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The McDonaldized Death Penalty: Neoliberalism, Governmentality, and American Capital Punishment by Ryan Phillips

The article “The McDonaldized Death Penalty: Neoliberalism, Governmentality, and American Capital Punishment” was written by Ryan Phillips (Phillips, 2017). The author stated that extensive literature examines the modern era (1976-present day) of American capital punishment.

He first explained the historical overview of American capital punishment. Some have focused on why the institution persists despite its abolition from the rest of the Western world. Some argue that judicial rationalization of capital law has helped to legitimize and thus sustain the modern death penalty. However, no work attempts to understand capital punishment or its persistence in America in regard to neoliberalism. To address this void in understanding, the author conceptualizes Ritzer’s four tenets of McDonaldization (predictability, calculability, efficiency, control) (Ritzer, 2009) as a representation of market rationality, which neoliberalism seeks to insert into various societal spheres (including a penalty). The author further examines modern developments in capital punishment in the United States through the contextual framework of McDonaldization to understand how McDonaldization has served to legitimize the institution.

Rayan (the author) described the brief history of Neoliberalism by using some relevant sources of Harvey (Schwarzmantel, 2007), which, as the name suggests, accounts for the spread of neoliberalism around the globe, as well as why and how it is implemented. Also discusses the theoretical side of neoliberalism and how it compares to its actual implementation in practice, pointing out certain contradictions between the two. Also included along with the discussion on neoliberalism will be one concerning classical liberalism. This is important because, as we will see, the former borrows much of its ideology from the latter. While one does not necessarily have to be versed in classical liberalism to grasp neoliberalism, it certainly helps to understand where neoliberalism comes from in order to understand its underlying assumptions and motives.

According to the author, most of the previous literature was focused on the history of the institution, rationalization of the death penalty, and the legitimating effects that come from it. Despite all that has been written, no one has applied the concept of McDonaldization, or more broadly neoliberal theory, as a contextual, theoretical framework for understanding modern capital punishment in the United States. McDonaldization is the process by which the principles of fast-food restaurants are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.

The author will further fill the gap that he argues exists by applying the four tenets of McDonaldization to the institution of modern American capital punishment. He draws on the work of Ritzer to first establish the bounds of McDonaldization, which, as he demonstrates, is pervasive in numerous areas of society. He will then explore both capital jurisprudence and administration during the modern era to show that McDonaldization is a useful heuristic for expanding upon the current understanding of the American death penalty. Ritzer’s concept of “the irrationality of rationality” will also be used to explore some of the issues that plague modern capital punishment. Specifically, in the irrationality section, he will analyze the problems, or “irrationalities,” that have inevitably resulted from rationalization.

The importance of his analysis can help in understanding the issues that surround modern capital punishment, as well as how capital punishment is legitimated. His analysis offers a new way to expand the current knowledge base that surrounds the death penalty. McDonaldization can provide a better understanding of the issues within capital punishment through the irrationality of rationality. We have no reason to think any differently about the McDonaldized death penalty. Assuming the death penalty continues on in America, we can be sure it will not “DeMcDonaldize” and revert to an earlier state. Rather, it is much more likely that the iron cage will close around it even more, with more complex technical regulation and rationalization. This is not to say that McDonaldization has not changed.


Phillips, R. (2017). The McDonaldized Death Penalty: Neoliberalism, Governmentality, and American Capital Punishment. Eastern Kentucky University.

Ritzer, G. (2009). McDonaldization: the reader. Pine Forge Press.

Schwarzmantel, J. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Springer.



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