Punishment in Modern Society

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Why do Marxists argue that there is no such thing as punishment as such? Critically evaluate these arguments. When exploring the substantial role in which punishment plays in society, a number of differing perspectives can be identified. Most are influenced by social theories which can be traced back to the founding fathers of sociology; the two main proponents of the conflict and consensus theory, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, as authors tend to adopt ideas from either a Durkheimian approach or a Marxist position when writing on the matter of the role punishment in societies (Carrabine 2009:305). Durkheim did more than any other theorists to develop a sociological account of punishment and to emphasize the social importance of penal institutions. However, many of his interpretations appear flawed in important respects and have, more recently, been side-lined by more critical accounts of the phenomena (Garland 1990:23), such as the Marxist approach. The extensive part of this essay will concentrate on Marxists authors, as they use Marx’s hypothesis about the relationship between the social super-structure and the economic base as a fundamental methodological tool to study the role of punishment in capitalist societies. The Marxist approach generally view the penal system as part of a class- based process of economic and social control where institutions of the law and punishment reflect the interests of the dominant economic groups; which would mean that the role of ‘punishment’, as it is presented to the masses, is fictional and not at all representative of its true functions (Marsh 2004:646), and accordingly not ‘punishment as such’. All in all, this essay will make an attempt to and evaluate the theories of some of the most prominent authors who wrote from a Marxist angle or were influenced by such, while also considering their limitations and flaws. Marx was direct in stating what his understanding and thoughts were of legal punishments in an article on capital punishment written in the New York Daily Tribune. In this article he stated that ‘all punishment is brutal’. More relevant to this essay, he also made a claim which stated that punishment is a mere instrument used by the capital in order to defend itself (Tunick 1992:47), so he argued that punishment is useful in preserving capitalism and maintaining the status quo. Friedrich Engels also vaguely wrote on the matter of punishment and argued that the bourgeois society was responsible for all crime, and thus the reason for the existence of punishment. He argued that in a society where every person has what they required and social classes and divisions did not exist; criminality would cease to exist. (Tunick 1992:51), and punishment would not be deemed as necessary. When considering perspectives that differ from that of Marxist authors, Durkheim’s work acts as the main opposing interpretation. In clear contrast to Marx, Durkheim’s work was a concern with the shared conventions, meanings and moralities which bind society together; in which he called ‘social solidarity’. He saw punishment as a social institution which is entirely a matter of morality and social solidarity (Garland 1990:28), and further argued that the social function of punishment is to give effect to the emotional outrage of a society whose norms have been breached by the criminal act. For this reason, punishment is seen by Durkheim as the mutual effect of society's moral outrage, maintaining a solidarity that society cannot function without (Garland 1990:30). Durkheim rejected the argument that punishment must be distanced from the emotional satisfaction it provides, and rather insisted that it will always be, and has always been, the essence of punishment and proclaimed that it was beneficial for society to unite to retaliate against the “outrage to morality” (Turner 1993:74). Punishment, for Durkheim, was therefore not what it was like for Marx. It was not a façade to reinforce inequality, or...
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