At the Blunt Edge of the Cosh: Police Violence and the Anti-​G20 Protests

G20 Police Confront ProtestorsMuch has been made in re­cent days of the vi­ol­ence of the po­lice at the fin­an­cial fools day G20 protests. In par­tic­ular the manner in which po­lice of­ficers struck and pushed Ian Tomlinson and a number of others while poli­cing their ‘kettle’. However, per­haps we are get­ting it wrong when we try to find the ‘bad apples’ in the po­lice and call for the Independent Police Complaints Commission to in­vest­igate any in­cid­ents of vi­ol­ence (This is a link to the Guardian’s archive: Guardian Video Archive of Police Violence). The problem is that we have for­gotten what the role of the po­lice is. To jog our memory, we could look to Walter Benjamin’s sem­inal Critique of Violence, but Antiphon has done this better than we could though in a dif­ferent con­text. Perhaps, then, it is better to follow the less well known text by the French sur­realist philo­sopher Georges Bataille on this issue.

In The Psychological Structure of Fascism Bataille de­scribes two struc­tures or or­ders in so­ciety: the ho­mo­gen­eous and the het­ero­gen­eous. Homogeneity ‘de­scribes so­ci­eties struc­tured by pro­duc­tion, ra­tion­ality, spe­cial­iz­a­tion, or­gan­iz­a­tion, con­ser­va­tion, pre­dict­ab­ility, and pre­ser­va­tion. For Bataille, these terms char­ac­terize modern Western bour­geois so­ciety, which ex­cludes any­thing that does not con­form to its ho­mo­genous struc­ture’ (Goldhammer, p169). In other words Bataille sees ‘ra­tional’, risk-​averse lib­eral so­ciety as fun­da­ment­ally struc­tured by the ‘making-​safe’ of the world (ho­mo­gen­eity). It is clear that we should not read ho­mo­gen­eity in a mul­ti­cul­tural sense where it cor­res­ponds to ethnic same­ness. Rather Bataille’s in­sight is much deeper. The hall­mark of lib­eral so­ciety is the con­tract which es­tab­lishes a gen­eral equi­val­ence among men and things. Thus, com­men­sur­ab­ility amongst ele­ments of a con­tract is the key here. ‘Depending on whether the state is demo­cratic or des­potic, the pre­vailing tend­ency will be either ad­apt­a­tion or au­thority. In a demo­cracy, the state de­rives most of its strength from spon­tan­eous ho­mo­gen­eity, which it fixes and con­sti­tutes as the rule’ (Bataille, p139).

Homogeneity is to be dis­tin­guished from het­ero­gen­eity. Where the former is fo­cused around a cer­tain common law or measure under which all are com­men­sur­able, the latter is bi­polar – com­bining both re­pul­sion and com­pul­sion. ‘[Heterogeneity] en­com­passes everything that is un­pro­ductive, ir­ra­tional, in­com­men­sur­able, un­struc­tured, un­pre­dict­able, and wasteful.’ (Goldhammer, p169) Politically, het­ero­gen­eity is as­so­ci­ated with the dis­ordered, the vi­olent and that which is sub­ject to taboo. Thus, where the rule of law and cap­it­alist forms rely on the pos­sib­ility of common measure or ho­mo­genous order, the het­ero­gen­eous is dis­ordered by nature. Importantly for us here, po­lice vi­ol­ence, the ad hoc vi­ol­ence of the fas­cist mob or re­volu­tionary vi­ol­ence are all het­ero­gen­eous. Bataille di­vides the het­ero­gen­eous into two: the im­per­ative and the sub­versive. The im­per­ative or sov­er­eign het­ero­gen­eity is con­structed in a hier­arch­ical manner with au­thority stem­ming from ‘above’. There are two in­stances of this im­per­ative het­ero­gen­eity: on one side the vi­ol­ence of the po­lice who patrol the bor­ders of lib­eral ho­mo­gen­eity; and on the other side the fas­cist or mon­archist state which re­lies en­tirely upon the whim of the leader/​king. We need not delve into the fas­cist use of im­per­ative het­ero­gen­eity, nor the re­volu­tionary ideas of sub­versive het­ero­gen­eity, we only want to see Bataille’s idea of po­lice vi­ol­ence. He ar­gues that modern lib­eral states set the het­ero­gen­eous vi­ol­ence of the po­lice and army to work de­fending the bound­aries of the ra­tional ho­mo­gen­eity. The bound­aries of the com­meas­ur­able must by po­liced, but this poli­cing is by its nature ex­ternal to that ho­mo­gen­eity. Sovereign vi­ol­ence hides be­hind the rational/​legal façade of lib­eral states. We must not forget the true meaning of the defin­i­tion of the state as that which holds the ‘mono­poly of vi­ol­ence’ in the ter­ritory. The truth of ‘the mono­poly of vi­ol­ence’ is landed at the blunt end of a po­lice baton or cosh.

When we con­demn one or other po­lice of­ficer for ex­cessive use of force on the fin­an­cial fools day protests, we define po­lice vi­ol­ence as the ex­cep­tion. We try to pick out the bad apples. However, the reality of the po­lice is ex­actly the op­posite. Heterogeneous vi­ol­ence is pre­cisely the mode of the po­lice. Their vi­ol­ence is the rule not the ex­cep­tion. The problem then is that of nor­m­al­isa­tion of op­pres­sion. Whilst the death of Ian Tomlinson has thank­fully caught the un­flinching eye of the na­tional media (some­thing that would not have happened a decade ago, be­fore the ad­vent of video camera-​equipped mo­bile phones) it presents the po­lice with an ob­vious scape­goat within their own ranks. It will be in­ter­esting to see what hap­pens to the of­ficer in ques­tion, and it should not be sur­prising if he is hung out to dry whilst we are told the problem has, there­fore, been solved. But the problem re­mains. There is nothing ex­cep­tional about the as­sault on Tomlinson.

We should not forget the words of Commander Simon O’Brien, a senior of­ficer within the Metropolitan Police, in the run-​up to the protests: “we are up for it”. This is the al­most tribal lan­guage of mob thug­gery, em­an­ating not from a lone rogue, but from a senior member of the force who car­ries con­sid­er­able re­spons­ib­ility. Evidence of a more deeply rooted and planned agenda of vi­ol­ence has also been in­dic­ated by sug­ges­tions in the media that the po­lice em­ployed a ‘des­ig­nated hitter’ system. This en­tails one of­ficer (who con­ceals his iden­ti­fic­a­tion number and pos­sibly also – as in the case of the as­saulter of Tomlinson – his face) being charged with the task of the most ag­gressive and vi­olent tasks, min­im­ising the chances of suc­cessful com­plaints being made subsequently.

In a pre-​eminently bi­opol­it­ical move we have in­teri­or­ised the logic of state. We ac­cept sur­veil­lance as a matter of course, in­creas­ingly the idea of de­ten­tion without trial for 28 days, and ID cards are being nor­m­al­ised. At some point the slow creep of the lim­it­a­tion of rights bring us to what, nearly thirty years ago, Nancy and Lacoue-​Labarthes called soft to­tal­it­ari­anism. Zizek too has written on the phe­nomenon of post-​political to­tal­it­ari­anism. He warns of the risk that we only as­so­ciate to­tal­it­ari­anism with the his­tor­ical arte­facts of Stalinism and Nazism whilst failing to re­cog­nise our own polit­ical im­pot­ence in a so­ciety that evan­gel­ises con­sumerism and ‘choice’. Is it too me­lo­dra­matic to use the word to­tal­it­ari­anism, what pre­cisely is a po­lice state?

I was there on April fools day. Frantically pushing away from the po­lice as they herded us to­wards some side street, the sweaty fist of an of­ficer in my back, the lash of a baton across my leg. This was po­lice vi­ol­ence. This was un­ex­cep­tional po­lice vi­ol­ence. If these were just or­dinary cit­izens then it would have been a grievous as­sault. What made this en­tirely un­ex­cep­tional was the fact that it was the po­lice. The po­lice are au­thor­ised to be vi­olent. They are au­thor­ised to pro­tect the bound­aries of ho­mo­genous so­ciety. This is what we must learn from the Greek in­sur­gency of the last few months. The murder of Alexander Grigoropoulos be­fore Christmas in Athens sparked riots not be­cause it was one bad cop with an over-​eager trigger finger. The Greek stu­dents and kids saw what we cannot, that po­lice vi­ol­ence is all around us and we should not, must not stand for it.

If we find a number of bad apples in the po­lice, then they are in­de­pend­ently to blame – the solu­tion is easy. However, if the problem is with the po­lice them­selves, if the issue is the very au­thor­isa­tion of vi­ol­ence at the hands of the po­lice, then the solu­tion cannot be simple. The problem is so­ci­etal. In fact the problem is so­ciety it­self and this would de­mand rad­ical ana­lyses and rad­ical solutions.


Bataille, G ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism,’ in Visions of Excess (Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 1985)

Goldhammer, J, The Headless Republic, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2005)

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