Commentary & Forums

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.

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Dispatches

Policing after the “financial crisis”

So I did a little bit of “exploratory ethnography” here in my new home of Worcester, MA by going to a Public Safety Commission Meeting.  There’s plenty that could be said about it, even though it lasted all of ten minutes (has anybody else gone to these kinds of meetings?  Have you noticed how existentially absurd they are?  They don’t really do anything like that in France), but one thing in particular stuck out… It seems that the City of Worcester will need to lay off 24 officers by the end of September due to the city’s $1,300,000 (i like to leave in zeros) deficit.  this is on top of the fact that they apparently graduated 32 new recruits in February and promptly proceeded to lay them off at the end of the month.

To me, that sounds like a lot.  To put that in context, according to the WPD’s 2008 Annual report they had 381 budgeted police personnel, which amounted to $38,969,002 in Salary, Overtime and Holiday/Extras.  So these cuts would mean anywhere from about a 6% (just subtracting the 24 officers from last year’s corps) to a 17% (adding together the 24, plus the 32 recruits, plus the 9 scheduled retirees) cut in the workforce and the $1.2 million would be about 3% of the money budgeted for salary. Now, that doesn’t sound like that much, but I have no idea to be honest.  I really have only a general sense of what these kinds of cuts will mean–if they mean anything new at all.

Which got me wondering: does anyone know of any good work and/or reporting being done on the effects of the financial crisis on the practices of policing in American (or other) cities?  If not, shouldn’t we be a part of that?  What kinds of questions can we fruitfully ask about the situation?

Here’s the outline of one: if nothing else, what we’ve learned from the literature on neoliberalism is that it doesn’t make much sense to call it a “retreat of the state”–everyone from Loic Wacquant to Nikolas Rose & co. to the Cheney/Bush homeland security apparatus has shown us that.  Even though that’s very much how the present crisis is being framed (“lack of government funds” etc.), the same truth still seems to hold–wither the stimulus money, for example?

How else to make sense of  “financial crisis'” affect on municipal policing?

Further Reading

Wacquant, L. (2008). The Body, the Ghetto and the Penal State Qualitative Sociology, 32 (1), 101-129 DOI: 10.1007/s11133-008-9112-2

Wacquant, L. (2001). The Penalisation of Poverty and the rise of Neo-Liberalism European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 9 (4), 401-412 DOI: 10.1023/A:1013147404519

Rose, N., O’Malley, P., & Valverde, M. (2006). Governmentality Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 2 (1), 83-104 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.lawsocsci.2.081805.105900

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