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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.


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

  1. Amy says:

    Kevin – interesting points to think about more, especially as I prepare to teach sociological theory….here’s my immediate question, though – is the lack of articulation of the “this is political” camp from the “protesters” (or “rioters”) in part a function of long-term disinvesting in social programs, which has left huge proportions of the currently youngish generation undereducated, unemployed, and pretty certain that they are never going to make it? So also lacking somehow what is needed to articulate the political aspect? In the one interview I heard, with two drunk 17 year old girls on the BBC, the girls said this was all about “showing the rich people who own the businesses that we can do what we want.” This sounds both like drunk 17 year old girls, and like a (not very articulate) political statement.


  2. Karen says:

    Your logic seems a little tortured here, just to fit everything into the procrustean Foucault theory. We can’t take neo-liberalism at its word – the “minimal state” doesn’t mean minimal policing, or even small budgets. States still have huge budgets and spend immense amounts on police, spies, the military and “homeland security” (and corporate welfare). The UK has been bombing Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. All this crap about neoliberalism meaning a small government is just ideological nonsense. What neoliberalism attacks are social assistance programs, not police budgets. Of course now that some states are really “broke” they may trim their huge totalitarian police forces a bit. But it’s ridiculous to say that somehow austerity and heavy policing “contradict” each other. They go together.

    In the same way, riots are political and we don’t need any “data” or political tracts from looters to see this. Looters don’t generally talk to media or write manifestos, for obvious reasons. However, a few very articulate people from these poor neighborhoods have given interviews (some anonymously) that point to socio-political factors – poverty, police harassment etc. There’s nothing “contradictory” about saying riots are political just because few rioters take the time and the pointless risk of trying to explain their political ideas and desires to middle class ignoramuses.


  3. Pingback: Some thoughts on the London “riots”: Foucault’s genealogy of neoliberalism and “police as a public service” (via Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing) | First Praxis

  4. @Amy i didn’t mean to say that the riots were apolitical at all. In fact I have a hard time imagining what any “apolitical” social action could be, so i think it’s more or less useless as a category. But also because of that, I’m not entering into the “this is political”/”No it’s not” game is really helpful…

    …which i think brings me to @Karen’s concern. I was admittedly a bit telegraphic with the Foucault–in part because I’ve written about the relationship between Foucault and analyses of neoliberalism before, over on my personal blog (which I linked to in the post). I absolutely agree that we shouldn’t take claims to “smaller government” at their word–especially because the budgetary facts tell a very different story.

    Which is exactly why I find Foucault helpful: of course government/non-government is as senseless as political/apolitical (and power/non-power); the trick for liberal forms of government is to determine some principle through which to circumscribe absolute power. People like Nikolas Rose have done a lot of great work identifying various strategies by which this was attempted: in “classical” liberalism that meant making sharp divisions between “public” and “private” for example. In “neoliberal” strategies, in contrast, public/private and state/society are seen as meaningless and The Market, along with its associated techniques and rationalities, are looked to as the principle of limitation.

    What I was trying to point out here was 1) there seems to be a growing consensus that this strategy doesn’t work very well; and 2) that what the political/apolitical debate that the media loves so much covers up is that actually “both” sides of the supposed divide are actually voicing that diagnosis


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