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Social Reform through Social Exclusion

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 264-270 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0033

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In October 1826, Pennsylvanians, and indeed Americans, heralded the opening of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. While it later housed such infamous people as Al Capone, the people who organized and built it hoped new prisons such as Eastern State Penitentiary would do more than simply incarcerate criminals, the poor, and others. They designed the prison to punish criminals, but they also hoped to provide the incarcerated a place where they might reflect on their crimes. Such reflection would lead, they thought, to better behavior. Reformers’ lofty goals and superlative language, however, too often deteriorated into the racialized and sexualized violence, the oppression, and the spiraling catastrophe of human brutality that has characterized the prison system in the United States from the opening of Eastern State Penitentiary to Alcatraz to the super-maximum security prisons of today. Few prisoners reflected on their behavior as they tried to survive the squalor and viciousness of prison life. Even fewer were reformed.

Two recent books illustrate the theory and the reality behind prisoners’ lives in penitentiaries, one of several social reform movements that swept the U.S. in the nineteenth century. Where Craig Calhoun outlines the theoretical underpinnings of those reform movements in The Roots of Radicalism, the essays collected in Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America describe the myriad horrors that marked prison life in the U.S. from the late eighteenth century through the antebellum period. Singularly, the books reveal the ideas and movements that influenced people to reform their societies. Together they show, at best, how some people missed opportunities to facilitate productive reform and, at worst, how some reformers tried to violently impose their moral, cultural, political, and economic standards on others. In that way, Buried Lives and The Roots of Radicalism reveal both the best and worst of social reform movements then and today.

Penitentiaries, almshouses, and workhouses grew out of the tradition of social reform movements Craig Calhoun traces in The Roots of Radicalism. Calhoun is, first and foremost, a social theorist, and his book is more a collection of essays written over the course of his career than a monograph or synthesis. He devotes the bulk of his energy to analyzing the theories about social reform movements. Calhoun argues that social theorists have overemphasized class to the point where they constructed a dichotomous view of social movements of the nineteenth century. Theorists stood on the right or the left of that dichotomy because their conclusions too readily “reduce[d] to variants of a basically economic conception of class consciousness the many different visions of alternative social orders” (p. x).

Calhoun starts his study by resituating radicalism conceptually and physically. He contends that social theorists have focused on either revolutionary or reactionary radicals, even while they attempted to explain the meaning behind social movements. But they stressed class, even though, Calhoun argues, class awareness depended on widespread communication and interaction that occurred at the same level as capital interaction. Their focus on broad movements meant they missed critical local movements that came first. Earlier social theorists thus missed what Calhoun sees as critical: the importance of tradition and traditional communities to the development of social movements. Traditional communities grew as a result of direct interaction when people identified their shared opponents and goals. Once they formed, traditional communities became largely self-regulating, autonomous, and powerful enough to organize and act beyond a strictly defined community. The members of those communities thus built strong foundations for collective action. In that way, traditional communities provided a better base for radical action because members enjoyed a shared sense of protection often lacking among people who participated in class struggles but who did not live in traditional communities.

Traditional communities discovered and cultivated their bonds in the public sphere. Jürgen Habermas presents the public sphere as a place where individuals debated issues and where processes, such as learning, became more universal; but Calhoun argues that Habermas depended too much on Enlightenment-era notions of reason and rational-critical discourse. Calhoun further contends that any notion of separate groups that organized themselves within the public sphere—counterpublics—overlooks how groups of people interacted and depended on one another. Finally, there could...

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