Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Neoliberal Penality in Action

Frank Pasquale

I recently listened to a chilling podcast on a book about methamphetamine use in a small town of 6,000 in Iowa. Timothy Egan's editorial describes the economic backdrop for rural meth abuse:

Journalist Nick Reding . . . spent nearly four years charting meth’s course in Oelwein, Iowa . . . There, the people who grow our food are agribusiness oligarchs, and the people who run our factories have cut their workers’ wages by two-thirds, dissolved the unions and shipped in illegals to work for a paycheck that would barely pay for dog food.

Meth is a symptom of this collapse, not a cause. . . . Reding says it is “the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational.” . . . [I]t’s a preferred stimulant for people working two jobs in low-wage purgatory.

Many have called for cognition-enhancing drugs to increase productivity in high status professions. We hear less about drug use to make low-wage, low-autonomy work bearable. But it's surely something we'll see more market demand for, as movies like Sleep Dealer suggest. According to Reding, the pharma industry also pushed hard against DEA proposals that would have made it harder to make meth.

Correlating the failure of US industrial policy with the need for increased policing due to meth abuse also helps vindicate Bernard Harcourt's theory of "neoliberal penality," as expressed by a blogger here:

The idea behind neoliberal penality is that as the norm against government intervention in the economy has increased, governmental energies have been channeled instead to an ever-increasing carceral sphere. Neoliberalism argues that the market is naturally ordered, and that government intrusion constitutes a distortion that generally should be avoided. By contrast, the penal arena is seen as an appropriate venue for government to flex its muscles. Consequently, the social forces which might press against increased penality are weakened, as crime and punishment are precisely the areas in which government is seen as having the greatest claim to authoritative legitimacy.

When work disappears, many of the natural impediments to addictions go with it. We should not be surprised if failure to invest in jobs programs leads to ever more spending on prisons, surveillance, and rehab. Thankfully, books like Reding's are helping us "connect the dots among America’s agribusinesses, drug companies and global trade and problems like unhealthy diets, the destruction of small farms and farming communities."

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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