Vol. 32 No. 6 (June 2022) pp. 76-78

Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2021. pp. 480. Hardcover $34.95. ISBN: 9780262045629.

Reviewed by Katheryne Pugliese, Department of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Email:

Human behavior has settled down over the past millennium. This sweeping observation opens the argument in Peter Baldwin’s new book entitled COMMAND AND PERSUADE: CRIME, LAW, AND THE STATE ACROSS HISTORY. We are living in what Baldwin describes as, “a world that is by any measure better ordered, less violent, and more peaceful than any in human history” (p. 1). Yet, crime itself has increased as disorderly criminal behavior has been more restricted by the state and the public has become more involved in maintaining order. This concept is by no means novel. Steven Pinker (2011) popularized this idea most recently in his book entitled THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED, noting the immense role state power plays in conjunction with decreases in war and terrorism. Drawing from this popularized observation, Baldwin argues that the changes in politics and crime control are caused primarily by shifts in public attitudes and socialization towards crime control, which gave way to the growth of the powerful state we know today.

Baldwin makes the ambitious effort to illuminate the long-ranging global shift in law, crime, and public order over three millennia. He provides a thorough exploration of Common Era history while also recognizing the contradictions and complexities that are inherent to human behavior. not only a comprehensive exploration. In doing this, he breaks down even the simplest definitions and logic behind his arguments and demystifies the construction of modern legal systems. To communicate these ideas in terms of crime and politics, Baldwin writes with two goals in mind. First, he identifies global ideological shifts around the issue of crime and punishment. Secondly, he provides specific examples of how this phenomenon unfolds. As a result, this work reads like two books: the first aiming to meld ideology with observable patterns in crime and the second providing descriptions and explanations of crime and punishment in a historical context. The attempt to merge global shifts with specific changes in national or regional policy scatters the focus of this text, at times, and may overwhelm the casual reader.

Baldwin argues that the power of the state developed in three main stages. First, the separation of religion and state left a gap in crime control into which the state did not quickly occupy. Religion served as crime control before state law took over. In addition, Baldwin argues that in all religious law enforcement, both polytheistic and monotheistic, there were problems with control strategy. Baldwin then explains the significance of secularism, drawing particularly from Western Europe and the fall of the monarchy. Notably, he points out the challenges Western-Europe faced following the fall of the monarchy in the early 19th century because state power did not immediately replace religious control.

Without a singular governing entity that previously relied on religious punishment, state power struggled with managing large populations. This argument leads to the second major stage in the strength of state power in Chapter 3: the public coming to understand crime as an offense against the community, rather than simply a threat to state leadership. The public, therefore, became the primary crime control mechanism. This shift, Baldwin argues, is perhaps the most “important conceptual breakthrough in law’s development” (p. 59) because it recognizes that the slow rise of state power started in the public domain . The emphasis that Baldwin places on the void of crime control following the weakening of organized religion provides a commendable reconceptualization of Foucault’s central argument in DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH. Foucault observed that shifts in public sentiment away from torture gave rise to a rapid increase in state power, but only when the Enlightenment-era state apparatus turned to “the gentle way of punishment” via surveillance and control of “the soul” (p. 82). However, Baldwin’s reading of this shift differs from Foucault’s. He emphasizes the framing of crime as “a tear in the communal fabric” and the state serving as “society’s most plausible representative,” explaining that the state only forged its power over crime with the approval of the public (p. 57). Not only does this provide a clearer understanding of how the state reached such formidable power, but it explains how, after many years, it has been able to maintain its power.

Finally, Baldwin asserts that the public grew to support the state as a crime-fighter which allowed the government to assume a monopoly over the criminal justice process. This argument is not unlike other criminological and sociological frameworks about penal populism. Penal populism refers to the state’s inclusion of public opinion in crime and punishment, specifically when the public is harsh and judgmental. Criminal justice and sociological scholars like Foucault (1975), Garland (2012) and Bottoms (1995) have developed this concept. Penal populism would no doubt provide important elaboration on Baldwin’s argument to show the public’s crucial role in molding the aims of state power.

In the second half of the text, Baldwin navigates major themes of criminal justice to elaborate on how exactly these stages occurred within the justice system. First, he explores the reconceptualization of a state ruler through the changing definition of treason. Baldwin argues that treason as a crime against the state became obsolete alongside the decline of a divine monarch. Therefore, as the state power grew as a system within the public, it became almost absurd that an individual could puncture its power.

To explain the enormity of this power, Baldwin identifies punishment as the powerful, yet subtle, indicator by which the state rules. With citizens becoming increasingly involved in crime control, retributive punishment seemed to emerge naturally as a dominant rationale for punishment, supplanting the preventive strategies of the Enlightenment. Yet, Baldwin argues that caps on punishment were also crucial to maintaining the state’s control, forcing the people to stay loyal rather than resentful.

Without a doubt, the citizens’ role in the emergence of punishment modalities is important. However, Baldwin gives surprisingly brief consideration to the significance of policing within the evolution of the state and the public involvement in crime. In chapter 12, Baldwin tacks on a description of the emergence of policing as a system of control. He notes that Enlightenment thinkers resisted policing, hoping that the state would “maintain order but not otherwise use its police powers to regulate the particulars of civil society” (p. 251). Yet, the public police became a crucial element of modern legal society. For example, there was a general understanding that “police and citizenry needed each other” where citizens were expected to cooperate with this state power and “self-policing” of each other was key for a successful state system (pp. 254-255). Given the current rise in public criticism of policing and vigilantism, a more integrated policing section into earlier chapters would have helped connect this book to current affairs. In addition, earlier discussions of policing would have built upon previous arguments on the importance of community within crime control.

Baldwin’s ambitious all-encompassing view of the emergence of the penal state at the international level is both informative and digestible. However, decisions on the organization and emphasis of certain themes makes this read somewhat jumpy. The division between historical observation and explanations of criminal justice trends is somewhat disjointed. To make this work more cohesive, there should be more focus on melding these concepts by presenting central arguments alongside the trends in criminal justice systems. Perhaps the scope of this book could have been limited to a deep examination of only one branch of crime control, rather than attempting to cover law, punishment, and policing into one read. Finally, Baldwin concludes this work by referring to current affairs, but does not reflect much on how the historical trends he has so comprehensively covered can give us insight into the current political climate in criminal justice.


This review was completed in conjunction with Professor Candace McCoy’s course on Punishment and Society at John Jay College.


Bottoms, Anthony. E. (1995) The Philosophy and Politics of Punishment and Sentencing in THE POLITICS OF SENTENCING REFORM. Clarkson, C. and Morgan, R. (eEds.) Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: THE BIRTH OF THE PRISON. New York: Pantheon Books.

Garland, David W. (2001). Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society CULTURE OF CONTROL: CRIME AND SOCIAL ORDER IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


© Copyright 2022 by author, Katheryne Pugliese.