Policing Capitalist Exploitation: An Interview with Alex Vitale & Mark Neocleous (Part 2)

by | 16 Oct 2020

Today Petr Kupka and Vaclaw Walach continue the interview with Mark Neocleous and Alex Vitale, discussing their critical analyses of policing.

VW&PK: On the other hand, there are cases that appear to show that policing is not just about working-class people and ethnic minorities. Bernie Madoff was punished for his financial machinations for example. Did we really make a step towards redressing this inequality inbuilt within the police, or is it just cosmetic changes? Or how are we to interpret this?

AV: We see sometimes police power used against people for financial crimes and sometimes wealthy people but if we look carefully, we can see that these cases kind of make the point. They do not go after the executives who oversee the looting of the economy. They go after few individuals who are competing with those executives in ways that break the rules of the game. So, Bernie Madoff gets prosecuted because he is unfairly competing with Wall Street. He is offering people these amazing returns that he cannot really deliver on because it is a Ponzi scheme, so, eventually, he suffers some consequences. But the fact that Goldman Sachs destroyed the economy, put a million people out of their homes, bankrupted local governments, there were never any consequences for that because that was all done according to the rules of the game that have been accepted by the people who benefit from that system.

MN: We need to also take seriously the whole question of the corporate form. Because what the form of the corporation does is it protects capital. It is a persona under which capital can operate but which the law finds difficult to challenge. Because it means the crimes that are committed by the corporations are badly investigated and rarely prosecuted. Or, if they are prosecuted, then the outcome is nowhere near the kind of outcome that would be expected if a human person committed the crime. The state has created this living entity called the corporation, which is very difficult to pin down in court, very difficult to get into court, very difficult to find guilty for anything. So, crimes committed by corporations often go unpunished. Occasionally, you will find a director found personally liable for something but the corporate crime itself often goes unpunished because it is difficult to successfully punish corporations in law. The legal system allows that. So, this is another way in which the state has organized capital so that it can carry on accumulating regardless.

Alex was talking about the kind of headways we can make in terms of everyday struggles and so forth and kind of developments that are taking place in terms of everyday local struggles around forms of organising our lives, one of the things I think would be a remarkable achievement is the to make it easier to prosecute a corporation as a whole and then the possibility of destroying that corporation if found guilty. This would mean, as well, the destruction of shares in that company; shareholders will lose all of their investments. That would be a remarkable achievement. Abolish police. But also abolish the corporation.

AV: I mean part of the problem is we have some of these laws, they are just impossible to enforce. If a corporation is convicted of a felony, it can be disincorporated but that is a very extreme consequence and, therefore, it is never done for that precise reason. So, it is not just creating the law. It is creating the will to enforce such a law. This would require a change in state power.

VW&PK: There are studies that seem to support the view that there is no racial bias in the ways that the American police deal with minorities. The disparities registered in police statistics are said to be more an outcome of different lifestyles. Like, black people tend to be more policed, since they spend more time outside their apartments. What do you think of this type of reasoning?

AV: It is mostly ridiculous. But, more seriously, there is a whole industry of people who are committed to this idea that there is not really any racism in policing in America, and that this is all just made up by people trying to gain racial advantage. Deeply conservative people like Heather Mac Donald, etc. The reality is that first we have widespread discrimination in housing, employment, the delivery of social services, the delivery of medical services, the delivery of education services and that this is reproducing and exacerbating a long history of racially discriminatory practices. And that all of this is backed up by mass criminalization and intensive and invasive policing. It does not require racism on the part of individual police officers or even their commanders. The racism is built-in in the decision to use police to manage social problems. Especially those problems in black and brown and poor communities because those communities already have more social problems because of these long legacies of discrimination and racial exploitation. And then we make those problems worse by giving them only policing and incarceration as strategies to resolve those problems. And that is a political problem. That is rooted in political decision-making much more than it is rooted in police decision-making.

Police are trying to establish an idea of order which means that things like street crime and property crime are antithetical to them. The problem is the mechanisms that are available to them for resolving that involve axing out 10 or 20% of the community. And that 10 or 20% of the community is actually integral to the community. They are people’s husbands, brothers, fathers, sisters, whatever. And so that… even when they feel or attempt to act in the best interest of the community – and you see this like with black and brown police officers –, they think they are helping the community by getting the bad guys out of their own community. But the very process of enacting that drives mass incarceration, drives family insecurity and is never successful. We put literally millions of people in prison in the US on drug charges and anybody can get any kind of drugs they want. It just does not work. So, even when well-motivated, well-intentioned and actively trying to produce security for those communities, their work is actually ultimately ineffective.

MN: I can confirm that everything Alex has just said about US is absolutely true of the UK as well. So, I do not need to be adding more information about it. But what I do want to add is I do think there are two issues that I think need to be the focus of attention. One is the extent of discretionary power that police officers have. It is a remarkable institution in the sense that the extent of the discretion at the lowest level is enormous and that coincides with the very ambiguous reasons that police officers can have – ambiguous, I am being kind here – reasons that police officers can give for engaging in stopping people, questioning them and searching them. So, you can be stopped for moving too fast, moving too slowly or remaining stationary. And once you give officers on the streets that kind of abstract notion of reasons to stop people and question them and an extensive discretionary power that they have, then it is almost guaranteed that they are going to use those power in the ways that they do.

I am going to use the UK example, even though there are far more examples from the States. Time and again, black people are stopped in the UK for driving too fast or driving too slowly or driving partially on the wrong side of the road. This was the case with Bianca Williams, an Olympic runner, with her partner and their child in the car, just this week. It is quite clear that in this case it was stop and search because she was a black person driving a Mercedes. But you give police officers discretionary powers and you give them very ambiguous reason for stopping people and you are guaranteed to get the kind of confrontations that you get that results in kind of killings that you are interested in. So, you have police killing after police killing as black people are stopped at the officer’s discretion, questioned, and then force is used against them: George Floyd? The police stopped him because they suspected he was using a forged bank note. Eric Garner? Stopped and questioned on suspicion of selling cigarettes without a license. But what all of this also reveals is the sovereign violence that is captured in the very body of the police officer. Police officers have the power to kill us on the street. The power to police is the power to exercise violence, and when you give those same officers almost total discretion then you can be sure that the deaths will pile up.

VW&PK: All of this has been criticised by many criminologist and other social scientists, even in TV shows, and very little has actually changed. What does this say about the power of social scientists trying to explicate this stuff and what does it say about their power in a society?

AV: I went to a talk that Todd Clear gave. Todd Clear is an American criminologist, at the time, he was the head of the American Society of Criminology, which is our main criminology body. It was 2000 or so, and he said: For 30 years, criminologists have been writing papers about why mass incarceration is a bad idea. And for every one of those 30 years the incarceration rate has increased.” He continued: ‘We don’t need any more research papers about mass incarceration. What we need is political power. Frankly, I am here to tell you that if you want to actually reduce mass incarceration, you should reconsider becoming criminologist. You should become housing organisers and labour activists and working in communities because this is a question of power, not of analysis.’

I personally came out of those circles. Before academia, I was a community organiser. And that has always been a central orientation for me. These are questions of power. And that is why I wrote a more popular book and why I spent so much of my time doing outreach to communities and to mainstream media and things like that because I am interested in trying to build political power rooted in this deeper analysis.

MN: I think there is some work to be done, some theoretical conceptual work which asks questions about why it is that capitalism is so attached to this particular mode of managing human beings. And I do not think we have answered that. I mean there have been some answers. There is a comment that Marx makes, it has been very badly translated, but he makes it in the 1840s and it is about what he calls the cell system. At that point, of course, the cell system was well-established as the mode of punishment as well as reform, and Marx picks up on this way in which it has emerged from theological torture and theological territory. Why? Because in early modernity the ‘cell’ was the name for the small room in a monastic establishment. The word stems from the Latin cella meaning ‘small room’, ‘storeroom’ or ‘hut’ but also related to the Latin celare meaning ‘to hide’ and ‘to conceal’. It was gradually extended to describe the segregation, classification and management of those within the small and discrete spaces of confinement developed for the inmates of prisons and asylums. The monastic cell was a space for training and disciplining one’s ascetic development, but also a sacred and, therefore, social space. And it was likewise a space of performative ritual. So, the bordered space of the monastic cell was to coincide with the bordered enclosure of the soul, and both cell and soul were also spaces of battle: against the flesh and hence against the Devil. This all remains inherent in legal punishment and the idea of power of law and, in particular, legally isolating human souls from each other in cells. Isolating human souls from the outside world, the world outside the prison, the world outside the cell and from other souls within the prison.

But then if you remember, and I was hoping we might get this whole interview without mentioning Foucault but here we go: if you remember, it is maybe significant that Foucault at one point describes Discipline and Punish as a history of the modern soul. That, actually, we need to grapple with the way in which the capitalist state has for a very long time now been really committed to this notion of the reformation of human souls, the management of human souls, the incarceration of human souls. And if you think about it, you know, Tocqueville goes from France to the States in order to study precisely this thing: the cell, the prison. And out of it spirals an analysis of the whole of America as an entity, as a polity, as a democracy, as myth. Everything spirals out from his starting point of the prison cell. So, one reason why nothing has changed despite all of the social scientific analysis of incarceration and how it does not work is because most of those analyses do not get to grips with what it is that the capitalist state is committed to when it is committed to confining people in this way.

VW&PK: What do you think that policing will look like in US and in the UK in 20 years? Do you think it is going to be the same, or…?

AV: I would say that one of my big concerns is that I see the rise of right-wing populism in Hungary and Poland and other parts of Central Europe. My concern is that this will engender a new framework for concerns about legitimacy that will allow for the unleashing of more violence and repression from police that will target not just political enemies but also immigrant communities and other vulnerable communities. So, I would expect to see intensification of repressive policing in those places. Well, but who knows, right. Another possibility is that it will look more like intensive and invasive social work backed up by electronic monitoring and predictive policing algorithms. It will be less violent, less bricks and mortar, but it will be more invasive. That is the Foucauldian turn for you, Mark. So, it will become less overtly violent and repressive but more invasive and pervasive.

MN: One question that these movements will have to ask concerns police immunity. This question is in part what I am working on now, which is a broad project called Politics of Immunity. And one part of that concerns the immunity attached to officers of the state – soldiers as well as police – when they kill. As you know, the level of antipolice sentiment is at its highest when the police are at their most violent on the street, in other words when they use their discretion to kill. And when people start campaigning for justice for their lost loved ones, they always come up against the problem of police immunity. Some of the current struggles are making some inroads into that, or at least coming up against the power of police immunity, even when that immunity is supposedly ‘qualified’. To challenge that whole logic of immunity would be an enormous achievement. It would be quite remarkable given where that logic comes from, which stems from the idea that the state can grant immunity to its representatives – it has its roots in the immunity of state ambassadors and the idea of diplomatic immunity, and so takes us to the very core of state power, as the ambassadors would have immunity for acts conducted in the name of the state. So, to make inroads into the idea of police immunity would be to make, I think, remarkable inroads to whole logic of sovereign violence. But I think if there is one thing we should have learnt from 2020 so far, it is: do not make predictions (laugh).

VW&PK: We are going to conclude in a similar way as we started. This is a criminological journal, so we cannot but ask: How do you relate to the discipline of criminology? In The Fabrication of Social Order, Mark distanced himself from criminology, including radical or critical criminology. But some may perhaps consider his work to be part of critical criminology. We think Alex, for example, may. How is it then?

MN: I am surprised to hear you saying that people regard what I do as critical criminology. I do not see myself as a criminologist at all. And I do not see myself as a critical criminologist. I think that critical criminology is actually not that critical. It tends to just kind of replicate and reintroduce the main interests of criminology. In doing so, it also tends to work with a very narrow conception of police, which is precisely what I have been arguing against. As I have said, we need to work with much more expansive notion of police which opens up the space for an analysis of how the police institution functions next to other institutions that engage in policing. The problem with criminology is that it really cannot go down that road because it is defined by virtue of the fact that it is the study of crime. The expanded notion of police and the critical theory of police power is defined by its nature as a political project. Even when critical criminology says it is interested in how crime is fabricated as crime or created as crime, it is still concentrated in the terrain of crime and, therefore, it is limited in terms of what it says about policing in general.

AV: I think part of the challenge with Mark’s work is that it is read by critical criminologists. So, he has become associated with the discourse without being actually part of that discourse. I have struggled with what Mark has described. I agree that critical criminology, for the most past, has been almost a validating tool of the discipline of criminology in a sense and that this is problematic. I think it has been really important for me that I am in a sociology department in a liberal arts program. And there is a sense in which no one in a criminal justice or criminology program could have written a book like The End of Policing. There just would have been no space for doing that. You could not have organized your career in a way that would get you to a point where it would make sense to write a book like that because you are so involved in these institutions and thinking about them in their own terms.

And I think that, for me, it was important that I was an urbanist. I did not study anything related to criminal justice in college as an undergraduate. I took one legal theory class; that was it. Policing to me was always understood as one of a whole range of governmental options and a deeply problematic one (laugh). So, I always came at it with this deep critique. And I think that we need to get more folks from history and anthropology and sociology to take over the discourse about these institutions. The real critical discourse is not going to come from within criminology, except at these margins where we know have this abolitionist discourse. So, I think that is the only real place to launch a critique form within these institutions right now.

MN: We could push this further. Historically, criminology would have once been incorporated into what was known as police science. In the broader sense of the meaning, police science was based on questions such as how to govern, how to organise the system, how to organize capital, how to make workers to work and so forth. And criminology becomes a very specialized discipline in the 19th century but, essentially, you know, there is a sense in which police science is still what it is, right? And critical criminology cannot escape that. So, it is kind of nothing other than a form of contemporary police science, right? It is part of the ideology of capital and the state, and how the state helps capital organizes and protects capital.

The fact that it is now an established academic institution is one of the ways it serves to undergird the whole discourse of police power. It gives the police power a kind of academic respectability by virtue of it having a critical wing. There is not much to distinguish it from the whole rack of police scientists working in universities across Europe and in in the States in the 18th century, basically giving criminological advice – critical criminological advice of course! – to Princes about what to do with or about the criminal classes. George Jackson, one of the Black Panthers, once commented in one of his letters from prison that the best thing we could do with all those criminology books is to just burn the lot of them.


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