“The market is the best mechanism ever invented for efficiently allocating resources to maximize production . . . I also think that there is a connection between the freedom of the marketplace and freedom more generally.” As political scientist Bernard Harcourt notes, these are surprisingly not the words of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, but of then-candidate Barack Obama, in the summer of 2008. As Harcourt demonstrates in The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order, a clear relationship exists between the pervasive expectation that the federal government should (or at least could) stay out of market matters, on the one hand, and the public and political acceptance of the expansion and naturalization of government’s role in policing and incarceration, on the other.
Harcourt refers to this self-perpetuating schema—in which a belief in the government’s obligation to respect the illusory freedom of markets can thrive alongside an urge to continually restrict the freedom of people—as “neoliberal penality,” and details how it facilitates the expansion of the penal sphere. Most directly, he notes, the logic provides politicians with rhetorical tools with which to enact prison-packing tough-on-crime policies. Harcourt cites Katherine Beckett’s work in demonstrating Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of the paradoxical rubric by which public assistance can be deemed an illegitimate state function while policing and social control are its obligation. Here’s Reagan speaking at a fundraiser:
This is precisely what we’re trying to do to the bloated Federal Government today: remove it from interfering in areas where it doesn’t belong, but at the same time strengthen its ability to perform its constitutional and legitimate functions. . . . In the area of public order and law enforcement, for example, we’re reversing a dangerous trend of the last decade. While crime was steadily increasing, the Federal commitment in terms of personnel was steadily shrinking.
Harcourt characterizes this as the “core idea in neoliberal penality,” this notion that the government should respect the self-contained orderliness of the economic sphere, yet has a legitimate role to play outside that sphere, especially in law enforcement.
Cut to Chicago site of this week’s NATO summit, where world leaders discussed global issues of “security in an age of austerity.” Pictured at right are those very world leaders, posing together for a commemorative photograph. Below, in striking contrast, we see images of the security forces present in Chicago during the meeting.
The photos, taken by Harcourt’s daughter Isadora Ruyter-Harcourt, depict what Harcourt dubbed “the Chicago Police State 2012.”
The security mania represents our truly unique way of stimulating the economy, of employing piece labor, of creating government jobs and subsidized contracts. Just think of the amount of overtime pay that we are disbursing with all this policing. Instead of investing in schools and education, in job training, or in re-entry programs, this is how we invest in our future. And we never think of it as government welfare because it falls in that sacred space of security–because, essentially, of the American paradox of laissez-faire and mass punishment.
Isadora Ruyter-Harcourt also captured the spirit of the demonstrators themselves, who provide yet another stark contrast to the security apparatus constructed to contain them:
You can see slideshows of Isadora Ruyter-Harcourt’s photos of the NATO police and protesters on her flickr site. You can also read more from Bernard Harcourt on the “American paradox of Laissez Faire and Mass Incarceration,” and on the moving experience of witnessing US war veterans throw away their medals in the shadow of the NATO summit.