- Paradoxes of Punishment
Keally McBride’s Punishment and Political Order explores a paradox: punishment potentially reinforces and undermines legitimate democratic authority. McBride works through this paradox using a range of texts and devices. She draws her arguments from analysis of fictional texts, specifically Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and political philosophy, including Locke, Nietzsche, Grotius, Bentham, Foucault, and Agamben. She employs examples of punishment in U.S. prisons historically (e.g., Eastern State Penitentiary) and currently (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo). McBride also weaves into her analysis contemporary data from public opinion polls, news reports, prison studies, and comparisons between the United States and other countries. This slim book, in other words, covers a lot of ground. McBride has also achieved her goal of producing a “smart and pleasurable” book to read. (ix)
The paradox at the heart of the study stems from the notion that “punishment in liberal regimes is intended to make government evident, but as a limited, not absolute power.” (122) McBride makes clear, however, that such ideals are not always met: “When states give in to the temptations of power and punish merely for the sake of command, punishment may sow obedience but will ultimately reap resistance.” (163) In the Introduction McBride uses her own involvement in a prison reform project to illustrate the complexity of determining when states cross the line of legitimate punishment to abuse. She finds that despite a shared goal of reducing recidivism the group faced “a fundamental inability to decide on the basic story.” (2) Exoffenders in the group lacked “credibility” and “legitimate voice,” while those without direct prison experience trusted that prison “works just fine, particularly since it doesn’t influence our daily lives.” (2) This experience allows McBride to identify the three central political players in her paradox: the state, offenders and ex-offenders, and an audience. The state asserts its authority through punishment. The offender community attempts to challenge that authority and bring change by making prison abuse visible. The audience trusts and benefits from the state’s system of punishment. It ignores evidence that contradicts beliefs or a sense of security. A logical conclusion to be drawn from McBride’s introductory story is that avoiding prison abuse depends on an enlightened state and system of punishment, the capacity of the offender community to effectively expose prison abuse, or a societal recognition that the cost of abuse exceeds its benefits.
Much of McBride’s book would lead the reader to consider each of these possible scenarios highly unlikely. The state, for example, tends to justify punishment in terms of ideals. McBride asks, “are ideals of punishment always bound to be nobler than the practices creating an inescapable chasm between ideals of justice and practices of power?” (84) After examining both fictional examples and historical models of punishment, she draws the conclusion that “Perfection, defined as the ability to construct a society where justice is fully realized, is a mirage; the real test of a society is how it manages its failures.” (25) McBride suggests that confidence determines effective management of those failures. She contends, for example, that “vehement policing demonstrates political power remarkably unsure of itself.” (15) She further argues that the United States has a larger prison population than any other advanced democracy and a higher level of incarceration than at any other time in the country’s history. (102) Quoting Nietzsche, she puzzles over the persistence of abuse in U.S. prisons: “As the power and self-confidence of a community increase, the penal law always becomes more moderate…it is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it – letting those who harm it go unpunished.” (151)
The capacity of offenders and ex-offenders to draw attention to abuse seems equally unlikely in McBride’s treatment. She recognizes the unique position that these actors play in assessing the legitimacy of state authority. After all, punishment puts a state...