The Political History of Punishment: Who Feels Retributive?

A few recent posts have discussed the idea of retribution – the conviction that regardless of what benefit it might secure, for them or others, those who have done something wrong should suffer for it (or should be punished for it – is there a difference?)

The discussion so far has been largely ahistorical, abstracted from any particular social realities. In this post I want to change that by asking: what is the class significance of retribution as an idea? Does it characterise the attitude of any particular social groups more than others? And how might this have changed over time?

I also have in mind, when asking this, some recent posts about Foucault and his account of the ‘genealogy’ of punishment – and, behind that, the earlier ‘Genealogy of Morals‘ by Nietzsche.

How I want to proceed is by laying out some postulates, which you need not think are true, and then drawing out what they would predict, and observing that it (I think) seems to match up with a lot of what we do observe.

In the last post on this topic, I suggested some factors that might influence people’s disposition to retributive impulses. Based on these I want to make two postulates:

1) That insecurity of identity, any lack of confidence in one’s own worth or in the view of the world which allows one to remain ‘at home in it’, increase the disposition to retributive impulses.

2) The degree to which people value power and regard power as a crucial component of identity, also increases this disposition.

I’m not here arguing for the truth of any of these claims, though hopefully my presentation so far and here makes them at least plausible. I just want to lay them out, and compare what they would imply with what we can observe.

These are certainly not the whole story  – a lot of other postulates would be needed for a systematic account of the politics of punishment. One very prominent issue would be who actually benefits from different policies relating to crime and punishment. But interests can’t be looked at in isolation from psychology – we can’t define what people’s ‘interests’ are from the outside and then expect their behaviour to reflect that. So I wanted to think about how much explanatory work could be done using the two postulates above.

To them, though, I want to add some more postulates:

3) The greater the salience of a power dynamic in someone’s life, the more emphasis they will place on power in their view of the world and particular people.

That’s hopefully fairly obvious – when something is important in what happens to you, the mind responds by treating it as more important full stop (other things being equal). By ‘power dynamic’, I mean something like ‘a relationship where one person can control another’s actions without needing to persuade them’.

4) Being on either end of a power dynamic will tend to increase insecurity of identity.

That is, both the dominator and the dominated will be made less secure. If you’re wondering why I believe this, I’ve put it in a footnote*.

5) The increasing technology, organisation, and in general ‘strength’ of a society will make people feel more secure, but will do so more strongly the more control they have over society’s resources.

6) As the division of labour increases, the number of people in an authoritarian society who are able to remain relatively remote from the actual exercise of power, increases – those who neither directly dominate nor are directly dominated become more numerous.

And if we finally suppose (as I think is fairly clearly true) that in general, over time, most Western societies have seen a growth in such ‘strength’, we can make some predictions.

In pre-modern societies, with a generally insecure relationship to natural disasters, food supplies, each other, etc. we might expect to see retributive practises that are 1) widespread and 2) shock us in their viciousness: public disembowelling, crushings and flayings, crucifixion, burning alive, and so forth. This appears to be borne out, as far as my scant knowledge goes.

But at the emergence of the modern period, the power that society can deploy increases enormously. This makes the need for punishment and violent retribution less. At the same time, the number of people who aren’t conscious of themselves as either directly dominating or directly dominated (e.g. intellectuals, skilled workers, merchants) increases, and this group, relative to the others, is less committed to retribution and the satisfactions associated with it.

As a result, there would then be a systematic pressure to make punishments less openly ‘aggressive’, less viciously destructive. The rhetoric of blind harsh justice wanes, and discourses of proportionality, humaneness, rehabilitation, etc. grow to replace them. That doesn’t mean that retribution is now gone – clearly its not, and clearly this varies from place to place. But it seems that overall there is a much stronger sense of the potential primacy of other considerations.

Unless I am mistaken, this is precisely the process described by Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punishment’ – the birth of ‘humanitarian discipline’, and the replacement of the politics of death and sovereignty with that of life and its regulation. Though as I said, this congruence need not rule out other factors.

But there’s something else, that’s even more interesting. I talked about the greater sense of security and confidence produced by a more powerful society – but as remarked in postulate 5, this should have more of an effect for those people who have more control of society’s resources. That is, this reduction in retributive feeling is likely to actually be strongest in the ruling classes, in those for whom society and its strength is ‘theirs’.

But even stronger, perhaps, would be this phenomenon in the aforementioned newly-growing group who are removed from the direct exercise of power, and the anxieties it might throw up. This group, broadly speaking, we might call ‘the middle classes’, choosing that term not despite but because of its ambiguities.

So, speaking here in vast generalisation, the replacement of retributive approaches with ‘humanitarianism’, is mainly a phenomenon of the middle classes and upper classes. The lower classes, who are most excluded from society’s growing wealth, and who continue to be dominated and bossed about in their everyday lives, will ‘lag behind’.

The predicted result would be that retributive feelings, resentment, a desire to be ‘tough’ on criminals and ‘not let them get away with it’, would actually be most widespread among the ‘lower’ classes – where, note, those are defined in a non-Marxist way (i.e. a scientist who has a lot of control over their own work and a good income would here count as ‘middle-class’, whereas by Marxist lights they are proletarian).

This would then interact in important ways with the patterns of ‘material interests’. In many respects poorer people and communities suffer more from many sorts of crime – but in many other respects, increasing the severity with which crime is punished, and the harshness of the methods of its enforcement, will be to the disadvantage of the poor and the advantage of the powerful.

But if the psychology of retribution follows the pattern here predicted, then there would be a reservoir of anger and support for Law’n’Order, which would allow authoritarian fragments of the ruling class to draw heavily on the support of precisely the worst-off sections of the working class.

Those opposed forces which, both for good reasons and for bad selfish reasons, support more ‘tolerant’, ‘understanding’, and ‘rehabilitative’ approaches, ostensibly for the good of the poor themselves, would be lambasted as ‘bleeding-hearts’ and ‘elitists’, ‘on the side of the criminals’.

So that’s a few postulates, drawing on some of my earlier posts around this topic. And after looking at what they predict, it seems to me that those predictions are very often confirmed, suggesting that the postulates themselves contain at least a bit of truth.

Now I want to make a final comment. What would we expect to happen in a hypothetical society characterised by an extreme degree of equality and freedom? From the postulates laid out earlier, we would predict that retributive impulses would be hugely reduced relative to current societies, perhaps to the point of being absent from political discourse entirely.

To put it another way, in a maximally humanising, inclusive society, a society dedicated to supporting and reinforcing all of its member physically and psychologically, we would expect that ‘forgiveness’ would become much easier and so much more common.

But this has a certain consequence – if currently the most ‘anti-retributive’ group are the idealistic middle classes, perhaps most of all those damn students with their long hair and their gap years and their incense sticks, then this would appear to be a case where ‘communist consciousness’ (the mentality characteristic of future communist societies) is more similar to ‘middle class consciousness’ (given of course that there are more than one of those), than to ‘proletarian consciousness’.

*1. For the dominated, this is because being controlled means being treated like a tool or object, and not specifically as a person. It reinforces a sense of non-personhood. On the other hand, they are a person, and they have to recognise this at every moment when they act, think, choose, value, etc. This sets up a tension.

For the dominator, on the other hand, something similar happens. To resolve the tension between regarding the dominated as a person (which they obviously are),  and regarding them as a tool or object (which the dynamic presents them as), they have to suppose that they the dominator are such that it makes sense for them to dominate other persons. After all, it makes sense for anyone to ‘dominate’ objects, i.e. treat objects like objects – but it can’t make sense for everyone to dominate other people, for then nobody would ever obey. So the dominator must be ‘special’ in some way. But in reality, they’re not profoundly different, and the need to maintain this inflated view of themselves makes them less secure.

One Response to “The Political History of Punishment: Who Feels Retributive?”

  1. Q Says:

    I agree with a basic point here, although I’d look at it from a hugely different perspective. People will indeed think of what they know in their lives when they think of solutions to problems.
    Crime is a problem, and those people who have become removed from the everyday physicality of life because they are pampered and spoilt will tend to think that punishments should be appropriate to their own lives.
    Those who are closer to where humanity has come from and could always go will tend to believe more strongly in sticking with firm and solid punishment.

    As a society becomes more civilised forgiveness becomes easier because people are in general more well-meaning. The problem is in that ‘in general’. A well-run society might give everyone the best opportunity to become conscientious and altruistic, but it can’t change human nature, and it will be taken advantage of.
    Those who are closest to being taken advantage of are the ones who advocate the most physical, and to you, horrific, punishments, because they’re the ones who suffer most and lose the most (proportionally).
    I’m not sure that this observation can really be used to characterise one group as more secure, nor does it have any bearing on which course of action is more ethical. The way one phrases it, however, can make quite a difference to how ethical things sound.


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