Criminology and Criminal Justice 10(4) pp 393-404

Punishing the Poor avers not only that the United States has shifted from the single (welfare) to the double (social-cum-penal) regulation of the poor, but also that the ‘stunted development of American social policy’ skilfully dissected by Piven and Cloward stands in close causal and functional relation to America’s uniquely overgrown and hyperactive penal policy. The misery of American welfare and the grandeur of American prisonfare at century’s turn are the two sides of the same political coin. The generosity of the latter is in direct proportion to the stinginess of the former, and it expands to the degree that both are driven by moral behaviourism. (Wacquant, 2009a: 292–3, original emphasis)

I wish I could write like Loïc Wacquant. Not only in terms of the volume of published material, but also in terms of the quality of that rich output: how many articles and books in a relatively short period of time and on a variety of topics? Wacquant has made a massive contribution to social science, and has extremely rare qualities indeed. Passion and the power of persuasion drive his text repeatedly – sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of layered arguments on the materialist anatomies of post-Fordist society, its urban forms, and contradictions. I have had the pleasure of meeting him, twice. The first time was at a conference in Chicago on neoliberalism and its spaces, in September 2001 (see Brenner and Theodore, 2001). The second time was in London, in October 2009, where I was invited as the geographer to comment on his last two books, Punishing the Poor (2009a) and Prisons of Poverty (2009b), which collectively chart the arrival of the ‘penal state’. I rehearsed there some of the arguments that I am presenting in this article. On both occasions, his elegantly written research was matched by the elegance of its oral delivery, captivating the audience with a machine-gun-like argument on the interactions between state, class, and race. Bang, bang, bang . . . No ‘fancy’ PowerPoint slides, no close reading from his notes or a pre-prepared script, just a diagram representing a triangular relationship between the concepts under consideration and a rapid, engaging, and passionate dialogue with his audience.

But, like listening to a very fast guitar solo or a set of chords played at high speed, which at times blow you away with their intensity and elegance, I have often been left wondering what it all meant, and whether the connections between the notes and words formed a tune-like logic, or a chorus that I could remember and recite. Call me fussy, I know. My engagement with Wacquant’s work has always made me ask many questions, mostly those that are ‘awkward and unanswered’, as Slater (2010: 167) has suggested in referring to Wacquant’s (2008a) Urban Outcasts. In common with those recently commenting on Wacquant’s urban poverty research (Maloutas, 2009; Pattillo, 2009; Wu, 2009), I, too, have been uncomfortable with the extent of his macro-generalisations, I have often searched for the data and screened the interrelationships, and I have wanted to specify the connections betwixt the policy, national, and local scales of analysis. And ultimately, I have sought explanations to the persuasive descriptions that are so neatly presented in his meta-framework on neoliberalism over the past decade. In the remainder of this article, I explore my celebrations of, and some frustrations in, Wacquant’s ‘penal state’ thesis – the notion, as is inferred in the quotation above, that welfare state restructuring (‘workfare’) and mass incarceration (‘prisonfare’) are iteratively intertwined, causal, integral, and functional material necessities/logistics under neoliberalism. The next section summarises my understanding of where Wacquant has got to. Harking back to some of the important and groundbreaking debates on capitalist transition some two decades ago (see Amin, 1994), I proceed to offer some warnings on the perils of following transition models in the social sciences, where such models are assumed ‘to explain everything’ (Thrift, 1989: 128). I then suggest the need to tease out the interpenetrating processes and practices highlighted by Wacquant, and because relationships and interrelationships are important to my argumentation and explanation, I call for closer attention to the political institutional geography of the capitalist state. My coda seeks to take this agenda forward by offering a complementary framework of analysis within the penal state: an impedimenta state, wherein the state is grappling with itself – a state created in and through crises and contradictions emerging from the (failed) reconciliations of multifarious involvements in politics, policy, economy, and society.