Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

All Souls Blog: The Importance of Political Ideologies to Contemporary Penality

Dr Zelia Gallo is a Lecturer in Criminal Law, and Criminology & Criminal Justice at King’s College London and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. Her current research employs the political economy of punishment, focusing on the relationship between punishment, political institutions, and political ideologies. In her All Souls talk she drew on a recently published chapter, arguing that so called ‘thin ideologies’ such as populism, technocracy, and plebiscitarianism might have long lasting effects on punishment.


Benjamin Stückelberger


Time to read

3 Minutes

In her talk, Dr Gallo drew on existing literature on the political economy of punishment (which tries to uncover structural causes of penality by linking it to modes of production and forms of capitalism). She especially considered the political institutionalist approach to it, which explains differences in penality across the Global North by institutional set-ups in different sets of countries (exemplified by Lacey’s work which inter alia argued that certain forms of institutions can act as a ‘buffer’ against punitiveness). She then criticised this literature for having a tendency to be too deterministic and failing to account for changes to these institutions. This was deemed an especially significant omission as certain emerging ideologies are having long-lasting effects on them.

Drawing on Urbinati’s work she identified three ideologies of special interest: Epistemic theory (technocracy being the prime example for this), which tries to depoliticise democratic procedures to achieve ‘correct outcomes’; populism, centring the will of the majority of citizen’s as the correct one; and plebiscitarianism, which hails the spectacle of a leader. All of these are seen as ‘democratic disfigurements’, as they impair representative democracy and its basic claims of the revisability of decision-making, involvement of party politics and the mediation of political conflict (all things which can institutionally defuse punitiveness) while simultaneously incentivising executive discretion which is isolated form negotiation and consensus-building. Dr Gallo argued that this stems from the political authority each ideology draws on: episteme is premised on the ‘truth’ and ‘correct outcomes’; populism is premised on the will of the one and only true-people; while plebiscitarianism rests on trust and faith in the leader. All of these allow for little negotiability or reasoned compromise.

She then turned to Italy which served as a case study. Looking at political developments during the Eurozone crisis she showed that different coalition governments employed different forms of these ideologies (or even mixtures of them), but all had ambitions to influence institutions in a way to disintermediate politics. She saw examples of this in proposed changes to the electoral system, introducing faster decision making but a less representative way of allocating seats in parliament by instituting easier ways of achieving a majority. Another example she presented concerned the development of elements of direct democracy and referenda with low quorums.

But what implications does this have for penal politics? Dr Gallo started from the observation that institutional set-ups premised on negotiation tend to lead to less punitive approaches to punishment. To explain this, she leaned on the concept of ‘associational value’, which tells us whether a group, threatened by conflict, responds with retaliation or reconciliation. If members of the group place enough value in their association that they choose to repair the social bonds, threatened by aggression, they are more likely to employ reintegrative or informal means of resolution. If they choose to rupture such bonds for good, they are more likely to be retaliatory and using means of formal penal censure. To create the link to the influence of political institutions on ‘associational value’, she went on to explain the possible pedagogic effect they can have, as members of a polity learn from political institutions. If political practices are built on negotiation, revisability of decisions, and dialogue, they teach the fallibility of human decision making. This presumes the possibility of error and the possibility of rectification, showing that it might be valuable to upkeep social bonds. In comparison, the ideologies mentioned above rely on a lack of negotiation. They allow only one thing to be right (in accordance with the experts, the will of the true people or the leader). But as reality is more heterogeneous, they need to impose their view, thereby deeming partisan conflict to be negative. This transfers to society and deprives the citizenry of the symbolic tools to understand conflict in any other form that pathological. When conflict nevertheless arises, it has to be banished and annihilated. Applied to criminals, this means that they cannot be seen as partners, but only as total enemies.

Therefore, she argued, we cannot assume that the institutions which worked as buffers to moderate penal politics will hold up to ideological changes. We cannot take it for granted that institutional set-ups can absorb these ‘thin’ ideologies and their potential ‘democratic disfigurements’ but need to be mindful of the possibility that they might be altered, even when they had a calming effect on punishment so far. She concluded her talk by suggesting that the punishment and society scholarship which wants a moderation in punitiveness needs to pay more attention to new ideologies. This is not only the case because they start to gain more traction, but also because they have agendas to reform institutions.


Post by Benjamin Stückelberger, studying for the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice