Quelques réflexions sur les bases culturelles des punitions en Europe, aux US et en Chine
The basic argument here is one of how to look at social status and social hierarchies. In Europe, a general commitment to abolish harsh low-status treatment developed gradually. In the young settler state of America, where status hierarchies were much less pronounced, it seems as if the milder punishments used for the aristocracy in Europe never gained ground, and everyone got the same harsh punishments in the name of equality. Harsh punishment was in fact seen as a virtue of equality in America—indeed, we find something we might term “violent egalitarianism” there. It is one of the paradoxes and unintended consequences of history that the milder high status treatment existing in the otherwise brutal ancien régimes of France and Germany was generalised to the common people, particularly after the French revolution.
Here, mildness in punishment was advocated as the ideal of equality instead of the violent popular egalitarianism of America.
The French and the American revolutions, although built on the same basic ideas of egalitarianism and freedom, had very different outcomes in terms of legal practices. In other words, while high status punishments have slowly driven out the low-status treatment in Europe, harsh punishment became the ideal during the American Revolution, a revolution, I might add, more fanned by populism and puritan Christianity than its European counterpart.
But even enlightenment itself is partly to blame for the harshness seen in America. European enlightenment, we should remember, was not only the writings of Beccaria, who suggested the abolishment of the death penalty already in 1764 (Beccaria 1764/1996). It was also the Kantian harshness of act egalitarianism, the principle that everyone should be treated equally and, I should add, equally harshly.
The purity argument, however, is still important here, as purity also seems to lead to harshness in sentencing.
Among other examples of what I would call “purity regimes”, the Chinese Cultural Revolution is a good example where punitivity and purity go hand in hand. We just have to think back to the so-called “Gang of Four” who flirted openly with old and very punitive legalist ideas during the late days of the Cultural Revolution, trying to link feudal ideas of the absolute monarchy of Qin Shi Huangdi to the socialist revolution of Mao Zedong. It is also significant to note that the anti-crime campaign of 1983 started in an atmosphere of a political campaign against spiritual pollution (jingshen wuran 精神污染) that saw crime as a pollution factor, or a phenomenon of evil.
Mercy comes de haut en bas as they say in France, from up to down. In some fundamental way, it seems, one has to have the social distinction of high and low to be able to develop mercy.
It has been found that a relatively strong nation state with a relatively strong and autonomous state apparatus was able to contain violence and unrest in medieval Europe. Violence rates seemed to be much higher when the state was weak and revenge cycles were allowed to rule in the absence of strong institutions of social control (Johnson and Monkkonen 1996; Elias 1994). It can be argued that in America, the widespread skepticism against a strong state is among the explanations why violence and punitivity came to reach higher levels there than in Europe, and we might see part of today’s more violent American culture as a byproduct of both the lack of institutions of mercy and the lack of a strong state.
Only a strong state, I argue, could actually grant mercy to the people on a large scale.
On pourrait conclure d’ici que le projet anarchiste serait le plus violent. Je pense que cet argument mérite une discussion approfondie.