‘Crime, Critique and Utopia’ reviewed by Joan Braune

and (eds)
Crime, Critique and Utopia

Palgrave Macmillan, London and New York, 2013. 224pp., £55 / $75.60 hb
ISBN 9781137009791

Reviewed by Joan Braune

About the reviewer

Joan Braune is Lecturer in Philosophy at Gonzaga University and author of Erich Fromm’s …


The authors of Crime, Critique, and Utopia call for radical imagination with regard to criminal justice systems. Imagination in its relation to praxis needs to be broadened, encompassing new economic and social arrangements, without punishment as currently manifested. The text is an anthology with ten contributions, and because the authors are mainly writing in a European context, the focus differs from recent popular texts in the United States, where structural racism and police militarization are given greatest emphasis, and where critique of the justice system has been influenced deeply by texts like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness and Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?. Although structural racism and system militarization are addressed, Crime, Critique, and Utopia focuses on the conceptual linkages between utopia and critical criminology.

The contributors to Crime, Critique and Utopia all agree that “utopia” is not reducible to idle daydreams, totalitarian menaces, or reductionist models that ignore reality’s complexity. Utopia in criminology must be radical, they insist, not simply envisioning more efficient and high-tech ways of achieving the same ends as the present system. The authors also seem to agree that “utopian literature” is not an unmixed good. For example, Vincenzo Ruggiero’s chapter of the book points out that St Thomas More’s Utopia envisioned a system of convict labor, chain gangs, and forced military service for prisoners, while Tommaso Campanella’s La Città del Sole supported capital punishment.

However, the authors of Crime, Critique, and Utopia do not share a common working definition of utopia. Some emphasize the utopian “impulse,” for instance as found in Ernst Bloch’s work, while one of the editors, Margaret Malloch, defends utopia as “blueprint.” In her second chapter, Malloch differentiates a few definitions of “utopia,” concluding in favor of socialist utopia as either “programmatic” (Frederic Jameson) or as a “utopia of reconstruction” (Lewis Mumford) (23). Finding utopian literature such as More’s Utopia to be reformist, Malloch turns to utopian movements, such as the Diggers, a generation after More. Through the practical creation of a new economic model (including ending enclosure of land), the Diggers foresaw a future without crime and therefore without punishment. Similarly, the three main “utopian socialists,” Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon, and more recent experimental “intentional communities” can offer insights for today’s utopian movements (27, 37). Malloch quotes Lewis Mumford: “It is absurd to dispose of utopia by saying that it exists only on paper. The answer to this is: precisely the same thing may be said of the architect’s plans for a house, and houses are none the worse for it” (38). Malloch believes we should not fear utopia as “blueprint”: it is as concrete programs, not successful small-scale experiments, that utopias are most valuable. According to Malloch (quoting Erich Fromm), social change requires “hard-headed realism”—awake utopianism rather than dreaming utopianism (39).

Michael Löwy’s chapter on Erich Fromm’s early criminological essays offers a standpoint on utopia closer to Ernst Bloch’s utopian “impulse.” Although Fromm’s later work included many attempts at social programs—he wrote his own “socialist program and manifesto” in 1959—Fromm’s work is undergirded by a messianic-utopian hope that transcends blueprints. (Beyond his short chapter in this book, Michael Löwy’s wide-ranging research on radical Jewish messianic hope in the early twentieth century is important.) The history of the messianism debates is a rich resource for considering the relationships between past, present, and future in terms of revolutionary praxis. Löwy rightly concludes that Fromm’s criminology is inspired by the same secular messianism as Fromm’s work on the Jewish Sabbath and his The Dogma of Christ. Löwy may be mistaken in classifying Fromm’s messianism as leaning towards anarchism, although he is certainly right to point out the influence of anarchist revolutionary and romantic Gustav Landauer on Fromm’s messianism. (The more rationalist and socialist messianism of Hermann Cohen was also an influence, however.) Those interested in pursuing Fromm’s early criminological essays—where he sees Weimar Germany’s criminal justice system as ineffective at deterring crime but ominously effective at legitimizing the “state as educator”—might also look at Anderson and Quinney’s Erich Fromm and Critical Criminology: Beyond the Punitive Society (University of Illinois Press, 1999). Fortunately, Fromm’s work is making a comeback and many new editions of his work have been published recently, including the classics Marx’s Concept of Man and On Disobedience. Fromm’s “prophetic messianism” is an argument for a utopian, revolutionary hope that endures in spite of setbacks and the breakdown of plans.

In spite of a range of definitions of utopia employed in Crime, Critique, and Utopia, there are many commonalities. First, the authors are critical of criminological reformism. Second, they call for more radical alternatives, including prison abolition. Third, they offer a critique of mainline criminology as positivist and conformist.

First, Mike Nellis’s chapter is an excellent example of the anti-reformist bent of the text. Nellis points out that both reactionaries and liberal reformers have supported damaging policies of electronic monitoring (such as ankle bracelets):

The prototypes of what became [electronic monitoring] were devised in the 1960s in the US, when techno-utopianism was a powerful driver of government policy, and when there was much secret military investment in academic research on techniques of social control. Entwined within this was a broad, multi-disciplinary “science of control” movement, of which B.F. Skinner, a professor at Harvard University, was the nominal figurehead, which demanded the abolition of punishment, and anticipated vast reductions in the use of imprisonment and the transformation of remaining prisons into therapeutic institutions (172).

If it is unsurprising that total observation and technologically enforced compliance appeal to reactionaries, it may be more surprising that liberal reformers pushed similar policies in the name of rehabilitation (such as electronically zapping recovering alcoholics as they pass a pub) or as an alternative to imprisonment (monitoring inmates on house arrest, which can simply recreate a prison outside the traditional prison walls).

Although Crime, Critique, and Utopia draws more from humanist and utopian traditions of social critique than from Foucault’s post-structuralism, the authors would concur with Foucault’s basic critique of penal reformism. As Foucault explained in Discipline and Punish, the modern prison, the “Panopticon” with its central guard tower and rows of cells, was first designed by Jeremy Bentham as a reform measure, conceived as more humane and more rehabilitative than the barbaric practices of medieval and early modern torture and execution. In line with Foucault’s analysis, Angela Davis’s recent compelling argument for prison abolition, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2003), also addressed the reformist role in the genesis of the prison. Davis argued that liberals’ insistence that prison abolitionists proffer a ready-made alternative system simply leads to more “reform” efforts and to potentially worsened treatment of the incarcerated. Instead of creating an alternative model of punishment, Davis focused on the need for a social movement for dismantling the prison-industrial complex.

Since the authors of Crime, Critique, and Utopia agree with Foucault, Davis, and others who see reformist tinkering as risky and radical change as urgent, they are open to projects of prison abolition. David Scott’s contribution to the book is an extended defense of abolitionism. Interestingly, he is willing to suggest alternatives, including: a renewed focus on healing for victims, intentional communities for some offenders, increased education and entertainment for the young, counseling and addiction treatment programs, and major economic redistribution of wealth. Scott’s approach suggests that exploring utopian alternatives to the prison-industrial complex may be a way to answer critics of penal abolitionism without succumbing to reformism.

Finally, the authors of Crime, Critique, and Utopia seem to agree that criminology has become dangerously unmoored from values and praxis and has become too positivist and specialized. This concern is particularly evident in the chapters by Lynne Copson and Sarah Armstrong. According to Copson’s contribution (one of the best in the book), in the wake of positivist critiques of utopia by Karl Popper and others, criminology has become afraid of utopia. She writes:

Within such a climate, radical imaginings of the social order have been, at best, discouraged as hopelessly idealistic, and, at worst, actively repressed as inherently dangerous and totalitarian… By contrast, positivistic “science” and “abstract empiricism” … has been pronounced the refuge of social research, and the guardian of society against the implementation of tyrannical dystopian ideals in the name of social improvement and perfection. As a result, there has been increasing detachment within social sciences in general, and criminology in particular, from the fundamental normative and political questions that lie at the heart of these disciplines (120).

Criminology as a discipline is becoming isolated from other social sciences and from philosophical social theory and is being reduced to aiding the system with reform recommendations, even becoming an “adjunct of the criminal justice system” and falling into a “pessimistic” “correctionalism” (121). (It is surely not helping that so many community colleges and universities, eager to have popular “Criminal Justice” programs, nest criminology in “law enforcement” contexts instead of seeing criminology properly as a branch of sociology or maybe cultural geography.)

Sarah Armstrong’s chapter critiques another feature of criminological positivism, statistical predictions of prison populations. According to Armstrong, the primary problem with statistical approaches in criminological research is not that numbers conceal some part of reality (such as people’s personal stories) but the opposite: numbers have almost too much reality, shaping reality in sometimes tyrannical ways. The prediction of more prisoners, based on past trends of increasing imprisonment, is used by “experts” to justify prison expansion. Instead of asking what is causing prisoners, Armstrong suggests, criminologists should ask what is causing prisons:

Prisons, as opposed to prisoners, are a creation wholly within the power of policy makers, the result of intentional, rational and planned investment of resources. Prisons are an explicit choice of government while prisoners are a social problem for government. Prison population projections here demonstrate a usefulness transcending accuracy. By focusing on volatile and minimally controllable causes of growth—people and their crazy ways—[statistical] forecasts allow policy makers to articulate their own role in penal growth as responsible and foresighted, a necessary reaction to rising demand rather than the creation of demand through increased supply (155).

Like Copson, Armstrong demonstrates that critical criminology must avoid the sort of instrumental rationality that allows it to become an adjunct of the justice system.

Crime, Critique, and Utopia offers a humanistic utopianism that pushes readers bravely to envision a different future through utopian blueprints, social movements, messianic hope, and the search for radical alternatives. Utopian imagination and praxis are gravely needed in an era of mass incarceration, systemic police violence and militarization, and rapidly increasing inequality. Criminologists should heed this book’s highly relevant call to resist positivism, overspecialization, and submission, and Critical Theorists should heed the contribution that critical criminology makes to projects with emancipatory intent and to an interdisciplinary unification of theory and practice.

1 December 2014

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