Anti-capitalism, internal war, and the state
In light (but not in direct response) to some of the concerns about police brutality during the Occupy Wall Street protests, it really is remarkable how much anti-capitalist protests have changed since their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – as well as the way the so-called establishment has responded to them. Nicholas Spykman, in America’s Strategy in World Politics, notes:
Intramural gang warfare has long been tolerated as a by-product of the exuberance of urban life, and strong-arm methods have been accepted as necessary inspirational aids in city elections. The importance of physical violence in labor conflicts and in the “non-existent” class struggle is attested to by the existence of a flourishing armaments industry making tear gas bombs and other equipment and the availability of mercenary infantry for any union or employer who can afford the price. Law and fact in regard to the monopoly of violence seem to vary almost as much as law and fact in regard to other monopolies.
It’s worth noting that for all the concern about the militarization of police in the United States, this was the natural outgrowth of attempts by the United States government, at local, state, and federal levels, to rectify this state of affairs. Spykman, who was writing in 1942, was already past the zenith of the agonistic labor disputes, but it is still notable how different things once were.
Before there were militarized police in the United States, we had the actual military fulfilling a much broader range of policing roles – and before that, there was deference to the “mercenary armies” such as the Pinkertons, as well as state militias and other unaccountable security forces. Despite the fits of paranoia and outrage that the tasking of the 1st Brigade Combat Team to the 3rd Infantry Division often elicits, this was not always the way in which federal military intervention in domestic political disorder was viewed.
In fact, it was not fear of federal abuse of power which prompted fear about the use of military in domestic disputes, it was fear of the state governments, which tended to be more overzealous in their suppression of local protests, riots, and strikes. Indeed, it takes only an examination of the Ludlow Massacre to see why state and local governments, generally much further in thrall to the interests of employers and capital generally, were considered far more brutal than federal troops. When Federals arrived, they were generally far more neutral and sought to disarm the sides to reinstitute the government monopoly on force.
The US desire not to have an actual military or paramilitary police force, along the lines of European states, is partially responsible for the massive growth in the power of civilian law enforcement agencies and the decline of informal state militias, mercenary outfits like the Pinkerton or the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agencies. If you think security contractors are out of hand nowadays, consider the conduct of Baldwin-Felts. This was a private security firm which, after engaging in a gunfight in West Virginia, murdered a town’s police commissioner and his friend in a courthouse in front of their wives. They also took part in the aforementioned Ludlow Massacre, which included an armored car mounted with a Colt-Browning machine gun. Let’s not also forget that private associations were also able to contract bombers with tear gas and fragmentation bombs during the Battle of Blair Mountain.
It’s open to debate how effective the coal miners and their many battles with employers and local, state, and federal governments were in contributing to the later labor victories during the Roosevelt administration – certainly I am not an expert on any of these subjects. They are worth ruminating on, though, because as Adam Elkus notes, the downside of the “new frontier” in conflict may be the resurgence of violent, antagonistic anti-establishment actions, this time in an urban context.
Despite the seeming impunity with which the police in the US often operate, it is incredibly misleading to describe the US as a police state. This is owed not simply to legal protections, but to the actual tools presently available to the United States for domestic security. The primacy of highly professionalized state and local law enforcement rather than forces with a broader mandate encompassing intelligence, counter-intelligence, and national security as an ever-present factor in US life, is why we are not a police state. After all, this is perhaps the only country in the world where the Department of the Interior does not refer to a massive domestic security apparatus.
It will be interesting to see, as budget cuts loom and the potential for local unrest grows, what effect they will have on cash-strapped local governments to maintain the present posture of law enforcement agencies. While the almost vigilante efforts of government-sanctioned militias seem unlikely to recur, the possibility of a larger role for state or federal armed forces in local law enforcement, or the resurgence of private security contractors, are all significant possibilities. Pessimistically speaking, there may come a day when citizens look back in nostalgia to the era of massive and powerful law enforcement entities such as the LAPD and NYPD.