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  • The Strong Neo-liberal State: Crime, Consumption, Governance1
  • Paul A. Passavant (bio)

Fear of crime, terror alerts, and the contemporary security practices that would seem to be demanded in response to these fears under general conditions of neo-liberalism make imperative the question of the state for political and legal theorists. Is this present moment in the development of the American state similar to, or does it differ from, earlier state formations within the United States? More to the point, is the U.S. state “strong” or “weak;” “big” or “small?” For instance, should we consider the present fetish for counter-terrorism merely as a continuing extension of a surprisingly strong U.S. state, only with updated computer technology and the “terrorist” substituted for the “communist?”2 Or should we understand the present as encompassed by the slogan that the “era of big government is over,” meaning that it is now inapt to speak of the new security-incited technologies of control as extending the power of the state?3

My argument is that neither position is fully correct. In a study focusing on the Cold War national security state within the U.S., Andrew Grossman, for example, has argued that scholars mistakenly characterize the U.S. state as simply “weak.” He goes on to suggest that national security developments in the 1990s, which focused on the “terrorist,” are mere extensions of the Cold War state. This assessment, however, seems to miss how the present state formation functions to achieve its ends in a significantly distinct manner from the Cold War state. Contemporary political mentalities that embrace a neo-liberal logic, I argue in the first half of this paper, are importantly different from the mid-twentieth century state of Cold War national security, correctionalist criminology, Fordist inclined economic rationalities, and a social welfare orientation to the governance of poverty. Nonetheless, just because the post-Fordist state of today governs through a neo-liberal rationality, we should not mischaracterize this state formation as either small, weak, or as heralding the end of “big government.”

This matter of the state under contemporary conditions is particularly relevant for those disposed towards Foucauldian modes of analysis. On the one hand, some Foucauldian analyses downplay the significance of the state in order to highlight the manner in which governmentalized forms of power cross-cut “state” and “nonstate” actors or institutional units.4 In a discussion of the shift from disciplinary societies — in which normalizing power worked through institutions such as factories, armies, and prisons — to societies of control — in which power works through circuits that prevent risky forms of behavior without seeking to modify the soul of the subject — Nikolas Rose exemplifies this tendency. According to Rose, the securitization of identity and increasingly extensive surveillance are not well understood as “tentacles of the state spreading across everyday life.” Instead, we should understand these tendencies as leading to “conditional access to circuits of consumption and civility,” or the “constant scrutiny of the right of individuals to access certain kinds of flows of consumer goods.”5 In other words, these developments are “not best understood in terms of a relentless augmentation of the powers of a centralizing, controlling and regulating state.”6 According to Rose, we should locate these developments “within a different field: the mobilization of the consumer” — practices of surveillance by commercial institutions that seek to “assemble the subject of consumption,” and to “render the consumer knowable and calculable within an economy of desire.”7 Under conditions that Gilles Deleuze has described as “control societies,” we misunderstand the present insofar as we seek to express these new modes of control in terms of the state.8

On the other hand, some Foucauldian scholarship with a criminological focus is more willing to understand current developments in terms of empowering certain state capacities. According to Jonathan Simon, advanced liberal government does not mean a reduction in governance or the state. In the economic realm, the advanced liberal state plays an important role in fostering market relations. In the realm of the criminological, politicians who campaign on pledges to be tough on crime might seem to be advocating a theme of “personal responsibility that is consistent...

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