A Recap of 7/13

By a graduate student in the seminar

Building on Abolition 6/13’s discussion about the abolition of capital, Abolition 7/13 discussed the abolition of the punitive system, which, Michel Foucault suggested in his book The Punitive Society, arose at least partly from capitalism. The seminar focused on Foucault’s lectures and reflected on their implication for the abolition movement today. Bernard Harcourt and Daniele Lorenzini co-hosted the session, with panelists consisting of scholars and activists with art, legal, sociology, and philosophy backgrounds.

The seminar started with an opening penal consisting of Adnan Khan, Cori Thomas and Lonnie Morris (attending virtually) surrounding the play Lockdown. Inspired by her experience of volunteering at San Quentin State Prison in California, Cori Thomas authored the play to call on people outside the prison to view inmates as individuals. She dedicated this play to Lonnie Morris, incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison for 43 years and denied parole 20 times by the California Parole Board until December 29, 2020, who shared his experience of working with Thomas on the play and helping her understand prison’s nomenclature and culture. Morris also shared his experience of the parole process, which, according to Adnan Khan, is an extremely arbitrary system. The truth of the system, Khan suggested, is that former law enforcement officers sitting on the Parole Board, biased against the incarcerated, determine the safety of an inmate’s release, whose finding of suitability is still subject to the Governor’s often politically motivated vetoes. Khan also put forward the idea of “police conform,” by which he described elected officials’ reaction to the public’s demand in little steps, which, in essence, were not intended to implement police reform, but to give the public comfort so that the larger institution could be preserved. This idea was echoed by Thomas, who described the constant supervision and surveillance of the incarcerated in prisons as another form of “police conform.” Bernard Harcourt then related this latter type of “police conform” to the “Panopticon” described by Foucault in The Punitive Society, which introduced the panelists’ reflections on the book.

Six panelists then each made a short presentation on their reading of the book. Stuart Elden, for example, focused on the approach in which Foucault analyzed the punitive society. Elden contended that Foucault’s lecture on 31 January, 1973 was the only occasion where Foucault used “genealogical” and “dynastic” equivalently and noted the contrast Foucault later made between an archaeological analysis and a genealogical analysis. Goldie Osuri, in turn, related The Punitive Society to Indian-administered Kashmir and argued that coloniality should be named and impugned, and colonial impunity should be abolished.

Focusing more on the substance of the book were presentations by Henrique Carvalho, Irena Dal Poz, Federico Testa and Miguel Beistegui. Henrique Carvalho looked at the question of what “being punitive” means. Carvalho contended that “being punitive” means much more than simply “delivering punishment”; a punitive society also reproduces punitive logic and restricts its members’ imagination of societies to punitive societies. Taking the example of prison, Carvalho argued that the reason behind prison’s longevity despite its manifest dysfunction from the beginning is exactly that the punitive society has affected its members’ psychology so that they regard prison as both morally righteous and socially beneficial. The punitive society, according to Carvalho, achieves this objective, first, by labelling disorders as originating from dangerous individuals instead of the society’s structural problems and second, by symbolically solving the problem by punishment.

Echoing Carvalho’s note on “dangerous individuals” as the scapegoat for social disorders was Irene Dal Poz’s reflection on the notion of criminals as social enemies. Building on Foucault’s unfolding of the “criminal-social enemy” idea as non-neutral and politically-produced, Dal Poz argued that the notion of “virtuous and responsible citizens,” whose lives should be protected and actions are exemplary, is also politically produced. This, Dal Poz suggested, could help us reflect on how socio-economic inequalities are currently enforced under the disguise of morality.

Federico Testa commented on Foucault’s analysis of capitalism in The Punitive Society, which was central to the establishment of the coercive element beyond juridical penalty and the penalization of existence. On Testa’s reading, Foucault analyzed capitalism along two axes with a focus on its forms of power, which, per Foucault, is constitutive of every mode of production. Along the materiality axis, Foucault looked at the interaction between the worker’s body, characterized by explosive energy and its potential to become labor-power, and the body of bourgeois wealth, which included products, materials and productive apparatus; power, according to Foucault, fixed workers’ bodies to the body of wealth and at the same time prohibited workers from attacking the body of wealth. Along the temporality axis, Foucault argued that power integrated people’s time of existence into the temporality of production through institutions of sequestration, which is the main form management and organization of workers takes in a capitalist, punitive society. This symbiosis of capitalism and sequestration, Testa suggests, provides a clue about abolition.

Miguel Beistegui focused more on the present form of the punitive society. Besitegui pointed out that the profiling of individuals in a punitive society as described by Foucault in the book has now shifted its emphasis from individual event to statistical chance; it attempts to assess the risk and dangerousness of each individual scientifically, and manage the individuals to “defend” the society based on their risk. Beistegui believed it was against this background that we should understand the operation of prisons today. Beistegui contrasted the U.S., which has mass incarceration and long sentences, with the more liberal Scandinavian nations, which prefer open prison and short sentences, and questioned the pervasiveness of dysfunctional prisons in the U.S. In his opinion, this pervasiveness is driven partly by the collusion of neoliberal capitalism and the rationality of punishment that makes prisons a lucrative business, and partly by historical and systemic racism.

Following the presentations, the panelists started a discussion on whether it is possible to imagine a society that is not only non-punitive but also, even more radically, without punishment. The panelists answered this question from various perspectives. Thomas, for example, suggested that we apply restorative justice to replace the current centralized justice-administration scheme and rebut the presumption of the current criminal system that criminals are irredeemable. Goldie answered the question against an even larger social context, suggesting that leaving large-scale capitalist nation-states and returning to much smaller but more cohesive societies might be the only solution.

The two discussions that, from my perspective, were particularly interesting were both related to the influence of the individualism ideology on the criminal justice system. The first one is about the parole system. During the conversation, Beistegui raised the question of whether the parole system, as now administered, can be understood as a form of cruelty enforced under the disguise of morality. Khan answered the question based on his personal experience and argued that the system can indeed be so understood. To be considered suitable for parole, according to Khan, all that a prisoner can do in front of the Parole Board is to reflect on his personal responsibility in bringing about the incarceration and cannot attribute any responsibility for his failure, such as homelessness and the school-to-prison pipeline, to the system. Through this underlying notion of individualism, the system refuses to accept any responsibility for the mass incarceration and fabricates an image of government impunity, blaming individuals to an extent that they do not deserve.

The second one is about the contrast between the U.S. and the Scandinavian nations Beistegui made during his presentation. During Q&A, Beistegui elaborated on this contrast and located the cause of this difference in the background ideology against which the criminal justice system is designed. Beistegui suggested that if we follow the U.S. model, consider crime as a personal failure and deny society’s responsibility for it, then punishment would appear to be the default solution to crime. If, however, we following the Scandinavian model, the Danish model in particular, and identify crime as a systemic or societal problem, then we would likely approach it through programs of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is not heterogenous to punishment in the sense that it, too, is a form of normalization, but empirical evidence in Denmark suggesting incredibly low recidivism after short sentences tells the difference between the two solutions.

These conversations, I believe, shed light on one of the first steps we can take to move beyond this punitive system, which is to change our individualism mindset. This is by no means an easy undertaking given that the success of this nation, and the idea of the “American Dream,” are both founded on this individualism ideology. Nevertheless, there is still the question about the balance point between individual responsibility and society’s responsibility for both successes and, importantly, failures. To put it differently, if the system delivers its promise and does provide a background against which everyone is presented with a real opportunity to fulfill his or her “American Dream,” then the individualism ideology as we now have it might be appropriate for the division of responsibility between individuals and the society. But until then, the system should not, and we as the public should not allow it to, protect itself with impunity and blame individuals for every failure.

Fonda Shen