Commentary & Forums

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.

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Anthropoliteia In the News 9/8/09

If you’ve  been so caught up in the story of the East Bay kidnapping uncovered by UC Berkeley police (for a cogent analysis, and some myth-busting regarding what parole can accomplish, see Jonathan Simon’s post over at Prawfsblog) that you haven’t had time for anything else, here’s another edition of Anthropoliteia In the News:

«Ceux qui sont fatigués, au revoir!»

Nicolas Sarkozy recently surprised a meeting of the departmental Cheifs of the Police Nationale and Gendarmerie, who thought they were merely meeting with Minister of the Interior Brice Hotrefeux, with an unannounced visit.  The reason for the suprise visit was the recent less-than-spectacular crime statistics, particularly in Loire.   These stats have been a bragging point for sarkozy over the last seven years.  The answer, according to sarkozy?  More work.  “Those of you who are tired, au revoir!”

But don’t be impolite about it.  The President of the Republic also reminded police officers to “respect the basic rules of courtesy” when dealing with youth, and not to immediately revert to using the (impolite and overly-familiar) “tu” form of address.

However…

Several French police unions have denounced as “overly aggressive” and “lying accusations” a televised report, and interview of Interior Minister Hortefeux, by M6 television reporter Mélissa Theuriau.

During a televised interview of Minister Hortefeux, Theuriau presented footage of a group of police officers forcing youth to the ground and suggested that such images “ridicule the police code of conduct.”

For his part Hortefeux suggested that the “presumption of innocence applies to police officers as well.”

In the space of security, police are the opposite of culture?

Or is the metric at play here that of “sublty” ?

Simon Reid-Henry has an interesting review of the new edited volume by geographers Alan Ingram and Klaus Dodds, Spaces of Security and Insecurity: Geographies of the War on Terror in Times Higher Education:

spacesofsecurityWhile some states are being broken up into ever less state-like parts, making intervention an easier task, others are busy hardening their borders through the securitisation of immigration and asylum legislation. This geographical unevenness in the manner and extent to which security is pursued through territorial proxy is sustained by cultural processes that normalise some definitions of security as they disavow others. This book is especially welcome for the way it picks apart this process. In doing so, it shows that if security has become perhaps the dominant paradigm of the War on Terror in Western states, it is based not only upon expanded police powers and identity cards but also on a raft of more subtle cultural practices that respond to and inform actual political events.

Police cars are not green

Over at Cop in the Hood, Peter Moskos doesn’t lament Ford’s decision to stop manufacturing Crown Vic’s, the industry-standard in American cop cars,  by 2011.   The whole affair does lead Moskos to inquire into the cost of operating such cars, and suggest that more green alternatives could be incentivized by offering cops who choose to patrol on foot $20-50 more per shift.

Mass Incarceration News

  • The California state Assembly watered down a bill intended to ease the state’s budget crisis by redusing the prison population. The stripped-down version of the bill will reduce the prison population by 17,000 inmates by next June instead of 27,000.  The saving will go from an estimated $300 million this year instead of the estimated $520 million.
  • Additionally, Jonathan Simon wonders whether more federal stimulus money for police officers will mean more people incarcerated (despite the state’s stated goal).  Simon’s answer? “Of course the law professor’s answer is “it depends.”  It depends on how those police officers view their job.”
  • Despite this, Simon suggests (or perhaps “hopes”) that mass incarceration might be the “new SUV,” meaning that it’s cultural profile could be in the process of “flipping”
  • Which is good news, because Chino prison just had one of the state’s biggest race riots in years.
  • Peter Moskos offers some pretty, if not exactly novel, graphs from the Justice Policy Institute of skyrocketing U.S. incarceration rates

[Insert requisite taser post]

Radley Balko at Reason Magazine offers an indictment of cop-based reality shows, especially TLC’s new Police Women of Broward County:

The most obvious criticism of these shows is their exploitation and general tackiness. Police work is reduced to clownish pranks, adrenalin-inducing raids, and telegenic lady cops edited to invoke S&M fantasies for the shlubs watching at home. No one expects much dignity from cable networks, but you’d think, for example, that the Broward County Sheriff’s Department might object to the sexualization of its female officers, or to a national ad campaign insinuating that they’re sporting itchy Taser fingers….

Cop reality shows glamorize all the wrong aspects of police work. Their trailers depict lots of gun pointing, door-busting, perp-chasing, and handcuffing. Forget the baton-twirling Officer Friendly. To the extent that the shows aid in the recruiting of new police officers, they’re almost certainly pulling people attracted to the wrong parts of the job.

One of the tag lines for TLC’s new show is “There’s always a good time to use a Taser.”

This Week in Anthropoliteia History

25 years ago this week Alec Jeffreys discovered DNA fingerprinting

The South Pacific, Water… and police

In writing an expose about Fiji bottled water for Mother Jones magazine, Anna Lenzer runs in to some trouble with the police

Moments later, a pair of police officers walked in. They headed for a woman at another terminal; I turned to my screen to compose a note about how cops were even showing up in the Internet cafés. Then I saw them coming toward me. “We’re going to take you in for questioning about the emails you’ve been writing,” they said.

What followed, in a windowless room at the main police station, felt like a bad cop movie. “Who are you really?” the bespectacled inspector wearing a khaki uniform and a smug grin asked me over and over, as if my passport, press credentials, and stacks of notes about Fiji Water weren’t sufficient clues to my identity. (My iPod, he surmised tensely, was “good for transmitting information.”) I asked him to call my editors, even a UN official who could vouch for me. “Shut up!” he snapped. He rifled through my bags, read my notebooks and emails. “I’d hate to see a young lady like you go into a jail full of men,” he averred, smiling grimly. “You know what happened to women during the 2000 coup, don’t you?”

Are police human?

I understand that edited pieces, such as special issues of journals, by their very nature can’t be exhaustive in their scope.  However, Daedalus‘s special issue “on being human,” an off-shoot of the National Humanities Center’s project of the same name, offers nothing coming close to a discussion of anthropoliteia, let alone any full-on consideration of police.

There would seem some work for us to do here: to include discussion of policing into STS-dominated discussions of “the human”.  How has the chasm between Aristotle (“man as that human animal with the additional capacity for politics”), or even Montesquieu, and the present moment opened up so wide as to make discussions of the human without politics seem plausible?

Foucault Lectures now on you iPod

Certainly one of the culprits people might point to for that transition is Michel Foucault and his discussion of biopower (“For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”).

I don’t necessarily buy that though.  Luckily we can go to the audio to try to resolve it…  Mp3 versions of Foucault’s famous lectures, some of them in English, have been made available via UC Berkeley’s Media Resources Center.  These include such anthropolitiea-related classics as “Sécurité, territoire, population” and “Il faut défendre la société”.

Citations Mentioned

Rose, H., & Rose, S. (2009). The changing face of human nature Daedalus, 138 (3), 7-20 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.7
Gazzaniga, M. (2009). Humans: the party animal Daedalus, 138 (3), 21-34 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.21
Pippin, R. (2009). Natural & normative Daedalus, 138 (3), 35-43 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.35
Hacking, I. (2009). Humans, aliens & autism Daedalus, 138 (3), 44-59 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.44
Darwin, C. (2009). Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals–continued Daedalus, 138 (3), 60-67 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.60
Ritvo, H. (2009). Humans & humanists Daedalus, 138 (3), 68-78 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.68
Harpham, G. (2009). How do we know what we are? The science of language & human self-understanding Daedalus, 138 (3), 79-91 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.79
Appiah, K. (2009). Experimental moral psychology Daedalus, 138 (3), 92-102 DOI: 10.1162/daed.2009.138.3.92

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