Neoliberalism and the Retributive Society

Neoliberalism, as defined by David Harvey in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, is “a theory of political and economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”

Neoliberalism has resulted in a series of social developments that have fundamentally changed the nature and purpose of policing in the United States. First, it has required new modes of spatial use, development and governance, particularly in urban areas. Second, it has created political, economic and social conditions which resulted in the invention of new crimes and new actuarial patterns of crime control. Third, neoliberalism requires an unprecedented and enormous expansion of the criminal justice system which had required the system to become more repressive and coercive.

The neoliberal state is committed to policies highly desired by and insisted upon by corporate and elite interests. The flip side of that coin is that neoliberalism fundamentally changes how the state deals with the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed and the homeless. Policing follows suit with violent repression directed at the poor and virtual immunity extended to corporate, white-collar and political criminals.

Policing Space for Profit

Central to neoliberal policies have been rapid and massive changes in the spatial and socioeconomic characteristics of cities. Neighborhoods have experienced rapacious acquisition of properties by realtors and developers, resulting in skyrocketing rents and rapid gentrification. The profits this land grab has generated have been a boon for investors in a declining economy but these profits have been solely for the benefit of the privileged few.

Indeed, as federal, state and city governments have withdrawn support from social programs and services, communities experienced unprecedented levels of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, homelessness and social crime. Meanwhile realtors, developers, other business people and banks have experienced a massive increase in wealth at the expense of the vast majority of urban residents.

The impact of neoliberalism in relation to rental housing costs is obvious and dire for the majority. In Lexington 39% of the available housing stock is renter occupied. The average monthly rent is:

Average monthly rent
$750 One bedroom
$950 Two bedroom
$1,275 Three bedroom
$1,600 Four bedroom

In just the last year those rental rates have increased by about 6%. At the same time the vacancy rate in rental housing has declined to 3.9%. Meanwhile the median household income has increased only 1% since 1990. The devastating impact of the housing crisis and gentrification is obvious from those numbers. People’s wages have not kept up as housing prices have continued to rise.

Public Space

More and more urban public spaces, like parks and recreation areas, are being privatized. More and more open spaces are under corporate financial control and subjected to draconian levels of police intervention. The banks and corporations controlling these spaces do not want people singing, drinking, playing or sleeping in them. As a result, stopping people from engaging in these basic human behaviors in public has become an enforcement priority for the new corporatized American police force.

Starting with the Reagan administration, the federal government began to cease investment in urban renewal programs and urban development. Funds which had been made available to local governments dried up and disappeared. The withdrawal of federal support had two main impacts. First, a wide range of positive social and development programs were terminated. Second, cities faced a problem of rapidly increasing debt. With the federal government’s retreat, urban governments increasingly looked to banks and other private financiers to cover their costs and obligations.

And the banks were only too happy to fill the void! The new arrangement allowed banks to force three demands on municipal governments. First, social welfare programs were still more deeply ravaged. Second, municipal services and space had to be privatized. Third, cities had to implement aggressive policing policies in service of land developers, realtors, banks, corporations and private business. In other words, municipal government had to divest itself from its own populace except to police them in the interest of protecting business owners’ and investors’ property rights.

Municipal governments no longer governed. Instead they became profit-producing, entrepreneurial fiefdoms totally focused on policies that made urban areas financially, socially and politically attractive to corporations, developers and banks. A combination of private and corporate financial investment and urban government policies created the conditions for a perfect storm of gentrification that deliberately displaced impoverished neighborhoods, massively widened the gap between rich and poor, and militarized the police into a violent army of occupation.

“The police are not protecting communities and keeping them secure. The police are playing a key role in destabilizing and reshaping those communities for the benefit of investors.”

New Crime and Actuarial Policing

The simple fact is that almost everyone’s contact with the criminal justice system starts with the police. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans will have interactions with the police as their only criminal justice system contact. These interactions rarely result in arrest, let alone prosecution, conviction or incarceration.

In fact, of all those people who have been subjected to “stop and frisk” police tactics, over 90% are never found to be engaged in criminal activity. This by itself demonstrates that the police are not fighting crime but are engaged in a pattern of discipline and regulation directed at those targeted by neoliberal policies. The police are not protecting communities and keeping them secure. The police are playing a key role in destabilizing and reshaping those communities for the benefit of investors.

Beginning in the 1990s many police departments abandoned “crime-fighting” in favor of an “order maintenance” policing strategy. Rather than targeting serious crimes like assault, robbery, rape, burglary, theft and homicide, police departments turned their attention to minor, low-level instances of “disorder.” Behavior like homelessness, panhandling, public alcohol consumption and minor vandalism became the new “index crimes” targeted by police departments.

The result was ugly and predictable. The police engaged in punitive, oppressive and often violent tactics directed primarily at poor, inner-city communities. The net impact was that policing was no longer directed at serious crime. Policing had become a new social engineering policy meant to regulate the behavior of the poor.

The neoliberal demand for order maintenance makes a mockery of arguments that policing strategies are designed to protect us from harm from by violent and property crimes. In 2013 police made 11,302,102 arrests. Of those only 480,360 (4%) were for violent crime. Another 1,559,284 (13.8%) were for property crimes.

What about the other arrests? By our estimation, at least 56% of arrests arose from situations that posed no discernible threat to the public. This is especially disturbing as arrest is the event from which most police violence proceeds. In short, the majority of situations where a civilian might be on the wrong side of police violence arise from a circumstance where the civilian poses no threat to anybody.

We identify arrests arising from “order maintenance” as coming out of a few categories of arrest tabulated by the FBI. The most telling arrests are from the amorphous “all other offenses” category, defined by the FBI as “all violations of state or local laws not specifically identified as Part I or Part II offenses, except traffic violations.” In other words, all criminal acts not defined by the FBI as being “serious” crimes. In 2013, police made 3,282,651 (29%) arrests for “all other” infractions, a number dwarfing arrests for both violent and property offenses.

It gets worse. In addition to the “all other offenses” category, police also made 1,441,209 arrests (12.8% of all arrests) for vandalism, curfew violation and loitering, vagrancy, disorderly conduct, drunkenness and liquor law violations (excluding drunk driving). All of these are considered extremely minor offenses as well. So, from those numbers, we get to the shocking statistic 42% of all police arrests in 2013 were for public order indiscretions. Now add in the 1,549,663 arrests for drug abuse and prostitution (13.7% of all arrests), crimes generally classified as victimless. We end up a total of 56% of all arrests where the person arrested posed no discernible threat to the public.

We can see that punitive policing has nothing to do with crime. Instead, it is a symbolic representation of state power, a form of public humiliation and public punishment. These new order maintenance strategies were directed almost exclusively against the poor and people of color. Policing became the primary tool of neoliberalism to control, humiliate and regulate the poor.

New crimes and new policing strategies like those associated with Wilson and Kelling’s infamous “Broken Windows Theory” had very little to do with serious crime. Instead, a plethora of new laws and policing priorities were focused on one thing and one thing only: the protection of capital flows to enhance private investment and development in urban settings.

One of the first campaigns launched by NYPD under this new “Broken Windows” paradigm was to crack down on and arrest street vendors. It was, of course, just this type of policing strategy that led to the tragic police killing of Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes. The demand for new laws and aggressive policing of street life came directly from commercial interests who argued that street vending, street artists, and the like created congestion on sidewalks and competed with the products being peddled in their stores. Aggressive policing toward sidewalk vendors, singers, dancers and artists had nothing to do with serious crime. It had everything to do with private profit.


Similarly, it was corporate real estate developers who pushed for aggressive policing and changes in police deployment strategies as a means to clear out neighborhoods for gentrification. Once again new laws and aggressive policing strategies were aimed at the homeless, the poor and the mentally ill. Corporate elites wielded their considerable political clout to reallocate police resources from “crime” to removing obstacles to their takeover of land and buildings and their subsequent profits from skyrocketing rents and sales of refurbished urban housing. Simply put, the police were used to displace entire populations and sanitize the streets not for the benefit of residents, but for the profits of corporations.

NYPD’s Compstat program is the prime example of how police resources are reallocated for private profit. New York’s police commissioner Bill Bratton was a primary architect of this new form of police accountability to corporate interests. Bratton reorganized the NYPD around “private-sector business practices and principles for management.” Compstat, in addition to heightening police accountability to financial capital also decreased police accountability to poor communities. No longer were the concerns of residents the primary motivation for police activity. Now the police were accountable only to actuarial statistical patterns and numbers which served to define “disorder” in a manner conducive to private business and development. Compstat in no way provided any meaningful community input to policing. It was and is a total rejection of community input and the full embrace of private business and financial sector input.

The result of all of this was the criminalization of “disorder.” Suddenly police became more concerned about panhandling, public singing and dancing, loitering, public drinking, bicycle riders, boom boxes, prostitutes, graffiti and street vending than they were about serious criminal harms. Criminalizing previously noncriminal acts resulted in a strategy of order-maintenance policing that was both punitive and judgmental in vilifying those who might be marginally annoying but in no way dangerous. This was both a gift to corporate interests and a war on the poor. In concert with the severe cuts to social service programs and the new definition of “crime” as disorder, policing became a major policy initiative in dealing with structural poverty.

Under the new paradigm, it was easy for police to find “cause” to stop-and-frisk almost anyone. This, despite the fact that stop-and-frisk policies rarely resulted in arrests or the discovery of actual “crime.” Sadly, it is no surprise that nonwhites were subjected to the tactic six times more frequently than whites despite similar crime rates among both populations. In New York City, 90% of the precincts with high frequencies of police stops were majority-minority precincts. Analyses of stops found that the strongest predictive variable was the poverty rates of the neighborhoods in which the stops occurred.

"The United States has become the most unequal industrialized country in the world."

Order maintenance policing also targets the mentally ill for arrest and prosecution. A massive 33% nationwide cut in spending on health care for the mentally ill, , has resulted in police intervention as a primary way the state deals with psychiatric problems.

Criminal Expansion

Neoliberal policies have created levels of inequality in the United States unheard of since slavery and the rise of the robber barons. The redistribution of income alone has been astonishing. In 1980 the top 10% of income earners controlled 35% of all income. Today they control more than 50%. The United States has become the most unequal industrialized country in the world.

At the same time, the U.S. prison population soared from around 500,000 in 1980 to over 2.5 million today with another 5 million under the control of one or another correctional programs. Today the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One out of every 30 adults are under control of the correctional system. And all this occurred in the midst of a dramatic drop in in the number of people actually victimized by crimes. The violent crime rate in 1981 was 52.3 per 1,000 people. In 2013 it was 26.1 per 1,000 people. The rise in incarceration had nothing to with crime. It had everything to do with an orderly, corporatized society.

Neoliberalism has adopted a policy of incarceration as a response to control of poor communities and a growing surplus population of the unemployed and underemployed. As neoliberal policies have abandoned the state’s function of governance and eviscerated welfare policies they have looked to the criminal justice system as their primary response to poverty. That response has included both punitive and aggressive policing and the vindictive use of incarceration. The disorderly among us are subjected to arrest, police violence, incarceration and displacement from our communities.