Are the Police Anarchic?

by | 29 May 2024

Following the publication of Melayna Lamb’s superb book A Philosophical History of Police Power, we have asked James Martel and Carson Arthur to respond to the book. Today we bring you James’ response.

Melayna Lamb’s A Philosophical History of Police Power makes the startling claim that the police are a force of anarchy (although she puts it as “an-archy” a distinction that, as I will explain further, is very important). Since that is pretty much the opposite of how most people think about the police, it is worth looking at the point a bit closer. The main claim of the book is to reject the notion that the police follow the rules, whether we mean the rules of states or of capitalism. Instead, they do whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want with an impunity that becomes retroactively conferred as being lawful. In particular, the way that the police rain death and violence on Black and Brown people is indicative of a kind of non-lawful, un-scripted and wholly an-archic set of actions that constitute the police power as such. 

In this truly beautiful book, Lamb shows that police power has always been a requirement to fix the rough edges of liberal (and not so liberal) polities. Beginning with Hobbes’ understanding that the multitude was always going to be extraneous and in need of being controlled to Hegel’s blatant racism, liberalism continually produces and requires its own other, one that requires the police as the institution that manages and contends with it. The police as an institution cannot obey the rationalisms and sanctions that liberal theory announces to the world. No, it must be as wild and untrammeled as this other is meant to be itself. If the police were to act in the way that they are “supposed” to act, that is as agents of the law, as manifestations of the will of the state and the people, they would fail in their duty to be as radically unmoored as those forces that they oppose. 

This helps to explain why for Lamb, although the police can do “anything” that they want (that’s the an-archic part once again), in fact, they can be counted on to do the wrong thing time and time again. White supremacy is a central feature of sustaining liberalism and so you get this strange sort of truncated, one way, form of the an-archic that always does the dirty work that liberalism would rather hide under the rug and then sanctify with a kind of blanket amnesty for the police via the notion that police power serves justice and the law (no matter what). Lamb concedes that there are times when individual cops are convicted, as was the case when Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. But she also points out that this is the exception that proves the rule. When Chauvin is on trial, he is one person accused of a crime. It is not the police that are on trial, but only him and his own judgment. In this way police power has hit on a way to always disguise its own true purpose. As a system it is left to its own an-archic and untrammeled violence and if and when it is ever held to account it fragments into its local and individual pieces, not a system at all but only one bad (or two or more bad) cop(s). 

Lamb takes us carefully through a series of key theorists, ranging from the aforementioned Hobbes and Hegel to Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben and Denise da Silva, to explain how this form of police power offers a situation where you get, as it were, the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, there is the absolute impunity wherein, as an avatar of law, the police as such can never be “wrong” (only some of its lieutenants can err). Yet, at the same time, the police is only ever the effect of such actions. It is always doing wrong and being violent and racist even as it is said to be immune to precisely such accusations. 

The rigor and care of Lamb’s argument is what makes this book so successful in naming something that is so ubiquitous but disguised by the seemingly shocking notion that the police are an-archic. Clearly, they are anything but! Isn’t the police the opposite of any kind of an-archic (not to mention anarchic) forces? But that is precisely where this paradox is hidden and so, with a laser sharp focus, Lamb finds those hiding spots and holds the entire notion of police power to account. 

There are quite a few surprises along the way. Foucault, for one, comes under criticism for failing to follow his own insights about the nature of order and biopolitics, by seeing the police as a kind of extension of sovereign power. More particularly, despite his claims for a distinct rupture between the sovereign and biopolitical epistemes, for Foucault police power is rooted in forms of political agency that long predate the human sciences turn to questions of life and biology that instantiated the time of biopolitics. In this way, police power remains, like sovereignty, a wholly negative power, as opposed to the positive powers of biopolitics and thus is “only” an agent of suppression, missing out on the very raison d’etre of police power in the first place, its ability to reckon with the detritus of liberal political and economic forms in ongoing and creative ways. 

Hegel too comes under fire for the way that he effectively de-historicizes the working poor, thus creating a permanent underclass which is an inconvenient product of the unfurling of spirit in history more generally. In this way, Hegel cannot avoid making the “bad” police a permanent feature of his own philosophy even as it is something that he might otherwise specifically claim to be disappearing as history reaches its culmination. 

Where some of these earlier thinkers get their due in a more critical way, Lamb also elevates the work of Da Silva in ways that her work richly deserves. Da Silva in particular refuses to accept the concept that systematic racism and the frequent murder of Black people is in any way a contradiction or even a paradox in terms of the actions of the police. As she notes, for Da Silva the very idea that such crimes are somehow “external” to the police as such serves, once again, to hide the very problem that Lamb herself sleuths out so effectively. 

For Lamb, an-archy is the constituent and dis-ordered part of the order itself. As she puts it “thus an-archy can be linked to the prohibited dissolution of order, which in reality covers over the an-archy that is precisely captured in and through the figure of the police.” (p. 134).  Indeed, she makes the even deeper point that disorder (or an-archy) is itself a direct product of the “order” that comes from liberalism itself; the one cannot exist without the other. And here, we begin to see the difference between an-archy and anarchy (that dash is crucial!). If an-archy is about the disorder that represents the unowned but constitutive part of the production of order (one of Lamb’s examples is Hobbes’ state of nature and the way that it remains bound with the social contract that supposedly banishes it) anarchy is, one could say, about a different kind of ordering altogether. This kind of order does not disown and reject a part of itself and relegate that part to a state of permanent outlawry which requires the police to eternally battle against it. If the police is an an-archic institution, an anarchic institution is instead one in which the very notion of the police is anathema, a form of  true abolition where no part is excluded and no part stands in any kind of hierarchy over any other. 

The radical premise of Lamb’s book is that one can never get the police “right;” no amount of reform or training will make the police good. They will never be able to live up to their own charge and never perform their task as they are meant to. The very existence of the police is a sign of the radical disordering (and an-archy) that lies at the heart of the liberal project itself (the fascist one too, in fact, albeit in a more overt way). Abolition, in this case means, not only the elimination of an-archy but of the system that it is opposed with more generally.  In the meantime, Lamb admonishes us not to be surprised or shocked when the police kill another Black person, when they are sadistic and violent or indeed “unlawful.” This is what the police were put on this earth to do and they do that job very well. Unless we recognize this fundamental truth about the police, we will always be trapped by liberal excuses, the hope that just around the next corner is that perfection of police powers that will lead to harmony and justice. That trap becomes increasingly hard to believe in, and hence succumb to, when one reads Melayna Lamb’s great new book. 

1 Comment

  1. The anarchist police apply to the police of Cuba, Venezuela? Haiti, Gaza? Mexico, Afghanistan? Iran, North Korea? The part for the whole?


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