Radical v. Liberal Criminology: An Afterthought

One of the most interesting moments at this year’s American Society of Criminology meetings in San Francisco was the “reunion” of Tony Platt and Jerry Skolnick during a session on the republishing, with a new forward and preface, of the book The Politics of Protest: Task Force on Violent Aspects of Protest and Confrontation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which was originally published in September 1969. Skolnick, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley (and now co-director of the Center for Crime and Justice at NYU Law) was on the Berkeley Criminology School faculty, and already famous for his book, Justice Without Trial (1966, 1994) when he was appointed director of the task force on protest of President Johnson’s violence commission. Skolnick hired one of his junior colleagues, Anthony Platt, and a graduate student, Elliott Currie to be his main research assistants and to help with the writing and editing of the report/book; both have become major criminologists as well. Anthony Platt, then an Assistant Professor Criminology at Berkeley, had already written the first edition of The Child Savers, a renowned study of the class origins and purposes of juvenile justice in the early 20th century, that has also recently been republished. Platt was denied tenure, in large part because of his protest activities, and left Berkeley after the Criminology School was eliminated in 1976 to be a Professor of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento until his retirement a few years ago, where he published many other books as well as editing the journal Crime and Social Justice for many years. Elliott Currie, Professor at UC Irvine’s Criminology, Law & Society department, is the author of the classic, Confronting Crime: An American Challenge, as well as many other books.

Given a chance to hear three such renowned criminologists reflect on an ultimately doomed effort to steer America’s response to violence toward completing the institutional reforms begun by the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, it was not surprising that the room was packed. It was perhaps inevitable that most of the attention was on the death of the Berkeley Criminology School. Platt bluntly blamed Skolnick and other liberals on the faculty, for “selling out” the School and its junior faculty, much of which, especially Platt, were openly engaged in the protest politics of Berkeley in those years. Skolnick suggested that the closure (and Platt’s denial of tenure) were decisions taken at the top of the University which neither he, nor other faculty, could do anything to stop. Currie, who has remained very friendly with the other two, kept himself to chairing the session.

I’ll leave to another time a discussion of the actual history. What disappointed me about the session (which was mainly focused on what John Dombrink aptly analogized to the hurt feelings of children to a divorce) was the missed opportunity, buried in Platt’s opening remarks, to reflect on how both liberal and radical criminology were “failures” that had failed to stop the coming of mass incarceration and all the other destructive features of what David Garland has called our Culture of Control. I would love to have heard each of these thinkers on why despite the considerable intellectual and even political resources, progressives could not effectively prevent the policy discussion of violence in America from becoming dominated by thinkers like James Q. Wilson, and his reduction of the problem of violence to crime prevention in his epic and influential Thinking About Crime (1975).

By the time The Politics of Protest was published, Richard Nixon had already been elected on a “Law and Order” platform, and a growing coalition of law enforcement groups and politicians were beginning to coalesce around a politics of capital punishment and mass incarceration in state politics around the country. Still, it would take a decade for the logics of governing through crime to become hegemonic in America, and much of the progressive critique of criminal justice as racist and arbitrary remained salient to many Americans. Overall I suspect that nothing merely criminological could have stopped this trend. Even if Skolnick and Platt had stayed on the same side, and continued to work together along with Currie, perhaps no book from the left could have prevailed over Wilson at the time given the social and political roots of governing through crime.

I’ve always viewed this history and its conflicts with fascination. I was too young to protest in the 1960s (although my parents introduced me to the civil rights and anti-war movements through their participation). I made my way to Berkeley for college in large part drawn by the legacy of protest there, arriving the year after the Criminology School closed. Drawn by the coming catastrophe of mass incarceration, I did graduate work at the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at Berkeley, (the program that took some extent replaced the Criminology School) where I studied with Skolnick, as well as Shelly Messinger and Caleb Foote (to other prime “liberals” from the Criminology School). Given my own propensity to protest, which earned me three visits to Santa Rita County jail while a student, I’ve always sympathized with the plight of the untenured radical faculty. The fact that Platt was denied tenure despite proven excellence as a teacher and scholar, and only because of his political participation, is a permanent stain on Berkeley’s academic record.

From my perspective now, however, after the war on crime, liberal criminology has remained a more robust and enduring position while radical criminology, especially the highly ideological sort advocated by the Berkeley Criminology school radicals, has, for the most part, proven to be a rhetorical disaster (and would have been a policy disaster had it been implemented). Celebrating convict revolutionaries and denouncing the criminal justice system as it then existed in states like California at the time (far smaller and much more benign than today) as a hopelessly racist and fascist apparatus aimed at preventing popular revolution, had no chance of appealing to ordinary Americans witnessing a genuine wave of both state and private violence, let alone convincing them to support necessary anti-racist reforms. More importantly, it left progressive criminologists with few tools and little credibility to respond to the massive growth of incarceration and the hyper policing of minority urban neighborhoods that would follow in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Berkeley’s racial criminology, in short, turned out to be the “boy who cried wolf.”

In contrast, the best of liberal criminology, including Justice Without Trial, recognized the potential of “law” in “law enforcement” to resist the excesses of populist punitiveness and ultimately to rebuild support for insisting that law enforcement serve a “democratic” society and not the other way around. It is telling, in this regard, that when Elliott Currie wrote the first really effective response to the Wilsonite orthodoxy in his 1988, Confronting Crime, he began to rehabilitate the policy premises of liberal criminology while abandoning most of the rhetoric of radicalism.

Today as the war on crime grinds on despite little public rationale for its existence (and mostly inertia to change keeping it in place), it is imperative that we focus on how to reconstruct American society and politics after the tremendous destruction of mass incarceration and governing through crime. That is a struggle which I believe the ideological warfare of 1968-1976 has practically no relevance for, and in which liberals, radicals, and conservatives can find common ground.

Posted by Jonathan Simon, Nov. 22, 2010

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6 Responses to Radical v. Liberal Criminology: An Afterthought

  1. kc010 says:

    I was disappointed that the discussion of the new edition of The Politics of Protest–with my new introduction– deteriorated into a discussion of the demise of the School of Criminology and Tony Platt and Paul Tagaki’s career.

    POP was written during an era of enormous social, political and personal change–the sixties were the era of civil rights demands, which later led to such controversial issues as affirmative action for people of color and for women in the professional schools.Yet Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968.

    The new introduction points up the differences between than and now–sparked by the movements for racial and gender equality. Inevitably, the introduction focusses on what Simon and Garland have called respectively, Governing Through Crime and The Culture of Control–developments that began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. But it concludes with the election of a black man with an African name to be President of the United States. This would have been inconceivable, utterly inconceivable, in 1968. The POP discusses white racism, which, I am confident still exists in the all white Tea Party movement. Today, the Tea Party movement seems to have all the energy, while progressives and liberals appear disheartened–at least for the time being. Obama brought young voters to the polls in 2008. I hope they will return in 2012.

    The political problem today is obviously high unemployment, an issue not discussed in The POP–it was a different time with different politics, yet a time that foretold much of what we see today.

    Posted by Jerome Skolnick, Nov. 23, 2010

    • Tony Platt says:

      In response to Jerry Skolnick: I don’t think the conversation deteriorated, it just got into contested issues that have never been discussed publicly. And you may not want to discuss what happened to Paul Takagi at the School of Criminology in Berkeley, but at least spell his name right.
      Tony Platt

  2. kc010 says:

    Thanks for your comments on the “Politics of Protest” session.

    You might have pointed out that the heart of my comments focused, not on the School of Criminology at Berkeley, but on the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas in the original POP, and a critique of Skolnick’s introduction to the new introduction (in which, in my view, he minimizes ongoing problems of racism and uncritically praises the Obama regime.)

    I have a few initial comments on your views about liberalism and radicalism (below):

    (1) By “liberalism” I assume you mean social democratic liberalism, that occupied a central role in American politics from early 20th century through the Clinton government. For most of its run, it was a managerial political ideology, focused on regulating rather than eradicating inequality. There are moments when this kind of liberalism gets pulled left during times of mass political activism (for example, 30s and 60s), but mostly it revives as top-down managerialism. (There’s a huge historical literature on this issue.)

    (2) It’s just name-calling to suggest that “radical criminology” was a “rhetorical disaster” and “highly ideological” while liberalism was “more robust” and measured. Do you really think that liberalism as political ideology was somehow value-free and apolitical? You may prefer liberalism to radicalism, but then just say so. But whatever you think, its heyday is long over here (and soon in Europe).

    (3) As to the excesses of radical criminology, I’ve written about this topic (in Oppenheimer et al., Radical Sociologists and the Movement), and there’s much to be said about what we did wrong. But your preachy one-sided comments don’t help our understanding. Radical criminology at Berkeley was part of and responded to a much larger left movement that exposed the injustices of criminal justice, took on the inadequacies and cowardice of liberalism, created debates about the ideology of criminology, humanized the incarcerated population, and educated millions about the ties between imperialism, militarism, racism, and criminal justice. In the 1970s there was at least a national debate about crime and justice, and for a short while liberalism was pushed left by radical movements.

    (4) The rise of the Right and neo-liberalism (beginning with Nixon) has nothing to do with what radical criminology did or did not do. It represents a significant shift in regimes of power, and a rise of new political forms to deal with the deepening contradictions of capitalism. As you and others going back to Stuart Hall have noted, governing through law and order is not so much about crime as about a crisis in political authority (and the demise of social democratic liberalism).

    (5) My debate with Skolnick is partly personal (because he and colleagues benefited from the demise of the School of Criminology; and because of his disrespectful treatment of our colleague Paul Takagi), but it’s primarily political. He thinks the country is moving in a good direction; I don’t. He believes that academics have to choose between a professional career and progressive activism; I don’t.

    Posted by Tony Platt, Nov. 24, 2010

  3. kc010 says:

    I greatly respect Tony Platt and his work. I personally would have benefited enormously had he remained on the Berkeley faculty. We differ in our view of how criminologies relate to penal policies. I believe crime policy is more than an imposition of power and that criminological discourse can influence (at least at the margins) the kinds of policies we end up living with. Skolnick’s brand of liberal criminology with its emphasis on the rule of law was and, in my view, continues to be one of the most promising lines of critique of the contemporary penal state. Resistance to mass incarceration today remains burdened by a superficial radicalism that associates crime control with racism and Neoliberalism.

    Posted by Jonathan Simon, Nov. 30, 2010

    • Tony Platt says:

      Jonathan Simon and I have our differences, but not the ones suggested in his post. (1) I don’t think that criminal justice policy is simply the result of the imposition of power. (2) I do think that public discourse is an important shaper as well as reflection of policy, and have thought so since the publication of Stuart Hall et al.’s “Policing The Crisis” in 1978. (3) I support an independent judiciary, rule of law, due process, etc. I have no idea what he means by “superficial radicalism” or why it is more of a problem than “superficial liberalism.” And I’m surprised that he minimizes the relationship between racism, neo-liberalism, and crime control policies.

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