Keynote Address: Critical Criminology for a Global Age1

By Michalowski, Raymond | Western Criminology Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Keynote Address: Critical Criminology for a Global Age1


Michalowski, Raymond, Western Criminology Review


Keywords: critical criminology; crime and political economy; corporate and state crime; Iraq war; power and domination as crime; instrumental versus structural Marxism; state deviance; analogous social injury

A SHORT PREFACE

I want to begin by thanking all those who worked to make possible what I hope will be looked upon as the first annual Critical Criminology and Justice Studies Conference. I also want to thank the organizers for the honor of being invited to deliver the keynote address for the conference.

Being in the room that day with so many like-minded criminologists seemed a long way from the early 1970s when small groups of U.S. and British "radical criminologists" - the bête noir of what Don Gibbons (1979) so aptly termed "the criminological enterprise" - were struggling for, while being ambivalent about, a place within academic criminology. Today, in 2009, there is a sufficient critical mass of critical criminologists within even the relatively limited geographical reach of the Western Society of Criminology to hold a separate conference.

Stanley Cohen (1988), to my mind one of the best sociologists of criminological knowledge, has questioned whether such gains are to be lauded or lamented. It is certainly the case that while radical, critical, and feminist criminologists were scaling the ramparts of academia with some success, the forces of repressive control were successfully capturing levers of state power, unleashing thirty years of mass incarceration fueled by wars on crime, drugs, and poor people (Austin and Irwin 2000; Patillo, Weiman and Western 2004). Despite this triumph of repressive control, it remains important, nevertheless, for those of us that Cohen termed "anti-criminologists" to continue reaffirming our commitment to critical analyses and honing our public policy alternatives to unequal justice. Doing so is not academic wool-gathering, as conservative politicians and managerial criminologists might suggest. It is, instead, purposeful action.

Public policy inevitably articulates the interests and consciousness of those with the positional power to determine state law, rather than codifying some pure form of scholarly knowledge or reflecting positivist visions of "evidence based" practice. Politics is always political, and justice policy is politics par excellence because it always announces a particular worldview about human nature and social order.

One need not have read Foucault (2003) to know that power determines what is understood as truth and that this politically determined truth is the basis for state policy. The inability of critical criminology to substantially slow the tide of state repression against the dispossessed is not a failure of intellectual effort or political commitment. Nor is it some failure to "get the message out." Speaking truth to power comes with no guarantee that power will listen. In fact, it probably comes with exactly the opposite. Small groups of dissidents, by themselves, rarely make headway against the forces of history. They can, however, create, nurture, and grow an intellectual framework that offers alternatives to a moribund system of thought and action once that system's failings become too weighty to ignore. It seems to me that this has been largely what critical criminologists have been doing these last 30 years, British "left-realists" excepted.

With the collapse of the neo-liberal dream of global economic hegemony, the burgeoning costs of a wildly overgrown justice system, and the election of the first mixed-race president in U.S. history, I think that moment for broad, public reconsideration of our justice practices might not be too far ahead. Thus, this is a timely opportunity to reflect on the challenges and promises of growing a criminology that is capable of understanding crime and justice as an expression of social order rather than as just an annoying social problem to be managed in what is otherwise the best of all possible worlds. …

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