What is its source? Part of the story is natural, part supernatural. There is, for one thing, the tyrannical degeneracy which is, , the ironic fate of societies which value freedom and equality above virtue. And for another, there is the chronic sickness of heresy which has periodically ravaged the Church before being vomited out, and the severity of which can sometimes approximate the predicted final apostasy.
But all of that is rather “big picture.” It doesn’t quite answer a more mundane question, to wit: What the hell is going through the minds of these people? For example, how do persons who have at least a minimal degree of sanity (just enough to hold a job, to use the toilet, etc.) nevertheless convince themselves that would be a good idea? How do you explain a lunatic like new Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, who the destruction ?
General observations about the nature of egalitarian or apostate societies don’t suffice. We want to know what the connecting link is that gets you from general social decadence to a specific official’s decision to stop enforcing the law. The answer appears to be , broadly construed and in its many malign permutations – once confined to the most intellectually slovenly and irrelevant academic backwaters, but now sweeping through city governments, corporate HR departments, college administrations, and the like by way of an army of activists and bureaucrats whose minds have been rotted out by it.
The most important thinker in this connection is surely Michel Foucault. Now, Foucault was critical of, and more insightful than, his less subtle Marxist predecessors. He is also certainly a more interesting thinker than the mediocrities through whom his ideas are often filtered (Critical Race Theorists, et al.) – and, though he was a man of the Left, he was . But the fundamental Critical Theoretic project of unmasking the sinister powers and interests lurking behind purportedly innocuous institutions is the Foucauldian project, and he famously applied it to .
For Foucault, the purportedly objective systems of knowledge that characterize the mainstream thinking of a society or historical period reflect the interests of whatever power dominates it. So far this is Marx’s theory of ideology filtered through Nietzsche, and thereby expanded beyond a crudely economic analysis. A characteristically Foucauldian elaboration of the idea is that this power acts in a “capillary” fashion, seeping down into every nook and cranny of the social order and, indeed, of the individual psyche, in ways of which we are unaware until they are revealed by Critical Theory adepts. The Critical Race Theorist’s paranoid delusion that absolutely everything is permeated by racism – so that even seemingly innocent remarks and actions are unmasked as “micro-aggressions” and “implicit bias” – is essentially Foucault read through a racial lens.
Foucault himself applied the idea to an analysis of Madness is interpreted as a concept by which those who do not conform to bourgeois standards of thought and behavior are designated as abnormal, and the confinement by which they might be controlled is thereby given a rational justification. The purportedly objective science by which all of this is made intelligible is really a mask for bourgeois power – a way of cementing that power by pathologizing any alternative to bourgeois standards. as well as criminal justice.
The modern system of penal justice and imprisonment is alleged to perform a similar function. Foucault interprets it as a manifestation of a broader tendency of bourgeois power not merely to discourage behaviors it regards as abnormal, but positively to mold individuals so that their behavior will come spontaneously to conform to bourgeois norms. The penal system is in this way continuous with the curricula and examination regime of the educational system, with standard capitalist business practices, and so forth. It is all of a piece, a system by which bourgeois power extends itself in “capillary” fashion through to the extremities of society.
Now, in Wacquant notes, first, that things have not gone the way Foucault’s analysis led him to expect them to. Foucault had thought that as social institutions in general take on the prison’s function of molding individual behavior in order to make it conform to bourgeois norms, the institution of the prison itself will decline. Building on an analysis developed by Pierre Bourdieu, Wacquant argues that the opposite has happened., sociologist Loïc Wacquant takes this line of thinking in a direction that brings it even closer to the mentality that we are now seeing in state and municipal officials across the U.S.
First, he suggests that the welfare state and the prison system should be seen as two means – the first maternal and nurturing, the second paternal and punitive – by which the modern capitalist state “manages” what he calls “urban marginality,” i.e. “the unruly poor” and minority communities. Now, with the rise, beginning in the 1980s, of policies of a “neoliberal” or free market nature (he might as well have said “bourgeois”), the institutions of the welfare state went into decline, increasing “social insecurity,” especially among poor and minority communities. And this has led to an expansion of the other, punitive method of “managing” them – to what Wacquant calls a “remasculinization of the state.” Thus the penal system has expanded rather than declined, contrary to Foucault’s expectation. And its focus has been on minorities and the poor, specifically, rather than on the molding of attitudes and behaviors in the general population.
Second, Wacquant says, this expanding penal system has not aimed at molding the attitudes and behaviors even of the individuals it does target – once again defying Foucault’s expectations – but rather merely at “warehousing” them, thereby neutralizing the danger they might pose to the “neoliberal” order of things, but in a way that is indifferent to what goes on in their heads. And the general public is inured to this callous treatment by way of what Wacquant calls “law-and-order pornography” – entertainments that glorify law enforcement officials and demonize their targets (reality shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted, dramas like Law and Order and CSI, and so forth). Thus, Wacquant says, do we have the structure of a “neoliberal” or capitalist system of “punishing the poor.”
Now, is there something to such Foucauldian analyses of power and punishment? Well, sure. But there is also the studied imprecision, massive oversimplification, and tiresome melodrama that seem endemic to contemporary continental philosophy and fields influenced by it. There is the refusal to think beyond the false binary choice of being either a broadly Randian pro-capitalist or a broadly Marxoid anti-capitalist. There is the vaguely idealist-cum-voluntarist metaphysics that tends to lie implicit and unexamined behind such analyses. There is the hermeneutics of suspicion, of which we should always be suspicious. And all of that greatly overshadows any insight to be found in these analyses.
But yes, there is something to them. For example, it is true that there is a link between bourgeois and “neo-liberal” economics and politics on the one hand, and the nature of modern penal and welfare systems on the other. But the link is not what Critical Theorists and other leftists think it is. The link is that the same individualism that drives the economics and politics destroys the stability of the traditional family, which in turn generates an underclass that is “managed” by the welfare state and the penal system. The remedy is the restoration of the traditional family. But of course, the contemporary Left will have none of that, because its hatred for traditional sexual morality is far stronger than its hatred of capitalism.
It is also true that a just society ought to avoid merely “warehousing” offenders, and that the welfare system ought not to treat human beings as mere “cases” to be managed. The Left is right to criticize the impersonal bureaucratic nature of modern welfare and penal systems. But here too it would refuse the correct remedy. The remedy requires welfare and penal systems to be informed by the spirit of what Catholics call the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. As Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum, in dealing with such problems “no satisfactory solution will be found unless religion and the Church have been called upon to aid,” and without them “human striving will be in vain.” But if there is anything the Left hates even more than traditional sexual morality, it is traditional religious belief.
It is also true that the basic assumptions about reality that are inculcated through the culture of a society – through its educational system, its entertainments, its corporate culture, and so on – tend to reflect the perspective of the powers that dominate it, and that dissent from these assumptions tends to be pathologized. But under contemporary capitalism those assumptions have moved ever further to the left, not to the right. For example, in contemporary academic, corporate, and political culture, there is no one more “pathologized” – treated as a crank, as wicked, as not to be listened to or given a platform – than the person who dares to defend traditional religious belief or traditional sexual morality. It is by way of this pathologization that secularist and Sexual Revolutionary “power” maintains its hegemony.
The Left does not see the fulfilment of our social nature in the places it is in fact primarily to be found – in the family and the community of faith. It looks for it instead in collectivist political action, which is inevitably even more impersonal, alienating, and oppressive than market forces. The Left wants to get us out of the liberal individualist frying pan, but only so that we might fall into the socialist fire. It’s alterative to “bad” is always “worse.”
But I digress. Our topic is the origin of the Bizarro-world approach to law and order of the police defunders and George Gascóns of the world, and I think we’ve found it. Foucauldian analysis yields a picture of the mental health and criminal justice systems as means by which malign bourgeois power exerts its control, especially over the poor and minorities, by pathologizing behavior. This paranoid and simpleminded view of the world, first developed with cleverness by a thinker like Foucault, is retailed through second- and third-rate academics who add their own little details to the story. It is then popularized by the fourth-rate minds who imbibe it in university, then regurgitate it through their activism, their Twitter feeds, their screenplays and journalism, their work as HR bureaucrats or high school teachers, or what have you.
Eventually this worldview trickles (in “capillary” fashion, you might say) into the head of some dumb politician, who’s read a book or a New York Times profile of some Critical Race Theorist. He gets it into his head that the way to free the oppressed is to defund the police, or in Gascón’s case to “stop filing first-time misdemeanor offenses associated with poverty and mental health.” Before you know it, crime skyrockets, and garbage, rats, discarded needles, and human feces line the streets your children can no longer safely walk down. This actually helps no one at all, least of all the homeless, drug-addicted, and mentally ill – now “warehoused” by the Leftist state below freeway underpasses – or the minority communities whose stores are looted and burned down and whose children are killed in gang crossfires.
But none of that matters to the unmaskers of “power.” What matters is only ever to épater la bourgeoisie.