In Capitalism, there can be no Care without Punitivity

Central to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are new authoritarian powers directed at children - these cannot be understood though by an easy contrast between punitivity and care.

19 min read

At Prime Ministers’ Question Time on 8th February, 2018, as part of a speech equating cuts to police budgets and youth services with rising rates of ‘youth crime’, then leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn stated “When it comes to tackling crime, prevention and cure are two sides of the same coin”. While there was a temptation from some on the left,to treat the call for more and better funded police as simply a vote-winning tactic, considering his emphasis on prevention as an antidote to Conservative “new punitiveness”,1 I would argue that Corbyn’s assertion (alongside his pledge to recruit 10,000 more police officers) signals something more substantial than mere electioneering. His articulation of services such as youth clubs (“prevention”) to policing (“cure”) as “two sides of the same coin”, points to the symbiotic relationship which exists between what I am calling ‘caring’ and ‘punitive’ state functions, which together enable the British state to reproduce capitalist social relations. In other words, aside from its affective register, how different was this from the Blair-era “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”? In what follows, I look at the changing interrelation between the British state’s ‘caring’ and ‘punitive’ functions in relation to its approach to the care and criminalisation of children, thinking through how successive economic crises have shaped the (re)production of new generations of proletarians – and with it, significant shifts in the capitalist state.

Since, 2018 tendencies towards an authoritarian statism2, a concept that is perhaps more useful than “new punitiveness”, which, James Trafford argues, broadly ignores the context of internalised colonial techniques of policing and governance. “New punitiveness” also posits an exaggerated rupture in state activity, relying on too sharp a distinction being made between caring and punitive functions of the state. Tendencies towards “authoritarian statism” have only ramped up, as is evident most nakedly in the highly controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is currently going through parliament. In the face of such intensified authoritarianism and shifts towards ever greater punitiveness is understandable that many, whether because of a narrowing of horizons or a general recoil at cruelty, may be nostalgic for a past of a more caring state, or call for shifts in focuses and resources towards care. However, these calls miss or obscure both the tight connection of care and punitivity within the practices of the state (including, as documented and challenged by No More Exclusions, the increased punitiveness within “caring” institutions like schools) and the function of caring institutions themselves in the reproduction of an oppressive social order.

Care and punitivity– two sides of social reproduction

When Marx refers to what is now commonly understood as social reproduction, he describes it as a “continuous connected process” which “produces and reproduces the capital relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer”.3 Social reproduction, therefore, refers to two distinct but currently inextricable processes: the reproduction of capitalist social relations and the reproduction of the working class. There is a tendency within the contemporary resurgence of feminist social reproduction theory to valorise social reproduction, focusing only on those activities which keep people alive, while neglecting to think about the “continuous connected process” in its entirety, remembering that it also reinforces and maintains class, race and gender. An un-nuanced reading of social reproduction that neglects to consider that it is the reproduction of capitalism might consider some institutions — such as education and healthcare — as solely caring (and therefore benign) and others, like police or prison, purely punitive. Some even call for carceral institutions to be defunded, and those funds reallocated to institutions of care – Steffan Blayney’s critique of calls to shift funding from police to mental health services without considering how those services function and for what purposes offers a useful corrective to one instance of this sort of demand. But those who make these arguments forget that care and punitivity are “two sides of the same coin”. As Kirsten Munro writes,

Social welfare agencies are contradictory institutions, at once providing much needed services to the working class, while at the same time restricting or denying these services – for the purpose of reproducing capitalist relations of production”.4

There are a set of interlinked problems in calling merely for more care, less punitivity (or, if using Althusserian categories, more ideology, less repression).5 Firstly, as the history shows, demands are likely to be ineffective, the current projects of the capitalist state and the reproduction of capital, whilst not setting an absolute limit on what is possible, strongly determine things away from care. Secondly, care and punitivity are always (and as the state intervenes, particularly in a crisis to secure conditions of reproduction for capital, increasingly) on the one hand intertwined and on the other hand allocated between different people, particularly on racialised and racialising grounds: a bit more care for some, a lot more punitivity for others. And, finally, even if we could abstract “care” from “punitivity”, “care” itself cannot be asserted in itself as an unalloyed good when it is intertwined with the reproduction of capital, with the formation of a particular workforce, with the disciplining of children for work (and for particular roles in an unequal society). As Sophie Lewis argues, “Social reproduction isn’t just good and nice. ‘Care’ isn’t just good and nice.”

“Care” itself cannot be asserted in itself as an unalloyed good when it is intertwined with the reproduction of capital, with the formation of a particular workforce, with the disciplining of children for work.

Perhaps still the most famous theorist of the formation of capitalist subjects and the reproduction of capitalism is Louis Althusser, who posited that capitalist state function was divided between repressive state apparatus (police, prisons, the army) and ideological state apparatuses (education systems, cultural institutions etc). Though attentive to both the ideological effects of repression (the clearest example of subject-formation, “interpellation”, is an order from a police officer),6 and the role of repression within the ideological state apparatuses (corporal punishment or exclusions or even selection within schools),7 for Althusser there is still a distinction between apparatuses running predominantly on repression and predominantly on ideology, which, particular given the schematic character of much of Althusser’s work, can suggest too sharp a distinction between repression and ideology. To adopt this approach might encourage reformist readings that would treat ideological state apparatuses along the lines of “caring” apparatus and therefore largely benign when contrasted with repression. It is therefore necessary, in 21st century Britain, to push Althusser’s work further, challenging the risk of an overly schematic distinction between ideology and repression or care and punitivity, to argue that care doesn’t only support punitivity, but that the two are inextricable from each other.

It’s no coincidence that when Corbyn criticised austerity cuts to ‘preventative’ services, it is specifically youth centres he mentions. When thinking about the treatment of children by the state, it is obvious that care and punitivity are inextricable from each other: punitivity and surveillance are, and always have been, huge parts of the education system, something most of us experienced first hand as children. And any capitalist education system reproduces capitalist social relations via inculcating children into capitalist society, reproducing and training a hierarchised workforce. Observing the treatment of young people, historically and contemporarily, shows us much about how shifts in the economy lead to shifts in how the state uses care and punitivity to shape and contain children as future capitalist subjects. Ultimately, capitalism’s reproduction rests (and has always rested) on the oppression of children.

Ultimately, capitalism’s reproduction rests (and has always rested) on the oppression of children.

A brief history of British youth justice

Before turning to the present, I want to quickly delve into the history of British youth justice and education. This timeline snakes through the rise and fall of Britain as an industrial superpower, and through a succession of Conservative Labour governments, all of whom employing slightly different combinations of the care/discipline matrix to reproduce capitalist social relations. Such an historical view presents today’s “new punitiveness” not as a sudden break, but as the logical conclusion of a “continued connected process”, safeguarding the British economy since against increasing pressure.


It was amid the rapid urbanisation and social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution that the British began in earnest to administrate ‘care’ as well as merely punitivity. It became apparent that education and welfare were necessary measures in the (re)production of children as new proletarians. Though at this point education and welfare institutions still operated separately to the state, legislation throughout the 19th century steadily bound the activities of state and charity closer together and, as such, began, in its current form the enmeshment of care and punitivity. In 1870, the Elementary School Act required, for the first time, that children under thirteen must receive an education. These schools served a dual function: firstly, they prepared children for wage labour and/or reproductive work in the home. Secondly, through their surveillance of children and their families, and the power they were given by the state to remove ‘unruly’ or ‘criminal’ children and house them in church-run Reformatory Schools, they were, in the words of Adrienne Roberts, enabled to “break up deviant families and institutionalise children to prevent the transmission of criminality from parent to child.”8 The education system’s part in the enforced break-up of families and communities can be seen perhaps most violently around the same period in the residential schools were set up by state-funded religious organisations on stolen land, to which Indigenous children were (and still are) taken from their communities to be brought up in the ways of their western colonisers.9 By concerning itself with the educational, spiritual, and moral care of children, the state was afforded a tighter grip upon them.

Amid the rapid urbanisation and social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the state began concerning itself with the educational, spiritual, and moral care of children, which afforded it a tighter grip upon them.

1900 - 1960

The first half of the 20th century saw a continued development of the notion of ‘the child’ as a distinct category: children were no longer primarily thought of as carriers of original sin, but rather innocent yet anarchic beings in need of sculpting into responsible workers and citizens. In 1933, the age of criminal responsibility was brought in for the first time. Special juvenile courts were set up, and youth prisons were rebranded as ‘Approved Schools’ which were operated by voluntary bodies, but funded by the state. These were brutal environments with military discipline and harsh corporal punishment, but their educative function rendered them more palatable to a society which was softening in its approach to the treatment of children. In other words, ‘care’ was providing a smokescreen for punitivity.

After the end of WW2, the Labour government brought in sweeping reforms to welfare provision and a massively expanded state as part of its Keynesian economic policy designed to rebuild a post-war economy. This vast nationalisation of public welfare and policing is termed by Roberts as ‘penal-welfare paternalism’. In this era, she notes:

Welfare and legal/penal regimes continued to form overlapping coercive frameworks that managed the contradictions and insecurities inherent in capitalism. Insofar as the new social welfare regimes alleviated some of the insecurities faced by particular segments of the population, they simultaneously intensified the surveillance and control over a growing number of individuals and families and maintained the basic structure of the class-based, gendered and racialized labour market.10

In other words, as the welfare state became formalised, and organisations which had previously been at least partially independent were brought in-house, the differentiation between care and punitivity became even blurrier. Surveillance and the policing of norms- both of which served to enforce the reproduction of capitalist social relations- were baked into the functions of organisations like the NHS and Social Services. Given that each of these new institutions dealt heavily with children and families, they enabled the state a greater intervention into young people’s lives than ever before.


Many historical narratives (both those that welcome it and those which view it as a decisive moment of decline) represent the 1960s as a period of great social change, and the beginning of a progressive modernity. But though liberal and radical social attitudes did circulate to some extent, and ameliorated some of the worst effects of capitalist violence, the undergirding logic of the liberal capitalist state remained intact. In response to changing social attitudes, the government sought some ‘non-carceral solutions’ to youth crime, and pressed for ‘intervention’ into so-called problem families. This led to the intensification of surveillance into the lives of the British working class, whereby agencies such as Social Services used ‘care’ as a means by which to remove children from adults who were perceived to be a bad influence.

The 1960s was also marked by a growing disparity in the treatment of white vs racialised children by the state. To appease the growing anti-immigrant far-right (who used inflated crime statistics to bolster their racism), military-style policing units called Special Patrol Groups were brought in in 1961 to ‘swamp’ deprived areas. This inevitably involved mass arrests of children and young people of colour, and violence against them and their communities. While children from largely white areas were being treated as in need of care, children of colour in cities like London were being violently criminalised. In other words, to ensure the ‘care’ of children who were considered innocent, marginalised children were being treated with extreme punitivity.

In the 1960s, while children from largely white areas were being treated as in need of care, children of colour in cities like London were being violently criminalised.


What conservative critics termed the ‘permissiveness’ pervading society in the 1960s was met with a hefty punitive backlash in the 1970s. This drastic pendulum swing from care back to punitivity was exacerbated by the economic crash of 1973, which exacerbated existing stagnation and high unemployment. Stuart Hall notes that since the waning of the post-war boom, the British economy has become “marked by the oscillations between recession and recovery, with a steady underlying deterioration”. From the 1960s onwards, domestic policy has been “dominated by crisis-management and containment strategies”, often resulting in an “increasingly interventionist state, intervening both to secure the conditions of capitalist production and reproduction”. In the 1970s, the British state found itself needing to mitigate economic crisis while also sustaining subjects who were longer able to sustain themselves. Punitive policing and the warehousing of the most needy and troublesome within the newly expanded prison (and probation) system, provided a solution.

For young people, this was seen most blatantly in the so-called ‘mugging crisis’: a moral panic stoked by racism and fears around the breakdown of the traditional family, brought about by the de-industrialisation of the British economy and the decline of the so-called ‘family wage’, pulling record numbers of women into the workforce. Despite no actual rise in reported robberies, racialised urban teens (whose mothers, it was assumed, were now out working rather than bringing them up properly) were positioned as folk devils, and punished forcefully with pre-emptive policing and deterrence sentencing. This, Hall argues,11 was an instance of the state harnessing the ideological effects of its repressive functions; a conscious attempt to use punitivity as a method by which to reproduce children as law abiding citizens, threatening them with headlines about how unruly teens were being treated by the courts.


Perhaps surprisingly, the Thatcher government, infamous for its hostility towards the working class (and as Hall argues, its ideological reliance on the ‘law and order’ themes of the 1970s), took what was in some ways a more lenient approach to criminal justice than the Labour government before it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, this was a leniency born of cynical intent. Two key tenents of Thatcherism were the reduction of central government’s administrative responsibility, and cuts to both local and central government. Consequently, youth justice was essentially devolved to newly impoverished local authorities. In many cases, partially due to the sheer expense of incarcerating children, this led to a pivot back towards ‘diversionary’ projects, designed to guide young people into value producing labour and away from criminalised activities, while also surveilling and soft-policing them.

As ever though, punitivity was propping up these approaches which could be read as caring. Although attempts to reduce the population of children in prison were successful, those who did find themselves incarcerated were met with harsher conditions than before. In 1988, all forms of youth detention were replaced with Young Offenders Institutions, which were modelled on adult prisons. Where before, harsh discipline had been justified through its proximity to education and social care, now the distinction between care and punitivity was starker.

1990- 97

In 1990, Thatcher was replaced by John Major, a more traditional Conservative, who sought to preside closely over the moral health of the nation. Harking back to 19th century concerns around crime’s contagion, he supported a ‘tough on crime’, deterrence-based system, fearful that leniency would allow young criminals to become ‘professionalised’. Intent on emphasising punitivity as a favoured means of reproducing society, Major proclaimed that the time had come for “society to condemn a little more and understand a little less”. This did not come without a corresponding ‘caring’ counter-point though; the 90s saw increases in youth incarceration, but also increased spending on youth training and ‘rehabilitation’.

New Labour

After Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997, he vowed to “rebuild a strong civic society where rights and duties go hand in hand”, with individual responsibility forming the backbone of social policy. New Labour’s so-called ‘Third Way’ ideology broke with parts of the left’s traditional association of crime with poverty and inequality (although as with nostalgia for a more “caring” state, it’s necessary to remain critical of this understanding, it is still compatible with projects of management, even repression, of the pathologised criminal), understanding it instead as a symptom of a moral decline, and lack of respect which could be remedied with the punitivity of a strong state.

The government’s fixation on young people’s ‘disrespectful’ behaviour amped up a growing, although largely irrational, public fear around youth crime which, particularly in the run up to elections, led to tougher carceral approaches. So-called ‘anti-social behaviour’—things like groups of young people hanging around in public spaces and listening to loud music—became an enormous moral panic. Although being annoying or even threatening is not a crime per se, the government introduced measures, such ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Orders’, which partially criminalised these behaviours, thus widening the carceral drag-net.

New Labour drastically overhauled Britain’s youth justice system. In 1998 they stipulated that each local authority had its own Youth Offending Team: a multi-agency organisation made up of social workers, youth workers and probation officers, to which children would be referred by police, and who would offer them mentorship and support, as well as presiding over their punishment. These teams were the perfect encapsulation of the symbiotic relationship between care and punitivity under capitalism; a liberal dream of well-integrated social reproduction.

The Austerity Era

To echo Stuart Hall, post-industrial Britain is a state continually treading water, trying to mitigate against continual and worsening crisis. In the wake of the 2007-8 economic crisis, governments whether Labour, Tory-Lib Dem coalition or purely Tory have attempted to ‘save’ the economy via huge budget cuts, using the logic of austerity to ramp up overtly punitive activity, both by making drastic cuts to social care, and by more clearly incorporating surveillance and punitivity into the work of ‘caring’ institutions. Youth Offending Teams, for instance, had most of their welfare functions gutted, and are now essentially a probation service for the under 21s. This is a practice Becka Hudson terms the “militarisation of care”: the incursion of policing roles into the everyday work of those in caring or educative jobs -an obvious example being the compulsory participation of teachers, healthcare workers and doctors in the widely criticised counter-terrorism initiative Prevent. The gutting of state provision and shifts towards an even more punitive logic form the basis of a great deal of the nostalgia for a less cruel state, often coupled with anti-austerity demands for greater public spending, without consideration of the role of and the effects of the state in the reproduction of capitalism. This terrain is the basis of Corbyn’s 2018 challenge.

As it had in the 70s, intensified punitivity, particularly in response to young people who had increasingly less to lose, and thus pose more of a potential threat to the social order, here too proved an effective tactic. Less than one year into the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition’s term, the 2011 uprisings broke out in cities across the UK after the shooting of the unarmed Mark Duggan by police, and subsequent police violence towards protestors. The Home Office used this as an opportunity to flex their muscles, showing that resistance to the nation’s rapidly worsening living conditions would be met with extreme discipline. Racialised urban young people were demonised, and legislation was rushed through allowing ‘fast-track’, 24-hour courts which processed rioters quickly, with no time for them to build a defence. Consequently, around 1,300 young people were sent to prison.

Conservative governments over the last decade have also used privatisation as a way to limit state expenditure. Most notably, the 2010 Academies Act encouraged private companies to take over existing schools. Academies, which are only partially funded by the state, and which are often run for profit, usually take a more hard-line disciplinary stance than state schools. There have been massive increases in both permanent and fixed-term school exclusions since 2010, funnelling children, particularly children of colour, first into Pupil Referral Units and then Young Offenders Institutions, often operated by the same companies as the academies themselves. Describing the “PRU to prison pipeline”, the Institute of Race Relations argue, “the ‘undeserving’, steadily cast adrift in education, are not mere anomalies in a system that encourages learning and race-class inclusivity; they represent a system that has been purpose built to segregate.” Encouragingly, though, we are seeing some resistance to academies and their contribution to the sharp shift towards punitivity. Protests against racist policies (including around uniform and flying the union flag – crucial cases where the ideological/repressive distinction breaks down) at Pimlico Academy leading to the Principal resigning, is a particularly heartening example.

The Authoritarian state

This potted history, roughly mapping the British state’s treatment of children alongside its industrial/economic rise and decline, is intended as evidence against a common, liberal narrative of progress – something like that because corporal punishment has been outlawed and teachers are no longer forbidden to support queer students , our approach to the care of young people is becoming more enlightened. Instead, I’ve tried to show that the state’s need to reproduce capitalist social relations amid long-term economic collapse has resulted in increased repression in general, and specifically for young people who can no longer be bribed into compliance with the promise of a bright future .

As I mentioned earlier, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is, for now, the sharp edge in this current moment of overtly punitive state violence. Much of the fierce opposition to the bill has focused on its suppression of protest and its violent assault on marginalised and racialised communities, especially travellers, undocumented migrants and black and Muslim people. But, the damaging effect the bill will have specifically on children belonging to one of more of these groups has been largely left out of the discussion. If the bill passes, as it looks set to do, people as young as ten could face life imprisonment for certain crimes, and police will be given increased powers to stop and search, which will translate into the even greater criminalisation of (disproportionately Black and Brown) children in low-income areas. The bill would also oversee the streamlining of youth prisons as ‘secure schools’, which would be operated, for profit, by Academy chains, offering a ‘joined up’ approach to education and youth justice (‘care’ and ‘punitivity’) or, in other words, an even more efficient and better-oiled school-to-prison pipeline. The intertwining of ‘caring’ and ‘punitive’ aspects within an educational apparatus dedicated to reproducing a hierarchised, even segregated workforce, merits attention here. The exclusion of “disruptive” children and young people is held to be an act of “care” towards those “wanting to learn”. This continues aspects of 1970s educational arguments, analysed by Hall, where greater “discipline” was held to be in the interests of the majority of working class children, particularly in crisis conditions of a contracting labour market.

One might well argue that a social democratic government (such as a Labour government headed by Jeremy Corbyn might have been) would have focused less on punitivity and more on providing care – on “prevention” rather than “cure”. But, as this historical view has intended to show, it isn’t as simple as merely writing off our incumbent government as sadistic (though they well may be). This level of punitivity, while a steep step up from what came before it, has not come out of the blue. Looking to very recent history we can see it as a predictable response to continuing stagnation, and a pre-emptive strike against unrest during further austerity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Discussing the pitfalls of putting one’s hopes in social democracy, Hall explains that in capitalist society, all governments are beholden to the same constraints. “once in government” he writes, “social democracy is committed to finding solutions to the crisis which are capable of winning support from key sections of capital, since its solutions are framed within those limits”. As such, it must use all the tools at its disposal “to _discipline _ the class and organizations it represents”. This could be taken to be restricted to a relatively narrow conception of political demands and industrial challenges particularly through strikes but the range of disciplinary (including punitive) functions and practices of social democracy stretch beyond this. Regardless of sensibility or intention, within a capitalist mode of production any government must use the complex matrix of care and punitivity to reproduce the necessary social relations. It is notable that in his question time speech, Corbyn doesn’t only lament cuts to youth clubs, but also to policing budgets. The post-war Keynesian governments’ integration of punitivity into state care, and the Labour government’s ‘law and order’ crackdown in the 70s show that punitivity isn’t just a right-wing problem, it’s a necessity for any government within a capitalist mode of production.

As things stand, we cannot merely extricate repression and punitivity from the state’s caring functions. We can’t provide nurturing and caring environments for children which don’t simultaneously discipline and threaten them.

As things stand, we cannot merely extricate repression and punitivity from the state’s caring functions. We can’t provide nurturing and caring environments for children which don’t simultaneously discipline and threaten them. As this brief history has shown, the British state, regardless of whom is at its head, must harness both care and punitivity if it is to ensure the reproduction of capitalist social relations. To create a society which is genuinely interested in caring for children, and everyone else, we should not be looking to defund certain institutions and reallocate resources to others, or even to elect a socialist. Rather, for anything to actually change, we must work to disrupt the “continuous connected process” through which we have come to understand ourselves and each other.

  1. See Nils Christie. 2016. Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style. London: Routledge.; John Pratt. 2002. Punishment and Civilization: Penal Tolerance and Intolerance in Modern Society. London: Sage. And James Trafford’s critique of the concept

  2. For “authoritarian statism” see Nicos Poulantzas. [1978]. 2014. State, Power, Socialism. London: Verso. 

  3. Karl Marx. [1867]. 1990. Capital, Volume I. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin. p. 565. 

  4. Kirsten Munro. ‘Unproductive Workers and State Repression’ forthcoming in Review of Radical Political Economics. p. 8. 

  5. Louis Althusser. [1971]. 2014. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso. Especially, “The State”, pp. 70-93. 

  6. Althusser. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. p. 190. 

  7. Althusser. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. p. 86. 

  8. Adrienne Roberts. 2016. Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare: Feminist Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Law. London: Routledege. 

  9. It’s worth noting here, not least because it’s a tendency that runs through configurations and reconfigurations of care and punititivity, that there is not an absolute break between Britain and Empire, Trafford notes, for example, the significance of “strategies that internalised colonial governance within the British state”. We could also note the racialisation (and therefore subjection to intensified repression and exclusion from better jobs) of significant parts of the working class in Britain in this period – especially Irish people. 

  10. Roberts. Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare p. 87. 

  11. Hall, Stuart 1988. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State and Law and Order. Palgrave Macmillan. 


Lucy Freedman

Lucy Freedman is a PhD student in Theatre Studies at Queen Mary University of London, researching the interplay between care, carcerality and the erotic within the contemporary British state. She is also a prison abolition organiser, and editorial collective member for Marxist Feminist journal Invert.