You have the emergence in human society of this thing that’s called the state. What is the state? The state is this organized bureaucracy. It is the police department. It is the army, the navy. It is the prison system, the courts, and what have you. This is the state; it is a repressive organization. But the state and gee well, you know, you’ve got to have the police because if there were no police, look at what you’d be doing to yourselves—you’d be killing each other if there were no police! But the reality is the police become necessary in human society only at that junction in human society where it is split between those who have and those who ain’t got.
—Chairman Omali Yeshitela
Ironically, when they did manage to suppress democracy for this reason, which was usually, the result was that the only way the general populace’s will was known was precisely through rioting, a practice that became quite institutionalized in, say, imperial Rome or eighteenth-century England.
One question that bears historical investigation is the degree to which such phenomena were in fact encouraged by the state. Here, I’m not referring to literal rioting, of course, but to what I would call the “ugly mirrors”: institutions promoted or supported by elites that reinforced the sense that popular decision-making could only be violent, chaotic, and arbitrary “mob rule.” . . . However, where the procedures of the Athenian agora were designed to maximize the dignity of the demos and the thoughtfulness of its deliberations—despite the underlying element of coercion, and its occasional capability of making terrifyingly bloodthirsty decisions—the Roman circus was almost exactly the opposite. It had more the air of regular, state-sponsored lynchings. Almost every quality normally ascribed to “the mob” by later writers hostile to democracy—the capriciousness, overt cruelty, factionalism (supporters of rival chariot teams would regularly do battle in the streets), hero worship, mad passions—all were not only tolerated, but actually encouraged, in the Roman amphitheatre. It was as if an authoritarian elite was trying to provide the public with constant nightmare images of the chaos that would ensue if they were to take power into their own hands.
—David Graeber, Possibilities
Madison, even Jefferson, tended to describe Indians much as did John Locke, as exemplars of an individual liberty untrammeled by any form of state or systematic coercion—a condition made possible by the fact that Indian societies were not marked by significant divisions of property. They considered Native institutions obviously inappropriate for a society such as their own, which did.
—David Graeber, Possibilities
Years of moral-political struggle, one might say, have created a situation in which the police, generally, speaking, have to accept extreme restrictions on their use of force. This is much more true when dealing with people defined as “white,” of course, but nonetheless it is a real limit on their ability to suppress dissent. The problem for those dedicated to the principle of direct action is that, while these rules of engagement—particularly the levels of force police are allowed to get away with—are under constant renegotiation, this process is expected to take place through institutions to which anarchists, on principle, object. Normally, one is expected to employ the language of “rights” or “police brutality” to pursue one’s case through the courts—with the help of liberal NGOs and sympathetic politicians—but most of all, one is expected to do battle in “the court of public opinion.” This, of course, means through the corporate media, since “the public” in this context is little more than its audience. Of course, for an anarchist, the very fact that human beings are organized into a “public,” into a collection of atomized spectators, is precisely the problem. The solution for them is self-organization: they wish to see the public abandon their role as spectators and organize themselves into an endless and overlapping collection of directly democratic voluntary associations and communities. Yet, according to the language normally employed by the media and political classes, the moment members of the public begin to do this, the moment they self-organize in any way—say, by forming labor unions or political associations—they are no longer the public but “special interest groups” presumed by definition to be opposed to the public interest. (This helps explain why even peaceful protesters at permitted events expressing views shared by overwhelming majorities of Americans are nonetheless never described as members of “the public.”)
—David Graeber, Possibilities
The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way we need not recall apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized. The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression. In capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary honesty of workers who are given a medal after fifty years of good and loyal service, and the affection which springs from harmonious relations and good behavior—all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the established order serve to create around the exploited person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of policing considerably. In the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors and “bewilderers” separate the exploited from those in power. In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native.
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
I think his question reflects a fundamental misunderstanding frequently shared by people who grow up in a place where there’s police—which is, without police, if someone acts violently or is just an egoistical prick there’d be nothing you can do. This is silly. Modern police have only existed for a couple hundred years and even now, when there’s a fight or an egoistical prick, we usually don’t call the police anyway.
Actually, even if there’s a fight, usually the police don’t get involved unless someone is killed or goes to the hospital—because then there’s paperwork. I do think there are some people who are just so damaged, or crazy, or difficult, that it’s unfair to others to have to deal with them. If you have to spend 10 or 20 times as much energy dealing with someone’s problems or feelings as you do everybody else, you could say, well, yeah, that’s undemocratic. Why should we spend all our time worrying about that person when everybody else also has all sorts of problems and issues too but still don’t disrupt everything. Some people do just have to be told to leave.
But creating a private police force is certainly not the way to do this.
—David Graeber, posted on a reddit IAmA
Massive convergences are almost always framed as “carnivals against capitalism” or “festivals of resistance.” The base-line reference seems to be the late Medieval world immediately before the emergence of capitalism, particularly the period after the Black Death when the sudden decline in population had the effect of putting unprecedented amounts of money into the hands of the laboring classes. Most of it ended up being poured into popular festivals of one sort or another, which themselves began to multiply until they took up large parts of the calendar year. These were what nowadays might be called events of “collective consumption,” celebrations of carnality and rowdy pleasures and—if Bakhtin is to be believed—tacit attacks on the principle of hierarchy itself One might say that the first wave of capitalism, the Puritan moment as it’s sometimes called, had to begin with a concerted assault on this world, which was condemned by improving landlords and nascent capitalists as pagan, immoral, and utterly unconducive to the maintenance of labor discipline. Of course, the movement to ban all moments of public festivity could not last forever; Cromwell’s reign in England is reviled to this day on the grounds that he banned Christmas; more importantly, once moments of festive, collective consumption were eliminated, the nascent capitalism would be left with the obvious problem of how to sell its products, particularly in light of the need to constantly expand production. The result was what one might call a process of the privatization of desire: the creation of endless individual, familial, or semi-furtive forms of consumption, none of which, as we are so often reminded, could really be fully satisfying or else the whole logic of endless expansion wouldn’t work. While one should hardly imagine that police strategists are fully aware of all this, the very existence of police is tied to a political cosmology which sees such forms of collective consumption as inherently disorderly, and (much like a medieval carnival) always brimming with the possibility of violent insurrection. Order means that citizens should go home and watch TV, where they will normally turn on shows that take the perspective of the same police in charge of getting them off the streets to begin with.
—David Graeber, Possibilities
The line of riot cops is not only the point where structural violence takes tangible shape: it also, for that very reason, creates a kind of imaginative wall, a barrier it is impossible for the mind to penetrate. This might seem to contradict my earlier point that it’s the beneficiaries of structural violence who tend to become the objects of identification, but I don’t think it really does. After all, the police are not themselves beneficiaries of structural violence. In the case of say, a trade summit, the beneficiaries are the politicians and executives. The police are caught precisely in the middle; they are quite literally the wall between bankers and victims. Hence, the strange ambivalence of their position. In fact, the public is constantly invited, in a thousand TV shows and movies, to imagine the world from a police officer’s perspective, but it’s always the point of view of imaginary police officers, maverick cops who spend their time fighting crime rather than solving administrative problems or manning barricades.
—David Graeber, Direct Action
I think some of the points raised earlier about the rules of engagement, and the difference between armies and police, might be useful in trying to understand this—now, perhaps, mercifully passing—peculiar historical moment, of the so-called “war on terror.” What the United States has been attempting to impose on the world in its name is not really a war at all. It is of course a truism that, as nuclear weapons proliferate, declared wars between states no longer occur, and all conflicts come to be framed as “police actions” of one sort or another. But it is also critical to bear in mind that police always see themselves as engaged in a war largely without rules, against an opponent without honor, towards whom one is not, therefore, obliged to act honorably, and that ultimately cannot be won. States always tend to define their relation to their people in terms of some kind of unwinnable war, and the American state has been one of the most flagrant in this regard. In recent decades we have seen a War on Poverty degenerate into a War on Crime, then a War on Drugs (the first to be extended internationally), and finally now a War on Terror. As this sequence makes clear, the latter is not really a war at all, but an attempt to extend this same, internal logic to the entire globe. It is an attempt to declare a diffuse global police state.
—David Graeber, Direct Action
To protect everyone’s contracts seems like an act of fairness, of equal treatment, until one considers that contracts made between rich and poor, between employer and employee, landlord and tenant, creditor and debtor, generally favor the more powerful of the two parties. Thus, to protect these contracts is to put the great power of the government, its laws, courts, sheriffs, police, on the side of the privileged—and to do it not, as in premodern times, as an exercise of brute force against the weak but as a matter of law.
—Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
How did we get here? My own suspicion is that we are looking at the final effects of the militarization of American capitalism itself. In fact, it could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world—in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s—with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and police and military intelligence apparatus, and propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Maintaining this apparatus seems even more important, to exponents of the “free market,” even than maintaining any sort of viable market economy. How else can one explain what happened in the former Soviet Union? One would ordinarily have imagined that the end of the Cold War would have led to the dismantling of the army and the KGB and rebuilding the factories, but in fact what happened was precisely the other way around. This is just an extreme example of what has been happening everywhere. Economically, the apparatus is pure dead weight; all the guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and really produce nothing, and no doubt it’s yet another element dragging the entire capitalist system down—along with producing the illusion of an endless capitalist future that laid the groundwork for the endless bubbles to begin with. Finance capital became the buying and selling of chunks of that future, and economic freedom, for most of us, was reduced to the right to buy a small piece of one’s own permanent subordination.
In other words, there seems to have been a profound contradiction between the political imperative of establishing capitalism as the only possible way to manage anything, and capitalism’s own unacknowledged need to limit its future horizons lest speculation, predictably, go haywire. Once it did, and the whole machine imploded, we were left in the strange situation of not being able to even imagine any other way that things might be arranged. About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.
To begin to free ourselves, the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.
—David Graeber, Debt
More than anything else, the “Western individual” in Levy-Bruhl, or, for that matter, most contemporary anthropologists, is precisely that featureless, rational observer, a disembodied eye, carefully scrubbed of any individual or social content, which we are supposed to pretend to be when writing in certain genres of prose. It has little relation to any human being who has ever existed, grown up, had loves and hatreds and commitments. It’s a pure abstraction. Recognizing all of this creates a terrible problem for anthropologists: if the “Western individual” doesn’t exist, then what precisely is our point of comparison?
It seems to me, though, it creates an even worse problem for anyone who wishes to see this figure as the bearer of “democracy,” as well. If democracy is communal self-governance, the Western individual is an actor already purged of any ties to a community. While it is possible to imagine this relatively featureless, rational observer as the protagonist of certain forms of market economics, to make him (and he is, unless otherwise specified, presumed to be male) a democrat seems possible only if one defines democracy as itself a kind of market that actors enter with little more than a set of economic interests to pursue. This is, of course, the approach promoted by rational-choice theory, and, in a way, you could say it is already implicit in the predominant approach to democratic decision-making in the literature since Rousseau, which tends to see “deliberation” merely as the balancing of interests rather than a process through which subjects themselves are constituted, or even shaped. It is very difficult to see such an abstraction, divorced from any concrete community, entering into the kind of conversation and compromise required by anything but the most abstract form of democratic process, such as the periodic participation in elections.
—David Graeber, Possibilities
Why not call the cops?
– The police are often an outside force with no genuine investment in the communities in which they work.
– Lots of calls can increase police presence and increase harassment of innocent people and nonviolent offenders.
– The police are an inherently racist and classist organization. Race and class profiling often leads to a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset on the part of the police when interacting with people of color or the economically disadvantaged.
– By using the police as intermediaries we sacrifice our personal accountability and autonomy, allowing our communities to become divided.
– The police are the strong arm of the state and have historically pitted community members against both each other and other oppressed communities. Solidarity makes us strong, and it is in the interests of the state, corporations, and the rich that people remain weak and divided.
—Richmond Copwatch Zine
The appeal of market-based ideologies is not that difficult to understand. They draw on a picture of human nature and human motivation that lies deeply rooted in the religious tradition of the West, and that in our market-based society seems endlessly confirmed by everyday experience. It also has the advantage of presenting us with an extremely simple set of propositions. We are unique individuals who have unlimited desires; since there is no natural cutoff point at which anyone will have enough power, or money, or pleasure, or material possessions, and since resources are scarce, this means we will always be in at least tacit competition. What we call “society” is, if not pure obstruction, then a set of tools to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, to regulate the process, perhaps clean up after its mess. Market principles can then be balanced, as need be, by their opposite: family values, altruistic charity, selfless devotion to a faith or cause—all principles that are, as it were, brought into being as complements to the pure psychology of “rational, self-interested calculation.” These are as Mauss reminds us really just two sides of the same false coin. The key move, one might say, the most important ideological work in all this is done by extracting all the most fundamental questions of desire from society, so that it is possible to conceive of happiness largely as one’s relations with objects (or at best, people one treats like objects): the moment it is necessary to have Rousseau to remind us that in fact, there would be no point in killing every-one else to attain their wealth because then there would be no one to know we had it, we have already long since lost the ideological game. And it is of course exactly this extraction that allows promoters of the market to claim to be acting in the name of human freedom, as simply opening the way for individuals to make up their own minds about what they want from life without anyone noticing that most of the individuals in question spend the vast majority of their waking hours running around at someone else’s beck and call. It’s a pretty neat trick if you think about it.
—David Graeber, Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value
When the state is controlled by robbers, and every decision for or against state intervention in a particular circumstance reflects the robbers’ strategic assessment of the ideal mixture of intervention and non-intervention, it’s a mistake for a genuine anti-state movement to allow the priorities for “free market reform” to be set by the robbers’ estimation of what forms of intervention no longer serve their purpose. If the corporate-funded “libertarian” think tanks and the corporate stooges in government are proposing a particular “free market reform,” you can bet your bottom dollar it’s because they believe it will increase the net level of statist exploitation.
—Kevin Carson, “Dialectical Libertarianism”
Incarceration for drug offenses has increased 12-fold from 40,000 in 1981 to nearly 500,000 by 2010, accounting for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population since 1985.
—Wikipedia: United States incarceration rate