Bernard Harcourt – The Illusion of Free Markets

I finally got round to reading Bernard Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. I bought it after The Foucault Effect 1991-2011 conference last year when Bernard spoke. I don’t have much to say, except that it’s a very interesting supplement to the work on neoliberalism by David Harvey and Jamie Peck – the tracing of the roots into 18th century political and economic thought is well done, and while it is inspired in part by Foucault’s work, it isn’t afraid to offer some correctives and criticisms. (He is co-editor of Foucault’s Mal faire, dire vrai.) The discussion of the ‘police’ is good and links to some of Mark Neocleous’s work; the relation of the economy and the state is close to Andrew Gamble’s work on Thatcherism – The Free Economy and the Strong State. Harcourt’s contemporary focus is on the US, and in particular on mass incarceration “There is no question: what we have witnessed in our lifetime is one of the most monumental expansions of the penal sphere that has ever occurred in history” (p. 220). Here’s the details from the Harvard UP website on the book:

It is widely believed today that the free market is the best mechanism ever invented to efficiently allocate resources in society. Just as fundamental as faith in the free market is the belief that government has a legitimate and competent role in policing and the punishment arena. This curious incendiary combination of free market efficiency and the Big Brother state has become seemingly obvious, but it hinges on the illusion of a supposedly natural order in the economic realm. The Illusion of Free Markets argues that our faith in “free markets” has severely distorted American politics and punishment practices.

Bernard Harcourt traces the birth of the idea of natural order to eighteenth-century economic thought and reveals its gradual evolution through the Chicago School of economics and ultimately into today’s myth of the free market. The modern category of “liberty” emerged in reaction to an earlier, integrated vision of punishment and public economy, known in the eighteenth century as “police.” This development shaped the dominant belief today that competitive markets are inherently efficient and should be sharply demarcated from a government-run penal sphere.

This modern vision rests on a simple but devastating illusion. Superimposing the political categories of “freedom” or “discipline” on forms of market organization has the unfortunate effect of obscuring rather than enlightening. It obscures by making both the free market and the prison system seem natural and necessary. In the process, it facilitated the birth of the penitentiary system in the nineteenth century and its ultimate culmination into mass incarceration today.

His homepage at the University of Chicago is here; and his own site here.

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3 Responses to Bernard Harcourt – The Illusion of Free Markets

  1. Chathan says:

    I read this in a reading group. Some of us debated over whether the link Harcourt drew between neoliberalism and the imprisonment was as explicit or causal as Harcourt made it out to be. The debate, unfortunately, collapsed into a shouting match along partisan lines. But I still think about it. Your thoughts?

    • stuartelden says:

      I found the link compelling – especially historically in the likes of Bentham and Smith. The argument of a ‘free’ economy alongside a strong state (for example in policing, punishment and regulation of personal behaviour) is found in a lot of the literature on what used to be called the ‘New Right’ in Britain and the US – the Andrew Gamble book is a good example. It seems difficult to disagree with a claim that the relation has been reinforced in recent decades.

  2. Chathan says:

    Oh without a doubt. The Prison-industrial complex is a testament to that. The objection I heard most frequenty was that neoliberalism was a generic term of abuse on the left and that the intellectual tradition it actually referred to was starting to pass, and that it was no longer useful as a term of analytical value. Hence the pointlessness of drawing links between imprisonment and neoliberalism, as Harcourt did. I wasn’t convinced, but that was their line.

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