The Culture of Control, together with the effusion of commentary, criticism and debate that followed its publication, forms part of a collective project that has been rapidly unfolding in the sociology of punishment over the past several years. The central concern of that project is to develop a critical self-understanding of the practices and discourses of crime control that have recently come to characterize a number of contemporary societies, the United States and Great Britain among them. This is a research programme whose existence owes less to particular authors than to the remarkable transformations that have occurred in the social and penal fields of late modern societies and to the momentous effects experienced by those involved.
The Culture of Control develops a sociological description of the contemporary crime control field as it exists in the U.S. and the UK, a genealogical account of its emergence, an analysis of its central discourses and strategies, and an interpretation of its social functions and significance. Whatever the value and validity of these analytical claims, there was clearly some virtue in developing a rather precise and comprehensive account with which others could take issue, and one effect of the book has been to focus debate, to sharpen disagreement, and to refine matters of theoretical and empirical controversy.
The remarkable response that the book has provoked demonstrates the vitality of that collective project and the extent to which scholars are now actively engaged in seeking to understand the penological
present. Beyond its assessment of the book’s specific claims, this response has offered up a whole series of alternative descriptions and explanations, emphasizing different factors, arguing for different interpretations and highlighting different national trajectories
. Some matters are now settled and others are as much in doubt as ever they were, but the upshot is that we now have a clearer sense of the phenomenon to be explained, of the key questions at issue, and of the kind of research – above all, theoretically focused studies of how different societies have responded to the control and security problems posed by late modernity – that should help resolve them.
One issue that ought by now to be clear is that The Culture of Control does not claim that the criminological and crime-control developments that have occurred in the U.S and the U.K. will inevitably emerge in the other western nations. There is no single “late-modern penality” that characterizes all the western nations at the start of the 21st century. It is late modern social organization that is (more or less) common to the advanced nations, not the specific penal responses to late modernity that emerged in the U.S. and the UK. But if the book’s theses are correct then other advanced nations – having also experienced the characteristic social, economic and cultural changes of late 20th century modernization – will also be struggling with the kinds of problems that I describe in The Culture of Control. These other nations will, of course, develop their own distinctive adaptations to the new risks and insecurities of late modernity – to repeat, the spread of late modern social organization does not entail the universalization of American-style crime control – but one might expect that generalized changes in the structure of everyday life might sometimes prompt similar adaptations in social and penal policy. At the very least, these shared social changes will create, for each nation, a recognizable social matrix within which crime-control problems are posed, and will set some limits on the range of practices that are liable to offered as solutions. If this is the case, then The Culture of Control’s analysis of these two nations may serve as a kind of metric against which to measure divergent and convergent changes in other nations.
In America and Britain today, “late modernity” is lived – not just by offenders but by everyone – in a mode that is more than ever defined by institutions of policing, penality, and prevention. The question for those of us who live in these societies, and especially for those who live elsewhere but have experienced similar social, economic, and cultural forces, is: can we respond differently to the risks, insecurities, and individualism of the late modern world? I leave it to my readers to assess how well the descriptive and explanatory accounts developed in The Culture of Control succeed in illuminating the contemporary realities of German criminal justice and social control, and the policy horizons that have emerged in response to these realities.
But a word or two may be necessary to address one aspect of the present that inevitably shapes the consciousness of readers as they approach a book such as this today.
The original, English-language, edition of The Culture of Control went to press in June 2001 and was published a short time thereafter in October 2001. During that brief period, the world was witness to the events of September 11th and we have been living, ever since, amidst the political, military and security upheavals that followed in their wake. The repercussions of that fateful day have been particularly apparent in the two societies that are analyzed in this book – the USA and the UK – both in government policy and in the outlook and comportment of private actors. It is therefore reasonable to ask: did September 11th and its aftermath alter the phenomena described in this book? Do these developments require us to revise the analysis in any fundamental way? Can a book about crime and punishment, risks and fears, security and control, states and civil societies – a book that was written on the eve of one of the defining events of our time – continue to be relevant in today’s altered circumstances?
Perhaps its author is not most appropriate person to respond to such a question, but my own belief, for what it is worth, is that the book and its analyses do indeed remain relevant. They may even be more pertinent today, insofar as considerations of security and control now pervade even more of our governmental policies, our discursive tropes, and our daily routines, and do so with a new urgency and unquestioned power. The script and dramatis personae of the culture of control have not withdrawn or disappeared. On the contrary: they have moved onto a world stage.
With regard to the practices of crime prevention, prosecution and punishment described in The Culture of Control, there has been no major re-orientation or change of direction since 2001. The American and British prison populations continue to increase, sentencing levels remain high, and penal policies persist in their commitment to a tough, “law and order” approach. The avoidance routines, crime prevention activities and generalized vigilance of citizens and corporations have shown no signs of abating. And the discourses of politicians and the popular media continue to be structured primarily around the values of risk management, expressive retribution, and victim satisfaction. Whatever else it may have wrought, September 11th 2001 has done little to alter the build-up of crime control and security in the households, boardrooms and legislatures of the US and the UK. (Nor have it diminished the utility of studying these two societies together, and pointing up their shared characteristics and socio-political orientations – the commonalities of America and Britain have rarely seemed so apparent).
The daily routines, entrenched ways of thinking and institutional patterns that I describe here as a “culture of control” have by no means disappeared. Rather, the distinctive repertoire of control recipes that they embody has been applied to the new problems and priorities that came into existence following the devastating experience of terrorist attack, first in America after September 11th 2001 and, latterly, in Britain, after the 7th and 21st July 2005. If the USA and the UK were “high crime societies” before 2001, they became “high security societies” thereafter.
The heightened state of anxiety produced by this devastating experience of terror and the threat of its recurrence has had the effect of extending the cultural and political reach of the culture of control, just as the new “homeland security” policies have reproduced the techniques of control associated with it. The cultural dispositions and political orientations forged by decades of the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs” are altogether continuous with the posture assumed by the US government and the American media in gearing up for the new “global war on terror.” So too is the tendency of high crime societies to disregard for the rights of suspects or the liberty interests of offenders whenever a concern for “public safety” and “innocent victims” is invoked – a disdain for civil liberties that has been taken to new extremes in the detention and interrogation practices adopted by the American and British governments in recent years. The security state of the 21st century (targeted upon political terror and “militant Islam”) and the control state of the late 20th century (targeted upon violent crime and “underclass minorities”) are illiberal forms of governance that share deep cultural and political roots.
They also share certain ways of thinking and acting, certain techniques and rationalities of governance, that are described and analyzed in The Culture of Control.
Far from reducing the relevance of the arguments of The Culture of Control, it seems probable that the events of the last seven years have expanded their reach and deepened their importance. Government officials and commentators often assert that the risks and dilemmas now faced by the western liberal democratic societies are altogether new and unprecedented, but it seems to me that the theoretical lens provided by the present book throws valuable light on these very problems. Despite the American government’s preferred language of “war”, the problems generated by the constant background threat of violent attack by a loose network of non-state actors more closely resembles the phenomenology of crime than the phenomenology of state warfare. To say this, is not at all to downplay the problem. Terrorist threats create a profound difficulty for the government of the threatened society, because however strong its military might or its “homeland security” forces, dedicated (often suicidal) terrorists will always be liable to pierce its defenses, particularly if it remains an open, liberal society with a mobile population and a measure of respect for the privacy and freedoms of citizens. In the face of this threat -which exposes the limitations of sovereign power in liberal society in much the way that serious crime does- the state is liable to react in one or other of a number of identifiable ways (each of which is analyzed in detail in The Culture of Control).
In the face of the terrorism challenge, a state may seek to deny its limitations by forcefully asserting its sovereign might, typically, by means of a massive show of force. The invasions of Afghanistan and of Iraq are spectacular examples of this strategy. The aftermath of the Iraq invasion is also a vivid reminder of just how limited that force can be when the task becomes the governance of a population rather than the (comparatively straightforward) destruction of an enemy’s military forces.
Alternatively, or additionally, states may respond to newly perceived risks in their environment by various adaptations that aim to improve situational security. Again, following patterns long-established by the war on crime, they will typically do so by restricting opportunities, controlling access, and reducing the vulnerability of targets. Examples of these methods – all of which were first developed in response to the threat of crime and criminal violence – include: (i) the fortification and the hardening of targets (as in the retrofitting of government buildings and commercial airplanes); (ii) limiting access and excluding risky individuals (e.g. by tightening airport security checks, or enhancing border security and restricting immigration); (iii) extending preventative routines (e.g. by imposing regular police checks on mass transit passengers or cars entering bridges and tunnels); or by (iv) targeted surveillance that profiles and monitors risky individuals (by means of wire-taps, the monitoring of phone calls, computer surveillance, etc.) though such surveillance will bring often the government into conflict with the law and violate the citizens’ rights of privacy.
Finally, states may increase their capacity to deal with the threat of terror by “responsibilizing” other state actors, (as President Bush sought to do when he called on other nations to join the USA in the war against terror; or when he insisted that foreign governments must take responsibility for terrorist activities that take place within their territories) or, in more mundane ways, by increasing the safety consciousness of private actors (e.g. by means of public awareness campaigns encouraging citizens to report anything suspicious to the authorities). Here the state addresses its limits by aligning its conduct with the governmental conduct of others – a strategy that has great potential, but which depends on skilful diplomacy and tends to undermine any capacity for exclusive sovereign action.
Perhaps the least likely state response – in the war on terror as in the war on crime – is for governments to analyze and address the underlying causes of the threats that they face (e.g by reorienting American foreign policy or addressing Europe’s failure to integrate generations of Muslim immigrants) and alter their basic economic and policy commitments (unquestioning support for Israel, uncritical support for undemocratic oil regimes, over-reliance on imported oil) in ways that diminish these causes and mitigate the underlying conflicts that mobilize anti-American or anti-western sentiment and provide crucial popular support to militant organizations. Though they might prove efficacious in the long run, such responses are politically toxic for most elected officials because they upset the simple formulae of good versus evil, victimizers and victims, unprovoked terror and innocent victims and accord some rationality to the conduct of the terrorist enemy. More disturbing still, such responses would entail acceptance of some responsibility for the conflict and questioning the morality of western foreign policy towards the Middle East and Arab nations.
Unlikely but not impossible. As I show in The Culture of Control, one can point to instances where government officials have acknowledged that criminal conduct may be a predictable consequence of economic and social arrangements that are criminogenic in their effects, and which can be altered in ways that reduce criminal opportunities and motivations. Acting on the problem of crime by means of prevention and design rather than by after-the-fact punishment, viewing the problem of crime as a predictable situational outcome rather than a mindlessly evil act by wicked actors – these are rational adaptations already developed in field of crime control that offer real possibilities in the effort to prevent terrorist violence. Unfortunately, they come with political risks and legitimatory challenges that few politicians are willing to take on.
More politically appealing in its simplicity and its raw expressive power, is the temptation to “act out” and to give vent to the retaliatory urges that are generated by the experience of being victimized. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that this “war on terror” has already given rise to egregious episodes of regressive, uncivilized, punitive behaviour, such as the torture regimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. When people have been attacked and killed, the government humiliated, and its security placed in doubt, it is all too easy to demonize the enemy and unleash the state’s violence in retaliatory attacks. In the process, legal restraints on the use of force, and self-control in its application, have a tendency to fall away – a pattern that established itself in the “war on crime” long before it took hold in the present conjuncture.
As we learn from crime control politics, the benefits of rational, evidence-based solutions usually come too late for a fearful public, anxious that something be done here and now, just as they do for politicians, who are always running for election and are pressured by their competition to demonstrate immediate results. As we also learn from penal politics, in such threatening, fearsome situations, liberal politicians are put at a disadvantage. They cannot object to illiberal measures for fear of seeming weak in the face of security threats, of appearing unconcerned with public safety, or else of being accused of lacking sufficient sympathy for the victims who have already lost their lives.
In the absence of effective liberal opposition, and with a commercial mass media industry that typically exaggerates threats in the interests of a sensational story and is afraid to appear unpatriotically critical of government at a time of war, the public is usually all too willing to cede power to the authorities. Why limit what can be done in the name of national security and public protection – especially if those most affected (Asian immigrants, Muslims, foreigners, the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan) seem remote and alien? The result is a concentration of governmental power – the state becomes more sovereign – and a reinforcement of social and racial divisions – the society becomes less liberal and less tolerant, and is recreated in the image of its enemies. The build-up of the penal state, first in America and then elsewhere, may thus be a progenitor for the build-up of a security state, one that operates on a world stage, and tends to bring about the same kinds of illiberal consequences, at home as well as abroad.
These gloomy parallels were not in my mind when I originally wrote The Culture of Control. It is a matter of deep regret that readers who come to the book in the current conjuncture will surely find them unavoidable.
For an initial discussion of these questions, see H. HESS, L. OSTERMEIER, B. PAUL (eds.), Texte zur Kriminalpolitik im Anschluss an David Garland
, “Kriminologisches Journal”
, 39 Jg 9 Beiheft 2007.