Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity1


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     This article is adapted from “A Sketch of the Neoliberal State,” the theoretical coda to my book Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, “Politics, History, and Culture” series, 2009). It is part of a transdisciplinary and transnational symposium, with responses by John Campbell, Bernard Harcourt, Margit Mayer, Jamie Peck, Frances Piven, and Mariana Valverde (published in English in Theoretical Criminology, 14, no. 1, February 2010), as well as critics from the corresponding countries, published in German in Das Argument (Berlin); in French in Civilisations (Brussels); in Spanish in Pensar (Rosario); in Brazilian in Discursos Sediciosos (Rio de Janeiro); in Italian in Aut Aut (Rome); in Portuguese in Cadernos de Ciências Sociais (Porto); in Norwegian in Materialisten (Oslo); in Danish in Social Kritik (Copenhagen); in Greek in Ikarian Journal of Social and Political Research (Athens); in Ukrainian in Spilne (Kiev); in Russian in Skepsis (Moscow); in Hungarian in Eszmelet (Budapest); in Slovenian in Novi Plamen (Ljubljana); in Romanian in Sociologie Romaneasca (Bucarest); and in Japanese in Gendai Shiso (Tokyo). I am grateful to Mario Candeias and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Berlin for starting the ball rolling on this project, and to the editors of the journals listed above for their enthusiastic support of this project. This article benefited from reactions to presentations made at the 4th Conference on Putting Pierre Bourdieu to Work, Manchester, United Kingdom, June 23–24, 2008, and to the Sociology Department Colloquium at Yale University, February 26, 2009.


In Punishing the Poor, I show that the ascent of the penal state in the United States and other advanced societies over the past quarter-century is a response to rising social insecurity, not criminal insecurity; that changes in welfare and justice policies are interlinked, as restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” are coupled into a single organizational contraption to discipline the precarious fractions of the postindustrial working class; and that a diligent carceral system is not a deviation from, but a constituent component of, the neoliberal Leviathan. In this article, I draw out the theoretical implications of this diagnosis of the emerging government of social insecurity. I deploy Bourdieu’s concept of “bureaucratic field” to revise Piven and Cloward’s classic thesis on the regulation of poverty via public assistance, and contrast the model of penalization as technique for the management of urban marginality to Michel Foucault’s vision of the “disciplinary society,” David Garland’s account of the “culture of control,” and David Harvey’s characterization of neoliberal politics. Against the thin economic conception of neoliberalism as market rule, I propose a thick sociological specification entailing supervisory workfare, a proactive penal state, and the cultural trope of “individual responsibility.” This suggests that we must theorize the prison not as a technical implement for law enforcement, but as a core political capacity whose selective and aggressive deployment in the lower regions of social space violates the ideals of democratic citizenship.