Policing Capitalist Exploitation: An Interview with Alex Vitale & Mark Neocleous (Part 1)

by | 15 Oct 2020

On 14 July Petr Kupka and I sat down (virtually) with Mark Neocleous and Alex Vitale to discuss their critical analyses of policing. Vitale is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and has been frequently interviewed on the issue of policing in connection with the Black Lives Matter protest movement. His latest book The End of Policing was published in 2017 by Verso Books. Neocleous is Brunel University’s professor of political economy who has written several books on the police and its role in the production of social order. In 2021, Verso Books will release A Critical Theory of Police Power: The Fabrication of the Social order, a new edition of Neocleous’s first book on policing. In this wide ranging interview that is to be published in the next issue of the Czech Criminology Review, we discussed many issues that underpin contemporary political struggles in the U.S. and other countries: policing as a form of social control, differences between police and social work in terms of the defund-the-police policy, the history of American policing, the international proliferation of Black Lives Matter or possible changes in policing in the long run. Critical Legal Thinking will carry the interview across two days.

Václav Walach & Petr Kupka: Let us start with terminology. What is policing and how does it differ from police? This question is important not only in terms of theory but also because there is no equivalent for policing in Czech. Depending on a context, the word policing may be translated either as ‘police work’ or as ‘control’.

Mark Neocleous: I think it is important to recognise that not all policing is performed by the professional police forces. This may well be the distinction you are referring to in the Czech, between ‘police work’ meaning the work performed by police forces, and a more generalized notion of ‘control’, which is what I think refers to policing in the most general sense. One of the things I have tried to do in my own work on a critical theory of police power is to conceptualise the links and overlaps between police as an institution and policing as a process. This is what I mean when I talk about an expanded concept of police power. What an expanded concept of police power does is it allows for understanding policing as a process rather than an institution. This does not mean ignoring what the professional police forces do. But it means situating the activities of the police into the wider policing that takes place. So, an expanded concept of police power connects the work of police officers to the wider order – that word is a crucial one – produced by a whole range of non-police personnel, namely the forces and institutions engaged by the state in order to fabricate a social order.

This of course requires that you buy into the idea that the fabrication of social order is precisely the core of the police power. And it also requires recognising that the fabrication of social order is done by the police in conjunction with the whole range of other state institutions and organizations throughout civil society. In other words, the police power is exercised by a number of actors, including institutions of welfare provisions or social workers, and they are all involved as part of the police power in the ordering of civil society.

Alex Vitale: This is something that I struggled with strategically in the writing of The End of Policing. I wanted to signal that there are intermediate steps that we can take to dial back our reliance on the police as this incredibly violent actor in reproducing race and class inequality in the United States and inequalities of gender and sexuality as well, without only being able to rely on the full-throated transformation of society.

So, there are moments in the book where I suggest that, like for drugs, we should be trying to get away from armed police and look at things like harm reduction strategies which are socio-clinical interventions from a public health perspective, but they do empower a public health bureaucracy, which is not without problems. At the same time, I tried to point out examples of problems turned over to social programmes that are not really that much better. In the chapter on homelessness, I reference Forrest Stuart’s work on homelessness services’ archipelago in Los Angeles where people are put into these programmes that have this neoliberal self-help ethos and all these stages you have to go through to get a slightly better room for the night, to get a slightly better work assignment, but, at the end of it, there is still never any housing. It is all just the make-work programme to manage this population in a way that is maybe cheaper and less repressive than just putting them in a county jail.

This is a line that I tried to sort of walk. But I am not totally satisfied with it because it still does beg the question of who are these social workers and who are these councillors in schools who are going to fix everything, and who controls them, who sets their priorities, and: is this really leading us towards some better, more radical reorganisation of society, or is it just another way of keeping a lid on these problems?

VW&PK: Mark, can you react to this? It seems to us that from the perspective of your project the difference between police officers and social workers does not really matter, as they are both engaged within the project of policing. Are we right here?

MN: I am not saying that there is no difference. That is not quite the point because, of course, police officers have a whole range of powers that social workers do not have, although social workers can often call on those police powers in order to enforce social work decisions. This is because the professional police possess the power to exercise violence at their discretion. Such powers cannot be built into what is formally defined as social work, since this would undermine the myth of social work as a field of soft power. That said, we need to retain the idea of social work as a form of policing. It is not identical to what police officers on the street may be doing, but it has an affinity with what they are doing in a sense that they are engaged in a common project which is designed for them by the state vis-à-vis contemporary capital.

One of the things that is emerging from the struggles taking place in the US at the moment is precisely a demand to defund the police and better invest the money in social work. I think that too many people work with assumptions that are too simplistic: ‘social work = good’ while ‘policing = bad’, and so the idea is to take the funds granted to one and give them to the other. Historically, more or less everything that now counts as social work or social welfare was once under the heading of police because, at that point, the notion of police was so expansive so as to include the whole of what only later becomes ‘social policy’. Both police and policy come to us from the notion of the polis, and the early modern period oscillated between the various possible translations of polis and also politeia. The terms connoted the regulation of the life of a community and the promotion of the community’s general welfare. The early police states were closer to what we would now call ‘welfare states’ rather than what is now generally meant by ‘police state’, in the way liberals use that term. The reason we do not equate ‘police state’ with ‘welfare state’ is because we have taken on the twentieth century definitions of those terms. The point here is that what in the twentieth and now twenty-first century became the ‘welfare state’, including the work that goes by the name of ‘social work’, was once explicitly stated to be what it really is: policing.

The other side of this is to also recognise that we are captives or the hegemonic liberalism of the late-eighteenth century, which sought to impose a narrower understanding of police by beginning to separate a whole series of police powers off into other institutions. If you like, they were increasingly re-coded in ‘non-police’ terms. So, for example, what was once medical police became public health and the health system, while the policing of poverty became ‘welfare’ or ‘social security’. Much of this is what is now captured by the idea of ‘social policy’, which is why as part of an argument for an expanded concept of police power I have suggested that we can work with the notion of ‘social police’. The point being that an expanded concept of police power is a means of capturing the ways in which the police institution intersects with all other state agencies, operates through a plethora of political administrative forms, and determines much of what can take place through organisations of civil society.

The other problem with working with a crude distinction of ‘police = bad’ but ‘social work = good’ is that it lacks any dialectical insight into the unity of forces that exist within police power. Police officers can help an old lady across the street and then when they get to the other side stop a black man a kneel on his neck till he is dead. Asking whether the police is a positive or negative force does not get anywhere near this dialectic of power. But also, conversely, if the argument is that we can take all the funds used for policing and turn them for ‘good’ causes such as social work then what do we do with the criticisms that have been made of police surveillance?

Critical criminologists have worked for a long time to expose police intelligence gathering and surveillance. But what about the intelligence undertaken by social workers? It is rarely recognised that the intelligence produced and the records kept by social workers are often far more detailed and more personal than police records. To give you just one example, if you apply to adopt a child in the UK, it is overseen by a department of social work and to go through the process of the adoption you have to provide them with information about past lovers, including their names and contact details, details of your family and friends, and not just their names but also how you would describe their characters. The social work department thus gathers information not just about you but also about people who know you: a network of contacts, what they are as well as what they do. Surely ‘policing’ is the right phrase for this?

AV: Here in the States, Dorothy Roberts writes amazingly about the way in which the child welfare system has been a huge burden on African American families. That it has torn these families apart in its effort to enforce its idea of what a proper family looks like and how it should function.

VW&PK: You are well-known critics of police and you have spent a significant amount of time arguing that police are not what they are said to be. In particular, you have both argued against the idea that the police were put here to protect us, as rapper KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions put it in the song Who Protects Us from You?more than 30 years ago. What are the police for then?

MN: Actually, the thing that has animated me since writing The Fabrication of Social Order is less protection and more the logic of security. Security is the supreme concept of bourgeois society, which is so much can be done by the state in its name, including more or less everything that is done by police. In The Fabrication of Social Order, I organised 2 chapters around the idea of police power as securing an order of insecurity – that capitalism is by definition an order of insecurity and that the fabrication of order requires a commitment to something called ‘security’. The order of insecurity gives rise to a politics of security. Of course, we are never told that security could never be achieved, since that would explode the myth. What would it ever mean for a society, an organisation, a person to say: ‘finally, secure at last’. Well, actually, we do know what it means. It means death, since that is the only true security. The perpetual security of the grave. But capital and the state are never likely to say ‘you want security, then die’, since that does not make for good press. So, what it says is: you want security, then trust us, believe in us, accept our rules, be obedient, don’t ask too many questions. Security is pacification. This was what I then sought to pursue in the lengthier book Critique of Security. By shifting the focus from ‘police’ to ‘security’ more generally, it enabled me to bring security into sharper focus. Or at least, as sharp a focus as anything as mythical such as security can be.

But your question is in fact about protection, yes? It is a quite an interesting question because it just plays on the same register as security: it assumes that what police do is to protect us all. This has been the response to the police abolition demands: you cannot abolish the police because it is the police who protect you. This raises a question: should we consider the police as a protection racket? What is a protection racket? Firstly, it cultivates fear among the people that they say they are going to protect. Secondly, it says that the fear will only go away if you accept our power. Thirdly, if you do not accept our power, then it is going to be you who suffers, and the implication is that you are going to suffer from us, from people who were claiming to protect you. Maybe the logic of protection you are getting at is interesting but not necessarily for the ways most people think of it. But it is a good question to ask undergraduate criminology students: critically asses the police as a protection racket.

AV: Police are there to preserve order, which I think is similar to what Mark means by security. We hear this idea that police are law enforcement officers, but actually very little of what they do has anything to do with the law. They are protecting a notion of order. Now, that notion of order includes concerns about property theft and preventing violence but, ultimately, that vision of order comes up against these kinds of moments where they have to make a choice between really protecting people and protecting the social order. And the social order does not benefit everyone equally. So, they are very happy to sacrifice the welfare of certain people if it is in the service of protecting the larger order. If that means criminalizing homeless people because it interferes with property values, if that means criminalizing young people because they interfere with commerce, they are happy to do that because it is ultimately this notion of order that animates them.

VW&PK: The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd have been of course observed and discussed in the Czech Republic, and it seems that a lot of people are perplexed by what they have seen. Perhaps, this has something to do with the fact that Czechs generally see police as a quite trustworthy institution. How would you explain this difference between the Czech Republic and the US where strong anti-police sentiments are present?

AV: I do not have a good overview of the Czech situation but my argument, and I think that Mark’s is very similar, is that the extent of abusive policing is tied to the extent of economic exploitation, which requires the state to mobilise forces to facilitate that exploitation and to stamp out any resistance that threatens it. The Czech Republic does not have a history of slavery and domestic colonialism, so it does not have these most intensive forms of exploitation that are so central to the history of American policing and that are major contributors to the level of police violence and racism. But you do have definite forms of economic exploitation under way and problems in the policing of Roma communities, for example, as I have learnt when I spent a week living in police barracks at the Czech Police Academy a dozen years ago. And the question is: are the Czech police held up because there has not been a lot of resistance to that exploitation, so it has not been necessary to mobilise the police as an invasive form social control on the society? Obviously, during the Soviet era, police I think were not considered to be such a positive or neutral force in the society because their political role was more obvious. And maybe that is just something that is waiting in the wings.

As for the American police, the thing is that European powers exported their colonialism and slavery outside of Europe so the violence and the torture and the repression happened in India, in Africa, in the West Indies. It did not happen domestically. In the US, all that torture and violence and repression happened domestically: the extermination of indigenous populations, the enforcing of slavery and the outgrowths of that such as Jim Crow and the racial ghettoization of our cities. All of this was facilitated by policing, as well as the role of the police in managing labour struggles and the formation of stable compliant working class in the cities of the North a hundred years ago, etc. Early police forces in the US south were tied to slave patrols that managed the mobility of enslaved people to prevent escapes and slave uprisings. Colonial police, like the Texas Rangers drove out the indigenous population and supressed the economic and political rights of Mexican Americans to facilitate white settlement and supremacy. Northern police forces were notorious for breaking strikes, subverting workers movements and criminalizing the ‘disorderly’ behaviour of new immigrant communities. Our exploitation has been much more domestic, visible and extreme, and the policing has been more violent, invasive and controlling as a result.

Today, we do not have slavery and colonialism in these ways and we barely have an industrialisation in the US. What we have is the system of neoliberal austerity that shifts resources up the economic ladder, defunds the social safety net and produces vast economic precarity. And that has produced things like mass homelessness, mass untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, mass involvements in black markets of drugs, sex work and stolen goods. And that is what police do, they manage exactly those problems. That is what 90 percent of policing is in the US.

 VW&PK: Mark, is that what you would say?

MN: I think Alex is absolutely right pointing to the varied history of exploitation. And I think that is that what we have to place at the heart of our understanding of policing in different national contexts. The policing in general, the police institutions in particular are shaped in different ways depending on their history and, in particular, the history of exploiting classes. And one of the interesting things about the States that Alex has picked up on here is precisely the emergence of policing out of the slave system, out of slavery as a mode of exploitation rather than, for example, kind of foreign colonialism or imperialism.

Sometimes, it seems that some American scholars and radicals identify the emergence of policing out of slavery and the slave patrol as a way of identifying the racism inherent in policing and hence a way of explaining the violent over-policing of black people. But we need to recognise that if you did not have a history of colonial slavery that you have in the US, you would still have police. You would still have police because you would still have had a system of exploitation. The point about the connection between slavery and policing in the States is to not only point to the racial dimension, but to draw attention to the more general point that the policing of slaves was the policing of a system of exploitation.

AV: Just to be clear, in my work I say there were three systems in the US that produced policing, and slavery is just one of them. Firstly, it is domestic colonial policing in places like Texas and moving farther West and, secondly, it is the policing of urban working class, that is, the shaping of immigrant population into a stable working class. So, I think that many activists leave the conversation as: ‘Well, police come from slave patrol.’ I have worked very hard to broaden that conversation out to include these other dynamics that are just as important and, of course, they are all interlinked.

MN: Absolutely. But also, of course, to reinforce that, the one thing that we do know is that capitalist exploitation has to have a form of policing. The policing is integral to capitalist exploitation. That exploitation can take different forms and, of course, it does. I mean, leaving aside the slavery, just look at the transformations in labour relations in the UK or in European countries. They have changed enormously in four five hundred years. But it is remarkable that whatever form of exploitation, whatever the particular detail of the kind of exploitation that takes place in different countries, they have all end up having to be conducted through form of police power. And, for me, that is the important thing about understanding policing. We need to understand it in terms of its connections with the mode of exploitation and, therefore, forms of alienation.

AV: This relates to the issue of legitimacy. States want to engage in enforcement of the regimes of exploitation as efficiently and non-violently as possible because that is a more effective way of maintaining those regimes. It limits resistance and it helps manufacture hegemony. So, policing emerges precisely because the previous system of relying on militias and the army was inefficient and created a legitimacy crisis. And so, policing was produced as more civilian, law-oriented and less violent than calling out the army. The state will always try to find these more legitimate forms of social control. And so, we may see for an instance states adopt more social work-oriented approaches under the current moment as long as it continues to facilitate these same regimes of exploitation. So, the trick is to find mechanisms to address interpersonal harm and lack of safety for people that does not feed back into re-legitimation of state control to facilitate regimes of exploitation. And that to me that is the challenge here.

MN: Absolutely. Von Mises in his major treatise on economics put it bluntly: the state employs its power to beat people into submission in order to prevent actions destructive of the preservation and smooth operation of the market economy. But beating people into submission is liable to lack legitimacy. So, we have instead liberal police and the social police of the administrative state.

1 Comment

  1. Very important discussion, the policing role of entities of social welfare and public health. And this doesn’t merely pertain to social instances of state power, like welfare or public health institutions, but organizations in civil society that may have even started out as social movements but are coopted in accordance with the hegemonic institutional rules of the game. An old professor of mine (who Alex might know) described how a local grass-roots movement against domestic violence became organizationally institutionalized as the base dispersed and demobilized. What was the base became a passive and atomized “clientele.” The group established a high-powered board of directors, in accordance with rules for incorporation. And foundation and government monies began to flow in. Dialectically, this process of incorporation is itself a process of social control, of passifying and demobilizing. The overarching dynamic is that under capitalism all of these programs, whether state welfare agencies or CBOs, are subject to the Law of Value and a hegemonic institutional framework.


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