The phrases, “essential businesses” and “essential jobs,” emerged at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, raising questions about and reflecting concerns over which goods, services, and workers were necessary to prevent societal collapse. In an attempt to continue to probe “essentiality,” this article coins the term “essential crimes” to refer to those socially injurious acts and omissions that are part and parcel of a global neoliberal capitalist order, and that are, therefore, vital to keep the socioeconomic system running. In other words, if keeping humans alive in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic required supermarkets and hospitals to remain open (“essential business and jobs”), maintaining the existing socioeconomic system and ensuring that the powerful remained powerful required harmful acts and omissions by states and corporations—what we refer to as “essential crimes.” This article sheds light on how the COVID-19 pandemic has helped illuminate just how essential these crimes and harms are to the perpetuation of the status quo by the powerful. In addition, this article encourages us to consider which punishments, if any, are vital to a well-ordered society, and it demands that we rethink whether prison is an “essential punishment” for ensuring public safety.
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Essential Crimes? Essential Punishments? Rethinking Essentiality in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic
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