Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

The Governance of Social Marginality in the UK: Towards the Centaur State?

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

The Governance of Social Marginality in the UK: Towards the Centaur State?

Article excerpt


Burgeoning prison populations and the growing use of compulsion in welfare policies across much of the western world have stimulated a great deal of academic debate. In the UK the prison population stands at record levels and the benefits system has been characterised by growing compulsion. Wilson and Pickett (2010) show that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and US states that spend the least on social welfare have the highest rates of imprisonment. Cavadino and Dignan (2006) have linked penal policy with political economy. Neo-liberal states are both more unequal and punitive. They speculate that punishment may be a 'negative reward': societies that are prepared to reward success with higher incomes and greater social status are also more willing to punish failure with both poverty and formal sanctions. Downes and Hansen (2006) have also found that 'penal expansion and welfare contraction' have become more pronounced over the last twenty years. The 'transcarceration' thesis has been advanced in which 'penal and welfare institutions have come to form a single policy regime aimed at the governance of social marginality' (Beckett & Western, 2001, page 55). Furthermore, 'reduced welfare expenditures are not indicative of a shift towards reduced government intervention in social life but rather a shift toward a more exclusionary and punitive approach to the regulation of social marginality' (Beckett & Western, 2001, page 55).

Wacquant (2009) views these developments as paradigmatic of the way neo-liberal Governments deal with growing social insecurity. He argues that a new type of neo-liberal political regime has emerged, the 'centaur state'. According to Wacquant (2009, page 4), the 'centaur state' involves a triple transformation of the state including the 'amputation of its economic arm, the retraction of its social bosom, and the massive expansion of its penal fist'. It is 'guided by a liberal head mounted on an authoritarian body' (Wacquant, 2009, page 43). The result has been the 'double regulation of the poor' that involves, on the one hand, the decline of the Keynesian welfare state and its replacement with a workfare state, and on the other hand, the criminalisation of the poor and the expansion of the prison system. The centaur analogy was first used by Machiavelli (and subsequently by Gramsci) to refer to the diversity of strategies of rule deployed by the state towards various social classes combining a mixture of coercion and consent (Squires and Lea, 2012). For Wacquant it refers to a neo-liberal state that retains strategies of consent towards corporations and the upper classes but is authoritarian and coercive towards the poorest.

The 'centaur state' is predicated on the notion that there has been an historical rupture in the approach taken to social marginality. Wacquant (2009) argues that this shift began in the mid-1970s and has prevailed through a neo-liberal hegemony. This article seeks to make a distinctive contribution to the debate about the relevance of these ideas to the U.K. by undertaking an historical analysis of the treatment of the long-term unemployed in the benefits system during the inter-war period. This is particularly illuminating given the ahistorical nature of much of the debate. It goes on to draw upon the findings of contemporary research to discuss the contention that welfare and penal policies work in concert to push offenders into the secondary labour market. A key finding is that frontline practice intended to prepare offenders for the UK labour market has severely restricted the operationalization of joint penal and welfare policies characteristic of the 'centaur state'.

Towards the double regulation of the poor

There have been a series of UK policy reforms since the mid-1980s that emphasise greater compulsion and enforce a stricter benefit regime. Griggs and Bennett (2009) have identified the idea of a 'contract' in the benefits system, with increasing conditionality and sanctions for claimants. …

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