Thursday, 28 September 2017

Challenging the Neo-Liberal Academy and the Bigotry of Australasian Criminology

The following blog provides the full text of my plenary presentation at the recent Social Movement, Resistance and Social Change conference held at Massey University, Albany Campus, Auckland 6-8 September 2017


At the beginning of the 20th century, the African American scholar and researcher, Du Bois stated that the most significant problem that the fledgling social sciences would have to contend with throughout the coming century was the colour-line. By the term colour-line, Du Bois was referring to the state of relations between white and black, between Black American’s and the institutions that support white privilege and white supremacy, including the criminal justice system. Du Bois’ statement was not simply an attempt at far-sighted prediction, but a call to arms for social scientists and researchers to focus their collective efforts on the continued subjugation of Black Americans in the U.S. One could argue that a similar focus was necessary in the Settler-Colonial jurisdictions of New Zealand and Australia, herein referred to as ‘Australasia’.

Now let us leap forward in time, to 2010, where we find the Nigerian criminologist Biko Agozino, forcefully arguing that the discipline of criminology is a control freak, a white privilege-dominated social control fanatic whose epistemological foundations were laid during the colonialisation of Africa, North America and the Pacific, a history that provides the basis for understanding the disciplines continued role in Indigenous subjugation. It will come as no surprise to some of you to hear me say that I am in total agreement with Biko on this issue, as the discipline has long approached Indigenous peoples as problem populations in need of significant social management through:

  • targeted surveillance (especially through racialised policing);
  • geographical containment (in reservations and boarding schools to begin with, and of late via the prison industrial complex of late modernity); and
  • ‘correction’ through a liberal dose of the gift of western knowledge, usually in the form of psycho-therapeutic programmes and other, similar Eurocentric interventions. 

I have two objectives today: Firstly: to reveal the colonial foundations of the discipline of criminology, a fact, a ‘happening’ about which most of its disciples appear ignorant of, or choose the comfort of collective amnesia, a convenient forgetfulness that allows them to portray themselves as ‘objective’ commentators on the Indigenous issues. Secondly: I will argue that the discipline of criminology has indeed become a control freak, with many of its adherents working tirelessly, and with prejudice to protect their hegemony over the production of what their key sponsor, the settler-colonial state defines as  ‘legitimate knowledge’ about crime and crime control, most especially in relation to the ‘Indigenous problem’. I will endeavour to reveal the disciplines control freak tendencies by employing Agamben’s theory of the State of Exception to critically analyse the role the discipline of criminology plays in this process, with reference to what I call the Three Pillars of Exception and Exclusion in Australasian Criminology. But first I want to make some comments about the colonial foundations of the discipline of criminology.

A Comment on the Colonial Foundations of Criminology

It is a well-worn refrain of historians, and some social scientists, that in order to understand the present you need to understand the past. And so it is with attempting to ‘know’ why a community of scholars, in this case criminologists, conduct themselves in certain ways today. Harry Blagg, Biko Agozino, Chris Cunneen, amongst others, have drawn attention to the historical connections between the development of criminology and criminal justice in the  and 19th and early 20th century centuries, and the inter-related projects of colonialism and Western imperialism. And yet, despite all this critical analysis, Australasian criminologists generally operate without a theory of colonialism and its effects on Indigenous peoples, most especially the not insignificant, growing group of non-Indigenous criminologists specialising in what they call ‘Indigenous justice’. 

Biko Agozino, in his 2003 book Counter Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason, demonstrates how the developing disciplines of criminology and psychology trialled their theories and related social and control policies and interventions, on the dispossessed and suppressed First Peoples of Africa, before taking what they learnt and refining them for use on the social damned of Europe, the poor, the travellers, Jewish communities, to name but a few. The lack of awareness of, or willingness to confront its colonial past, is a fundamental weakness of neoliberal ‘mainstream’ criminology; a weakness that makes many of its adherents blind to the intersectional drivers of contemporary Indigenous over-representation.

Especially concerning for those of us working in the field of Indigenous justice, is that ‘Western’ criminology appears to be largely immune to the pleadings of Agozino, Cunneen and others, that it extricate itself from yet another related blind spot that many of its adherents suffer from; namely its role as a Colonial Project that supports the Settler-Colonial states continued subjugation of Indigenous people. As the saying goes, people who ignore the lessons of the past are bound to repeat them. Although of course, that refrain is predicated on a belief that people in general and the Settler-Colonial state and white privileged criminologists specifically, are capable of recognising that their failed policies, legislation, interventions, even theories, as ‘mistakes’, as being the cause, partial or wholly, of social injustice, dispossession, social exclusion, and genocide. I contend that deep down, in their quiet, contemplative moments, many Australasian criminologists are well aware that they and their discipline ‘wear no clothes’. I also believe that upon focused, critical self-reflection, their complicity in the subjugation of Indigenous people, is, or will be exposed, which is probably why most of them show an aversion to researching it, acknowledging it, or  attempt to understand it.

This now brings me to the last part of my presentation; the exposure of the rapacious, prejudiced and subjugating tendencies of Australasian criminology; a discipline, as I pointed out earlier, that is very  much in the service of the Settler-Colonial state.

The Three Pillars of Exception and Exclusion in Australasian Criminology

What is now apparent is the capacity of contemporary criminology, in partnership with the Settler-Colonial state to blatantly sideline and silence Indigenous peoples. It is most especially skilled in silencing our experiences of contemporary crime control, and pushing genocidal crime control policies, legislation and interventions upon us, despite overwhelming evidence of their failure, by any measure, to reduce recidivism, or make our communities safer.

I contend that this places us in a state of exception to mainstream criminology and given, their parasitic relationship, to the Settler-Colonial states of New Zealand and Australia. Tactics of active exclusion can be purposely formed, as in having a clearly stated intention to exclude, such as the Northern Territory Emergency Response that was introduced by the Howard government in 2007. Or, it can be subtle, with intentions hidden among the meaningless rhetoric employed by the professional academic concerned to protect their social justice credentials. Exceptional measures of exclusion permeate the discipline of criminology’s relationship with Indigenous peoples; and why would they not, given the historical development of the discipline and its relationship with the state.

My argument that we are in a ‘state of exception’ to Settler-Colonial criminology comes from Agamben’s theory of the same, a process whereby the modern democratic state exclude certain groups from the space within which the advantages of citizenship, including human rights, are present. Furthermore, those in the state of exception, thus excluded, receive the legitimate forms of violence available to the modern democratic state – including I would argue, the violence that is the criminal justice system.

This violence manifests in many forms: social, political, economic and (not always but sometimes) geographic exclusions, denial of citizenship rights, refusal to engage with people in order to meaningfully include their perspectives and experience in the development of policy and initiatives, the homogenisation and stereotyping of individuals, and at times entire communities. Other manifestations include the development of policies for them as a separate group based on Eurocentric formulations, wielded upon the bodies of Indigenous peoples by agents of the sovereign state.

Hold a mirror up to academic, Australasian criminology and you will see many, if not all of these strategies deployed by many of its practitioners against Indigenous peoples. It is my contention that criminology, as a Colonial Project in support of the Settler-Colonial state, has throughout its history created Indigenous peoples as a problem population, a criminalised population, in need of significant surveillance and control. We are, for all intent and purposes, placed in a state of exception, ear-marked for exclusion, and by that I mean excluded from meaningful input into the policy context by both the policy industry and the criminologists that further their careers by sucking on the funding teat of the state. 

Many of us excluded from the mainstream, and from the development of criminological knowledge because of the colours we choose to wear, because we belong to hard-to-reach communities (as Harry Tam refers to them, or 'gangs' in the policy and criminological lexicon), communities that many Australasian criminologists talk about, without ever having engaged with them. We are also excluded by dent of our significant involvement in the criminal justice system, and other social suppression processes such as child care and protection; governmental processes that criminologist played significant roles in developing.  

Our state of exception does not manifest through the amount of attention we receive from the either criminology or the institutions of crime control, but because of the nature and form of the surveillance and the absence of meaningful, respectful and empowering engagement. Because of our ‘state of exception’ the same rules that govern respectful dialogue and engagement with say the white middle class, are not extended to us - hardly surprising given that the vast majority of Australasian criminologists are white and middle class. We are exceptional in that crime control practitioners and white privileged criminologists do not see the need to conduct themselves ethically and respectfully towards us, as they would their own. And yet while they claim to specialise in Indigenous justice, few bother to even try to develop policies and interventions that support Indigenous self-determination. 

This now brings me to a discussion of the three pillars of exception and exclusion within Australasian criminology:

The First Pillar: The Lack of Respect and Regard for Indigenous Ways of Being

Many of the disciplines’ practitioners work tirelessly to silence the Indigenous experience, and the Indigenous critique, both of the discipline, and of the partner to which it has a parasitic relationship, the criminal justice system. I will go further and argue that the silencing of the Indigenous voice is a prerequisite for gaining entry into the policy and legislative functions of neo-liberal government. If you want a seat at the table and for your research to be accepted as valid, the experiences of the subjugated, those who are critical of government performance most especially, or who have or are resisting state hegemony, must either be expunged, or at the very least modulated to the point that the lived experience of bias, racism and subjugation is rendered mute. Replaced instead with facile, meaningless research summaries drawn from glorified, state-sanctioned customer satisfaction surveys.

If we had more time we could fill a whole plenary session with a discussion of the methods criminologists employs to ‘know us’, and what they consider to be valid forms of knowledge construction and dissemination. In the Indigenous context, all too often criminologists conduct research on Indigenous issues while proselytising from afar, utilising, for example, highly structured surveys, statistical modelling, and such like, whilst rarely (sometimes never) descending into the Indigenous space to engage with us face-to-face.

The Second Pillar: The Banality of Academic Criminological Racism and Bias

In a thought-provoking piece on the support her discipline gave to the colonial context, Wendy James referred to anthropologists as ‘reluctant imperialists’, meaning that their support for the colonising enterprise was largely unplanned or unintentional. Arguably, in seeking to ‘do good’ by Indigenous peoples, anthropologists inadvertently provided empirical support to the colonial enterprise of dispossession.  

I am reluctant to offer many criminologists the same benefit of the doubt: for example, what are we to make of the continued control-freak tendencies of Australasian criminology, especially its more authoritarian adaptations? Far too often the criminological focus remains on the individual native; an individual divorced from their social, historical and structural context, as is often the case in the work of adherents who dismiss the validity of Indigenous forms of knowledge. For an example of this bias, let us contemplate for a moment how it came to be that Don Weatherburn, in a book on Aboriginal imprisonment published in 2014, felt empowered enough to argue that all we needed to know about crime, we could receive from Western science, and by inference that Indigenous ‘knowledge’ has little to offer for an understanding of social harm.  

This type of action cannot, should not be easily dismissed as 'accidental', unintentional incidents of cultural imperialism ala James’ defence of anthropology. And Weatherburn’s attitude is one that is commonly held by white privileged, Australasian criminologists. It is in my experience common place; it is insidious, and it is a reflection of the casual nature of the cultural imperialism that exists in the criminological academy in both jurisdictions.

The Third Pillar: The Criminalisation of Indigenous Women, Men and Culture

One often repeated claim is that the criminological attention has moved too far from individual ‘pathology’, to the crime control institutions of the Settler-Colonial state, and the effects of colonial and neo-colonial policy. As a result, this shift in analysis has resulted in ineffective policies and interventions for reducing Indigenous over-representation. The recommended solution should  come as no surprise: we must return the criminological gaze firmly back to the much neglected Aboriginal, pathological individual, dysfunctional family unit, and for the likes of Don Weatherburn in Australia, and here in the New Zealand context, that well-researched expert on the Maori condition, Greg Newbold, firmly back to the criminalising cultures of the Aboriginal peoples and Maori people. Similarly, Danette Marie, in her commentary on the New Zealand situation published in a special edition of the Australian New Zealand Journal of Criminology in 2010, blames the inability of the justice system to solve the ‘Indigenous problem,’ on ‘critical liberals’ like myself, whose efforts have apparently ‘not led to more effective measures of crime control within Indigenous communities or to sustained reductions in the rate of criminalisation and incarceration’. 

Now, one would suppose from this description of Indigenous experiences of Australasian crime control that suddenly prisons were empty and police no longer patrolled Indigenous communities incessantly. You could easily form the impression that Aboriginal/Maori offenders are diverted into adjudication processes dominated by Indigenous peoples, that they receive predominantly non-custodial forms of punishment when sentenced, and if they receive such a sentence, end up serving their sentence in a ‘Indigenous cultural unit’ or in a half-way house. And of course, upon release return to communities that have benefited from the extensive infrastructural, social and economic investment by government. Of course, this is not the situation at all. Yes, unquestionably the actions of the ‘legal-welfare establishment’ has led to the introduction of a range of diversionary policies and strategies, and the introduction of restorative-centred justice processes, Aboriginal Liaison Officers, Iwi Liaison Officers, prison-based cultural units like the Maori Focus Units in New Zealand, and so forth. Yet, despite all of this activity, the impression given by Marie and Weatherburn of the ‘failure’ of liberal policy discourse and the critical focus on structure and institutions is a gross exaggeration. At no time during the period in which Indigenous over-representation has been a significant issue for the Policy Industry (around the early 1980s in both Australia and New Zealand), has the liberal perspective dominated crime control policy in either jurisdiction. Furthermore, if we accept the alternative argument, that in fact the vast majority of crime control spend in Australia and New Zealand since 1980 has been on imported crime control policies and interventions, and not on Indigenous-inspired ones, then where is the evidence that the western, scientific response to the Indigenous problem has significantly reduced Indigenous over-representation, or made us better, or safer?

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