We need to talk about the police

December 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

The police are agents for managing conduct of peoples [government] once the means of conduct have been decided by the governing body.* In Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault makes a genealogy of governance starting with the sixteenth century when the role of “controlling conduct” was passed on from the Church to the State, from the doctrines of faith to the laws & bureau of police (282). After a period where the function of the police was ambiguous & varied greatly between European states, Foucault continues, the responsibilities of the police finally became regulated in the seventeenth century with the following mandate: manage the number of people, provide the necessities of life [which entails an agricultural policy & protection of healthcare], regulate the activity of the people, & circulate the goods & services of their activity.

Foucault argues that the role of the police in seventeenth century Europe was to enforce good conduct, blurring the boundaries of conduct of peoples [government] & conduct of self [asceticism] (415). “Police is the set of interventions & means that ensure that living, better than just living, coexisting will be effectively useful to the constitution & development of the state’s forces” (421). A direct correlation between a state’s strength & an individual’s happiness is naturalized in lieu of a social contract.**

It should be remarked that the Europe described here does not hold the same boundaries used today but is more or less restricted to the signatories of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Peace for this Europe meant maintaining the balance of Europe, which became a part of governmental reason & a forbearer of globalization. Most states envisioned this as protecting their right to sovereignty (386).

It goes without saying that war is the first instrument of this precarious, fragile, & provisional universal peace that takes on the aspect of a balance & equilibrium between a plurality of states. That is to say, henceforth it will be possible to wage war, or better it will be necessary to wage war, precisely in order to preserve this balance. (387)

The other two instruments of “peacekeeping” — a term that is here not only anachronistic but also openly sarcastic — are diplomacy & the development of permanent military apparatuses (382).*** Together, these instruments determine the force of a state. “No longer territorial expansion, but the development of the state’s forces; no longer the extension of possessions or matrimonial alliances, [but] increase of the state’s forces; no longer the combination of legacies through dynastic alliances, but the composition of state forces in political & provisional alliances”: this is modern governmental reason (382).

& what exactly is reasonable government today? Violence in the name of defending neocolonialist Western values of human rights & democracy?

This goes hand-in-hand with the changing role of police. State ambitions to control conduct have expanded beyond state borders in a project of, what seems to be, global homogenization of neoliberal estimations of rights. Any attempt to curb the dissemination of these values meets the unapologetic force of states which have already integrated those values [that is, the states we are partial to calling “developed”]. Meanwhile, security protection has been high on the internal agenda of states. We are witnessing a militarization of police forces; Slovenia, for instance, gave police duties to the army in response to the influx of refugees just as Macedonia had done not long before.

Violence is rife. On Monday 14 December, two protestors against heightened security across Turkey were killed in Diyarbakır by police. At the start of the month, a refugee trying to board a train in Idomeni, Greece was killed by a Macedonian police officer as part of larger clashes between refugees & authorities. The very contraversial new law of Denkmark to confiscate jewellery from refugees to cover costs of housing them is a form of violence as well. &, of course, we should not forget the prohibitions of all assemblies in Paris implemented as a security measure following the 13 November attacks & executed by as many as 100 arrests & firing tear gas.

In the USA, tailgating the Black Lives Matter movement, another case of police brutality has been making rounds in social media. Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty of 18 accounts of sexual violence against women living on the margins of society, “impoverished women, sex workers, drug addicts, all of them black – taking advantage of a system that he knew was rigged in his favour”. Members of UN peacekeeping forces, who some might consider the acting world police at this moment, have long been charged with similar abuses of power over populations they are hired to protect [in many instances with underage persons].

Such policing bodies are no longer dealing expressly with enabling the good conduct of people, it is clear. As a part of their mandate of preserving the safety & integrity of the state, police have become more assured as the agents exhibiting state force. The greater the control over the population, the more powerful the government [by this logic, & for the sheer expanse of their populations, we should probably consider the USA, China, Russia, & Turkey as the most powerful]. Segments of society that are more difficult to integrate or that try to reimagine the hegemonic system are the usual objects of this enacted state force, the examples show.

Global order comes at the cost of violent, cross-national homogenization of values. Segments of the world that are more difficult to integrate or threaten the values’ advancement are the typical territories where force is played out under the guise of peacekeeping, or similar, missions. Peace is imagined as the end-product of the homogenization & many are prepared to support the use of arms in its name. Yet, the notion that peace can be an end-product of homogenization is absolutely totalitarian. Totalitarianism is a system of fear & fear is the opposite of peace. This is a paradox in the modern functioning of police bodies. We cannot look at the police for protection when what they protect, in fact, is a paradox; we must look at it with a critical eye.


* Conduct is a word containing a duality that reflects two forms of governance [of State & of people]. On the one hand, it can mean the conduction of behaviour pertaining to & perpetuating the hegemony. On the other hand, it equally refers to how we conduct ourselves as agents, even when allowing ourselves to be conducted by others. Between these two meanings, the structures of power in which a given society lives are negotiated.

** Yet the correlation doesn’t function so ideally. Dana Villa points out that this contract, which supposedly intends for the preservation of rights, is a technology for mystifying the coercion into self-surveillance & lack of free will (714).

*** Indeed, conflict & state building usually go together. No one will deny that it was the expansionist ambitions of warring states that encouraged much of the organization we associate with progress: well connected & kept roads, effective postal networks, food distribution, technology, armies, & industry.


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