American Criminal Justice Control within the Global Political Economy

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The process of using the criminal justice system for the maintenance of the capitalist order is a mirrored reflection of how the U.S. has worked to establish and maintain dominance in the global economic order. Wallerstein discusses the beginning of global capitalism as arising from the establishment of British and Dutch East India Companies (as cited in Centeno & Cohen, 2010 pg. 24). These companies were able to use their massive size and control of territories and couple it (along with slave trade development) with the expansion of European powers designed to profit the elite in order to take market transaction on a global scale. The U.S., mirroring the European powers in many ways, was able to later expand its dominance during the Industrial Revolution through its enhanced production capabilities, and political and economic means of controlling other countries (Centeno & Cohen, 2010, pg. 24-26). After World War II the U.S. looked to ensure its continued place atop the global order by further integrating (and no doubt making dependent) other countries across the globe into capitalism.

Centeno and Cohen (2010) note that we must examine the history of U.S. capitalist dominance in an appropriate context. They state:

The global distribution of wealth to a large extent reflects the geopolitics of previous centuries. Is it an accident, for example, that the countries joining the rich of Europe were either populated by their descendants (North America and Oceania) or were not colonized by them (Japan)? (p. 170)

The U.S. then lies at the intersection of global inequality and within country inequality. This means that the U.S. sits atop a globally bifurcated global economic order and the U.S. itself is built on a bifurcated system where resources (wealth, income, property, etc.) are enjoyed more frequently by a few than most (Centeno & Cohen, 2010). The criminal justice system is used in many ways to maintain this within country inequality and subsequently to further America’s global political agenda. For example, broken windows theory (which argues crime can be eliminated through the use of foot patrol policing and erasing signs of disorder like graffiti) was exported for use in Iraq. This was done to ensure productive labor in an increasingly privatized war-torn Iraq (Rigakos 2011, p. 73-77).

U.S. policy is not only exported abroad to maintain dominance, but the dominance of the U.S. allows its governmental decisions to decide on a much larger global scale what activities are considered legitimate/illegitimate (Palan, 2009; Centeno & Cohen, 2010). Furthermore, dominant powers such as the U.S. have the ability to define as illicit the actions of fusion regimes (pockets of countries that mutually benefit from illicit activities) in less threatening or less politically and economically dominant countries (Reno, 2009, p. 81). In short, global borders are used to maintain the established order. Borders help control the flow of illegal immigrants in and out of the country, allowing corporate interests to maintain low wages at international locations where American standards of workplace and occupational safety can be violated freely. At the same time this threat of deportation serves to keep “illegal” workers within the U.S. producing and “in-line”. Illegal immigration is also guided by private interests, which sees illegal immigrants detained in private facilities contracted out for profit. There is no doubt such criminal justice practices against feared immigrants invite abuses of the civil rights which are ideally distributed to all (De Giorgi, 2006; Centeno & Cohen, 2010). Understanding the use of the criminal justice system towards the ultimate purpose of global capital domination can then help us see in reverse an explanation for what Heroux (2011, p. 132) calls the “global civil war” phenomenon.

Allen Copenhaver, Ph.D. Candidate
University of Louisville

Centeno, M.A. & Cohen, J.N. (2010). Global capitalism: A sociological perspective. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press.

De Giorgi, A. (2006). Re-Thinking the political economy of punishment: Perspectives on post-fordism and penal politics. Ashgate Publishing Limited: Hampshire and Ashgate Publishing Company: Burlington, VT.

Heroux, G. (2011). War on the poor: Urban poverty, target policing and social control. In M. Neocleous & G. Rigakos (Eds.), Anti-Security (107-134). Ottawa: Red Quill Books.

Palan, R. (2009). Crime, sovereignty, and the offshore world. In H.R Friman (Ed.), Crime and the global political economy. 35-48. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Reno, W. (2009). Illicit commerce in peripheral states. In H.R Friman (Ed.), Crime and the global political economy. 67-. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Rigakos, G.S. (2011). ‘To extend the scope of productive labour’: Pacification as a police project. In M. Neocleous & G. Rigakos (Eds.), Anti-Security (57-83). Ottawa: Red Quill Books.

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