More than a year ago, on the 24th of June, a group of ‘rebel’ conservative MPs led by Mr Philip Hollobone tabled a draft of controversial Bills intended to form an alternative Queen’s Speech. This faction of ultraconservatives proposed to rename the late August Bank Holiday as ‘Thatcher Day’, restrict benefit entitlement, withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union and privatize the BBC. But they provocatively included in the programme the reintroduction of capital punishment for certain offences. Hence, the supporting MPs claimed that the ambition of the Bills was to help recapture the common ground, where they believed most voters’ views are.

Undeniably, in light of UKIP’s achievements in the European election, we can read this as a frantic attempt to recapture a segment of the huge electoral land ingeniously appropriated by Nigel Farage’s UKIP by proposing a mix of old-fashioned ultraconservative statements and neo-liberal policies. However the attempt to reintroduce the death penalty goes far beyond every past effort to shape the justice system in an overstrict way, indeed it is an irresponsible move in the direction of a more savage and violent society.

The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty for murder in 1965 with the Murder Act that substituted the capital execution with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Consequently, in 1998 the Parliament decided to abolish it even for certain purely military offences. It was a big step away from an autocratic and authoritative vision of the state, pointing in the direction of a more ethically regulated set of punishments. However, with the abolition of capital punishment most of the debates regarding the reformation of the juridical system exhausted themselves. Although it is essential to notice that the existence of the death penalty was not taken for granted, the extensive employment of imprisonment was, and still is, almost totally unquestioned.

There is in fact a precise historical moment from when the prison system began to take the still unchallenged role as the modern, scientific and democratic mean of punishment. Before the nineteenth century, in contrast to the current common conception, imprisonment was merely regarded as just one of the possible set of punishments adopted by a juridical system which intended punishment in a ceremonial way, pointing straight to the offender’s body. To be more precise, prison was unpopular and contested in a time where ritual public punishments and executions were the main instrument employed by the ruler to implement the law. Indeed prison was openly disregarded by some officials, marginalized precisely due to its closed and concealed nature which allowed the state the possibility of imposing overly unjustified suffering to criminals within the walls of an edifice inaccessible to public scrutiny.

It was only during the nineteenth century that the carceral system, based on discipline and on the development of a rational technique for managing prisoners’ life, became regarded as the par excellence instrument of punishment. This was made possible by the fact that during that period the penal system went through a major change. It went through  a profound transition from a system, which focused purely on punishing the body to a system whose purpose was to discipline the body while imposing the punishment and reform of the offender’s soul. Indeed, Michel Foucault warned us that, from that moment on, the prison would become closely integrated not only in the city, but in the whole structure of our society as he claimed that the same strategies of power and knowledge operate in both locations.

Consequently, his argument was that we cannot currently move away from prison since our ways of thinking are so deeply correlated to this particular way of carrying out punishment, that we are not presently ready to contemplate its abolition. As a matter of fact,  this raises a number of ethical questions: is it possible for the idea of prison to be so pervasive as to shape our society and in turn our everyday life? Are we considering and planning a world without prisons?

These are very complex and multifaceted questions to which everyone can give his own answer. However, the point that I want to stress here is that perhaps after two hundred years of extensive and unquestioned use of the carceral system, violence is still an irremovable part of our lives and crimes are still being committed everyday in every part of the globe. Hence this may be the time for us to decide to cooperatively challenge and rethink the whole prison-based juridical system, in favour of one which is less based on the use of discipline and power. One which is less resolute in sustaining the guilt of a crime, which consequently gives birth to the figure of the criminal, so that we can develop something which resolutely focuses on understanding how to reduce violence in our society through the understanding of what, in our culture, gives rise to it.

Jacques Derrida pointed out a very stimulating response while answering the question regarding the origins of the deeply rooted equivalence between injury and pain, which allows one thing to substitute for the other by way of restitution. He claimed that the origin of penal law is rooted in commercial law. Indeed he showed us that any injury is conceptualized as a debt and therefore all the punishments are understood as a payment, since when the contract becomes the salient model for human relations all manner of injury are shaped on the creditor-debtor relation. As the debt now takes the form of guilt, punishing the criminal for having inflicted damage (equivalent of having incurred a debt) stands for the creation of a subject who punished himself for having failed to be calculable. Therefore guilt becomes the psychic modality of the debtor who can neither quit nor satisfy the stipulated social contract.

Hence Derrida explains to us that the creditor (the damaged person) is granted a special sort of reimbursement: a psychological one which is thus not a thing but is the violent pleasure of the enjoyment located in the act of doing harm for the pleasure of it. Therefore the supporters of capital punishment demonstrate what Nietzsche and Derrida were claiming – that legal punishment always maintains a furtive vocation in which sadism operates in a way which is cautiously masked by law and morality – since cruelty can be masked as morality, as the pleasure, deeply rooted in our minds, of inflicting cruelty can be rationalized as moral duty. Yet, the fundamental point here is: can the opponents of the death penalty escape cruelty and violence (both physical and psychological)? Nietzsche is very clear in answering this, since he stresses that if not radically opposed, cruelty can be repressed by addressing it in a more moralised version. That is, by preferring imprisonment (protracted cruelty) to the death penalty (immediate cruelty). Indeed the point seems to be that the prohibition of any sorts of violent actions is itself an aggressive attack on violence whose paradoxical outcome is that of amplifying violence even if it seeks its eradication from society.

 

Sources:

Derrida, Jacques: The Death Penalty, Volume I (The seminars of Jacques Derrida).

Foucault, Michel: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison.

Bone, Peter: The Alternative Queen’s Speech. The Huffington Post Online, 24/06/2013.

Wallace, Mark: The Alternative Queen’s Speech – the full list of 40 rebel Bills. www. conservativehome.com, 21/06/2013