Monthly review | “A Radical History” of State Formation, Punishment Regimes, and the Landscape of Work in the United States (“The Punishment Monopoly” reviewed by the Society for the Anthropology of Work)


The monopoly of punishment:
Tales of my ancestors, dispossession and
United States Building

Through Pem Davidson Buck
384 pages, $ 23 paper, 978-1-58367-832-9

Reviewed by Amanda J. Reinke

Weaving the accounts of the author’s (probable) ancestors with historical evidence and theories of power and punishment, Pem Davidson Buck’s The monopoly of punishment is a thought-provoking examination of how the United States, a nation-state that purports to promote freedom and equality, centralized oppression and domination in a way that secured the lives and livelihoods of an elite . Using primary documents and accounts of ancestors of white settlers, enslaved and liberated African populations, and indigenous groups, Buck links the centrality of coercion and dispossession in the historic building of the state as such to contemporary issues such as mass incarceration and the privatization of prisons.

The monopoly of punishment explores the function of land as a means of production and a site for the social construction of power, paying attention to the racial and gender dimensions of land ownership and the authority it confers to punish non-elites.

Buck draws on the theoretical contributions of a variety of academics, including Michel Foucault (1977) and Charles Tilly (1985) to argue that accumulation by dispossession (cf. Harvey 2003) has been strategically constructed and applied as a form of daily violence both by religion and by moral, emotional, social, economic and physical punishments. According to Buck, “The state must punish in order to be a state and, ultimately, that is what states and the force they control are for: to protect the ability of the few to put people in control. place so that they have no choice but to give back to them the value of the work they do ”(p. 14).

In Weberian fashion, Buck defines the state as that institution which has “the legitimate right to exert force both in relation to its borders and in relation to its inhabitants” (p. 17), often in a striking manner ( eg hanging) but also in ways that are made invisible to elites (eg colluding with religious authorities to shape the gender dimensions of work). Buck reveals how subordinate populations are cast into the role of enemies who exist as “a dangerous cancer in the body politic, eating away at the health of the community from within” (p. 197). The foundation is thus laid for the punishment of state transgression, culminating in dispossession and the shift to wage labor – developments that affect not only women and poor white settlers, but also slaves and indigenous peoples.

When she can gather historical evidence, Buck uses her own family line to trace these developments to several locations in the United States. For example, it highlights the evolution of land ownership during colonial times in Virginia from a regime based on subsistence and the production of goods to one based on private property as the engine of accumulation by dispossession. . Access to “patented land”, for which small farmers could pay a one-time royalty, was removed and annual rent payments to the Crown were introduced. With the elimination of patented land opportunities, Buck said, white settlers could only acquire property through purchase. The lands at their disposal were generally located on the fringes of colonial territories and inhabited by indigenous peoples, which means that they were considered “dangerous”. A land that was “safe”, however, “was now entirely subject to the dictates of capitalism” (p. 147).

A second driver of accumulation by dispossession, in Buck’s analysis, was the need for exploitable labor. The creation of populations that had no choice but to work – or an extremely constrained set of choices – was mandatory to consolidate state power. Over time, the right to punish individuals for transgressions has shifted from local levels to a more distant state, transforming the intersectional experiences of those being punished.

Throughout the text, Buck provides historical evidence – although the precision of the evidence he collects varies – attesting to the gendered and racial dimensions of dispossession. In the early 1800s, the wives of white settlers, under pressure from the state and religious teachings, aligned themselves with a cult of domesticity, accepting their “moral and spiritual superiority over men in return for dispossession and of concealment ”(p. 232). Notions of masculinity, previously defined by land ownership and control of the means of production, have been reframed so that “a man can be an honorable householder while being dispossessed of the land”, which means that masculinity was defined by the simple “owner”.[ship] goods ”(p. 232). Within such a regime, women were punished for transgression by spectacular displays of violence and terror (eg, witchcraft trials) and punished for transgressions by their families. More and more white men are sent to penitentiaries, which become places of production of goods.

Meanwhile, so-called civilization projects targeting indigenous peoples also sought to relegate indigenous women to what the colonizing state saw as appropriate roles within a gender division of labor. For example, Cherokee women were ordered to relinquish their central role in family food production and “become dependent on men to provide them with food and shelter.” . . They would have no independent access to the means of production ”(p. 213-14).

The emerging administrative apparatuses of punishment are discussed in the final chapter of the book, relating historical models of state formation, power, and control to contemporary issues. The amount of care or control that individuals receive from the state varies depending on their willingness to comply. In the 18th century, for example, the first European colonies in Kentucky reformed their penal codes so that petty crimes no longer resulted in hanging. Instead, whites in conflict with the law “were to be put to work, and their work was to benefit the state” (p. 252), while slaves were subject to the punishment of their “owners” or church leaders. Kentucky’s first penitentiary opened in 1800 and was a visible reminder of the state’s power to determine who would live a “nonfree life” (p. 254) and for how long. If state care can be administered publicly, coercion can be insidious, masked by everyday forms of violence (cf. Scheper-Hughes 1993) that allow the state to maintain its legitimacy. This violence hides behind the ruse of public order but comes to constitute a “ghost prison state” (Beckett and Murakawa 2012), where control and coercion are multiplied by civil and administrative means.

For readers who expect a clear and meticulously precise family narrative, disappointment awaits; indeed, Buck discusses the difficulty of discovering clear family lines.

But that’s not the point of the book. Instead, using possible ancestral lines as a basis for inquiry, the author explores the potentials of her family history through known facts about the dimensions of power and inequality in the socio-political and economic landscapes of the world. ‘era. Yet the text leaves me with lingering questions about how the nature of state power has led to elite technologies hampering the poor’s access to the means of production. What particular roles, for example, have an increasing number of bureaucratic hurdles, title and deed requirements, and land use policies played over time?

the The monopoly of punishment is appropriate for a wide range of audiences, from senior undergraduates who learn about coercive labor and punishment, to criminal justice activists, to scholars retracing stories of punishment and labor. A radical story told from the 1600s to the present day, Buck’s work is beautifully rendered in accessible prose as he assembles primary documents with theoretical arguments to tell the story of state formation, punishment regimes and of the labor landscape in the United States. .

You can read the full review on Society for the Anthropology of Work


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