McNally on Neoliberal Discipline

American Democracy

American Democracy

“But while much can be left to market discipline, not everything can. That is why law, police, prisons, and direct force remain omnipresent. Indeed, the intensified disciplinary regimes of the neoliberal period – punitive laws against panhandling or sleeping in parks, widespread incarceration of those found with small bits of drugs, harsher street-level policing and jail terms, and ever more people stuffed into prisons – are sharp reminders that the coercive powers of the state will be regularly mobilized every time the “work ethic” and social discipline seem to be waning. 


Essential to such efforts are strategies meant to make it less and less possible to survive outside the labor market. Typically, these strategies have been couched in terms of making our streets safer, as if unemployed youth, lacking meaningful facilities in which to gather for conversation and recreation, are the problem. In California, a mid-1980s Task Force on youth gangs defined the problem of unemployed youth on the streets as “street terrorism.” And the 1988 law it spawned bore the ominous title Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act. In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, an exceptionally mean-spirited neoliberal government borrowed the same rhetoric. Having cancelled all social housing and cut welfare rates by 22.6 percent, it introduced a so-called “Safe Streets Act” meant to protect ostensibly endangered citizens from panhandlers and “squeegee kids” who wanted to clean their cars windshields for a small price. The perceived threat had nothing to do with public safety or fear of clean windshields, but much to do with effort to criminalize social groups who sought out alternatives to wage-labor violate the spatial relations of the neoliberal city. Street people, panhandlers, squeegees, and others tend to gather in public space; they put their own distinctive stamp on parts of the city. In so doing, they collide with the sanitizing mission of neoliberalism, which seeks to present cities as spaces for investment, real estate development, and high-end consumption in classy restaurants, nightclubs, museums, galleries, and more. This is why neoliberal urbanism has been with criminalizing the non-conforming. Property values and sites of luxury consumption pivot on exiling the poor, on a sort of social cleansing that segregates poor, marginalized, and “deviant” groups. Law and policing have figured decisively in enacting such segregation.


So, new laws would be written, police mobilized, and fines and jail terms imposed to close off alternatives to wage-labor and to remove the “undesired” from bourgeois view. It is instructive in this regard that, for all their talk of “freedom,” neoliberals’ preferred disciplinary institution has been the prison: it is there that the “undisciplined,” particularly young people of color, are taught the price of not functioning as obedient cogs in the machinery of capitalist production. In this spirit, a “law and order” crusade has been fashioned, involving draconian policies like the three- strikes laws in many U.S. states (under which a third conviction. irrespective of the seriousness of the previous ones, requires harsh jail sentences), joined to tougher conditions for bail and probation and longer sentences. Meanwhile, police and security guards pour into schools with a special mission to hammer on youth of color, as a reminder that discipline and control, not education, are the priorities. So obscene can this get that one predominately African-American high school in New Orleans had thirty- four security guards compared to twenty-one teachers. Multiple institutions of coercion – from the sweatshop and the locked-down school to the penitentiary – thus intersect in a program designed to impose market discipline by force.”

About bolshevikpunk

Mainline Marxism or Die. Activist, Student, and Degenerate.
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