Some thoughts on the London “riots”: Foucault’s genealogy of neoliberalism and “police as a public service”

I have to say I resisted writing this post.  I have a visceral distaste for academic discursive hermeneutics performed from afar–this is partly why I’m an ethnographer, after all– and, that’s even more the case when trying to write au courant journalistically

However, despite having absolutely no ethnographic expertise among British police and only a concerned collaborator’s familiarity with the issues on the ground there, I’m going to just get over it–tempered still, hopefully, by a degree of humility and a recognition of our responsibility to ignorance.  The reason I’ve made this decision is to emphasize an ethnographic fact that I think is important for this blog: so much of what makes police a salient issue in broader terms are in fact riots and, conversely, so many riots, uprisings and rebellions are in fact about police.

All that was a way of putting a large preliminary asterisk on certain observations I’ve made following the news coverage via my own personal extended network of interwebs (BBC, CNN, NPR, Jeff Martin’s twitter feed…).  I’ve noticed a narrative dynamic emerging that I find a bit frustrating: on the one hand, news coverage presents the familiar “these are criminals/hoodlums without a politics,” with all its logical absurdities (is criminality innate and apolitical? If so, if these are innate tendencies and not the result of social conditions, how has London and then other cities in the UK suddenly–within the last several days– sprouted so many of this type? What would be the litmus test for whether determining this is a political act, by the way?).

On the other hand, often in an effort to show “the other side” or to emphasize some diversity of opinion on the events, news coverage includes another narrative which risks being equally tired and absurd, the “this is an expression of political-economic disenfranchisement” argument (with it’s equally non-falsifiable claims–what, again, are the criteria for deciding that this is political, and when where these events put to that criteria? what factors and/or data were considered? what would apolitical events look like? If at least one of these criteria should be statements of such from the protesters themselves, it does not seem to meet the definition…)

Even within stories framed in such a manner, however, I’ve noticed an interesting set of dissonances; some contradictions that, if properly attended to, don’t quite fit the dominant framing:

  • Generational conflict.  The “this is political” camp insists that the events are the result of the UK’s disinvestiture in social programs while experiencing wideing gaps in real wealth, but within that analysis there’s a type of inter-generational awkwardness, especially between what I think of as the Stuart Hall generation, associated with the Tottenham riots of the early 1980′s, and the present generation of protesters.  What’s interesting is to watch the older leftists struggle with understanding and/or translating the events; I’m thinking of some of the interviews with the MP from Tottenham and others, such as Darcus Howe, who seem to be attempting to work out some space for understanding them within a framework of social dis-investiture in the absence of an actually articulated voice of such a grievance.  The terms, or even the very language, seems to have moved somehow in the last 30 years.
  • Policing is a social program.  On the other hand, the “these are hoodlums” camp–set up as critics of the protesters (and thus anti-anti-dis-investiture)–emphasizes the affected business people and residents, often pointing to their calls for more police presence and in fact outrage at the lack of protection.  The contradiction here, of course, is that policing is a social program financed through government.  If anything, this is the voice criticizing dis-investiture.  What to make of that?

I think a less contradictory framing is possible if we make use of Foucault’s geneaology of liberalism (which I’ve written a bit on before), itself formulated during a crisis-point in global capitalism, which identifies neoliberal efforts to “reduce government” as one strategy, within a longer history of liberal political thought, which attempts to find external principles of limitation on government.  Part of why Foucault spends so much time on this is that it offers a prescient insight into so much of the nature of policing, security & surveillance today: namely that it springs from the same concern and theory of government.  Although often misread, I think, Foucault’s point is that the policing techniques of surveillance (much used in Britain) which skeev many of us out are not efforts to achieve a tightly controlled police state, but the opposite: it’s a strategy of governance which, for many reasons, sees such totalitarian aspirations as ineffectual and unnatural.  In this sense, security strategies of surveillance are attempts to provide a “policed” state (in the older sense of “happy, well -ordered and thriving”) with minimal police (in the sense of a specialized political organ claiming the monopoly of legitimate violence) interventon; police without policing.

In this sense, the policing strategies so heavily relied upon by Britain over the last several years are both part and parcel of a political rationality that also focused on finding more “economical” forms of government.  The same rationality which leads to a dis-investiture of the social programs targeted by “austerity measures.”  The two sides of the framing in the popular news-framing, then, are certainly not contradictory, nor is the one an effect of the other: they are two sides of the very same political rationality; one that more and more seems diseased.  What will be the alternative? I’m not sure, but finding a useful answer, I think, depends on understanding the political logic in which we find ourselves.


Jonathan Simon’s provocative thoughts on the UC Strike

Over at Governing through Crime, UC Professor Jonathan Simon has some provocative words for those participating in the current 3-day UC strike:

….We ought to be united in mobilization to save higher education in California. But in choosing to make the fight a convenient and ideologically satisfying (but for the most part phony) story about privatization, down-sizing, and pernicious, corporate minded university leadership, UC’s unions and their student and faculty allies are missing a historic opportunity to engage our fellow citizens in a critical dialog about our state’s future.

That future has been mortgaged to expensive dysfunctional prisons and a bipartisan law-enforcement establishment that is committed to mass incarceration at any price. But across three decades in which that project of exiling tens of thousands of largely poor and minority Californians to a prison archipelago of mammoth proportions (which yet remains grotesquely overcrowded) has been constructed, the supporters of higher education in this state have remained silent, assuming that the incarceration of people who don’t go to college anyway is not our problem. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

via Governing through Crime: Strike Against Prisons not Education.

I think Simon is dead on here, and offers a framing that explains some of the ambivalence I’ve had about the political mobilization that’s been developing.

Most of that ambivalence, I think, revolves around my hesitation at some of the explanatory narratives that have been used as organizational and motivational tools by unions and protesters… what Simon calls the”convenient and ideologically satisfying (but for the most part phony) story about privatization, down-sizing, and pernicious, corporate minded university leadership”.

Part of what I’ve been trying to point out, both vis-a-vis the strike and in my work on French policing, is that–as both Max Weber and Walter Benjamin have shown–all politics is necessarily about violence.  This includes, especially includes, such mundane acts of governance as budgetary allocations.  As everyone from Michel Foucault to Nikolas Rose have also tried to show, these decisions are literally choices between life and death.  This is one aspect of what scholars are referring to when they talk about the biopolitical.

On the other hand, Californians are not completely comfortable with this violence and, for good reasons which I’ve also tried to explore, have tried to devise ways to limit it as much as possible.

What Jonathan’s work in Governing through Crime has shown, however, is that one of the few remaining–maybe the only remaining–domain in which the violence of governance seems legitimate to American voters is in the domain of crime control and punishment.  It therefore has become the trope through which all American governance is filtered.

What we’re left with is, on the one hand, a massively inflated, impractical and unjust incarceration system and–importantly–on the the other hand, no way of conceiving any other legitimate form of governance.

This is not a question of corporate greed versus educational egalitarianism, or even good guys versus bad guys (as much as I’d like to hate on Mark Yudof along with everyone else), but of finding a way–literally–of justifying the very real kinds of violence involved in supporting education; of including higher education into the political calculus of life and death.

Book Reviews

The Liberal Way of War, The Liberal Way of Policing?

Tim Dunne, professor of international relations and head of humanities and social sciences, University of Exeter, reviewing the new book The Liberal Way of War:Killing to Make Life Live in Times Higher Education:

In the West, the thawing of the Cold War coincided with a revival in liberal internationalist ideas about the importance of regime type. Leading American thinkers including Michael Doyle and Francis Fukuyama seized on a claim initially articulated by Kant about the peaceful character of democracies. From Reagan onwards, every US President has endorsed the mantra that democracies are more peaceful than authoritarian regimes.

In The Liberal Way of War this hubris is dramatically punctured. Kant appears not as an exponent of a separate peace forged among republican states but as a philosopher of biohumanity. The consequence of the emergence of the human species as a referent for security is that war “becomes war without end”. On this logic, liberals are pushed closer and closer to the realist position that war is necessarily a recurrent feature of politics.

via Times Higher Education – The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live. (emphasis added)

If the argument is that once the referent for security becomes “the human” that the result is a temporally indefinate state of affairs best described as “a war without end,” what do we make of the anagolously indefinate state of policing?

My first impression is that there are least two issues at stake here:

  1. What is/are the object(s) of contemporary policing?  What, exactly, is being “policed” in each of our projects?  In my own fieldwork, the answer to this question certainly varied–was a point of considerable debate, actually, but in a daily sense it was certainly not “the human species” itself.  yet the temporality of “security” seems the same (perhaps)…
  2. In a more tangential manner–though key to understanding what, exactly, we’re up to here in this blog–is the question of police vs. military, or quotidian policing vs. war (even the variety “without end”).  Certainly there exists a now almost overwhelming amount of social science, anthropology being one of the key contributors, on war and its aftermaths.  Oftentimes the instinct is to take the insights garnered from this material and apply it to the kind of situations that we study, leading to descriptions of police as a broadly “paramilitary” exercise.  Again, I know form my own work that this is only partly true, at best.  how to articulate the difference?