Neoliberal politics and state modernization in Chilean penal evolution

AuthorJavier Wilenmann
Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Neoliberal politics and
state modernization in
Chilean penal evolution
Javier Wilenmann
Universidad Adolfo Ibanez, Chile
Following the general rise of incarceration rates in Latin America, two general frame-
works have been influential in attempting to explain the phenomenon: the neoliberal
and the state transformation theses. The article takes the case of Chile, the Latin
American model of neoliberal governance, to test the broad explanatory power of
both frameworks. By doing so, it shows that the connection with a narrative of sub-
stitution has distortive potential. Although the Chilean case does show that investment
in state capacity augmentation and output maximization mechanisms did have direct
effects on incarceration rates, no change in the project of control through criminal
justice can be appreciated. Rather than changing its orientation towards the type of
social control it provides for, the system still stands for the traditional Latin American
project of control of a large, marginalized population through confinement.
incarceration, Latin America, neoliberal thesis, penal change, sociology of punishment,
state modernization
The Latin American penal field has been transformed in recent decades. After
breaking with authoritarian rule, incarceration rates soared in most of the
region just as new criminal justice mechanisms were implemented. This evolution
provided an ample setting for researchers in the sociology of punishment—a field
Corresponding author:
Javier Wilenmann, Universidad Adolfo Ibanez, Diagonal Las Torres 2640, Pe~
´n, Santiago, Chile.
Punishment & Society
2020, Vol. 22(3) 259–280
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1462474519882974
that grew out of an interest in the study of changes in penal systems (Garland,
1990, 2018; Simon and Sparks, 2013)—to test their explanatory hypotheses and
interpretative frameworks (Hathazy and Mu
¨ller, 2016). In that context, many
existing frameworks stemming from the Global North were imported or adapted,
initiating a research process that has generated important insights, but also blind
spots and distortive adaptations. This article will show the distortive potential of
such adaptations by looking at the mechanisms that led to the rise in the output, as
proxied mostly by incarceration rates, of the Chilean penal system.
Two relevant frameworks—focusing respectively on changes on the demand
and supply of control through punishment—have attracted the most attention in
attempts to provide precise explanations for this phenomenon in Latin America.
The first, although different frames (neoliberal punitiveness, late-modernity culture
of control, governing through crime) put different emphasizes, they all share a
common structure. The explanation of the rise of punitiveness is made through
connecting changes in the output of the system with major changes in contempo-
rary political culture and economy. For simplicity’s sake, I will call this the
“neoliberal thesis”, a political culture and economic explanation of penal
change, was formerly developed in the Global North and adapted to the Latin
American context. The second framework, state building and transformation,
draws on a classic source of social science and historiography to provide a bureau-
cratic transformation explanation of penal change.
According to the neoliberal thesis, the rise in punitiveness in post-dictatorial Latin
America is attributable to the influence of neoliberalism as a dominant policy orien-
tation. Such a framework imports and adapts work formerly developed to explain
penal change in the US when compared to other Western democracies (Lacey, 2008;
a, 2008). Whereas prior to the 1970s, the differences between incarcer-
ation rates in the US and all other rich liberal democracies were not especially sig-
nificant, they are abysmal today. What accounts for the change?
Arguably the most influential answers focus on the influence of political culture
and economy in shaping the demand for social control through state punishment. In
the US and elsewhere, the crisis of the welfarist Weltanschauung and its replacement
with neoliberal hegemony may account for the striking change in punishment
(Garland, 2002; Hall et al., 1978; Scheingold, 1984; Simon, 2007). Whereas, accord-
ing to the dominant post-war political vision, crime was a product of deficient social
organization to be dealt with through social policy, the welfarism crisis left room for a
conservative political interpretation of crime to dominate. That change had major
impact on criminal justice systems that were more susceptible to political demands
(Savelsberg, 1994; Tonry, 2007). Moreover, the rise in marginal populations gener-
ated a rising political need to govern the urban poor. Thus, neoliberalism needed to
develop technologies of control of its own effects (Wacquant, 2000, 2001).
Adaptations of this framework to the Latin American discussion have been
influential. Loı
¨c Wacquant (2003) directly applied this framework to explain
penal change in Brazil and others have followed suit (Chevigny, 2003; Mu
2012, 2016). This may seem natural, as both elements of the equation are present
260 Punishment & Society 22(3)

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