Bernard Harcourt On Invisibility of Prisons in Democratic Theory

Bernard E Harcourt

‘Democratic theory and the penitentiary were born together, but separated at birth.

In Invisibility of Prisons In Democratic Theory, Bernard E Harcourt argues that the contemporary democratic states, as well as modern democratic theories, have ignored the prisons in their conceptualisation. This invisibility of prisons in the discourse on democratic theories, he says, is to some extent effectuated by what he calls virtuality of democracy.

Virtuality of democracy, according to Harcourt, is the democracy’s tendency to operate without the full participation of its citizens and to project responsibility for risks onto politicians and experts. There are multiple indicators of democracy’s virtuality: low turnout in elections, the emphasis of liberal thinkers on private life instead of the public sphere, political leadership viewing itself as solely responsible for the security of the citizens, and a shift towards specialization in crim. He says:

‘Our democracy is not a democracy of voters, but of potential voters. It is not an actual democracy, so much as a potential or virtual democracy. It has a potentiality, a capacity for democratic rule. And it is precisely through the democratic potentiality that the benefits of democracy are achieved.’

How does this virtuality of democracy manifest itself? Harcourt provides multiple perspectives on the same. First, the taking over of security concerns by the political leadership makes the security policy extremely risk aversive. Therefore, concerns of those are generally ignored who can harm the reputation of the government as a security-provider, or raise questions on the government’s capacity to provide security in the first place.

Secondly, it allocates the ‘problem’ of crime, criminals, and prisons to the experts/criminologists/bureaucrats, who manage prisons from cost-benefit analysis to maintain security, and are indifferent to political regimes or democratic theory. He argues:

‘The problem of crime, criminals, and penitentiaries is a problem that is handed off to the criminologists, police bureaucrats, and experts in “corrections,” and they are indifferent to political regimes and democratic theory. For these experts, trained in cost-benefit analysis, the prison is just another fungible mechanism to achieve a particular objective — say, security. It is on par with investment in education, hardware, or transportation infrastructure.’

In light of this virtuality of democracy, Harcourt lists certain answers to the question — why doesn’t political theory directly deals with the prisons?

Politics of Respectability: the involvement with criminal justice and the interests of the prisoners don’t come across as ‘respectable’ to some.

Perceived Immorality of Crime: moralistic presuppositions regarding criminals and criminality —

‘We tend to think of the convict as someone of inferior moral worth, and this rubs off on our judgments of citizenship. We tend to think of those caught in the carceral mesh as less worthy citizens, whose exclusion from the political arena is, therefore, less troubling.’

The impact and burden of prisons are disproportionately borne by the ethnic/racial minorities and the lower socio-economic rungs of the society.

Neoliberalism: the belief that government is incompetent in economic matters and should not be over-regulating economic decisions, but conversely, government’s hyper-intervention in punishment and policing is legitimised by supporting the government as a security provider:

‘In other words, as citizens but also as political scientists, we have bought into a world view in which governance is shifted toward security — the space where the state acts legitimately and forcefully, resulting in the massive police state that we have today.’

Complement this with Loic Wacquant on The Punitive Regulation of Poverty in a Neoliberal Age, and Albert Dzur on Repellant Institutions and the Absentee Public



I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology

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Annotating Criminology

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology