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Review of Jonathan Simon’s “Governing through Crime”

govthroughcrime121408.jpgThere are few books that so reflect an author’s mastery of a subject as much as the latest contribution from Jonathan Simon, the Associate Dean of Jurisprudence and Social Policy at the University of California Berkeley.  Simon’s polemic and ambitious book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, is a real eye-opener on law, justice, and the politics of public security in post 9/11 America, containing compelling arguments of far-reaching implications – not in the least in terms of observing the similar transformation which has occured in Russia.

First released in 2007, Simon’s book contains an important prescription for the incoming president to be aware of, and can help contribute to a deeper understanding of the political mechanics behind the world’s newest authoritarian leaning regimes.

It is Simon’s argument that we must look past the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in searching for the original impetuous which has driven the U.S. government headlong into the war on terror, including all the accompanying constitutional and rule of law abuses which have accompanied it.  The legislative precursors for the latest sweeping arc of rights deprivations, including everything from the strengthening of the executive to the PATRIOT Act, generalized domestic wiretapping and Guantanamo Bay, can be observed in the Nixonian collapse of the “New Deal approach” to governing of the 1960s, when we saw the birth of the war on crime and the portrayal of society as a victim in need of government protection – quickly becoming the central trope in American neo-populism.


Simon argues (pp.72) that it was not long after the electoral success of campaigning on crime, that the executive assumed a predatory role for control over institutions far outside those related to public security: “The attraction of crime control as a basis forexecutive power begins with its immunity from the political collapse ofsupport for both the liberal social welfare state and the conservativemessage of global military dominance. (…)

In associating theirexecutive authority with the role of the prosecutor, presidents andgovernors are able to tap into a logic of sovereign representationlargely independent of, and unimpaired by, the discrediting of thegeneral welfare state instructed by the new deal. (….)

What followed thereafter, with frightening velocity, was the consolidation of nearly every social problem and agenda under the rubric of crime, on both a federal and state level, which has led to the culture of fear we now know as reflected by widespread drug testing by employers, metal detectors at schools and places of business, and the proliferation home security measures and many other indications of misplaced priorities.

One key vehicle for this transformation of how the state governs, argues Simon, was the birth of “neo-populist” politics.  He writes on page 154: “Like the populist movementsthat influenced state government at tthe end of the 19th century, thenew populism is strongly distrustful of expertise and of elitenormative judgments about society. (…)

Instead, the ideal promoted iskind of abolition of politics, one in which some mythically simplesystem of rules allows individuals to abandon politics all together infavor of self-interest without any sustained agreement on collectivegoals.” 

It is difficult not to read Simon’s conception of neo-populism and immediately bring to mind the methodologies of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and others, whose rejection of normative social and legal judgments in exchange for the identification of a permanent outside threat to public security, for which they see themselves as responsible to protect by any means necessary, is the operative framework for governing.

Simon’s mixutre of legal theory, social theory, history and politicalscience makes for a potent intellectual cocktail.  This far-reaching portrayal of the war on crime, rooted in the failure of the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam, makes it very clear how both the issue of Washington’s foreign policy unilateralism and constitutional destruction under both Bush Administrations was so easily and rapidly facilitated – in fact it is something that we should have been better prepared for. This book is important on a host of levels and speaksto a student of comparative criminal justice, whether he or she isgrounded in Russia, Latin America, or the Far East.  Highly recommended.