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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Penal Nationalism

By Vanessa Barker

Our social world is being rapidly transformed by one of the most powerful forces sweeping across affluent societies in response to globalization and mass mobility: nationalism. Resurgent nationalism has the power to disrupt conventional right/left politics to place national interests, national sovereignty, nationalized resources, and national identity above all else. Nationalism, as we have seen with Brexit, “America First,” revanchism in Eastern Europe, and the rise of anti-immigrant parties in the North and South, is redrawing political maps and social relations across Europe and beyond.

What does this have to do with the prison and the prison experience? I would argue that it has everything to do with the prison and the changing nature of penal power in the 21st century. Nationalism succeeds in part because it has come to rely on the tools of criminal justice to punish and expel problem populations (also see Kaufman 2015; Haney 2016; Barker 2017; Aas 2014). It is here we see old prisons repurposed for refugees, new prisons built for foreign nationals, the expansion of immigration detention with its full range of penal harms—loss of liberty, loss of autonomy, loss of self-determination, loss of security-- imposed on those who have not committed a crime (Bosworth 2014). We see the policing of belonging at the border and in the city center as the domestic police are now tasked with migration controls. This shift conflates crime control with national security as people on the move claiming rights are now perceived as potential threats and risks. And as if we had returned to the 19th century, we see the policing of the poor and mass eviction of Romani people from the wealthiest countries in Europe because they can. Penal power is being mobilized to legitimate the management, punishment, and expulsion of people deemed unwanted or unworthy.

I develop these arguments in more detail in a new book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State and in a 2017 Theoretical Criminology article “Penal Power at the Border.”  It is here I advance the concept of “penal nationalism” (also see Haney 2016) to capture the merger of national interests with penal power, which is especially acute and visible when it comes to contemporary migration control. In the Swedish context, I show how penal power is used to uphold national interests, national identity, and national resources and how these factors all revolve around the ultimate goal: welfare state preservation for members only. Penal power is used to maintain the solvency of the welfare state not as a substitute for it (as often assumed in the literature). For example, rather than provide shelter to homeless EU citizens such as the Roma, the government deploys public order policing to speed their eviction and removal from the territory. “Foreign beggars” have no claim to public benefits and are instead perceived as drains on resources. This kind of power is deployed not in the absence of a safety net but rather to protect it from outsiders. Migration policy is based on the logic of “sustainability” which depends on managing the numbers. Those deemed in excess are exposed to an excess of policing, detention, deportation, and removal.

The Nordic welfare state has been held up as a universalist and inclusionary project, moderating penal power and providing a strong social safety net. Yet, at its core, it is a nationalized project for nationals. The welfare state is a national insurance program for productive contributors, not for interlopers or free riders. Security, equality, and inclusion are public goods reserved for members. Penal power is mobilized to protect the bubble. It is a form of welfare chauvinism backed by force. When these material and symbolic resources are under perceived threat, the state will rely on its soft and hard power to uphold them. It is not a solidarity project for global social justice. Nonmembers, noncitizens, foreign nationals, ethnic minorities, racialized social groups, and those deemed unproductive such as the long-term unemployed are more vulnerable to the full force of exclusion.

These developments, particularly as they depend on penal power, have serious implications for how we understand key principles of European penality and Nordic exceptionalism. Since the postwar period, European penality, in contrast to the USA, was based in on a restrictive logic that prioritized human dignity, inclusion, and viewed the prison as a last resort (van Zyl Smit and Snacken 2009). By contrast, penal nationalism, like border criminology (Aas and Bosworth 2013), is based on an expansive logic that increases reliance on repressive tools, institutions and practices, and they are inherently inhumane. Taking away liberty from a person who has not committed a crime is one of the most serious violations any democratic country can commit against an individual and this practice is becoming routine in immigration control. Taking away self-determination, the right to seek asylum or the right to be free subverts the principle of human dignity, not only for the individual but for all of us.

Finally, the growing reliance on penal power to respond to unwanted mobility challenges Nordic exceptionalism to its core. As Nordic penal regimes focus resources, staff, and concepts of justice on perceived others and outsiders, subjecting them to increased criminalization, penalization and expulsion, we need to rethink the site, scale and character of these regimes. The imposition of penal excess on foreign nationals, nonmembers, and those who are ethnically and racially marginalized, does not exist in a vacuum or separate sphere. This “penal selectivity” as Alessandro de Giorgi (2010) would say, provides a more accurate measure of penal power than imprisonment levels or supposed humanness.  Sweden expels more people per capita than the USA or Britain (Weber 2015). And as Victoria Canning (2018) has argued, just because the Swedish detention staff are nice and bake cake with detainees does not negate their coercive power or prevent them from carrying out their main goal: removal from the territory. These penal harms are not exceptions within an exceptional regime. Sweden has used its raw power against some of the least powerful people and done so with impunity. Is this the penal model other democratic countries should aspire? Rather than look for best practices within an existing criminal justice system, perhaps it is best to tear it down.  




Aas, KL and Bosworth, M (eds.) (2013) Borders of Punishment: Citizenship, Crime Control and Social Exclusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aas, K.F. (2014) Bordered Penality: Precarious membership and abnormal justice. Punishment & Society 16 (5): 520-541

Barker, V. (2017) Penal Power at the Border: Realigning State and Nation. Theoretical Criminology 21 (4): 441-457.

Barker, V. (2018) Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Bosworth, M. (2014) Inside Immigration Detention. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Canning, V. (2018) Supporting Sanctuary: Addressing Harms in British, Danish and Swedish Asylum Systems. ESRC Research Report, London: Calverts Publishing. 

De Giorgi, A. (2010) Immigration control, post-Fordism, and less eligibility: A materialist critique of the criminalization of immigration across Europe. Punishment & Society 12: 147-167.

Haney, L.  (2016) Prisons of the past: Penal nationalism and the politics of punishment in Central Europe. Punishment & Society 18 (3): 346-368.

Kaufman, E. (2015) Punish & Expel: Border Control, Nationalism and the New Purpose of the Prison. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Zyl Smit, D. and Snacken, S. (2009) Principles of European Prison Law and Policy: Penology and Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weber, L. (2015) Deciphering deportation practices across the Global North. In: Pickering, S. and Ham, J. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook on Crime and International Migration. Abingdon: Routledge.


Vanessa Barker is Docent and Associate Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University and Associate Director of Border Criminologies. Her research focuses on questions of democracy and penal order, the welfare state and border control, the criminalization and penalization of migrants, and the role of civil society in penal reform. Her new book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State examines the border closing in Sweden during the height of the refugee crisis and the rise of penal nationalism in response to mass mobility.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Barker, V., (2018) Penal Nationalism. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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