Re-centering the state: on drug trafficking, modern slavery and decolonial endeavours in austerity Britain
Professor Insa Koch, University of Sankt Gallen in Switzerland.
Notes & Changes
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Efforts to decolonise criminology have not always foregrounded the role of the state in disrupting and entrenching intersecting inequalities. My multi-sited ethnography of Britain’s emerging ‘modern slavery’ jurisprudence in relation to ‘county lines’ drug trafficking shows why such an analytical task is called for: here, the same government that has driven up levels of inequality, implemented austerity politics and pursued a ‘war on gangs’ has also invented some of its most marginalised constituencies as victims and modern slaves. Drug dealers involved in the street level economy of heroin and crack cocaine linking cities to smaller towns – commonly referred to as county lines – are no longer treated as criminals to be punished but as slaves in need of saving. Drawing on fifteen years of ethnographic research on Britain’s marginalised council estates that are home to many of the Black and mixed race young men now discovered as slaves, and triangulating this with an ethnography of Crown courts, government offices and police stations, I analyse what happens when criminals are rethought as victims. While those tasked with the role of identifying and responding to ‘modern slavery’ come with genuine intentions, they struggle to distinguish victims from perpetrators, slaves from their masters. Ultimately, my analysis questions the idea that the politics of redemption unfolding in austerity Britain constitutes a departure from the much theorised ‘punitive turn’. Rather we can think of it as an instance of pacification conducted in the moral register of slavery – not to address empire’s racial and classed afterlives but to govern Britain’s disenfranchised populations as the enemy from within.
Trained as an anthropologist and a lawyer, Insa Lee Koch holds the Chair of British Cultures at the University of Sankt Gallen in Switzerland. Her monograph Personalizing the State, which won the Hart-SLSA early career book prize 2020, constitutes an ethnographic study of state-citizen relations at Britain’s margins. She is currently completing her second monograph on the state’s discovery of ‘modern slavery’ among so-called ‘county lines’ drug dealers in Britain. Her work is concerned with questions of intersecting inequalities, political economy and the state, and she combines research with advocacy and grassroots driven work.