Capital Punishment as a Populist Discourse of Violence: The Jamaican Case


Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962.  After almost a decade of “democratic socialist” experimentation in the 1970s, it was made a “model state” for Reaganism and neoliberalism in the Caribbean and Central America during the 1980s, having already undergone an IMF structural adjustment program in 1977.  As a result of economic and political turmoil in the 1970s and the 1980s, the lower segments of the population have remained largely deprived of social security and economic prospects, and the country has faced a rising level of violence linked to poverty, politics, and crime.  It was calculated that 15,891 Jamaicans have died due to violence since 1989.1

The problem of violence is strongly intertwined with the controversy over the death penalty in Jamaica.  The state has not been able to implement executions since 1988, when a binding Privy Council decisionmade all prisoners who had been under sentence of death for five years or more eligible for commutation.2   However, public support for the death penalty is very high (up to 80% according to various surveys).  The issue of violent crime is deemed the number one cause of public concern in Jamaica, since the state fails to guarantee the right of its people to live in peace and free from fear.  The escalation of violence legitimates “iron fist” policies and harsh forms of punishment in the public eye.  At the same time, the proliferation and banalization of violence, especially killing, obstructs the perception of capital punishment as a “cruel and unusual punishment,” the main argument of the abolitionist movement.

The faculty of dealing death or granting mercy is an expression of a position of dominance.  According to Max Weber, the monopoly of legitimate physical force is the essence of the modern state.  The representatives of a state may know that the death penalty is actually useless and unfair but still regard killing a small number of individuals who are declared murderers by judiciary procedures as useful for the purpose of affirming the state’s position of dominance, and therefore control, over society.  By exercising a limited amount of controlled violence, the state may effectively reinforce the consensus of a large part of the population among whom the desire to see the state’s power and feel its protection is widespread.  This is the essence of the death penalty as a symbolic act.

Jamaica is a young democracy, rocked by a permanent inner discourse of war and the terror of a drift towards a bellum omnium contra omnes.  To carry out death sentences is imagined to be a powerful means to push back the demon of violence under the sovereignty of law, so the state’s inability to do so is perceived to breach the social contract between it and citizens.

The attitudes of the people in Jamaica are also correlated to the generalized attitudes of a neoliberal, market-driven society: competitive individualism and consumerism, micro-scale counterparts of globalized neoliberalism, are two characteristics of the contemporary Jamaican society.  In this kind of socio-economic context, capital punishment becomes, according to authors like Carel Mohn,3 a politically manipulated discourse, used to satisfy deep socio-psychological needs, in particular the people’s longing for order and security.  As Jonathan Simon argues, the normal aspiration of people for order and security has been frustrated by neoliberal economic policies in the last several decades, which have left families and individuals increasingly alone in the struggle for survival and more exposed to the risks of existence.  In the neoliberal “risk society,” which is anxiogenic by axiom, the ruling elites have found a way to canalize social anxiety in the formula of “governing through crime,” in which the death penalty plays a key role.4

In the perspective of neoliberal capitalism, the risk of economic victimization is regarded as acceptable and even “stimulating,” but the risk of criminal victimization is considered as unacceptable.  The state withdraws from the protective role of the “social state” in many crucial aspects of existence but takes charge to punish acts of crime with utmost severity.  The execution becomes in this context an opium of retributive violence, administered by the state, that gives the population an impression of justice and security within a socio-economic context in which both are in fact scarce.

This strategy may be part of what Trutz von Trotha calls the “Preventive Security Order” (PSO).5  It is an order characterized by a high degree of privatization and commercialization of security at the community level and general fragmentation of the monopoly of power.  The right of citizens to protection and the correspondent duty of the state to guarantee it is here replaced by the demand of consumers for security, which has to be satisfied by security contractors operating in the free market: “equal security for all those who can afford it.”  Poor communities, where people are not in the condition to purchase protection in the security market, face the other side of privatization, namely the return to violent self-help and the surrender to local “entrepreneurs of violence” as surrogate power monopolists.

Under the PSO, in which the state mostly retreats from territorial control both in rich and poor communities, the public authorities are still supposed to be competent for the control of “hardcore” crimes, by any means necessary: special squads, undercover agents, anti-terror operations, high-security prisons, death rows, and executions.  It is in this context of post-welfare-state society where the death penalty discourse becomes “populist,” aimed at creating a vertical consensus between different social classes and political forces when the institutions of the state enjoy little legitimacy.  It seeks to provide a way to vent the people’s frustration and to limit, at least partially, the anti-systemic potential of anger at the situation of permanent insecurity created by neoliberal policies of deregulation.


1  Aram Ziai cites the structural adjustment programs in Jamaica as an example of “structural violence in the neoliberal discourse” that can be held responsible for the increase in crime and violence: “Entwicklung, Neoliberalismus und Migration als Diskurse der Gewalt,” in: Michael Schultze (Ed.) (2005): Diskurse der Gewalt – Gewalt der Diskurse, p. 104-105.  Lang: Frankfurt am Main.  See also Robert O’Brien and Marc Williams (2004): Global Political Economy, p. 239.  Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York.


2  JCPC (1993): Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan v. Attorney General for Jamaica, et al., Appeal 10/1993, November 02, 1993. London.


3  Boulanger, Christian (Ed.) (1997): Zur Aktualität der Todesstrafe: interdisziplinäre Beiträge gegen eine unmenschliche, grausame und erniedrigende Strafe,   p. 121-160.  Berlin Verlag Spitz: Berlin.

4  Simon, Jonathan (1997): “Gewalt, Rache und Risiko. Die Todesstrafe im neoliberalen Staat,” in: Trutz von Trota (Ed.): Soziologie der Gewalt,   p. 279-301.  Westdeutscher Verlag: Opladen/Wiesbaden.


5  Trotha, Trutz von (2003): Die präventive Sicherheitsordnung, in: Ruf, Werner (Ed.): Politische Ökonomie der Gewalt, p. 51-75.  Leske und Budrich: Opladen.


Amnesty International (2002): “State Killing in the English Speaking Caribbean: A Legacy of Colonial Times.”   AI Index: AMR 05/003/2002

Beck, Ulrich (2003 [1986]): Risikogesellschaft: auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne.   Suhrkamp:Frankfurt am Main.

Boulanger, Christian (Ed.) (1997): Zur Aktualität der Todesstrafe: interdisziplinäre Beiträge gegen eine unmenschliche, grausame und erniedrigende Strafe.   Berlin Verlag Spitz: Berlin.

Fraser, H. A., et al. (1981): Report of the Committee to Consider Death as a Penalty in Jamaica.  Kingston.

Funk, Albrecht (2002): “Staatliches Gewaltmonopol und Kriminalpolitik.”  In: Heitmeyer, Wilhelm; and Hagan, John: Internationales Handbuch der Gewaltforschung, p.1315-1338.  Westdeutscher Verlag:Wiesbaden.

Hardisty, Max (2005): Internship Report.  In: Centre for Capital Punishment Studies: Internship Reports 2005.   University of Westminster: Westminster.

Harriott, Anthony (Ed.) (2003): Understanding Crime in Jamaica. UWI Press: Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago.

Hood, Roger (2002): The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective.   Oxford University Press: NewYork.

Human Rights Watch (2001): “Jamaica: Investigate Police and Military Killings.”   Human RightsNews, 7 December, 2001.

Nettleford, Rex (Ed.) (1989): Jamaica in Independence: Essays on the Early Years.   Heineman Publishers (Caribbean) Limited: Kingston, London.

O’Brien, Robert, and Williams, Marc (2004): Global Political Economy: Evolution and Dynamics.   Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York.

Ruf, Werner (Ed.) (2003): Politische Ökonomie der Gewalt.   Leske und Budrich: Opladen.

Tafari-Ama, Imami M. (2006): Blood, Bullets and Bodies: Sexual Politics below the Poverty Line.  UWI Press: Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago.

Trotha, Trutz von (Ed.) (1997): Soziologie der Gewalt.   Westdeutscher Verlag:Opladen/Wiesbaden.

World Bank (2003): Jamaica: The Road to Sustained Growth.   Country Economic Memorandum, Report No. 26088-JM, December 4, 2003.

Matteo Elis Landricina is a graduate of the Peace and Conflict Master of Arts Program of the Philipps-Universitaet in Marburg (Germany).  He spent various months in Kingston working as an intern for the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights.   His Master’s Thesis, “The Death Penalty and the Violence Issue in Jamaica,” is downloadable at the following address: <>. 

| Print