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Anti-capitalism, internal war, and the state

October 2, 2011

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 12:59 am

    To an extent this is picking a fight, but you tend to be very perceptive, which is why this is pretty bothersome.

    “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.”

    I think it’s pretty clear and indisputable that American police forces have been encouraged to and have taken to heart the idea that they are front-line forces in the war to protect national security… and this is four citations out of a possible 4,000:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/how-the-war-on-terror-has-militarized-the-police/248047/
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/12/police-militarization-9-11-september-11_n_955508.html
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-lawyer-warns-of-militarized-approach-to-counterterrorism/2011/10/18/gIQAfbnjvL_story.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/nypd-cia-terrorism_n_960135.html

    (And I apologize for the Huffington Post double-citation, but Radley Balko working there isn’t my fault.)

    At any rate… the presence of forces with an ever-broader mandate “encompassing intelligence, counter-intelligence, and national security” is an evident reality of our present life. To argue that this isn’t happening seems very difficult.

    So with that in mind – if this paragraph doesn’t hold up, do you think that hurts your argument?

    • November 16, 2011 1:20 am

      Well, I think a lot of the “militarization of the police” arguments are just flat out wrong in their historical accounts, as well as in their understanding of what being a “police state” actually means. The idea that 9/11 introduced very much that was radically new in policing doesn’t hold up to empirical scrutiny. For example, the “militarized” SWAT team trends began during the 1970s and 1980s during the war on drugs. The increasing prevalence of military style weapons began in the late ’80s and ’90s due to events such as the 1986 Miami shootout and the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery. As far as local law enforcement goes, no, your local police force is generally not acting as a tentacle of DHS. Will it use terrorism as an excuse to suckle at its teat and prosecute crimes it would have had more difficulty dealing with than previously? Absolutely. This does not a police state make. Even the Patriot Act was just a granting of powers the FBI wished it had previously. Yet the FBI has not stepped into the roles of local policing or even returned to COINTELPRO levels of domestic intelligence gathering or political influence operations.

      And no, the FBI and CIA have not supplanted your local law enforcement. NYPD is the closest example, but even then the fact they have to reach out to the CIA is very obvious. There is no equivalent to the “interior ministry” in American politics. The DHS is just an agglomeration of different organizations that generally work terribly with each other and all have varied, if sometimes overlapping, mandates.

      Even if, within a local polity, a police force takes on CT and intelligence gathering duties (of which the NYPD is the closest example, the other arguments are pretty weak), that does not a police state make. There is still no organization equivalent to the federal-level internal security of a “police state,” and certainly no organization with the scope and resources mandated on a general basis as such. The NYPD is not a tentacle of the federal government, there is no DHS-coordinated plan for social control at the working level, or DHS authority over the NYPD or any other local police force at the local or state level on anything similar to actual police states abroad.

      So most of the arguments you cite do not advance the point that America is developing anything like an “Interior Ministry” that is quite common among most non-police states with more centralized law enforcement, let alone a genuine police state. We could also make the point that such an entity, even if it existed, would have to be engaged in a far greater degree of social control and involvement in politics for it to be a genuine police state (again, a police state would have something like COINTELPRO but be much more aggressive). Despite all their newfound resources and legal abilities, the American “police state” is still by and large concerned with relatively narrowly-circumscribed duties of law enforcement, counternarcotics, and counterterrorism, with intelligence oriented around these categories.

      If there was evidence the federal government was actively subverting local authority over city and state law enforcement to gather intelligence and translate that into attempts to influence local politics, that would be more like it. Yet we don’t even have Britain’s culture of constant, public (not just warranted!) surveillance, France’s (or Spain or Italy’s) gendarmeries, or Brazil’s hyper-miltarized BOPE – and I would not describe any of those countries as police states. So I’m not holding my breath.

  2. November 16, 2011 2:06 am

    First, and most importantly – saying that we have methods that substantively resemble a police state and embody a police state mentality doesn’t mean we *are* a police state. If the only argument is that we are or aren’t a police state, I admit, you’re right – we aren’t yet a police state. I also think it’s not the point. And as my point made, I think your definition of a police state seems to allow for what we’re currently living in without paying it the slightest criticism.

    Second, of course the war on drugs had no relation to 9/11. But it has nicely corresponded since in methods of response. Moreover, arguing that innovations of the 1970s-1990s introduced police state measures doesn’t make them not police state measures. It makes them, rather, the forerunner of what we’re currently contending with.

    “As far as local law enforcement goes, no, your local police force is generally not acting as a tentacle of DHS.”
    Actually, the federal government would love that to be the case, and local law enforcement hasn’t rejected that posture. Fusion centers run through DHS are explicitly premised around the idea that local law enforcement’s objective should be to act as a surveillance and enforcement arm for federal anti-terrorism concerns:
    http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1156877184684.shtm

    “Will it use terrorism as an excuse to suckle at its teat and prosecute crimes it would have had more difficulty dealing with than previously? Absolutely. This does not a police state make. Even the Patriot Act was just a granting of powers the FBI wished it had previously. Yet the FBI has not stepped into the roles of local policing or even returned to COINTELPRO levels of domestic intelligence gathering or political influence operations.”

    So… there are incentives for local law enforcement to play up terrorism, the Patriot Act legalizes certain things, and the FBI expressly disclaims its influence on local policing? Ignoring that arguing the FBI has no stepped-up role in domestic intelligence gathering post-9/11 (which solely rests on the CIA having that role), I don’t see any coherent argument here. If the Patriot Act were to expressly sanction police-state behavior, I’m sure that would make us a police state; if it doesn’t, why? And beyond that, why does local law enforcement’s attitudes toward federal policy matter when the incentives all point in one direction?

    “And no, the FBI and CIA have not supplanted your local law enforcement. NYPD is the closest example, but even then the fact they have to reach out to the CIA is very obvious. There is no equivalent to the “interior ministry” in American politics. The DHS is just an agglomeration of different organizations that generally work terribly with each other and all have varied, if sometimes overlapping, mandates.”

    I don’t think that the failure of the FBI & CIA to circumvent local law enforcement has any relevance to this discussion. The issues seem to be (1) powers of the FBI & CIA (2) attitudes/powers of local law enforcement. Re: (1), those powers have increased incredibly. Re: (2), those powers have increased a great deal, and the attitude increasingly is that those in charge of local enforcement are playing the same role as (1). That’s been encouraged for obvious reasons. Beat cops are more likely to deter terrorism if they think they’re the front lines of the war against terrorism. There’s nothing pernicious to that. And it’s precisely the lack of immediate moral consternation re: thinking of yourself as a terrorist-hunter that makes for abuses & proliferation of police power. No politically powerful incentives run the opposite direction.

    “Even if, within a local polity, a police force takes on CT and intelligence gathering duties (of which the NYPD is the closest example, the other arguments are pretty weak), that does not a police state make. There is still no organization equivalent to the federal-level internal security of a “police state,” and certainly no organization with the scope and resources mandated on a general basis as such. The NYPD is not a tentacle of the federal government, there is no DHS-coordinated plan for social control at the working level, or DHS authority over the NYPD or any other local police force at the local or state level on anything similar to actual police states abroad.”

    Technical definitions of whether we reach “police state” status do seem to obscure the overall context, a great deal. “Police state” isn’t a line that we are supposed to be able to skirt as much as possible and avoid on technicalities. It’s supposed to be anathema to everything we do and embody as a democratic society.

    Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that when local forces take on CT and intelligence-gathering duties they become held to the same standards as federal law-enforcement agencies, at a minimum. Which probably means they’re held to laws. Which the NYPD, the leading example, and arguably the leading example because it’s received the most scrutiny, seem determined to break.

    No argument about the adoption of and encouragement of adopting federal tactics by local forces, when backed by federal resources, necessitates believing the lines between federal and state action have broken down. These things don’t operate in the manner of conspiracy theories, and it’s precisely because I believe the federal government isn’t unilateral or all-powerful that I bring up these concerns. It reflects broader social acceptance and it reflects local decision-making that the federal government may abet, encourage, or otherwise allow without willfully or overtly encouraging.

    “So most of the arguments you cite do not advance the point that America is developing anything like an “Interior Ministry” that is quite common among most non-police states with more centralized law enforcement, let alone a genuine police state. We could also make the point that such an entity, even if it existed, would have to be engaged in a far greater degree of social control and involvement in politics for it to be a genuine police state (again, a police state would have something like COINTELPRO but be much more aggressive). Despite all their newfound resources and legal abilities, the American “police state” is still by and large concerned with relatively narrowly-circumscribed duties of law enforcement, counternarcotics, and counterterrorism, with intelligence oriented around these categories.”

    We are, in fact, not developing an Interior Ministry. I don’t see why this means anything. We might be developing something else that seems rather unsavory. Its merits or lack thereof are independent of its resemblance to the worst imaginable dystopias.

    “If there was evidence the federal government was actively subverting local authority over city and state law enforcement to gather intelligence and translate that into attempts to influence local politics, that would be more like it. Yet we don’t even have Britain’s culture of constant, public (not just warranted!) surveillance, France’s (or Spain or Italy’s) gendarmeries, or Brazil’s hyper-miltarized BOPE – and I would not describe any of those countries as police states. So I’m not holding my breath.”

    Again, the idea that we need to be a “police state” in order to allow criticism to be valid seems silly. We aren’t communist, yet we seem averse to socialism; we aren’t Ayn Rand’s utopia, yet the regulatory forces seem to have made a point. Doctrinally defining us as “not a police state” and ignoring actual effects seems misguided, to say the least.

    At a minimum, I’d like to see an acknowledgement that American restraint in the face of (a) crude popular will (b) feasible capacities & (c) awful historical antecedents, such that we aren’t doctrinally or practically identical to what we view as bad places from bad times, doesn’t equate to us doing the best we can. Put bluntly, our failure to conform to categorical definitions of tyranny isn’t the be-all-end-all determination of whether we are, in fact, tyrannical.

    • November 16, 2011 2:43 am

      I think there are valid criticisms to be made on the issues of the waste of resources, the lack of coordination, the unsound methods and the overstepping of the law, sure. But none of these to me indicate we are even heading in the direction of a “police state” in any meaningful capacity. I think we can have that discussion without bringing in that term, just as we should be able to talk about economics without crying “socialism!”

      I never said we’re doing the best we can. However I don’t think it’s productive to throw out terms with real meaning like “socialism,” “fascism,” “isolationism” just to open policies up to criticism. That’s unnecessary and distracting.

      The trend I described as not occurring is still not, in fact, occurring. Your strongest example here of federal interference in local law enforcement is with the “fusion centers,” but even then they have been narrowly focused around terrorism rather than an expansive definition of political crimes as we see saw in COINTELPRO.

      There are plenty of valid criticisms of the US law enforcement apparatus, as I said above. None of them end in “because [X] is turning America into a police state,” That’s not happening. Waste of resources? Sure. Overstepping the law? Yes. But none of these trendlines end in “police state” by any reasonable projection of the trend or definition of the term, the term ought not be used.

      “Technical definitions of whether we reach “police state” status do seem to obscure the overall context, a great deal. “Police state” isn’t a line that we are supposed to be able to skirt as much as possible and avoid on technicalities. It’s supposed to be anathema to everything we do and embody as a democratic society.”

      We are not skirting the line of becoming a police state. We are not even skirting the line of becoming the America of the ’50s-’70s. We’re skirting the line of becoming more like a large number of other Western democracies.

      Yes, the power of the FBI and CIA have increased. But not even to the level we saw them at during the ’50s-’70s. Yes, local law enforcement is working more with the federal government and adopting federal standards. But it is not engaged in social control or any of the other hallmarks of being a police state. Having a powerful law enforcement apparatus isn’t the same as being a police state, the same way having “big government” isn’t socialism or fascism.

      All that passage stated was that the US is not a police state, and explained why. You have shown there has been an expansion of certain powers by federal agencies, but not an expansion of roles beyond historic norms. You have shown that local law enforcement has justified additional resources through appeal to these rhetoric. What you have not shown is a “police state,” which you’ve acknowledged. We are not anywhere near one. Even now we are further away from one than many healthy European democracies, so no, I don’t think the potential of a police state is a strong criticism of trends in US law enforcement.

      My point in the post was to put the current American law enforcement apparatus in historical perspective, not to justify it, but to explain why we live in a society where local law enforcement is disproportionately powerful compared to either domestic federal security forces, the military, or private law enforcement entities. No, we are not doing the best we can. But I see these decisions as primarily about poor resource allocation and inter-agency coordination, not America becoming a police state. That is the point of the paragraph. I don’t see any need to retract it just because it takes away an improperly used term from the vocabulary of criticism.

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