Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Obscene Remainders: Neoliberalism and the Gang Crisis Narrative

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Obscene Remainders: Neoliberalism and the Gang Crisis Narrative

Article excerpt

Abstract: Social scientists increasingly recognize the importance of violent non-state actors. Few political theorists, however, have examined the American street gang. My paper addresses this deficit by describing gangs as the obscene remainders of the neoliberal bargain. To begin, I examine how neoliberal discourse registers the street gang as an imaginary signifier. By situating the gang outside the promise of market prosperity, the gang crisis narrative detaches the proliferation of gangs from the cultural, economic, and spatial conditions of global capitalism. I argue this is misguided considering the increase in street gangs correlate to the specific contours of neoliberalism. For example, nations with higher levels of income inequality experience the most problems with gangs. Global capital also undermines the symbolic institutions traditionally responsible for registering well-adjusted citizens. As a result, social actors increasingly seek meaning in identities that circulate outside traditional disciplinary bodies. Furthermore, to compensate for structural exclusion, gang members often overidentify with the cultural signifiers of late capitalism. Overall, the essay urges policy-makers to challenge the gang crisis narrative and reconnect youth crime to the problem of market failure.

Key words: gangs, neoliberalism, symbolic, imaginary

In Europe a criminal is an unhappy man who is struggling for his life against the agents of power, while the people are merely a spectator of the conflict; in America he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole mankind is against him. -Alex de Tocqueville Gangs are the truth. Gangs provide opportunity, protection, belonging, inclusion, brotherhood, help to the underdog, promise for the future. Gangs become the truth to these young people. America is the lie. -Robert Odom, Executive Director of the Social Development Commission in Milwaukee, WI.


This essay examines how political actors (public officials, intellectuals, and media) within the neoliberal state apparatus imagine the American street gang.1 According to the National Gang Intelligence Center (2011), there are almost 1.4 million street, prison, and outlaw motorcycle gang members in the United States. NGIC estimates that 33,000 gangs operate in total (2011: 9). These figures represe nt a "660 percent growth in U.S. gang membership" since 1980 (Swift, 2011, p. 12). 2 Gangs are an increasingly important part of America's cultural fabric, and as a result, policy makers devote a significant amount of attention to the problem of deviant youth. While criminologists and sociologists frequently examine American gangs, political theory literature on the subject is lacking. This is unfortunate considering the central concern of crime in American political culture. Employing political theory as a method in gang scholarship is important considering current gang policies emerge out of a specific political articulation -neoliberalism. Furthermore, I read the street gang problem in America as symptomatic of the inability to politicize struggles over income inequality and resource distribution.

Drawing upon Zizekian theory, I begin by describing how the neoliberal regime registers the street gang as an imaginary signifier. From the neoliberal point of view, global integration and economic liberalization are the keys to universal prosperity and financial stability. Nevertheless, socioeconomic indicators fail to corroborate this formula. Instead of prosperity and stability, growing sectors of the United States population experience poverty and financial insecurity. As a result, neoliberalism must account for such moments of slippage and discrepancy if it is to maintain its hegemonic position. As flaws in the narrative become apparent, the dominant articulation imagines that external identities are disrupting market performance. I refer to such identities as the obscene remainders of the neoliberal bargain. …

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