Last weekend’s conference at American University Washington College of Law: “ClassCrits IV: Criminalizing Economic Inequality,” was a terrific success. Thanks to my fellow members of the organizing team, including Martha McCluskey (who took the lead role in assembling and re-assembling the panels), Ezra Rosser (the unflappable and always cheerful on-site go-to guy), Teri Miller (whose insights about “crimmigration” were the inspiration for our theme, and whose film about Attica and the impact of long-term imprisonment on correctional officers as well as inmates provoked one of the most thoughtful and searching discussions of the conference), and Athena Mutua, who for health reasons was unable to attend but who helped shape this conference, like the previous ClassCrits assemblies, from the very beginning.
Thanks also to our hosts: not only the law school at American, which was a fantastic venue, but also my new home school, the University of California at Davis, whose dean Kevin Johnson enthusiastically contributed funds to the conference in order to subsidize meals and make travel to the conference possible for some of the participants, and the University at Buffalo Law School and the UB Baldy Center on Law and Policy, where class-crits was born and nurtured in its infancy, and which continues to support the class-crits endeavor. These institutions made the conference possible.
Deepest thanks, of course, go to the attendees. We had participants just beginning their academic careers as well as senior scholars; experts in immigration law, poverty law, family law, criminal justice, financial institutions, and corporations, just to name a few; and panel after knockout panel that produced thoughtful, passionate interchange. It was clear to me after attending this conference that the phrase “the criminalization of poverty” is not just a rhetorical flourish; the panelists and the discussants were able to document just along how many different dimensions poor people are being subjected to ever harsher state control along with economic marginalization and exploitation. And, as several participants pointed out, new technologies of control and coercion have a tendency to spread. Criminologists call it “net-widening.” The result is that regimes and practices of governance that we imagine will only be applied to “them” are in short order going to be used on “us.”
Because ClassCrits is a relatively small and new legal community, a few people asked me to reproduce here the opening comments I made at the conference. Slightly edited, here they are:
We’ve been calling ourselves class-crits as a way of underscoring our affinity with those movements, and there are several points of similarity. First and most obviously is the “crit” part: an interest in taking apart and examining the assumptions that underlie traditional legal and policy discourse. Martha McCluskey’s work, if you haven’t read it, is a beautiful example. Quintessentially critical, her work shows how the economic status quo is conceived to be natural, normal, and necessary, and how markets are imagined to be “free” despite the obvious role of the state in creating and maintaining them.
A second point of similarity is that like critical race theorists, the folks who have been participating in class-crits gatherings take the position that inequality and subordination are central rather than peripheral to US society. Unlike positive law and economics, we seek not only to describe economic relations, but also intervene in them; we have a normative agenda. (Some, of course, would say that conventional law and economics has a normative agenda also: to promote laissez-faire economic policymaking and upward redistribution!)
Third, like LatCrit (Latino Critical Theory), we who have been working under the name of “class-crits” share a commitment to “anti-essentialism” along with anti-subordination. In the context of class analysis, this means rejecting the old school Marxist view that economic relations are the foundation of social relations and cultural relations are only the superstructure. It also has meant a continuing interest in how racism and sexism operate through market institutions and practices, and vice versa: how economic relations operate through race and sex.
A fourth similarity between class-crits and our sister “crit” movements is a concern with law and legal institutions as central to maintaining the unjust status quo, but also as one site for resisting injustice. Rights may be meaningless without enforcement (and a focus on establishing legal rights can suck the energy out of grassroots movement), but rights are also an indispensable “hook” for organizing and for institutional action.
There are also, however, some points of difference between class-crits and other “crit” movements.
The most obvious one is that subordination along class lines works differently than subordination along lines of gender, sexuality, and race. The founding question for critical race theory, for instance, was “how is it that racial hierarchy is maintained in a society that rejects the notion of racial hierarchy?” There is no direct parallel of this founding paradox for class relations. Capitalism is not a disavowed ideology; it is a central pillar of social organization in the U.S. and the West more generally. Instead, a founding question for class-crits might be, “How is an institution that generates, requires, and even values economic inequality reconciled with ideologies of political equality?”
A related point of difference comes from political theorist Nancy Fraser’s old distinction between recognition and redistribution: Class-crits is not organized around the goal of social and political group “recognition” for poor people, although such a movement might intersect with class-crit interests. In this way, class-crits differs from feminist legal theory, critical race theory, and queer theory, all of which are founded in the struggles of women, people of color, and sexual minorities for full social citizenship. Class-crits is not a poor people’s movement, or a movement that seeks to give the beleaguered working classes or the stressed-out middle classes a political voice (laudable as those aims might be). Class-crits is interested in understanding and if necessary altering or abolishing capitalist institutions and practices as we know them in the service of a better life for all.
There is no consensus among us about how best to promote human flourishing and reach the goal of a decent life for everyone. Some of us are reconstructed Marxists, others more democratic socialists; we might even have some anarchists among us, and some capitalists who believe in regulation and balancing market power with state power. What I think we can all agree on despite our different political positions is the need to interrogate market practices and institutions – to understand them as social constructions, not natural processes like the weather; to understand their role in maintaining illegitimate hierarchies and inequalities; and to understand the systematic relations among the market, the state, and civil society including the family, the three major governance institutions of mass society in the contemporary West.
This is an urgent task given (1) the current global economic crisis and the connected crises, or malaise, or coming new recession, within the United States; (2) the collision course we are on between capitalism as we know it and environmental collapse; and (3) our crisis of governance within the United States (and apparently world-wide) – in which entrenched economic interests have captured the political process, producing increased frustration and immiseration on the part of the people while elected governments seem less and less responsive to their needs.
A final thought: the class-crits project, thus stated, is clearly more than a legal project (and is too important to be left to lawyers, anyway!). Central to class-crits as an organizing initiative, then, is the need to reach out to other people who share our agenda. Past class-crits workshops have embraced heterodox economists; at the final feedback session of the conference, attendees suggested that we build connections with political economists here and outside the U.S. and with sociologists. We look forward to creating those networks and hope you will help us do so! As I said in that last session, there is no class-crits governance structure or bureaucracy. Class-crits is us!