Monday, 2 June 2008

Towards the disciplinary state

Victorian observers were struck by their grandparents' relative indifference to crime as a 'problem' and by their relative satisfaction with the harsh means used to control it. This was not because of the infrequency of crime. It is not at all clear that there was less thieving and violence per capita in eighteenth than in nineteenth century cities. But crime did not as yet appear to threaten hierarchy and the terms in which crime might be debated as a 'problem' were not yet formed.

The word 'crime', when used at all before the 1780s usually referred to a personal depravity. Slowly, however, the government’s relative tolerance of and indifference to the criminal poor, as of the riotous poor, were eroded. When Sir Robert Peel took up the challenge of prison, police and law reform when he was Home Secretary in the 1820s, the political and cultural climate had changed.  Crime was fast becoming 'important' and was something that government could not ignore. The result was that government increasingly played a dominant role in determining what was crime, hoe crimes should be tried and what sentences should be given to those found guilty.

From 1815 to the 1840s, crime was a way for expressing mounting anxieties about issues that really had little to do with crime. These were how society could cope with change and the stability of the social hierarchy. These issues invested crime with new meanings, justified action against it, and have determined attitudes to it ever since[1].


Before 1830, 'change' was not normally identified as an independent force. For those who considered the social costs of economic, urban and population growth after 1830, four major problems were identified:

  1. 'The natural progress of barbarian habits'.
  2. The 'explosive violence' of the poor.
  3. The collapse of family life.
  4. The spread of poverty.

The ways in which these four issues were seen was through middle class eyes. The criminal quickly assumed a privileged position in this list of bogeys. Fears about all these imprecise problems were transferred on to the 'criminal', who was visible and threatening. The main reasons why the criminal was specially targeted in these debates are:

  • From 1805 the official statistics showed that crime was increasing alarmingly. They provided support for the notion that the moral condition of England was deteriorating and that crime was the symbol of that deterioration.
  • We know now that what was increasing after 1830 was not crime itself but the prosecution rate, a very different matter. The issue was one of increasing discipline, especially towards the poor. Both the pauper and the criminal had moral failing: both wilfully refused to enter the respectable community of work. Laziness, not hunger or environment explained theft and pauperism alike and why both were apparently increasing.
  • Statistics showing crime rates were used then, as they still are today, to inflame unreal fears and to give shape to imagined problems. Moreover, on to crime were projected anxieties about social changes that had nothing directly to do with crime itself. A critical displacement occurred when 'change' became part of the explanation of crime, and embedded in a broad thesis of social deterioration. By the 1840s this motif was firmly in place. The growth of towns; working class political awareness; the employment of women and the alleged erosion of 'family values' resulting from it; industrial employment and the false values it induced in those who lived by it -- fear of all these things were transferred to fear of crime and criminals..

A typical argument can be seen in Blackwood's Magazine in 1844[2]. It stated that 'Crime in England has increased 700 per cent: in Ireland about 800 per cent, and in Scotland above 3,500 per cent.... What is destined to be the ultimate fate of a country in which the progress of wickedness is so much more rapid than the increase in the number of the people? .... The restraints of character, relationship and vicinity are.... lost in the [urban] crowd ....[they must generate a criminal class] a dismal substratum, a hideous black band of society [from which already] nine-tenths of the crime and nearly all the professional crime....flows.'

Propaganda of this kind was less concerned to analyse crime than to mobilise anxieties about change that in many instances had no necessary or proven criminal implications at all. As the nineteenth century progressed, the metaphors of disease, cancer, contamination and contagion were used to describe ‘crime’. Attention shifted from the individual crime to its symbolic meaning and the pathological nature of the criminal.

This is not to say that the perceived problems in criminality did not change during the second half of the nineteenth century. The image of the dangerous classes was seen, for example, in Mayhew and in the Royal Commission on Penal Servitude 1863. This gave way to an even sharper discrimination between the opportunistic and the professional criminal. In debates on reformatories distinctions between young offenders and the hardened habitual criminal were clarified. In the later nineteenth century the necessitous thief was to be distinguished from the irremediable 'moral defective'. However, the old core images remained intact. 'Crime' was still a metaphor for 'change' and 'the decay of moral values'. Old issues still worried people. Only the language got fancier.


Nineteenth century thinking on crime became entangled in a second set of associations, clustered around the notion of 'order'. Established society was perceived to be under threat. Population was growing and was increasingly unruly. Criminals were the 'enemies within', a threat to social order itself and especially property.

Property remained the reference point in the nineteenth century. 'Order', indeed it was only a Victorian euphemism for it. The state was seen as property's bastion and ally against the threat to the elite from the urban working classes. An early indication of this can be seen in the Royal Commission on the Criminal Law 1839 that stated 'A scale of crimes may be found, of which the first degree should consist of those which immediately tend to the dissolution of society, and the last, of the smallest possible injustice done to a private member of society.... It is manifest that all specific laws for the security of persons or property would be unavailing, unless the die operation of such laws were protected by imposing efficient restraints upon forcible violations of public order.'

Edwin Chadwick campaigned for a national and centralised police force by offering the public a fair exchange. Liberty was reduced, but security gained. Police campaigners argued that the principle of liberty was derived from the principle of order. Liberty was what was left over when order was guaranteed. Fears that the state might erode liberty were irrelevant when the greatest threat to liberty could now be defined as the criminal disorder of the urban working classes.

The 'Policeman-state'

‘Change' and perceived threats to public 'order' became criteria against which the actions and policies of the state could be justified and judged. The consequence was the emergence of a 'disciplinary discourse' out of which the idea of the disciplinary or 'policeman state' emerged[3]. The debate was, and still is, between apologists and agents of the centralising process. What were the best sources of order? 'Social policing'? Education? Paternalism? An extension of the vote? Local control? Central authority? At its heart were differing values on competing principles: efficiency and order on the one hand, and economy, liberty, local autonomy and tradition on the other.

The expansion of the modern state was first made clear through the progressive erosion of the older discretionary procedures at law, and of the individual and communal sanctions, many of them extra-legal, that had been sufficient to maintain order in the early nineteenth century. This 'disciplinary' state had a more powerful presence in working class life than the more benign state that began to take an interest in factories, sanitation and education.

In the early nineteenth century it was clear that the collaboration on which the state might increasingly have to rest its legitimacy if a class-divided society was to hold together was not going to be an easy thing to construct. Too many of the poor were incapable of entering into a working relationship with a free government, let alone with a free market, as elites conceived those things. A few refused to enter into either relationship and adopted a revolutionary attitude towards the state. Those who dissented from prevailing norms had always been penalised but in the nineteenth century they acquired the label of the 'enemies within'. In two ways, the development of policing very early on affected the way of containing them:

  1. The development of the police meant that the use of the military after the Chartist era tended to become confined to the regulation of industrial disputes.
  2. The growing skills of crowd control by the police enabled government to discard the symbolic sledgehammer assault on seditious speaking in favour of deploying a more economical but broader restricting power at the point of dissident meeting. In 1800 you could peaceably assemble where you liked but not say what you wanted. By 1900 you could say what you wanted (subject to the laws of libel) but certainly could not assemble where you liked. This realignment of the law can be seen in the statistics. Trials for sedition dwindled from 1,725 between 1838 and 1848 to virtually nil after 1888. By contrast there was an increase in riot trials by 34 per cent between the 1840s and 1860s and trials for the offence of common law riot rose by 30 per cent between the 1840s and 1890s.

Parallel to the development of the disciplinary state was the construction of 'consent' and consensus. At the heart of this process was the notion of 'respectability' that established acceptable social norms and delineated the boundaries between criminal and non-criminal behaviour.

[1] Martin J. Wiener Reconstructing The Criminal: Culture, Law and Policy in England 1830-1914, CUP, 1990 examines the ways in which early Victorian policymakers transformed the Hanoverian criminal justice system. The reformed system was more punitive and more uniform and was founded on notions of free will, rationality and individual self-responsibility. Legal punishment was reconstituted to transform wilful savages into self-disciplined citizens and to promote the development of character and respectability throughout the whole population. In the late nineteenth century punishment underwent a second reconstruction from disciplinary character building to a therapeutic management of damaged or inadequate human material.

[2] Anonymous 'Causes of the Increase of Crime', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 56, 1844.

[3] Law and order ideologues like Chadwick in the 1830s down to present-day home secretaries and chief constables have not always had it their own ways. Debate has been vigorous enough in Britain to ensure that they did not have all the running.

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