Using Marx and Engels' work on surplus populations, we develop a theory to explain differences in increased punitiveness in social control of the poor. We argue that the primary condition of existence for punitiveness is a surplus population that is large or growing, is made up of stagnant, pauper, and dangerous classes forms, is other than the dominant racial/ethnic group, and is perceived to pose a threat. Under such conditions, penal strategies will be harsh and punitive with an emphasis on deterrence and incapacitation. When these conditions hold and are coupled with a weak working class, social welfare will receive less priority, benefits will be more stingy, the distribution of benefits will be biased toward the deserving poor, and the form of assistance and consumption of aid recipients will be strongly targeted and regulated by the state. We then offer an analysis of surplus populations in two very similar countries, Finland and the Netherlands, that we argue explains observed differences in punitive trends in penality and social welfare. We conclude with the implications of our work for understanding similarities and differences in punitiveness across countries, as well as outline a research agenda for further development of our theory of the control of surplus populations.
- social control
- surplus population