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Shock therapy

12 September 2008

Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.

(Milton Friedman).

Scott Henson’s Texas justice/penology blog, “Grits For Breakfast” wrote yesterday about a book called Governing Though Crime.  Henson, and Jonathan Simon the book’s author, talk about the “carceral state” — the

“…new civil and political order structured around the problem of violent crime. In this new order, values like freedom and equality have been revised in ways that would have been shocking, if obviously unimaginable, in the late 1960s, and new forms of power institutionalized and embraced — all in the name of repressing seemingly endless waves of violent crime.” This new civil and political order is, following Simon, a modern era of “governing through crime,” making crime, and particularly the fear of it, the rationale for laws and policies which have resulted in mass incarceration.

From Henson — and Simon — the “carceral state” is specifically one that makes  mass imprisonment — and the threat of imprisonment, and the administration of prisons and police — the main task of governance.  Leaving aside the bizarre situation in the United States where turning over state functions to private enterprise includes prisons, the “carceral state” doesn’t sound all that different from what is called a police state:  What is considered “violent crime” and is accepted as the type of thing that requires incarceration is gradually expanded to cover all kinds of anti-social behavior.  Incarceration becomes the answer to everything from rape and murder to narcotics use to tax evasion to political protest.

Apparently, the only justification for not calling the United States a “police state” is that it has a functioning democratic system.  Somebody legislates these punishments, and approves the budget for the state as punisher.  But…

… to be for the people, legislators must be for the victims and law enforcement, and thus they must never be for (or capable of being portrayed as being for) criminals or prisoners as individuals or as a class.

It is also a convenient way of NOT using state resources to meet other goals, or to take on other tasks — public health, education, transportation, environmental protection, etc. — that neo-liberalism suggests should be transferred to the private sector. In other words, as the United States moved to a radical neo-liberal system under Ronald Reagan and his successors — governance in the United States has systematically shed what used to be state functions, focusing more and more on this one task (“crime control”) and turning over other tasks to non-governmental agencies (corporations in the United States).

From the time of Carlos Salinas onward, Mexico has also been shedding state functions. Although so far the state functions that have been de-nationalized have been those that in the United States never were government-run (the telephone company), or where the state could make the argument that the task was inessential to the state and could be run more efficiently by private companies (the railroads and toll-road system). Whether that is true is debatable, but the trend is continuing, with attempts to denationalize the oil industry and … what is troubling… to starve public services like education and health care where the private sector’s parallel institutions can (and do) serve to exacerbate existing class distinctions.

That is, the public schools and universities, and the public health care system, while not perfect, not to mention public services like the Mexico City Metro, mean that income levels haven’t kept the poor ignorant and unhealthy. Despite economic disparity Mexico remains a middle-income country, with relatively healthy, relatively educated people. Yes, the rich have it better (they can drive their kids to private schools and to private doctors), but overall, people are not bad off.

However, those “socialist” ideas are anathema to the neo-liberals, who narrowly hold power in Mexico. “Crime Control” — creating a situation where “legislators must be for the victims and law enforcement” — is a convenient excuse to shed other state responsiblities.

Turning the problem with narcotics sellers into a military/national security issue, which has led to a surge in crime, creates a situation ripe for the “carceral state”.  Large-scale social movements that are unrelated to this issue are ignored.  The media-driven “Light Up Mexico” marches on Saturday 30 August were the focus of international attention.  Nothing was said (and almost nothing in the Mexican media) about the equally large September First march opposing PEMEX privatization, nor about the independent union marches, nor the 2 September marches and demonstrations sponsored by the independent union movement.  Fred Rosen’s “Tale of Three Marches” in the not-widely distributed “NACLA Report” was probably the only English-language coverage of events that gave Calderon the excuse to break with tradition and avoid appearing before Congress to deliver his Informe in person.

If security and police reforms are a pressing national issue (and I don’t doubt that they are needed), then they have to be paid for.  But 39 percent of the proposed national budget is for security.  And, rather than raise taxes or borrow money for this, the Calderon budget calls for deep cuts in everything else.

We are determined, absolutely determined, to clean house, to put it in order and to recover the security of our parks and public spaces.  It does not matter whether a crime is local or federal, we will collaborate on recovering public security in Mexico

he said, at the inauguration of a public health clinic!

By cutting the budget to meet this “crisis”, the Calderon Administration is doing two things.  First, it seeks to undermine the opposition — the creative social programs that have made Mexico City’s PRD administration an attractive alternative to voters are financed largely by federal expenditures (there is no such thing as a local tax base in Mexico) and creates a secondary “budget crisis” where the Calderonista goals of denationalizing PEMEX and other state enterprises becomes a necessity.  It takes pressure off the Administration to deal with essential issues like environmental degradation, loss of agricultural independence and demands for self-determination in places like Oaxaca.

All these are challenges to control by the only tenuously legitimate Calderon Administration.  The second, and perhaps, more important result is that it allows for continual “shock therapy”.  At best, labor violators or timber thieves would be incarcerated in the new police state, but it’s more likely to be the sick and uneducated.  But, by creating a “carceral state” the adminstration can redefine the “crime crisis” as needed to fit the situation, and — as in the United States — even argue that “privatizing” this remaining state function would be sensible.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mr. Rushing permalink
    18 September 2008 6:01 pm

    Privatizing PEMEX might not be as bad as you think, you might even get cheaper gas due to the lower competition and environmental standards.

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