominent in recent elections in those societies—
the fall in crime no doubt reduces its purchase somewhat, fears of specific types
of crime or criminals—fear of paedophiles and sexual predators, for example, in
those Anglophone countries especially—seem stronger than ever. Such fears
still inform the conduct of much of everyday life and have led to the introduction
of further preventive measures that continue to erode fundamental features of
criminal justice in modern society (Pratt, 2016). Equally though, such fears have
become conflated with fears of difference, fears of otherness—qualities variously
demonstrated by strangers, foreigners, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees
(‘Disabled limping migrant who uses a crutch while begging in London is exposed
as a FRAUD when he is seen strolling off to buy a takeaway’, The Sun, 16
September 2016). Fears and suspicions such as these are periodically fuelled
by terrorist outrages that give further justification to such concerns and the
horrendous dangers that these outsiders might be capable of, while reminding
potential victims of their helplessness on such occasions. Fears such as these
continue to demand more punishment, but they also demand that more controls
be put in place to protect the public: sexual predators—keep them in prison, even
after their sentences finish; paedophiles—hunt them down and drive them from
local communities altogether; local troublemakers—issue banning, restriction and
prohibition orders; asylum seekers, refugees, unwanted foreigners and all the
rest of these strangers—build barriers, walls, fortifications to keep them out;
protect the borders so they cannot come in; speed up deportation processes
once they are caught.
These are some of the responses to this new kind of victimhood whereby it is not
only the well-being and security of individuals that is endangered but also that of
the nation state itself as mass immigration is seen as corroding its values,
security and identity. In Britain, these concerns have been prompted primarily by
Eastern European migrants, now allowed to move to Britain without restriction
since their countries joined the EU in 2004. In the East European countries
themselves, it is fear of asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East. In
the US, it is fear of Mexican ‘rapists and murderers’ crossing the border in the
south and Muslim (which for many Americans is synonymous with terrorism)
immigration in general. And so it would be possible to continue collating this
inventory of fear and suspicion, moving from one modern society to another.
As well as demanding protective and innovative para-penal measures, this new
kind of victimization continues to erode trust in supranational organizations and
establishment elites. Having positioned themselves, once again, above the
everyday chaos and insecurity that they had helped to create, these are seen as
weakening the nation state by imposing foreign, alien, unwanted values and
practices on it. Haney (2016) writes of East European fears of losing control over
national interests as a consequence of joining the EU. Similarly in the UK, the
European Court of Human Rights has become one of the most prominent
signifiers of the imposition of unwanted European difference on British values
and understandings. It seemingly has the power to insist that Britain should be
‘Europeanized’ as it sees fit, with its intervention in criminal justice matters
symbolizing such dangerous intrusion. Notably, the Court’s declaration that the
British ‘blanket ban’ on all convicted prisoners’ voting rights, regardless of the
gravity and circumstances of their offenses, violates Article 3 of the European
Convention on Human Rights (Hirst v UK [no 2] 2005). Similarly with regard to
‘whole life sentences’ (Vinter and Others v UK  ECHR), a decision that
reflected, it was claimed, a European ‘rights madness’, as opposed to British
common-sense (Hastings, 2013).
The consequences of deregulation and technological advancement enhance the
power of the media to highlight such unwanted interventions and the social
distance that exists between these ineffectual, dilettante elites and ‘the people’,
as if the will of such a body is now the only authentic expression of authority.
The response of the British Daily Mail (4 November, 2016) to Court of Appeal
judges who ruled that the vote to leave the EU following the 2016 had to be
ratified by parliament, was to label them ‘Enemies of the People’ and ‘out of
touch judges’ who ‘had declared war on democracy.’ As this example shows,
news making and reporting has broken out of the paradigm of reason, rationality
and truth in which it had been expected to operate in modern, democratic
societies, however elasticated this concept might previously have been. It has
no limits, no ethical standards, no set direction to constrain it or that it has to
follow. Demands that truth be told, as some journalists tried to insist during the
2016 US election, were dismissed with rejoinders by the Trump campaign that
this was simply evidence of ‘bias’ against them in the mainstream media.
Indeed, for Trump himself, the journalists at CNN and the New York Times, who
stood by truth, were ‘the lowest form of humanity.’
But when truth is abandoned, then everything can be a lie: there is no means of
distinguishing between fact and fiction, nor any point in tying to do so. The
purveyors of ‘post-truth news’ simply call on their critics to prove that what they
are saying is not true. Until then, lies and conspiracies ‘remain a story.’ Lie, lie,
lie. Lie again and again. ‘Lord, lord, how this world is given to lying.’
away truth, and then evidence and facts only become another set of lies. Rather
than using truth to win votes, conjure up demons and devils—these can all be
fabrications themselves—that need to be confronted by a strong man: then
demand that voters out their trust in that man to rid the world of such pestilence,
rather than career politicians and effete bureaucrats—what do they know of the
insecurities that lie behind such dark fantasises? As it is, the rise of Facebook
(2004) and Twitter (2006) since the 2008 crash has meant that individuals can
not only create their own news and report it as they see fit but publish it before
vast audiences. Again, this new kind of news can be entirely fabricated (‘alt
news’) and usually speaks to some vast web of conspiracy that is supposed to
exist, working to entrap the unsuspecting and the vulnerable in its lair. As one of
the most prominent anti-EU campaigners in Britain stated, ‘the more outrageous
we are, the more attention we’ll get. The more attention we get, the more
outrageous we’ll be’ (quoted by Rawnsley, 2016a).
Through strategies such as these, populist politicians have come to prominence.
While they may well have tougher punishments on their agendas, this is likely to
be only one component of a programme that, they claim, will magically transform
an entire society: rid it of corruption and inefficiency, bring a brighter future
through a reassertion of authority and nationhood. This was seen most vividly in
the campaign themes of the two most spectacular populist electoral successes in
2016. First, the British EU referendum. ‘Leave’ campaigners used the logo
‘Take Back Control’, as if by voting to leave, it would be possible to retrieve all
that had been lost or stolen—presumably as a result of EU membership; it would
be possible to restore national identity and rid the country of corrupting and ‘un-
British’ foreign influence; and it would be a gesture of defiance against the EU—
favouring establishment. A vision of a completely mythical and irretrievable past
of security and cohesion was conjured, when British people were masters of their
own destiny. When was this supposed to have been—who knows? Just before
Britain joined the EU in 1973? But that was a period of massive industrial
conflict, rising inflation and growing racial tensions (Hall et al, 1978)—this was a
time when government had lost control—it cannot have been then. Maybe when
there was an Empire, or maybe when there was a powerful White
Commonwealth, or maybe when Britain (and the colonies) fought alone against
Nazi Germany—rather than subject to EU rules, laws and regulations. The route
Quoted by New York Times, 12 August 2016
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, Act 5, sc 4, p. 7
to this Nirvana involved walking away from Europe, although, in reality, not in to a
glorious past but a troubled and darkly uncertain future.
Similarly, ‘Make America Great Again’, Trump’s logo in the US election. Here
too, the theme conveys the sense of loss and betrayal—variously blamed on
corruption in central government, international financiers, Muslims, Mexicans,
globalization and the infamy of wicked individuals (such as ‘Crooked Hillary
Clinton’). Hence the need to ‘drain the swamp’, ‘build a wall’, ‘lock up’ Clinton
and so on. This kind of purification process was necessary, it seemed, if the
glorious past was to be recreated—although exactly when this was remained
unspecified. Nonetheless, a society could be rebuilt around dominant white men,
where jobs that used to exist before globalization made them redundant would
somehow reappear, and where dangerous foreigners would be kept out. In such
ways, the implied promise of both ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great
Again’ was that not only would the nation be secure against insidious threats to
its well-being that the establishment had allowed to fester, individuals would also
be given back what they think has been taken from them: familiarity, certainty,
These two electoral successes came as a profound, distressing and disturbing
shock to many. They had been so unexpected—as if at the last, Reason would
prove resolute in the face of what ever the anti-reason lies, distortions and made
up news were thrown at it. President Obama had attempted to counter such
challenges with an ‘ode to reason, rationality, humility and delayed gratification’
(quoted by Packer, 2016, p. 84), an argument for the renewal and continuity of
‘American progress.’ In the aftermath of defeat, though, and amidst a great surge
of hate crime, racial abuse and racial intolerance that had been unleashed in its
wake, the liberal intelligentsia suddenly found themselves staring at a cataclysm.
Andrew Rawnsley (2016b), for example, on the vote for Britain to leave the EU,
wrote that it represented ‘a journey into the unknown for a country never before
so divided … between doing-well Britain and left-behind Britain, between the
Britain that is essentially comfortable with globalization and diversity and the
Britain that feels its anxieties and anger about identity loss have not been
listened to.’ On the election of Trump, Richard Wolffe (2016) wrote that ‘we may
as well call this what it is: a revolution … nothing else comes close to capturing
the political revolt—and the chaos that surely follows … an era that stretches
back to Franklin D. Roosevelt just came to an abrupt and ugly end.’
In fact, the profundity of these events has an even deeper significance. Each
signalled that the long journey that modernity itself had taken from the time of the
Enlightenment had come to a shattering end. The defeat of Reason—of
rationality, science, truth, objectivity, consistency—and its ability to structure and
inform the parameters of governance in the modern world—means that only the
unknown awaits. This will not be the end of uncertainty and insecurity promised
by populists, but only the start of new uncertainties and insecurities, alongside
the exacerbation of those already in existence. That said, the two events
themselves do not constitute any sudden end to Reason; rather, they should be
seen as marking the final moments of a process that had made such an end
inevitable, a process that had systematically undermined all that had been
intended to provide the certainty and stability, the cohesion and solidarity that
would otherwise have been strong enough to resist the shamans of populism.
When did this process begin? When was it that all that we had come to assume
was permanent would, in reality, have no permanence at all, have no more
substance than a sandcastle built to stem an incoming tide? In The Four
Quartets, T.S. Eliot (1943, p. 23) wrote ‘In my beginning is my end. In
succession. houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, are removed,
destroyed, restored.’ In the beginning is the end. Where do we look for that
beginning that led to the end of Reason? The starting point is likely to have been
Reason’s post-1945 reassertion, its response to the aberrations from its path in
the ravages of the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the rise
of anti-democratic strong men in Europe who brought catastrophe—carnage,
destruction, misery and genocide. Hence the phrase that dominated political
discourse in the democracies after 1945: ‘never again.’ Never again. It became
the task of post war governments to ensure that there could be no return to that
previous dark time of anti-reason—never again.
How was Reason to be secured against any subsequent aberrations?
Roosevelt’s New Deal had promised greater government management of the
economy, poor relief and increased public expenditure. New Zealanders had
been promised ‘cradle to the grave’ security in their Social Security Act 1938.
The United Kingdom's Beveridge Report (1942, p. 170) promised to control risk
and insecurity by eradicating ‘five giant evils: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor,
Idleness.’ Similar intents were expressed in the Canadian Marsh Report (1943)
and the Australian White Paper on Full Employment (1945). Rigorous planning
by the state was the way to make certain these promises of a good future, one
that gave hope to all. In 1943 Beveridge (quoted by Kynaston, 2007, p. 31) had
anticipated that when peace came, ‘the very first thing to win is the Battle of
Planning. We shall need to have planning on a national scale, boldly
overstepping the traditional boundaries of urban council, rural council, county
council.’ Similarly, the Marsh Report (1943, p. 7) explained that ‘the pre-war
background has not been forgotten by many Canadians … and it must not be
forgotten in the post-war period, in planning in advance what measures should
be taken … to give reality to the aspirations and hopes which the peoples of the
world are more and more clearly voicing.’
Hence the physical, material and ideological shape of post-war society. The
modern city would become a haven where all had a rightful place, would
become a testament to the virtues of planning, of rationality, a testament to the
virtues of Reason itself, its celebration of public space a necessary feature of
harmonious community life. Ebenezer Howard’s (1946, p. 44) vision of ‘the
social city’, for example, was based around wide, tree-shrouded avenues,
homes, public gardens and a central park: ‘large public buildings would be at [its]
centre: town hall, library, museum, concert and lecture hall, the hospital. Here,
the highest values of the community are brought together—culture, philanthropy,
health and united cooperation.’ Family life, too, had an importance beyond that of
the individuals concerned. Now, it would be ordered and structured by
government and its new organizations of assistance to ensure that the well-being
of individuals contributed to the well-being of society as whole: ‘parenthood itself
must become a central interest and duty; and the family and the primary group of
workfellows and neighbours must become a vital core in every wider association’
(Mumford, 1945, p. 214). In 1950, there were around 100 marriage guidance
clinics in existence in Britain to provide the guidance and direction necessary for
those struggling to meet these expectations (Clark, 1991).
What mattered most in the provision of this extensive apparatus of support and
instruction, wrote leading British sociologist of the period T.H. Marshall (1950, p.
56), ‘is that there is a general enrichment of the concrete substance of civilized
life, a general reduction of risk and insecurity, an equalization between the more
or less unfortunate at all levels.’ Indeed, the vastly expanded public sector
workforce that would be necessary to achieve all such objectives in itself went
some way to achieving this by providing guarantees of employment security and
status (in the UK, for example, civil servants increased from 340,000 to 720,000
between 1931 and 1955, Marwick, 1971, p. 137). These guarantees were not
presaged around an especially ambitious life, to be sure, not a life that would be
lived in the fast lane, frenetically grabbing at pleasures and indulgencies as they
came along; but a good life all the same, a life that now had comfort rather than
hardship as an expectation, a life to be cherished rather than abandoned to
whatever fate came its way. And the future seemed assured at this time. In
Britain, a Daily Telegraph (27 December, 1961) opinion poll of 16-18 year olds
found that only nine per cent disagreed with the opinion that ‘the world would be
a better place to live in ten years time.’ In a world of stability and security, what
is particularly striking in the other responses of those polled is the regularity of
their working habits. After three years, more than half were still in the same
employment as when they started. Furthermore, one in three were regular
church attendees. Only one in ten was not looking forward to getting married; 85
per cent disagreed with the assertion that it did not much matter whether or not
the marriage worked out well.
Yet the very successes of this post-war solidarity project (Garland, 1996) began
to eat away at its base. Certainty and stability in personal life and relationships
were the first to crumble, under demands for much greater expression of
personal choice regarding sexual preferences and identities. It resulted in what
had previously been the taken for granted presence of family life and all the
networks woven around it becoming much more tangential, as noted. What
possible role could all the marriage guidance clinics now have in the light of the
subsequent reality of family life? As Ulrich Beck (quoted in Bauman, 2000, p. 6)
has written, ‘Ask yourself what actually is a family nowadays? What does it
mean? Of course, there are children, my children, our children. But even
parenthood, the core of family life, is beginning to disintegrate under conditions of
divorce … [G]randmothers and grandfathers get included and excluded without
any means of participating in the decisions of their sons and daughters.’ Many
others fall through what have become these flimsy networks altogether and find
themselves living alone, one of the most significant features of current
demography in modern society.
Whatever personal histories lie behind this—
choice or misfortune, accident or cruel fate—the growing presence of this cohort
more than any other represents the atomization of everyday life in modern
society and the importance of structures of support and guidance beyond the
family to provide interdependencies and bonds to the rest of society. In an era
when we all now have to ‘operate at the outer edge of the ordered world, on the
barbaric final frontier of modern technology’ (Giddens, 1999, p. 2), when we are
all involved with complex social economic and technological systems we do not
understand, so many have been left on their own to try and digest and resolve
the existential dilemmas and conflicts that these produce on their own.
This is because, in addition to the changing nature of family life, extra-familial
structures also began to collapse from the 1980s, as Robert Putnam (2000)
observed in Bowling Alone. The post-war solidarity project, it was now claimed,
had been both inefficient and sapped the energy of individuals to make their own
way in the world, make their own fortunes and spend them as they wished, rather
than having the state tell them what they might do—although, of course, they
would also have to manage their own risks—for good or bad. Thereafter, amidst
declines in church attendance, volunteering, trade union membership and the
performance of civic obligations, deregulation and globalization not only made
employment prospects less predictable and permanent and more uncertain and
contingent, but the attendant redevelopment of communities and movement of
labour also began to dissolve local cohesion, ties and responsibilities: ‘enterprise
culture proved to be a solvent of bonds of trust and community and a source of
insecurity to many. The mobility demanded by a dynamic market economy is
not easily reconciled with a settled common life. The end result was the
weakening or dissolution of the ties of the community and the generation of a
society of strangers’ (Gray, 1993, p. 54).
Most public and political attention though—in the main English speaking
countries especially that were in the forefront of these changes—was given to
celebrating the fame and fortune that greeted the winners that this economic
restructuring had made possible. The losers—all those left behind or those who
could not keep up with the changes—found themselves largely written out of the
The percentage of people living alone has increased from 18.8% of the Australian population in
1986 to 23% in 2013; from 11.4% in Canada in 1981 to 27.6% in 2011; from 16% in New Zealand
in 1980 to 23.5% in 2013; from 22% in the UK in 1981 to 28% in 2014; from 22.7% in the US in
1980 to 27.4% in 2012.
script. These growing divisions, the growing tension between those perpetually
on the move,
heading up an ever extending escalator that exponentially
provided more wealth and success at each new floor and those left out,
perpetually trapped in modern society’s bargain basement, feeling aggrieved at
governments who seemed to have so little interest in helping them to get to even
the next level, informed the development of penal populism.
By introducing innovative sanctions and controls, as well as more extensive and
intensive punishments on those who seemed to be the most obvious and direct
threat to individual well-being, here was a simple, common-sensical, if expensive
(necessitating reductions in expenditure for other social and welfare measures)
way for governments to show that they had not forgotten the worthy but left-out
constituency. Indeed, they were now prepared to speak its language of
punishment, rather than that of their erstwhile experts, in the new axis of penal
power that began to put these measures into effect. Here was the way,
temporarily at least, to unify the population, to heal divisions and to restore social
cohesion. If this was at the expense of many of the principles on which criminal
justice in modern society had been built, then this could easily be explained away
(‘rebalancing the criminal justice system’, the new controls were ‘only for the
worst of the worst’, only out of touch ‘liberal elites’ will care, see Pratt, 2016).
As we have seen, though, penal populism proved to be only a staging post
towards the much more extensive populist march through modern society. The
increased potency of the threats to individual and national well-being meant that
populism was able to burst out of the constraints of the penal zone and pervade
the whole social body. This does not mean that it has now finished with its
transformation of the possibilities of punishment. As anxiety, uncertainty and
insecurity increase, as criminality is conflated with otherness, so criminal law and
punishment themselves become more diverse and amorphous, increasingly
seeking to control risk rather than merely punishing crime. In so doing, the
boundaries that had previously separated punishment in modern society from
punishment in non-democratic, totalitarian societies are further eroded.
This, though, is a matter of little consequence for populism and its forces. What
drives it is not any legacy of Reason and the Enlightenment but anger and
resentment and the construction of a magical politics around these emotive
forces that promises to eliminate at a stroke all the demons and devils it
identifies. In ‘taking back control’, in ‘making a nation great again’, who then
needs Obama’s commitment to ‘tolerance, compromise and our common
humanity … the values of liberal democracy’ (Packer, 2016) to accomplish this?
Who needs evidence, rationality, facts and science and all the other attributes on
which modernity itself had been built, to do so? Yet, as Jonathan Freedland
(2016) writes, ‘evidence, facts and reason are the building blocks of civilization.
Cf Bauman (2001, p. 62) ‘individuals who are untied to place, who can travel light and move
fast, win all the competitions that matter and count.’
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with it the end of Reason and all its light.
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