Toward a Political Economy of Dangerousness

Matthew G. Yeager

Early 18th and 19th century criminologists--many of whom were lawyers and physicians--saw crime as a threat to the social order and the resulting "natural" laws of society. In their search for these "laws of society," existing social and economic arrangements were favored (the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for example) and behavior which threatened that order was deemed "criminal." Our current conception of the "dangerous offender" in Canada and the popularity of "Three Strikes" legislation and mandatory prison sentences in North American reflects a long historical trend. The popular origin of the dangerous classes originated in France by H.A. Fregier, who authored On the Misery of the Working Classes in England and France (1840). Historically, "those who have been seen as dangerous or potentially dangerous have been Christians, slaves, vagabonds, strangers, gypsies, beggars, students, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, nationalists, demobilized soldiers and sailors, witches, Freemasons, labor leaders, and social revolutionaries" (Rennie, 1978:31). Since the turn of the 20th century, the dominant ideology of dangerousness sees these offenders as pathological examples of sin and evil. Cast in Gramscian terms, this may have hegemonic implications. Dangerousness is, in fact, a "socially constructed reality...subject to social, political, and ideological influences." (Jenkins, 1998:4). Indeed, Frank Pearce (1973:15,17) has argued that "if the criminals are also the social failures...,then their criminality is caused by their inadequacies...and the major social institutions are not exposed to critical assessment...[B]y defining them as non-citizens, with no rights to employment, education, etc., the system's failure to provide these for obscured. The question addressed in this paper is as follows: does this ideology of "dangerousness" in market societies reinforce notions about criminals that justify the repression of the lower classes, and thereby reaffirm the class structure of capitalism?

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Updated 05/20/2006