Interview with Prof Steve Hall on ultra-realist criminology

You’re one of the leading figures in what’s known as “realist” or “ultra-realist” criminology. Can you briefly explain what this means?

Ultra-realism is the first genuinely new criminological paradigm to emerge in the 21st century. Ultra-realists argue that criminology must not neglect the ‘intersectional’ injustices that pervade the criminal justice system and broader society, but it must also carve out some space to return to its fundamental question – why do some individuals and groups risk harm to others as they pursue their instrumental and expressive interests? Criminology must be able to offer convincing explanations of mutating forms of crime and harm in today’s rapidly changing world. To do this, the discipline must broaden its horizon beyond sociology and law to embrace new conceptual developments in other important cognate disciplines, including history, economics, politics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis. It must also recognise the flaws in the quantitative methods and develop ethnographic networks that can produce deeper and more sophisticated understandings of human activities. Ethnographic networking is important as a method of improving the generalisability of ethnographic findings and connecting them to broad socioeconomic structures and historical processes. Without such networking, ethnographic findings tend to be restricted to specific locales.

What do you think the key problems of current criminology to be, and what are their ideological origins?

Today, after the death of traditional socialism and conservatism, political and intellectual life is confined within the narrow parameters of right-wing and left-wing liberalism. These dominant political groups limit criminological thought to their own agendas and increasingly degenerative research programmes. Older theoretical frameworks constructed when there was more intellectual freedom in academia – such as strain theory, labelling theory, sub-cultural theory and so on – are now outdated and have less ‘to keep’ than we once thought. There is now a pressing need for researchers to get back out into the real world to construct theory anew by producing and testing new concepts in what the speculative realist philosophers call ‘the great outdoors’.

However, the current discipline is structured by a matrix of intersectional hierarchies. So-called ‘seminal’ thinkers from the past have been made sacred despite their intellectual failings, whilst alternative thinkers from the past and present have been rejected for reasons that are never openly discussed. Academic journals have now been sanctified as the most valuable publishing outlets by the managerial audit culture that has taken over British and US universities. Over 90% of articles in the allegedly ‘top’ criminology journals are superficial quantitative studies testing some outdated idea or producing findings that have little political bearing on broader structures or processes. These findings might help cops to respond to incidents a little faster – the sort of research that before neoliberal budget cuts was once done more effectively by the cops themselves – but have no bearing on the big economic, cultural and political issues that underlie today’s rapidly mutating forms of crime and harm.

The few progressive journals, marginalised by the audit culture, are heavily policed by representatives of identitarian ‘social movements’ who outnumber free thinkers on editorial and editorial advisory boards. These self-appointed ideological beadles exert pressure on editors and reject any work that either challenges or moves beyond their approved themes, theoretical frameworks and policy suggestions – multiculturalism, stigmatisation, hate crime, prison abolitionism, decriminalisation, feminism, violence against women and girls, toxic masculinity and so on. The discipline has collapsed under its own gravitational force into a black hole of multipolar self-censorship.

You’ve explained elsewhere that realism is often contrasted with constructivism. What do you mean by constructivism and why is it problematic?

Constructivism, derived from idealist philosophy and anthropology and initially imported into sociology in the more socially structured form of social constructionism – although that structured form, once based on class, has now been fragmented by post-structuralism and intersectionality – does not deny reality but dissolves the way we understand the real world into a language game with no objective arbiter. ‘Activists’ representing various social movements based on identitarian concepts have fragmented the so-called ‘radical’ or ‘critical’ dimension of criminology into a matrix of closed positions, all of which are resistant to critique – for instance, all victims of domestic violence are women, the principal cause is the unwelcome persistence of a dominant ‘toxic masculinity’ exercising power over women and that’s all there is to it. Woe betide anyone who disagrees with that and wants to be published in a reputable journal or have their ideas taught as contribution to the criminological canon in universities. Even when it escapes the number-cruncher’s fire, criminology lands in the frying pan of tangled world views constructed by various indentitarian interest groups. That these interest groups are varied and not restricted to white males as they once were briefly looked like a positive move, but it quickly backfired – back in the day criminologists only had to struggle past one constructed perspective on the world but now they have to struggle past many. This struggle is confusing and exhausting, and of course it can be detrimental to one’s career progression, so its perfectly understandable that many give up and toe the line(s). Ultra-realism seeks to move beyond this mess, revisit reality and produce new concepts that can enhance our understanding of it. The ability of human beings to understand those aspects of realty that elude our symbolism – the Lacanian ‘Real’ – will always be limited, but to systematically restrict our capacity to symbolise reality even further will only ensure that we sleepwalk to disaster, rather like the neoclassical economists did in the runup to the credit crunch.

You’ve made arguments questioning decriminalisation especially in its relation to harm. Can you explain this relation?

It’s impossible to talk about decriminalisation until we have talked seriously about harm and linked it back to law and crime. Harm is defined as an act that leaves what it impacts upon in a worse condition. How well the legal system’s concepts of crime represent real harm depends on how well rules and laws have been made. We should never assume that all have been either badly made or well made. Ultra-realists use a core-periphery model of harm, which attempts to restructure the research field and prioritise research with an ongoing open discussion on core harms that have discernible impacts on the lives of human beings and their environments – addiction, violence, intimidation, environmental pollution, death at work and so on.

Saturated in cultural politics and pulled in all directions by relativistic post-structural interest groups and social movements, criminology is devoid of a serious discussion on harm. I’m not a Habermasian by any means, but at the moment we do need an ‘ideal speech situation’ in criminology. We can never be entirely absolutist, but a serious, open, ongoing discussion – free from the censorship that various political and identitarian interest groups constantly exercise – of what causes objective harm to whom, and therefore what should be criminalised by the legal system or have its underlying contextual conditions addressed by political intervention, is a fundamental requirement if we are to live up to our reputation as a scientific and philosophical discipline. We need to adopt a healthy dose of Mandy Rice-Davies’ worldly cynicism – when pot-smoking criminologists tell us that dope does you no harm, or when feminist criminologists tell us that all victims of domestic violence are women, we must say, as she did, “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they”? We will never discover the eternal truth, but to strive towards it and discover a few earthly truths along the way is far more satisfying and politically useful than spending the rest of our lives in a post-structural hall of censoring and distorting mirrors. Ultra-realists seek nothing short of a clean sheet and absolute freedom for competent academics in the fields of research and theory.

As a first step on the road to a renewed philosophical and theoretical discussion, ultra-realists agree with critical criminologists that lack of social recognition is linked to harm, but it adds the point that neoliberal capitalism has virtually severed the Master-Slave relation. Victims of harmful relations and acts now have very little influence or bargaining position in relation to their exploiters. But to help victims we must know what we are fighting. Ultra-realism’s explanation of the exploiters themselves, who can appear in any position throughout the social structure and not just the top strata, is informed by the concept of special liberty. This denotes the sense of entitlement to do what must be done, which is felt by individuals as they actively conform to the systemic logic of the ‘business’ that will provide them with wealth, enjoyment and personal freedom. Ultra-realists therefore reverse and complexify the direction of causality – lack of social recognition does not cause harm, but the motivation to do harm justified by the logic of business and the culture of special liberty reproduces the active refusal of social responsibility and recognition of the other. When we are fighting harm we are are not simply fighting the ‘domination’ of others by various groups, we are fighting motivational and justificatory principles that lie at the very core of the culturally and economically reproduced ideology that has accompanied the liberal capitalist way of life for over two hundred years.

You’ve explained “ultra realism” as being able to explain by “the unconscious actions of the ideological agent who fetishistically disavows her collusion in the dynamics and processes that constitute the level of the real”. In this sense you suggest we are conscious of what we do yet repress it. What implications, if any has this for criminal responsibility?

The dominant ideology very briefly outlined in the previous section is of course actively reproduced by culture and numerous agents. Special liberty explains the sense of entitlement felt by all agents as they repress what they know to be good to perform myriad little evils to keep the system running. Big spectacular evils are of course quite often committed by big spectacular actors who loom large in our narratives, but the system relies on the repression of our knowledge that we all commit little evils every day, or, if we are relatively inactive, at least stand by and watch others commit them. Here Slavoj Žižek’s notion of fetishistic disavowal is useful. We know we are colluding with the system, but we don’t want to know, therefore we repress it into the unconscious and carry on acting as if we don’t know. This is the fundamental psychological technique that allows a sense of special liberty to reproduce itself as a norm. Of course we are responsible for our crimes, but it’s a lot easier to commit them and justify them if we think that most people are committing little evils every day because that’s what the system demands, and would probably commit a bigger evil if they were in our situation, whether that is one of stress or opportunity. I’m a bastard because everyone else is a bastard….. what we are looking at here is a secular and very unsophisticated and demystified variant of the Legend of the Fall.

Thought and social action are entirely separate things, of course, which is why idealist theories fall apart so easily and produce virtually no political momentum, even if they help to spew out the vast magma of frantic virtue-signalling that follows each frequent eruption of moral hysteria when we catch a glimpse of what lies underneath what we do every day….. “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here…..”. At the moment Žižek’s popularity is waning as waves of concerted attacks by liberal media denizens have taken their toll. This is what happens when you tell liberals a few inconvenient truths about themselves. During my career I worked very hard not to get too popular, and in fact got quite good at being unpopular – that way it hurts a lot less.

You’ve suggested that ultra-realism can help explain why people don’t learn from their mistakes. How does might this work practically?

I have to simplify the argument a lot here. Roy Bhaskar once said that absence can be causative – for instance the absence of a monsoon can dry up land and destroy crops. In today’s political scene at the ‘end of history’ – a notion fervently promoted by neoliberals of all shades – the absence of any hope or any clear vision of a feasible alternative system is causative because it locks individual into active engagement with the webs of interdependent imperatives that constitute the current neoliberal system. Socioeconomic systems are not merely symbolic – a mistake made by all idealist philosophers and social thinkers – but matrices of very real possibilities and impossibilities. In this trap fetishistic disavowal and special liberty thrive as everyday processual norms. They are simply what we do, to varying degrees, when we accept these systematised possibilities and impossibilities because we have no real choice, a fact that Jean-Paul Sartre admitted at the end of his career, even though it demolished everything he had said before. People who admit that they accept that they are active agents of the system are being more honest than those who pretend they are resisting it.

For the philosopher Adrian Johnston, this is today’s variation of what he calls deaptation, a process which ensures continuing active commitment to an obsolete ideology that has become dysfunctional in an environment no longer suitable for it. For instance, we know that global warming, drought, neoliberal economic restructuring and cheap arms dumping in tropical convergence zones has caused huge explosions of war, crime, corruption and the sort of enforced migration that has provided ample opportunities for criminals and fed into far-right responses in Europe and the USA. In the presence of a culture of special liberty, fetishistic disavowal and relentless competition, but in the absence of a genuine alternative ideology, this process promotes the morbid symptoms of criminality, violence and fascism rather than the politics of solidarity that we need to make the future tolerable.

Your interests in criminology seem to constantly reflect back on social conditions, especially industrial decline. Can you explain the relation between industrial decline, repression of the conscious and crime, and why you think metropolitan elite don’t understand it?

The metropolitan liberal elite don’t want to know about the deleterious consequences of their failure to regulate capitalism. At the moment they resemble rabbits caught in the headlights as history’s juggernaut bears down upon them. As Elliott Currie once reminded us, the conveyor belt that takes people out of devastated deindustrialised areas and dumps them in prison cannot be explained simply and solely as a process of ‘stigmatisation’ and ‘criminalisation’. We must talk about the decriminalisation of peripheral crimes and the use of prisons as warehouses for people suffering drug addiction and mental health issues, and we must certainly do everything we can to consign racism to history’s dustbin. But we must also talk about the historical economic forces, deaptative culture and weak liberal (post)politics that have sucked so many former proletarians of all skin colours into criminal markets, destroyed their communities and wreaked harm on their lives and, in some cases, the lives of their victims. Liberal criminology addresses the latter but has very little to say about the former. The usual and rather pathetic excuse is that they already know about it, but shoving it into the shadows as background knowledge means that many people who do not experience it directly – students and voters – do not.

The patterns are there for all to see. Violent crime exploded in early 1930s USA as the Great Depression bit and the nation’s dominant competitive individualist culture could not sufficiently restrain the criminal reaction from an active minority drunk on the culture of special liberty. Yet, in the single year of 1937, when Roosevelt’s second-wave New Deal began to take effect, the nation saw a remarkable drop in its very high homicide rate. We saw an explosion of crime in the 1980s in both the USA and the UK, as the two nations deindustrialised, secure employment sharply declined and the British culture that had restrained the criminal reaction in the 1930s sidled up too close to the American model.

On its own, the liberal-left’s repetitive criticism of unfair intersectional power relations and authoritarian social reaction tells us little about the underlying generative conditions that produce such tragic outcomes. The metropolitan elite simply don’t want to know, just as they don’t want to know about the devastated communities that added many votes to the Brexit campaign. This identifies contemporary liberalism as a politics that swims in a sea of fetishistic disavowal and deaptation. Once it was the conservative right that – often with great pride – assumed the mantle of society’s deaptative ideology, for which it was mocked and opposed by a confident left. Now that a neoliberal-dominated left has replaced conservatism in that role we are in far bigger trouble. There is nobody to mock and oppose it, because of course its divisive identitarian factions are too busy mocking and opposing each other. It’s impossible to blame any self-respecting criminal too much for ignoring this nonsense and getting on with business. No alternative looks possible. At some point in the near future the consequences of deaptation, criminal and political, could be quite devastating on a broad scale, as they already have been in some economically abandoned zones of the West today. Liberal politics are quite unprepared for such a possibility.

One thought on “Interview with Prof Steve Hall on ultra-realist criminology

  1. It is great to have Prof Steve Hall talking bout ultrarealism in the relatively more informal context of an interview, giving compelling examples and explaining the main concepts around this criminological theory. Thank you!

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