Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

“The Political Economy of Punishment”

This blog is the third in a series related to the inaugural season of the Oxford Centre for Criminology Podcast

Episode 3: “The Political Economy of Punishment”

Blog by: Betty Shuttleworth

We were privileged to welcome Professor Alessandro de Giorgi onto the Centre for Criminology’s podcast to discuss the political economy of punishment.


Betty Shuttleworth


Time to read

2 Minutes

De Giorgi began by explaining his understanding of the political economy of punishment as a structural perspective in criminology. Those who work on the political economy of punishment seek to connect punishment with the economic structures of society; they look at how punishment connects with and regulates the economy, and the role of punishment in the reproduction of capitalism. This neo-Marxist perspective addresses punishment both historically and contemporaneously to conclude that the penal system is a tool of class control. De Giorgi also spoke on what he sees as the golden rule of the political economy of punishment – the principle of less eligibility. This principle, when applied to the state’s system of punishment, dictates that people should be made to prefer to accept their subordinate position within the labour market than to engage in crimes of survival. A key element of this deterrence from crime being the prison.

De Giorgi was astute as to a central limitation of work undertaken on the political economy of punishment, with its heavily Western and Global North-centric focus. In advocating for a move away from the promulgation of totalising views, De Giorgi drew attention to the work of scholars like Lacey in developing comparative work on the political economy of punishment. While acknowledging that a Western focus is still retained in the majority, these works take account of nuances between different varieties of capitalism. The result of such work, as noted by De Giorgi, is to show that across borders the greater the level of social inequality in a society, the more that society will need to rely on penal systems to keep those at the bottom under control. In this way, the United States (US) where De Giorgi is based becomes closer to Brazil than countries like Germany or England.

Due to De Giorgi’s extensive travels during his academic career, he was able to provide insight into how his personal experiences of the global and the local inform his work and activism. De Giorgi recounted his shock upon arrival in the US, where through his ethnographic work he discovered not the high level of state control he anticipated but a lived reality of state abandonment for those leaving prison. De Giorgi’s work in engaging with this vulnerable community led him to draw the tragic conclusion that in the US, the lives of those who are not able to make themselves worth something ‘just matter a little less’. De Giorgi’s belief in this statement was confirmed by his role as a call handler on a suicide crisis line, one of several activities he undertakes outside his strictly academic work. In taking these calls, De Giorgi saw a lot of connections with his work on the political economy of punishment, engaging first hand with what happens when people cannot afford access to what were once state services, such as homes, medicine, and mental health support.

Our conversation rounded up by discussing the role of critical frameworks, and more specifically neo-Marxist views, in the classroom and in criminological academic discourse. De Giorgi drew from his teaching at San Jose State University, a public university where most students are the first in their family to attend college and a high percentage are second generation immigrants. The composition of the student body not only stimulates interesting conversations but means radical theories are well received, bolstering De Giorgi’s claim that critical frames always have their place in debate.

We are incredibly grateful to De Giorgi for generously giving up his time and for providing us and our listeners with plenty of food for thought. For those keen to learn more following the podcast, some reading suggestions are below.

Reading Suggestions:

  • Alessandro de Giorgi, Re-thinking the Political Economy of Punishment, 2016
  • Alessandro de Giorgi, ‘Five Theses on Mass Incarceration’ in Social Justice 2016 42(2) p.5
  • Alessandro de Giorgi, ‘Back to Nothing: Prisoner Re-entry and Neoliberal Neglect’ in Social Justice 2017 44(1) p.83
  • Nicola Lacey, The prisoners' dilemma: political economy and punishment in contemporary democracies, 2008
  • Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer, Punishment and Social Structure, 1939

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

B. Shuttleworth. (2022) “The Political Economy of Punishment”. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2022/09/political-economy-punishment. Accessed on: 24/04/2024