Mark Neocleous, Professor of Critique of Political Economy, Brunel University London, UK, speaks to ENA for the concept of ‘police power’, on the occasion of the re-publication of the Critical Theory of Police Power by Verso Books.
* Interview by Dr. Costas Eleftheriou, Coordinator of Political Analysis Unit, ENA Institute
How do you define the expansive notion of police power?
I like to talk of police power and not just ‘the police’. To think solely of the police is to limit the notion of policing to a focus on professional police forces. This weakens the concept considerably. For a start, it means that all the other state institutions that are involved in policing tend to be left out of the picture. But also, focusing solely on the police tends to lead us into the debates that surround that institution. So, I work with an expansive notion of police power that includes the professional police forces but is not limited to them.
In one sense, to work with such an expansive notion is to try and recuperate the kind of general police science that once existed. Such police science was concerned with the general management of society by the state. It saw itself as literally limitless. All the emerging capitalist states exercised a plethora of powers under the label ‘police’ These included medical care, welfare, public health, sumptuary legislation, bridge-building, street lighting. The reason these came under the idea of police is because the police’s remit was order in the most general sense possible.
What happens in the early nineteenth century is a so-called ‘professionalization’ of policing. This was also the start of a long period during which various functions of policing were hived off onto other bodies. For example, what was once medical police becomes ‘social health’ and then ‘the health service’. Managing the drainage system and the lighting of streets becomes public health and safety. The policing of poverty becomes ‘welfare’ and then ‘social security’. The police of the market got handed over to organs with names such as the ‘Food Standards Agency’. With such a differentiation, so the argument goes, the new police institution could better focus on its true remit of preventing crime and enforcing the law, for which it would now be professionally trained and organised. But there is a problem with this idea that the new police was somehow the ‘real’ police. First, regardless of the widespread assumption that the narrowly defined police institution exists to prevent or eradicate crime, it is still the case that even the most ill-defined ‘disorderly’ is considered grounds for police intervention. Hence the police are always intervening in situations regarded as ‘disorderly’, regardless of whether a crime has been committed or a law broken.
Second, all the institutions concerned with questions of good order and the behaviour of citizens within this order have a close relationship with what now count as professional police forces. So close, in fact, that the police institution continues to intersect with all other state agencies, from vehicle licensing organizations to schools and from housing departments to social security agencies. The development of modern forms of police power is thus identical with the development and spread of the institutions of political administration.
Third, the police also intersect and engage with all sorts of other bodies that claim some ‘authority over some ‘order’. Hence, to give an obvious example for Greece at the moment, one can find police suddenly being inserted into University campuses. In other words, despite the supposed narrowing of the police remit during the gradual professionalization of police forces, the police institution nonetheless still lays claim to the most comprehensive powers possible. It does this because the state wants it to liaise with all the other agencies, but also because simply enforcing the law will never be enough for an institution charged with the fabrication of order. This is the basis of the ‘special standing’ of the police power that all the early police theorists understood. My point is that to understand this we need a theory of police power, and not just the police.
In what ways does the police power fabricate social order?
The historical argument for this is complex, and requires thinking of police power through the critique of political economy. Marx, in volume 1 of Capital – the subtitle of which is, as you know, A Critique of Political Economy – reveals to us what he calls the ‘innermost secret’ of the bourgeois order. What is that secret? It is that capital can come into being and continue exist only by separating the bulk of the population from access to any means of subsistence outside the wage. Capital requires a population free, able, and willing enough to sell its labour power for a wage. To do this, capital engages in what Marx calls the systematic colonisation of the world. The secret, then, lies in the response of the state to capital’s demand ‘Let there be workers!’. The state responds by making that class.
Without separating workers from the means of production, capital could not have come into being. Without such separation there can be no capitalist accumulation. The state, through law and violence, and through the violence of its law, sets about forging the class of wage labour. It does so by violently removing them from access to land, driving them from their homes and turning them into vagrants. At which point, the ruling class passes laws allowing the state to police vagrancy, for example by allowing the authorities to send vagrants back to their birthplace in order that they be put to work. This is a disciplinary process designed in turn to make them as amenable as possible to becoming wage labour. The police power was central to this process.
My point is that the key to understanding police power is understanding its role in the fabrication of a social order of dispossession, exploitation, and accumulation. The Vagrancy Acts and labour laws of early capitalism were directed at those seeking to maintain a living beyond the wage relation. At the same time, there took place the theft of the common lands, the land and resources held in common by the people. Through his dispossession the landowners and emerging capitalist class granted themselves the legal right to claim the once common land as private property. This in turn made it increasingly difficult for anyone to sustain themselves ‘off the land’, so to speak, and thereby reinforced the fabrication of a class of wage labourers. This was, historically speaking, the police operation par excellence.
And we find a continuation of the same process in the centrality of policing to the consolidation of the wage form as capitalism developed. Acts which were once legal mechanisms of survival were gradually criminalized. This took place through the intensification of capitalist discipline within the workplace. In the United Kingdom and Europe, from the late-eighteenth century onwards employers carried out a concerted effort to enforce new criminal sanctions against practices previously considered by workers to be ‘perks of the job’. For example, dock workers had historically claimed an ‘entitlement’ to spilt commodities, such as the sugar, coffee, and other goods from the hold of the ship. Workers in the clothing industries claimed the leftover scraps of material. Farmworkers were permitted to collect grain that had been scattered following the gathering of the harvest. Practices such as these provided an important form of additional subsistence for workers. The workers could either use the items directly, or exchange them for items taken by people working in other industries, or could sell them for money. All of which, once again, enabled people to exercise some form of subsistence without relying on the wage. Yet in a move of huge historical importance during the industrial revolution – which was also a key period in the development of the police power – the ruling class increasingly argued that any such customary rights jarred with the idea of earning a wage. Plus, they came to believe that workers were encouraging such ‘spillings’. And so, such practices increasingly came under the criminal sanction. In other words, what were once customary and perfectly legal mechanisms of survival were made illegal and thus subject to new and intrusive police laws. This policing was central to the consolidation of the wage form. To put it another way, the process of consolidating the wage form took place through an operation of the police power on a massive scale. Indeed, the consolidation of the wage form and the development of police power went hand in hand. Capitalism was created by the police power.
This is also why ‘vagrancy’ or similar terms are still so crucial to the language of police. But there is also an additional reason that vagrancy is so important, and that is the centrality of discretion to police power and the ways in which ‘vagrancy’ permits the use of discretion. In contrast with most professions where discretionary power increases as you go up the organisational ladder, in the police organisation discretion at the lower levels is incredibly high. This is because discretion is at the hearty of everyday policing, and central to discretion is the idea of vagrancy. The UK is still heavily police by parts of the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Section 4 of that Act enables people to be arrested and punished for being idle and disorderly; for wandering around; for lodging in a barn, or in an unoccupied building, or in the open air, or in a tent, or in a cart or waggon; for not having any visible means of subsistence; for trying to obtain money through some fraudulent practice; for resisting any police officer; or even for simply ‘not being able to give a good account of themselves’.
So, vagrancy legislation is a classic police power, as it enables a police officer suspecting that someone is a vagrant allows them to be stopped, questioned, and searched. This gives absolute authority to the police power, in that the suspicion and accusation of vagrancy lies entirely in the hands of the police officer – it is in the police officer’s discretion to act as though a person is a vagrant. And, to go back to my previous point, the intention is not to punish a crime as such but to instead eliminate things considered disorderly.
What I am getting at is the permissive nature of the law when it comes to police powers. The law is always structured in such a way to allow the police to do what the police wants to do in the name of ‘good order’. Categories such as ‘vagrant’ are key to that.
What is the position of security and insecurity in the present society?
Much of our political arguments appear to be a form of endless chatter about security.
The idea of the police power rests on the idea of ‘ordering insecurity’. Police power is founded on a logic of ‘insecurity’ which then feeds into the fabrication of demands for ‘security’, which we are then told only the police can really offer us. This has proliferated in the last 2 decades. I think two over-riding features of this are most apparent and most dangerous.
The first is that security wants to become unanswerable. We are expected to bow down before every security demand. Plus, every attack on our lives and liberties comes in the name of security. Security is now the grounds of our obedience: shut up and obey, because security is at stake.
The second is that we are now expected to have internalised this. I call this statecraft as soulcraft, and at the heart of this soulcraft is security. We are expected to have our souls transformed in the name of security. We are expected to believe in it, and to keep showing that we believe in it by performing security ritual after security ritual. Our lives are being destroyed in the name of security.
What are the main influences of your theory?
If you mean intellectual influences, then my work is most obviously shaped by an ongoing engagement with Marx, because he offers the foundation of the critique of political economy as a means of grasping the social totality, and then the tradition of Critical Theory. That said, my work is heavily influenced by thinkers across political camps, and I learn from reading thinkers who are categorically in a different camp. For example, I always return to Thomas Hobbes, as the security theorist beyond any other. What was most remarkable about Covid, for example, is how it allows us to rethink the Leviathan. If you recall the famous image on the frontispiece of the first edition of Leviathan, it is generally best-known for the figure of the sovereign staring at the reader, his body made up of the subjects, while he holds in his hands the symbols of power. But below him in the image is the city, and it is empty apart from a few security personnel. But also, at the bottom, standing by the city wall, are two plague doctors. Leviathan is a city in lockdown. I love engaging with thinkers who provoke and whose work is rich in ideas. Hobbes does that, as do thinkers such as Hegel.
With those comments in mind, how do you evaluate the present state of policing during the pandemic crisis?
A number of things spring to mind. First, the pandemic has brought home the extent of the discretionary nature of police power. Historically, that discretion has always been applied to working class people, black people and, more recently, Asian people who look like they might be Muslim. What was interesting about Covid is that suddenly middle-class white people were being stopped and questioned. And they did not like it at all, so started complaining about it, demanding that the precise nature of police powers be specified in advance. So, the first thing to observe is the ways in which Covid has brought home that reality of police discretion.
The second is that medical police is now clearly out in the open again. It is quite clear that the constant reproduction of capitalist order now requires medical police on a scale not seen for a long time.
Thirdly, it seems clear that part of that new medical policing will rest on some kind of immunity passport or vaccination certificate. The central debate for many concerns whether such a document will be required for places of leisure – pubs, football grounds, and so on. But the real issue will be the potential use of such an immunity passport for purposes of work. What that will bring home is the centrality of medical police to keeping the wheels of capitalism turning.