Negotiating a Coercive Turn: Work Discipline and Prison Reform in Ontario

By McElligott, Greg | Capital & Class, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Negotiating a Coercive Turn: Work Discipline and Prison Reform in Ontario


McElligott, Greg, Capital & Class


Introduction

If the welfare state is now dead or dying, what has replaced it? Thirty years ago, James O'Connor thought a 'social-industrial complex' might emerge to make the state's legitimation efforts profitable for corporate providers (1973: 54). Twenty years later, Bob Jessop (1993) foresaw a 'Schumpeterian workfare state' that would 'subordinate social policy to the demands of labour market flexibility and structural competitiveness' (pp. 9-10). Visions of this sort have become even darker lately. Michael Hallett (2002) is one of many who have linked multinational prison companies to the 'penal management of poverty and inequality' (p. 388). Older Keynesian strategies were built on material legitimation (the 'social wage'), accommodation with organised labour, and formal commitments to greater equality. The new path seems to lead backward to 'crimefare states' that criminalise poverty, intensify policing, imprison on a mass scale, and subject the poor to malign neglect (Nevins, 2002: 143-144; Neocleous, 2000: 19, 72). In a transition that is eerily reminiscent of the move from outdoor relief to workhouses, welfare programmes have been gutted, and penal confinement is back in vogue. Bribery and persuasion are everywhere yielding to force and fear as the preferred methods of dealing with marginal populations.

This article (1) presents a contextualised case study of one attempt to ratchet up state coercion and move toward the penal management of poverty. Between 1995 and 2003, Ontario's provincial government undertook an exceptionally ambitious administrative restructuring that included (and relied on) major changes in corrections. This article focuses on the exemplary aspect of that initiative, and shows how its generic appeal to 'discipline' and its restoration of old-style 'deterrence' evoke past efforts to intensify the work ethic. Both features are consistent with a neoconservative political agenda that seeks to make state programmes even less accommodating for subordinate groups, and even more profitable for business. Governments under the influence of this agenda have degraded the state's legitimation role for over thirty years, at every step adding some new element of coercion (economic, administrative and/or legal) to replace the benefits revoked (O'Connor, 1973; Panitch & Swartz, 2003). This process has now reached the point at which, to cutting-edge neoconservatives, major institutional changes seem possible and/or necessary.

The two sections that follow set the political stage for the Tory assault, and then examine the historical and contemporary role of prisons in instilling labour discipline. The third and fourth sections describe bow a coercive 'Southern strategy' migrated north, taking on particularly exemplary and demonstrative aspects as it crossed the border into Canada. The final section show how the chosen tools of this strategy--high-tech 'superjails'--concentrate and advertise state power, while also exposing its limits and vulnerabilities.

Background

The government under consideration here is that of Mike Harris, Conservative premier of Ontario between 1995 and 2003. His party had ruled the province without interruption for forty-three years between 1942 and 1985. During that period, the party had gained a reputation as a moderate, even 'bland' political force. But after ten years in exile, the revitalised Tories returned to power in 1995 with Harris's hard-line neoconservatives in charge. As had been the case in Britain, the ascent of an explicitly neoconservative party owed much to the failures of its social-democratic predecessor (Hall, 1987). Burdened by recession and fiscal crisis, Ontario's first New Democratic Party (NDP) government broke key promises, and avoided confrontations with international financiers by attacking its own supporters in the public sector. Upon its leaving office, its base--including most of the labour movement--was divided and demoralised.

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