Academic journal article Social Justice

Utopian Action and Participatory Disputes

Academic journal article Social Justice

Utopian Action and Participatory Disputes

Article excerpt

Primary Challenge

ABOUT FORTY YEARS AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF THE MAJOR ABOLITIONIST TEXTS, now celebrated criminological classics, Angela Davis (2008,3) suggested that the primary challenge for penal abolitionists might be "to construct a political language and theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment." This is exactly what Nils Christie, Louk Hulsman, Thomas Mathiesen, and Herman Bianchi have done since the 1970s, and their work becomes increasingly significant as processes of criminalization gather pace and prison populations grow across the world. In a climate dominated by penal populism, the scapegoating of the "other" (in Europe, normally a migrant), and the tendency to deal with social problems through punishment, abolitionist thought is as refreshing now as it was in the 1970s. Abolitionism continues to pursue the strategy suggested by Angela Davis, and while disarticulating crime from punishment, it elaborates alternative conceptualizations of crime, critical analyses of law, and radical thinking around the very nature, function, and philosophy of punishment. This multipronged theoretical effort has allowed penal abolitionism to survive and continue to develop within contemporary debates. Examples are found in contributions displaying an array of damning evidence against prison institutions, and demanding that it is the defenders of such institutions "who need to make the case for their retention" (Ryan and Sim 2007,714).

Punitiveness, particularly when associated with the poorly understood concept of dangerousness, has been described as a challenge to traditional notions of human rights, "designed to shame and humiliate offenders" (Bennett 2008,21). Following an abolitionist stance, it has been suggested that "not only should we be asking questions about dangerous offenders, but we should also be asking whether the state itself is becoming dangerous to its citizens as a result of its penal policy" (ibid., 22). Questions such as this, however, require the use of "social imagination," which not only challenges official penal orthodoxies, but is also "forever open to debate about new conceptions of social relations and justice" (Carlen 2008, xvi). Pain, as analyzed by abolitionism, returns in recent criminological literature in the form of violence and the threat of violence, along with the mechanisms of fear that are embedded in the very fabric of prisoners' lives (Sim 2008). Punishment as mourning and crime control as cordiality (Ruggiero 2010) are given novel impetus through the proposal of models and practices of justice based on the idea of "encounters with strangers" and an "ethics of hospitality" (Hudson 2008). Crucial elements of abolitionism are found in the spawning literature on restorative justice (McLaughlin et al. 2003; Jewkes 2007; Wright 2008) and, last but not least, in high-quality postgraduate students' dissertations: "Abolitionist thinking offers an important critique of criminal justice, one that is particularly relevant in today's context, and deserves much wider recognition and coverage. Dismissing it because of its radicalism or utopianism underestimates its potential contribution" (Roberts 2007, 23-24).

It has been suggested that the activist ancestors of abolitionism are the men and women who fought against slavery and the death penalty and that its tenets are grounded in a variety of social philosophies that are primarily concerned with discussing processes of social development that can be viewed as pathological. Among these philosophies are those expressing the view that societies should support a rich plurality of activities, each valuable in its own right, and that each person should be treated as an end, not as a mere means to the ends of others. This Aristotelian and Kantian view would deny "that a society can be flourishing as a whole when some members are doing extremely badly" (Nussbaum 2000, 106). Contemporary debate focuses on how to link abolitionist "radicalism and utopianism" with views of crime and the law embedded in the Western cultural tradition and its concrete, reasonable, options aimed at the reduction of pain. …

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