Neoliberal Penality: A Brief Genealogy

22 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2009 Last revised: 10 Jul 2009

See all articles by Bernard E. Harcourt

Bernard E. Harcourt

Columbia University; Columbia University

Date Written: June 29, 2009


The turn of the twenty first century witnessed important shifts in punishment practices. The most shocking is mass incarceration - the exponential rise in prisoners in state and federal penitentiaries and in county jails beginning in 1973. It is tempting to view these developments as evidence of something new that emerged in the 1970s - of a new culture of control, a new penology, or a new turn to biopower. But it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on the 1970s since most of the recent trends have antecedents and parallels in the early twentieth century. It is important, instead, to explore the arc of penality over a longer course: to relate recent developments to their earlier kin at the turn of the twentieth century. What that larger perspective reveals is that the pattern of confinement and control in the past century has been facilitated by the emergence and gradual dominance of neoliberal penality. By neoliberal penality, I have in mind a form of rationality in which the penal sphere is pushed outside political economy and serves the function of a boundary: the penal sanction is marked off from the dominant logic of classical economics as the only space where order is legitimately enforced by the state. This essay traces a genealogy of neoliberal penality going back to the emergence and triumph of the idea of natural order in economic thought - back to the Physiocratic writings of Fran├žois Quesnay and other economists during the 1760s. It is precisely their notion of natural order that metamorphosed, over time, into the modern idea of market efficiency that is at the heart of neoliberal penality.

Keywords: neoliberalism, neoliberal penality, free market, regulation, market efficiency, natural order, punishment, punishment theory, mass incarceration, policing

Suggested Citation

Harcourt, Bernard E., Neoliberal Penality: A Brief Genealogy (June 29, 2009). Theoretical Criminology, Forthcoming, University of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 472, University of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 268, Available at SSRN: or

Bernard E. Harcourt (Contact Author)

Columbia University ( email )

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Columbia University ( email )

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