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Criminalisation and advanced marginalityCritically exploring the work of Loic Wacquant$

Peter Squires and John Lea

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781447300014

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447300014.001.0001

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Neoliberal, brutish and short? Cities, inequalities and violences

Neoliberal, brutish and short? Cities, inequalities and violences

(p.217) Eleven Neoliberal, brutish and short? Cities, inequalities and violences
Criminalisation and advanced marginality

Peter Squires

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Peter Squires emphasises a longer and more subtle evolution of welfare as ‘workfare’ and social discipline in the UK than appears in Wacquant's analysis but also introduces a key theme of resistance and disorder: on the one hand the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ but also the violences that obstructs development and the violences of the state which often provoke resistance. He argues that Wacquant tends to under-estimate resistance. In this respect Squires refers to Francis Fox Piven's critique of Wacquant's relative side-lining of the role of, for example, gangs as collective actors – forms of governance from below.

Keywords:   Inequality, Violence, Resistance, Gangs, Governance from below


The aim of this chapter is to critically reflect on the analytical themes and issues reflected in two of Loïc Wacquant's major works (Urban outcasts, 2008a, and Punishing the poor, 2009). Despite the essential similarities of their respective subject matters, the books are quite different in content, style, tone and methodological orientation. The former, by far the most conventionally research-led, explores, on the basis of survey data and area-based indicators, comparisons and contrasts between life and living conditions in the deteriorating ghettos of Chicago's South Side and conditions in the banlieue estates on the outskirts of Paris. Differences of scale, the extent of inequality and racial polarisation aside, there is still much that these areas, and their residents, have in common and might find recognisable.

The concept ‘advanced marginality’ perhaps best describes the precarious conditions of these increasingly disadvantaged, economically marginal and socially toxic areas. Tim Hope's concept for similar areas (albeit in a British context), ‘communities of despair’ (Hope, 2001), captures something of the issue, except that, the aim here is not necessarily to chronicle despair. On the contrary ‘despair’ implies far too passive a notion to describe the (often desperate) survival practices of the urban outcasts themselves. Accordingly, one theme of the chapter is to develop some reflections on Frances Fox Piven's observation regarding Wacquant's work in Punishing the poor: ‘We should also wonder about the role of the people who were the objects of penal control. Were they merely the witless objects of social control, or were they also actors in the drama?’ (Piven, 2010, p 114). With that idea in mind, a related concern involves what we might term ‘neoliberalism beyond the state’.

The two themes are intended to connect; the argument will be that neoliberalism corrodes the conditions of social order and that while (p.218) states certainly contribute to these processes they typically have far wider ramifications. Violence and resistance, in particular, are often a direct consequence of these de-civilising processes although states often further imperil the conditions of civilised coexistence by the ways in which they, often selectively, seek to re-impose forms of order and authority. A key question for Wacquant concerns the extent to which he devotes sufficient attention to these wider ‘non-statutory’ questions of violence and resistance.

Neoliberalism beyond the state?

The second of Wacquant's two books forming the springboard for this chapter is subtitled The neoliberal government of social insecurity. This book is at once more ideological and critical, explicitly focused on the US and offering a powerful polemic against the neoliberal governance which has transformed an incomplete US ‘welfare state’ into a ‘workfare state’ and, now, Wacquant contends, into a ‘prisonfare’ state. Unlike Urban outcasts, rooted in empirical research and centred on the condition of the ghetto or banlieue, Punishing the poor is developed via a structural and theoretical analysis exploring the manufactured insecurity of working-class life, the racialisation of poverty and inequality and the criminalisation and penalisation of deprivation. These processes, in Wacquant's eloquent phrasing, are overseen by a centaur state: ‘a liberal head mounted upon an authoritarian body, applying the doctrine of laissez faire and laissez passer upstream … [but] brutally paternalistic and punitive downstream’, when dealing with the victims of neoliberalism (Wacquant, 2009, p 43).

This rolling back of welfare and the rolling forth of discipline evokes many of the discussions of the first ‘great moving right show’ (Hall, 1977), authoritarian populism (Hall et al, 1978) and not least, Gamble's neoliberal formula of the ‘free economy and the strong state’ (Gamble, 1988) intended to describe the post-Thatcherite, post-Reaganomics new world order. More recently, these more general analyses have become linked intellectually with another generic argument about the supposed creeping punitiveness (‘penal populism’) of Western liberal cultures and their penal systems (Garland, 2001; Pratt et al, 2005; Simon, 2007). The point is often made that while the US may serve Wacquant reasonably well as a laboratory of punitive exceptionalism, the case is not always so easily made elsewhere (Lacey, 2008), which is not to say that a variety of commentators have not tried to do so, citing a range of evidence – rates of incarceration, sentencing trends, increased criminal penalties, criminal justice expansionism, discipline dispersal, legislative (p.219) hyperactivity (new criminal laws) and the tone and content of law and order rhetorics (Steinert, 2004; Squires and Stephen, 2005;Tonry, 2010).

Nonetheless, it is clearly Wacquant's argument that US neoliberalism is influencing other societies and jurisdictions around the world, and that the forms of analysis developed for exploring US punitiveness can be applied elsewhere. The final sections of Punishing the poor are given over to what he calls the European declinations of the new ‘law and order reason’ as the ‘Carceral Aberration comes to France’. Along with a number of other commentators, for Wacquant this ‘aberration’, itself the product of a deviant neoliberal imagination (p 273), has entailed a more exacting redefinition of deviant incivility, a marked intensification of intolerance and the ‘defining up’ (Rodger, 2008) of routine and petty criminalities and nuisance (Squires, 2008). So it has been rather less crime itself that has changed in recent years ‘than the gaze that politicians and journalists, as spokespersons for dominant interests, train upon street delinquency and the populations that are supposed to feed it’ (Wacquant, 2009, p 274).

Discipline and security: ‘safe European homes’ and beyond

Sheltered by this comforting myth of the ‘criminal other’, the punitive policy transfer is driven by two mutually reinforcing arms of a pincer movement. On the one hand there is a shift at the level of social security that Wacquant loosely equates with a shift from a security of the poor rooted in a progressive politics of social citizenship to a security provided against the poor. Entailed in these transitions are changes in the form and character of social inclusion in respective societies. As he puts it: ‘the misery of American welfare and the grandeur of American prisonfare at century's turn are the two sides of the same political coin’ (Wacquant, 2009, p 292). Contrasts are often typically drawn here with the UK although public policy commentators have often overlooked (until more recently) parallel developments in the much heralded British welfare state. Principles of class control and work discipline were no strangers to the British social security system (Dean, 1990; Squires, 1990). After the 1970s, driven by concerns about cost, dependency and ‘abuse’, social security benefits and pensions targeted towards the poorest and unemployed became subject to increasingly restrictive entitlement testing which, under the guise of modernising welfare and ‘need’, cumulatively limited the scope, value, duration and coverage of the benefits (Andrews and Jacobs, 1990; Bryson and Jacobs, 1992; Taylor-Gooby and Dean, 1992; Jones and Novak, 1999). These (p.220) changes were complemented by an increasingly restrictive supply of public housing, effectively residualising the sector as ‘welfare housing’ for problem populations such that, by the 1990s, public housing became the ‘test bed’ for the anti-social behaviour project. Increasing conditionality in welfare and probationary tenancies (Burney, 2005) were the means by which social policy turned further into antisocial behaviour management and public policy became a form of criminalising pest control (Squires, 2008).

While the shifts described by Wacquant in the US may have been dramatic, politically blatant and racially coded, aided by the relatively limited purchase that an idea of ‘welfare’ had attained in US public policy, in Britain the transformations have been, perhaps, more subtle, incremental and contested. As neoliberal principles began increasingly to shape economic policy, the management of the labour market and the welfare sector, so the criminal justice system, especially its leading edges, policing, surveillance and anti-social behaviour management, began to play an increasing part in the lives of the most disadvantaged, the least well-educated and the most economically marginal. With the exception of the anti-social behaviour management processes affecting youth and the ‘new youth justice’ (Goldson, 2000; Squires and Stephen, 2005), there was no wholesale transfer from ‘workfare’ to ‘prisonfare’ as Wacquant describes in the US. In any event, the strangely resilient British class system had seen to it that the most disadvantaged, the least well-educated and the most economically marginal always had been the groups of greatest interest to the police and local authorities. Slowly but surely, principles of police, surveillance and security management began to shape the design and experience of advanced marginality in the urban environment (Graham, 2010), recycling a power to judge and exclude. As Hempel and Topfer argue, the ban-opticon (Bigo, 2006) allows Western societies a ‘comfortable illusion’ of social inclusion even as ‘the power of exception and the production of normative imperatives amalgamate into a “governmentality” of uncertainty, unease, fear and (in)security … [whereby] liberal societies can approve their own selfimage’ (Hempel and Topfer, 2009, p 161) even as they exclude those who cannot cope, conform or consume within socially approved limits.

Inequality and security

It hardly matters that the ‘demand for law and order’ emerged, at least in part, from the very areas (inner cities, sink estates) subjected to the most crime and violence or (in what might well be left realist criminology's Achilles' heel) those most thoroughly acquainted with and least satisfied (p.221) by the enforcement arms of the state. What the criminal justice system could deliver was not safety but a selective kind of order for some. Pushed to be more efficient and effective and to climb league tables or meet performance standards, criminal justice agencies, and in the front line, the police, went for the easiest results (the ‘low hanging fruit’), targeting offenders, offences and hotspots. And behind them, the rest of the criminal justice system risk-assessed, fast-tracked, registered and processed, hoping that hyperactivity might be mistaken for effectiveness. Overall crime fell, but generally not in the areas where poverty and violence were most entrenched.

Acknowledging the differentiated impacts of public policy, the idea that public policy is not experienced as uniform and that in matters of (re-)distributional justice (the social division of welfare) there are always ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, is an idea with which, for perhaps obvious reasons, critical social policy has long been relatively comfortable. The parallel notion that some people's safety might be achieved at the cost of others' freedom is not an idea that has always penetrated as far as it should into criminology (Squires, 2006). Nevertheless, the idea of differentiated policy regimes and experiences was developed, first with Richard Titmuss's concept of the ‘three welfare states’ (Titmuss, 1963) then subsequently extended to five by commentators such as Frank Field (1981). Field described the following welfare state regimes: the benefits welfare state, the tax allowance welfare state, the company welfare state, the inheritance welfare state and the private market welfare state.

An important point regarding these various layers to the welfare state was that, while, over time they did (for some people) entail transitions from one welfare form to another, they also existed simultaneously and were related to one another. They defined the means by which segments of the population derived their welfare and well-being, but they were not all part of what is generally regarded as the conventional Beveridgean welfare state. Nor are these ‘regimes’ all so obviously functions of the state, even though they operate to some extent within (and to some extent beyond) the state itself. In a similar fashion for the US, Wacquant has outlined three formal layers of the state, the welfare state, the workfare state and prisonfare state, each exercising different controls over different populations. His further point is that these three regimes reflect a process of punitive transition in the governance of the poorest. Likewise, in the UK, just as we can describe the affluenceenhancing welfare regimes for the rich and powerful operating, in part, outwith the state, so there are welfare/discipline regimes in the (p.222) lower reaches of the state – and beneath it – reinforcing poverty and social exclusion.

First, as suggested already, we might describe the social and spatially differentiated ‘social housing welfare state’, beyond that the casual labour welfare state, the ‘off the books’ informal economy welfare state and the criminal welfare state (contraband, dealing and protection). At each remove, the states of well-being may become ever more precarious and survival oriented and in each layer the nature and risk of exposure to law enforcement or criminal victimisation will differ. The point is, just as the lifestyles of the affluent may not be directly governed through daily interactions with the state, so it may not be the state itself which looms largest in the lives of the poorest. A variety of nonstate actors, from the ‘dark side’ of civil society (Koonings and Kruijt, 2004), including perhaps, the local loan shark, resident drug dealers, the neighbourhood gang or criminal network, may well be supplying the most pressing and unavoidable forms of ‘sub-political’ governance from below (Beck, 1996, quoted in Rodgers, 2009, p 39). As we will see later, a range of commentators, discussing order maintenance especially in weak or failed states, have pointed to the role of these agents: perhaps ‘armed actors’, ‘policing extensions’, ‘violence entrepreneurs’ and gangs, in establishing order in the community (Koonings and Kruijt, 2004; Savenije and van der Borgh, 2004; van Reenen, 2004; Arias, 2006; Rodgers, 2009; Sonnevelt, 2009).

Developing these points, while Wacquant's Punishing the poor explains the predicament of the US racialised underclass in terms of neoliberal state governance, his Urban outcasts gives us important glimpses of a rather different range of actors also playing their part in structuring and both sustaining and imperilling (governing through crime, violence and fear) the lives of the poorest. It is to this that we now turn.

Governance and outcasts

The opening section of Urban outcasts provides what Wacquant refers to as the ‘tools for rethinking urban marginality’. This is spatially located in ghettos, banlieues, favelas, ‘stigmatised neighbourhoods situated at the very bottom of the hierarchical system of places that constitute the metropolis’ (2008, p1). They are the ‘lawless zones’, ‘problem estates’, ‘no-go areas’ or ‘wild districts’ – ‘badlands of the republic’ or ‘outlaw areas’ in Dikef's phrases (2007), ‘hotbeds of vice, violence and social dissolution’ (Dikef, 2007), places (and peoples) to be feared, fled from or shunned, although from the outside, such areas are typically represented as essentially similar, ‘barren, chaotic and brutish’ (Wacquant, 2008, p 1). (p.223) Wacquant's first key point is that ‘urban marginality is not everywhere woven of the same cloth’ (2008, p 1).

Central to this conception of marginality entailed by Wacquant are notions of the ‘collapse’ of public institutions, ‘state policies of urban abandonment,’ and of failure and retreat, leading to the ‘punitive containment’ of the resident poor (2008, pp 3–4). Yet state policies and controls have been reconfigured rather than relinquished, for ‘state structures and policies play a decisive role in the differential stitching together of inequalities of class place and origin … on both sides of the Atlantic’ (Wacquant, 2008, p 6). Ghettos, banlieues and favelas are, above all, ‘effects of state projected on the city’ (p 6). Even Paulo Lins' celebrated portrait of Cidade de Deus, the infamous favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro (Lins, 1997), in which the complex tapestry of daily life, comprising constant negotiation of peer and familial obligations, the demands of love, respect and survival, among the fluctuating street jurisdictions of drug dealers, gangsters and corrupt police – even this complex melting pot of dangerous and weaponised passions, where state authority seems at best quite remote, began life as an ambitious and idealistic municipal housing project to re-house (at a distance) the stigmatised inhabitants of the city's slums. And it is precisely the absence of accountable state authority which exposed the inhabitants to these other, more erratic (if no less brutal), influences. State interventions, typically police raids, have predominantly taken the form of abrupt militarised interventions that, from the perspective of the residents, typically lack legitimacy, accountability or precision. And to that extent they are often ineffective and/or unsustainable while often ‘only aggravate[ing] the very ills [they are] supposed to treat’ (Wacquant, 2008, p 7).

For example, as was reported in November 2010 by ABC News International:

Rio police, troops preparing invasion of drug gang stronghold

Soldiers and police crouching behind armored vehicles trained their rifles on dozens of entrances to a sprawling slum on Saturday, preparing to invade and try to push drug gangs out of an area long considered the most dangerous in Rio de Janeiro, a city set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics…. A delicate calm held after a night that saw intense exchanges of gunfire, filling the dark sky with bright streaks as bullets whizzed into and out of the Alemao (p.224) slum. Soldiers in camouflage, black-clad police from elite units and regular police held their ground at the entrances to the complex, a grouping of a dozen slums where more than 85,000 people live. (http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=12254023)

The backdrop to this ‘invasion’ had been the resistance activities perpetrated by Alemao drug gangs to recent police crackdowns. Attempting to ‘clean up’ Rio and making it safe to capitalise on the economic opportunities presented by major sports tourism, the police had been moving against the gangs in their neighbourhoods. In retaliation the gangs had been venturing beyond their favela strongholds, robbing scores of motorists, buses and lorries, then burning the vehicles, blocking the roads and ‘holding the city to ransom’. Ed Vulliamy describes similar practices adopted by drug cartels and gangs in a number of Mexican cities, provoking the Mexican authorities into similar military adventures (Vulliamy, 2010). In consequence, the Rio authorities drew in the military to drive the gangs out of the slums in a demonstration of overwhelming force.

Speaking specifically of Brazil, Wacquant has noted how ‘criminal insecurity … is not attenuated but clearly aggravated by the intervention of the law enforcement forces’ (2003, p 199). Here we can describe a state as retreating (from international norms of civilisation and the protection of human rights) even as its armoured troop carriers bulldoze the ghettos and shanty towns in pursuit of investment opportunities, economic development, a dubious ‘cultural renaissance’ and the allimportant sports tourism dollar (Goldstone, 2001), and as failing even as it represses more harshly (Wacquant, 2008b).

In the shadows and the ruins

As Wacquant notes in Punishing the poor, a central aspect of such failures and retreats has been the adoption of police-led solutions for law and order, drawing on a ̓prefabricated discourse on the efficacy of police repression, disinterred as the sole remedy for the congenital wantonness of the dangerous classes' (2009, p 259). Here there is perfect consistency with Urban outcasts as he describes the ‘“police fetishism” – the ideological illusion that make[s] policing the solution to the crime problem’ (p 12). Thus, ‘putting working class districts left economically and socially fallow under police restraint has recently become popular amongst rulers because it enables the high state nobility to give itself the comforting feeling that it is responding to the demands of the “people” (p.225) while at the same time exculpating its own historic responsibility in the making of the urban outcasts of the new century’ (p 12).

By the same token, in the liberal West, anti-social behaviour and crime and disorder management strategies, from the New York ‘miracle’ to the Parisian suburbs and the sink estates of South London, were not primarily about alleviating the condition of the poorest (they had so little impact here in any event) but rather were about shifting responsibility and exploiting the opportunity of disorder to discipline the marginal into acceptance of their condition, position and function. In Foucault's (1977) terms they reproduce ‘useful delinquency’ and the profoundly crimogenic consequences of intensive policing and mass incarceration strongly suggest that it is political authority which is at issue rather than any given level of crime or victimisation. As Wacquant argues, it is this fact that explains the persistence of the continuing spectacle, the addictive allure, of law and order.

But if criminalisation and a voracious, expanding, penal establishment are most effective in perpetuating the social insecurities of outcast life in the ghettos and slums, what does this mean for those condemned to live these lives? Moreover, what other processes, including those somewhat external to the state itself, either beyond its reach or beneath its radar, including the practices of the marginal themselves, contribute to the predicament of marginality? As was noted earlier, Wacquant's Punishing the poor says very little about the agency and activism of the marginalised whereas, in fact, from around the world a wide range of research evidence is now filling in some of these silences. The picture received is far from pretty and certainly far from clear but if one perspective sees nothing more than a brutal Hobbesian war of all against all fought out in the shadows and among the ruins of neoliberal state failure, another sees the situated urban activism of the poorest – even in the form of gangs – as loaded with social potential. That is ‘potential’, rather than ‘promise’, for there is much that can prevent positive development here (not least the heavy-handed and counter-productive response of state authorities themselves), trapping gang members and their communities in vicious cycles of conflict and destructive violence. As an entire tradition of gang researchers have reminded us (Thrasher, 1927; Hagedorn, 1988; Klein, 1995), gangs thrive on conflict, but conflict, violence and a ready supply of weapons also limit and reverse social development and what the gang might become.

As noted, despite acknowledging that the dramas of urban survival have to be understood in context – ‘urban marginality is not everywhere woven of the same cloth’ (Wacquant, 2008a, p 1) – it is nonetheless true that the dilemmas of life in the world's murder capitals are reflected (p.226) and refracted across the zones of urban marginality from first world cultures, to the global south and what Castells (2000) has termed the ‘fourth world’. Yet before turning to consider how Wacquant himself describes the politics and adjustments associated with marginality in these various urban contexts, it is worth briefly reflecting on some of the common denominators serving to reproduce chronic underdevelopment and de-civilisation.

Conflict traps and violence

Paul Collier's recent and challenging book, The bottom billion (Collier, 2008), describes the factors that he considers are not just holding back the social and economic development of the 50-odd poorest countries in the world (and thereby the well-being of the billion or so people living within such failed states) but rather, the circumstances which are actively eroding their capacity to progress, widening inequalities and exacerbating their social, economic and political problems. Collier employs four explanations (he calls them ‘four traps’) to account for the economic under-development of certain societies. These are what he refers to as: the ‘conflict trap’, the ‘bad neighbours trap’, the ‘resources trap’ and the ‘bad governance trap’. The aim here is to take the principles from his analysis and adapt them to the situations of deprived and marginalised communities within existing societies, to extend the analysis of impoverishing contexts beyond the simple realm of the state, even though the state is often implicated.

The conflict trap serves as an acknowledgement that problems of violence, weaponisation and rates of gang membership are typically highest in the poorest and most marginal urban communities (Currie, 1997; Morenoff et al, 2001; Jutersonke et al, 2007; Dorling, 2008; Hagedorn, 2008). States are certainly implicated in these violence processes, not least because (as we saw in the Rio illustration earlier) it is often the reactions of states and ‘officialdom’ in the form of the police (or paramilitaries) that provide the critical catalysts for gang formation, resistance and conflict. Violence is chronic, recurring and endemic, analogous to the destructive ‘ecologies of violence’ depicted in the US ghetto as described by Fagan and Wilkinson (2002). And a point we will return to, this persistent violence is typically sustained by an, often illegal, weapon supply. According to Collier, such violence and chronic, persisting conflict represent ‘economic development in reverse’ (2008, p xx).

In similar fashion, here referring specifically to the US post-industrial context, Elliot Currie has itemised seven dimensions of post-industrial (p.227) violence: the progressive destruction of livelihood; the growth of extremes of inequality and material deprivation; the withdrawal of public services and supports; the erosion of informal networks of mutual support; the spread of a materialistic and neglectful culture; the deregulation of the technology of violence; and the weakening of social and political alternatives (Currie, 1997). Contrary to Wacquant's prioritisation of state action, only one of Currie's seven dimensions of violence and decline (the withdrawal of public services and supports) relates directly to the political decision making of state agents. Nor is it self-evident that this is a necessarily prior consideration; rampant inequality, diminishing mutuality and community neglect may well undermine mainstream political activity leading to the rolling back of welfare and the rolling out of tough law and order. A particular issue, drawn from Currie's list, which assumes an especial significance in the sustaining of the conflict trap concerns the degregulation of the technology of violence – or, specifically, the proliferation of firearms, the weaponisation of communities and the ‘gangsterisation’ that this often entails.

A second Latin American example, here concerning the Mexican border city Juárez, provides another useful illustration. Ed Vulliamy (2010) describes the fascinating and deeply conflicted social relations of the borderline in his book Amexica. Unfortunately Juárez embodies some of the worst of all the traps outlined by Collier. To the north it has one of the most unforgiving neighbours possible, the US, for which Juárez serves as little more than a workshop and depot on one of the world's major land trade and transportation routes. The huge volume of trade passing through the city provides plentiful and lucrative opportunities for cocaine trafficking to the insatiable market in the north, thereby explaining the bitter, violent struggles between rival drug cartels seeking to control these key trade routes. Paralleling the northern flow of cocaine is a southern flow of high grade automatic and semiautomatic arms and ammunition, from the gun stores and rather less well regulated gun-shows of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, augmenting the firepower of the cartels. This illegal trade in firearms, known locally as the trafico de la hormiga (‘trail of ants’), entails routine and regular smuggling of firearms across the Mexican border from the US. Over 8,000 firearms sold in the US during 2009–10 have been subsequently traced to Mexico, and around 90 per cent of surveyed illegal firearms recovered in Mexico originate within the US (Chu and Krause, 2009). At the same time the proximity to the US border accounts for the large number of would-be (illegal) transients and emigrants frustrated and piled up at the border in their quest for the American Dream. Instead (p.228) they find themselves ensnared by its opposite, as the cheap dispensable labour of the sweatshop maquiladora factory system. These factories and assembly plants are the direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) established in 1994, by which the US capitalism was given free access to the cheap non-unionised labour of its southern neighbour, and northern Mexico gained the promise of some much needed economic investment. Unfortunately the benefits of this arrangement were far from equally distributed – for Vulliamy, the maquiladoras perfectly symbolise Mexico's ‘subjugated but dependent relationship to the US economy’ (2010, p 200).

The maquiladoras offer gruelling and highly exploitative working conditions for a female-dominated, apparently expendable, labour force. For many commentators, this very dispensability of the largely female labour force is reflected in another of the cruel realities of Juárez: the femicido murders of over 500 young women, and the hundreds more missing or lost since 1994. According to Alba and Guzman (2010) and Staudt (2008), the Juárez border area establishes a worst-case scenario of weaponised, hyper-violent misogynistic masculinity in crisis. On the one hand, the drug cartel conflicts, like many gang cultures around the world (Totten, 2000; Batchelor, 2009), have cultivated a culture of violent masculine impunity further sustained by police corruption and ineptitude. At the same time the predominantly female employment opportunities in the new factory system have allowed the resentments of displaced males to fester even as the social needs and human rights of this vast, nameless, transient and abused female workforce are ground down to the minimum on US assembly lines.

As Arriola explains, the missing element in many of the official discussions of the Juárez murders ‘is the multi-national corporations’ complicity with Mexican officials in disregarding the health, safety and security needs of the Mexican women and girls who work in the maquiladoras … the factories run twenty-four hours a day, [but] pay no taxes, and do very little to ensure that their workers will have a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in and enough money to feed their families … such employment has not enhanced peace and prosperity amongst the working class, instead hostility against the poor working women has increased̓ (Arriola, 2010, pp 27–8). Or, as Vulliamy's interviewees put it, somewhat more forcefully, ‘The maquilas see women who work much as they see our city, as something expendable. So what if a woman is murdered? Ten or a hundred? There are always plenty more.. If you want to beat, rape or kill a woman, there is no better place than Juárez, there are thousands to choose from, plenty of opportunities and, thirdly, you can get away with it. The lives of women, especially poor (p.229) women, have no value’ (2010, p 164). The final irony is that Juárez – the neoliberal trap where the American Dream turns nightmare – marks not the breakdown of the late capitalist social order, or some failed state, but rather, Vulliamy suggests, it is the neoliberal order of the future (2010, p 106).

In such urban traps the world over, bad governance, bad neighbours, scarce resources and chronic conflict offer the poorest rather limited opportunities. As Wacquant puts it, ‘for those who are repeatedly rejected from the labour market or balk [sic] at taking dead-end “slave jobs” in the deregulated service sectors that strip them of their dignity by requiring that they execute menial tasks paid at poverty wages with no benefits … underground activities offer a bounty of full time employment opportunities’ (Wacquant, 2008a, p 66). For such people, he continues, ‘predatory crime constitutes a form of petty entrepreneurialism in which they put to use the only valuable assets they possess: physical prowess and a working knowledge … of the streets’ (Wacquant, 2008a, p 66). So it is not difficult to appreciate ‘the main attraction of gangs for subproletarian young men in the hyper- ghetto’ for they represent ̒queer business concerns that can increase [one's] chances of securing income in cash and a modicum of financial security … besides, the drug trade is often the only form of business known to adolescents, and one which has the immense virtue of being a genuine ‘equal opportunity employer’ (p 67). And rather than imposing alien and external (statist) categories such as ‘crime’ (or law and justice and right and wrong) on these behaviours, Wacquant, like Venkatesh, understands them as part of normal urban life, ‘the perpetual negotiation, collusion and compromise, of the constant struggle to survive – to find a purpose for your life, to fulfil your desires, to feed your family’ (Venkatesh, 2006, p xix).

Drawing on the work of Bourgois (1989, 2003), Wacquant details the ‘explosive growth of the criminal economy’ that ‘crystallizes as a culture of terror’ (Bourgois, 1989), a ‘grisly lottery of homicides’ (Wacquant, 2008a, pp 126–7) or, in Fagan and Wilkinson's terms, an ‘ecology of violence’ (Fagan and Wilkinson, 1998, 2000). In the illegal economy regular displays of violence are a ‘business requirement’ which serve to establish both personal and commercial credibility. It is, he contends, following Collier, an environment populated by bad and predatory neighbours, scarce resources and bad governance represented most immediately by corrupt and violent police, and where people ‘must protect themselves from violence by being ready to wield it at any time’ (Wacquant, 2008a, pp 66–7). Indeed Wacquant himself adopts the language of Hobbesian brutalism to describe the bitter ‘economy (p.230) of predation’ which pits ‘gangs, rival factions of a gang (“crews” and “posses”) which fight … [in] a sort of free for all, a perpetual miniguerilla war of the dispossessed’ (Wacquant, 2008a, p 128).

Such conditions produce a range of responses. In the banlieues of Paris Wacquant describes a widely shared perception (also reported elsewhere, see Goldsmith, 2006) that young people especially are ‘subjected to a generalised pattern of anti-youth discrimination that obtains both inside and outsides their estates’, and that they are subject to constant ‘unwarranted suspicion and surveillance’ (p 189). Elsewhere, Wacquant describes the urban street life of the ghetto as a ‘grotesque theatre of aggressive masculinity’ (p 211), where violent confrontation, fuelled by the ready supply of handguns and drugs, establishes fragile (and often highly contested) hierarchies of honour and respect which subjects must be ready to defend (Short, 1997; Bourgois, 2003; Stewart et al, 2006; Squires, 2010b). One final consequence of these chronic relations of violence concerns the capacity or will of the criminal justice system – and especially of the police – to confront these problems effectively. In Collier's terms, this aspect of ‘bad governance’, which can oscillate between corrupt neglect and full-scale military intervention, can lead communities, or groups within these communities, to seek their own forms of justice (Wacquant, 2008a, p 219). Here we encounter another dimension of gang sociology.

Gangs, conflict and peace-making

One side of the gang story emerging from a police-led criminology will always be about the role of gangs as criminal parasites holding communities to ransom, corrupting and accelerating the violent delinquency of youth, defining themselves as implacably against mainstream values while engaging in all manner of criminal enterprise. But this is only part of the story. Implicit in Wacquant's acknowledgement that communities (or groups within communities) might seek their own justice when it is denied or frustrated by the agencies of the state is anticipation of a different interpretation. It is an issue he scarcely develops, especially in Punishing the poor, where any community capacity appears rather overwhelmed by a rather more structuralist interpretation. It was precisely this which provoked Frances Fox Piven's question, referred to earlier (Piven, 2010, p 114), for now there is plenty of evidence emerging from the work of a newer generation of sociologists and more critical criminologists of the active roles played by gangs – as collective actors – although, it has to be said, these are not always positive roles.

(p.231) The argument about the gang's constructive potential (certainly recognised in Thrasher's sociology [1927]) is sketched in Elijah Anderson's critical engagement with Wacquant in the American Journal of Sociology in 2002. Anderson noted how:

In some of the most economically distressed and drug and crime ridden pockets of the city, the rules of civil law have been severely weakened and in their stead a code of the street often holds sway … the code of the street emerges where the influence of the police ends and personal responsibility for one's safety is felt to begin, resulting in a kind of people's law based upon street justice. (Anderson, 2002, pp 1546–7; emphasis added)

The debate surrounding this so-called ‘code of the street’, however, is deeply contested. A number of commentators, Anderson (1999) prominent among them, have argued that a knowledge of the street and its relations of hierarchy, deference and respect, equips the ‘streetwise’ with the means to negotiate their way relatively safely around potentially dangerous neighbourhoods, able to avoid either provoking or attracting status challenges. Yet these issues are seldom so clear cut. Stewart et al, in an article revealingly titled ‘I ain't gonna let no-one disrespect me’ (2006), and intended to test the Anderson argument, revealed how their research on street behaviour codes found that they were just as likely to provoke violent challenges and altercations as they were to forestall them. One issue was that the very attitudes, demeanours and behaviours which were intended to convey that a person was to be taken seriously were just as likely to be perceived by others as a challenge. Respect, in other words, was not something fixed and constant but a relation that needed to be renewed and forcefully reinvested constantly (Zubillaga, 2009).

Further complicating the picture, Mullins (2004) found that the masculine behaviour codes to which his interview subjects (repeat violent offenders) claimed to subscribe were only rather loosely followed in practice. At times they may have been almost entirely aspirational (never hit females, never ‘grass’ to the cops, never attack someone from behind) or, on other occasions, followed for purely instrumental reasons, but were largely disregarded when they conflicted with other priorities. The overwhelming masculine preoccupation with ‘respect’ is traced to the ‘profound alienation from mainstream US society felt by many inner-city blacks, particularly the poorest’ (Anderson, 1994, cited in Short, 1997, p 65). As Short has concluded, (p.232) ‘out of concern for being disrespected, respect is easily violated. Because status problems are mixed with extreme resource limitations, people – especially young people – exaggerate the importance of symbols, often with life-threatening consequences’ (Short, 1997, p 65). Yet, respect is one currency young men can command even although it is highly contested, easily lost and constantly imperilled by the (seemingly almost random) violence that sustains it. While respect and street knowledge might form the basis for the establishment of forms of street capital (Sandberg, 2008), this too can be jeopardised when violence problems escalate. As Rodgers has argued: ‘the means through which gangs … attempted to maintain and accumulate both collective and individual social capital stocks can be said to have failed at least partly due to the unsustainable nature of the violent social practices upon which they were based – which in fact is Thomas Hobbes' central point in his classic Leviathan’ (Rodgers, 2006, p 9).

Finally, the analysis of the violent de-civilising environment of inner-urban street life has been further extended by Fagan and Wilkinson (1998, 2000) in their New York study. Their data revealed that obtaining and then using a gun had become part of a ‘rite of passage’ into manhood and a respected street identity. Interviewees had seemingly internalised a number of rules of behaviour, including ideas of a shortened life expectancy, which the researchers collectively referred to as ‘processes of anticipatory socialisation’, reflecting the perceived likelihood of threats, risks and victimisation from lethal violence (Fagan and Wilkinson, 1998). Here, experiences (direct or indirect) of violence fuelled future expectations of violence, leading young people to both anticipate and prepare for violent encounters. Such preparation entailed acquiring and carrying their own weapons, and being prepared to use them as occasion demanded. Preparedness also entailed the need to react quickly and a willingness to ‘shoot first’ as necessary. Just as we might consider the double-sided character of street codes, respect and street capital, so too there is a developing debate about gangs as community assets, as non-state actors providing positive forms of governance and regulation from below where few other forms of authority exist. Davis extends the point to include the wider social relations of spatial and ethno-racial governance in poor areas. ‘Gangs frequently act as neighbourhood militias to police public space, enforce (or resist) ethnic and racial borders and thereby control access to jobs and housing … [providing] some measure of entrepreneurial opportunity.… If some gangs are vampire-like parasites on their own neighbours, others play Robin Hood or employer of the last resort; most combine elements of both predation and welfare’ (Davis, 2008, (p.233) p xi). The empirical question involves assessing where, how and why (and maybe for whom) the gang plays positive roles and can be seen as a developmental asset and where, how, why and for whom it might be seen as negative, decivilising and contrary to social development.

Varieties of violence

In the developed economies of the capitalist West, much as the phenomenon of ‘gangsterisation’ is largely understood as an outgrowth of inequality, racism, social exclusion, unequal social development and, most recently the neoliberal innovations of mass unemployment, the retrenchment of welfare regimes and the emergence of alternative illegal economies (usually based around drugs); the gang itself is invariably seen in negative terms as almost feral, violence accelerating and community destroying. The same is manifestly not so true in other parts of the world where distinctions between gangs, armed groups, citizen militias, vigilante associations, warlords, drug cartels, terrorist cells, freedom fighters and revolutionary movements can often become quite blurred (Koonings and Kruijt, 2004; Hagedorn, 2008, pp 22–4; Hazen, 2010). While the developed West, from Thrasher and the Chicago School of Sociology to the present day, understands gang development as a facet of social disorganisation, in the global south and ‘fourth world’, gangsterisation, weaponisation and militarisation are often associated with parallel notions of state deligitimation, failure and retreat. The spaces created by these state withdrawals are then filled by the activities of armed and angry young men (Hagedorn, 2008, p 31). It is in precisely such contexts, Rodgers contends, and here he is writing about the post-conflict societies of Central America, that gangs can be engaged in both financial capital asset accumulation (drug-trafficking profits) and both individual and collective social capital accumulation and neighbourhood defence (Rodgers, 2006).

There are many forms that can be taken by the violence of the urban dispossessed. Collier's four traps have already given us a sense of the ways in which bad governance, bad neighbours, poor resources and weapon-led conflict facilitation can shape the nature of the violence, either prolonging it and institutionalising its pernicious effects or fostering its social and transformational potential. However, focusing only on one aspect or dimension of these processes will never give us the whole of the story, and the socially dysfunctional neoliberalism described by Wacquant in Punishing the poor, while it paints a picture for us of underclass formation, tells us relatively little about how this underclass might react. For this we have to look at other processes, (p.234) cultures, environments and neighbours and the behaviours of other non-state actors. Hagedorn (2008) has gone some way to explore the ‘globalisation’ of forms of ‘gangsta’ culture and there exists a growing literature on the contribution of illicit small arms transfers and how illegal weapon trafficking can contribute to the perpetuation of chronic violence in the world's most troubled societies and regions (Small Arms Survey, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2010; Cukier and Sidel, 2006; Carr, 2008). According to the Small Arms Survey 2002, firearm supplies must now be seen as ‘independent variables’ in conflict zones, ‘situational facilitators’ of violence – including chronic levels of gender-based violence and abuse. Conflicts are perpetuated by weapon supply, so durable solutions to these must focus on the tools of violence as well as the underlying causes.

Take, for example, the case of Mexico's borderland Amexica described earlier, and specifically the predicament of its ‘murder city’ – or Juárez (Bowden, 2010) so eloquently described by Vulliamy (2010). This demonstrates not only the profound consequences of having the worst neighbour in the world, to the north, but also the worst of all resources, dirt-cheapened labour and plentiful cocaine, deeply ineffectual governance largely handed over to the multinational maquiladora sweatshop factory system and the drug cartels, each pursuing a variant of their own ‘scorched earth’ social development strategy. Into this context the US's own free market in firearms pours a ‘river of steel’ (Vulliamy, 2010, p 248) comprising high-grade auto- and semi-automatic weapons to keep the wheels of conflict turning.

Likewise our other illustrations of, first, the situated violence in Rio's favelas, deemed worthy of invasion by Brazil's military after years of corruption and neglect and, second, the difficulties of escape or redemption in the City of God, together demonstrate the compounding consequences of bad governance, neglectful neighbours, scarce resources and excess weaponry. Yet each case is different, and the social relations of urban violence merit an understanding at a level that gives meaning to the actions of those living the most dangerous of 21st-century lives, and understands the choices they make in the light of the opportunities, constraints and fears facing them. It is in these meanest of streets, slums and ghettos that the most profoundly damaging and decivilising consequences of neoliberalism are to be found and the foundations for the most potent criticisms of neoliberalism developed.

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