Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part 8: The Police and the Political Economy of Capitalism

Introduction 

The following provides many quotes from Mark Neocleous’s book The Fabrication of Social Order:A Critical Theory of Police Power (2000), with short comments. The author argues that there is an inherent connection between the emergence of the modern police and the emergence of a society dominated by a class of employers.

The issue of the abolition of the police is thus intimately connected to the issue of the abolition of a society dominated by a class of employers–along with the associated economic, political and social structures.

The Primary Function of the Police is to Maintain Order–Within a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers

According to Neocleous, the primary function of the police is to maintain order (not to serve the law but to use the law after the fact to justify actions to maintain order)–and the order which the police maintain is essentially a society where people produce their lives by working for an employer via an implicit or explicit contract (whether the contract is individual or collective in the form of a collective agreement).

In his book, Neocleous refers to two authors—the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and Patrick Colquhoun. Both implicitly or explicitly criticized Adam Smith’s characterization of the emerging capitalist society as a society guided by the hidden or invisible hand of the market, with individual interest leading to the satisfaction of social interest.

Hegel and Colquhoon on the Police in Modern Class Society

Hegel saw modern capitalist market society as insecure and thus required the intervention of “the police” (which for him did not just mean the modern police but also welfare functions) to maintain the security of property against the necessary existence of those who lose out in the market system—the poor or the rabble. Colquhoon also saw the issue of security of a particular kind of property—capitalist property–to be central to the modern functioning of police. Page 44:

As the working class were gradually incorporated into the body politic so the question of security became a class issue. I shall develop this argument by pushing to its limits Marx’s suggestion that security is the supreme concept of class society. The recognition of the insecurity of the class system of private property meant that security came to be thought of as something to be achieved rather than merely conflated with liberty and property and left at that. Writers who recognized this, such as G.W.F. Hegel and Patrick Colquhoun, did so because they understood that security is imposed on civil society by the state through the exercise of police power. In some fundamental sense then, security is the concept of police, as Marx puts it. Security is part of the rationale for the fabrication of order. In terms of the demand for order in civil society, it is under the banner of ‘security’ that police most often marches.

Colquhoun in particular argued that the problem of crime—and therefore insecurity of property—was intimately connected to the issue of working for an employer—he saw crime and insecurity as mainly a function of not working for an employer. Those who did not work for an employer were suspect since they were on the margin, suspiciously teetering into committing acts of crime. The modern police were to ensure that those who were the working poor did not fall into the indigent (idlers and those incapable of working for an employer). Page 45:

The insight made by Hegel, but developed more fully by Colquhoun, is that ‘police’ must be understood in the context of wider questions concerning property and commerce on the one hand and poverty and indigence on the other. Put simply: a massive and intensive police operation on the part of the state is
a necessary feature of civil (i.e. class) society for the simple reason that the class of poverty and the indigent rabble generated by civil society in turn pose a threat to private property and commerce, rendering civil society insecure. Civil society therefore needs to be policed – to be made secure –
by the state.

Hegel on Poverty, Wealth and the Police

What Hegel called civil society is capitalist society—the society where workers sell their capacity to work to employers, and employers purchase that capacity for impersonal purposes not defined by the workers themselves. In other words, civil society is a society of markets (purchase and sale, buying and selling) and a society of production for employers (subordination of workers to the class structure dominated by employers in general and, in the first instance, subordination of workers to a particular employer). Workers work for both a particular employer and, indirectly, the class of employers (I elaborate somewhat in the posts Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism) and Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left).

This society necessarily generates poverty (since wealth is concentrated at the opposite pole). Poverty is not some accidental feature of capitalist society; it forms a necessary feature of such a society and cannot be eliminated without abolishing the class power of the class of employers. Page 48:

The background to this is Hegel’s understanding of the insecurity brought about by the existence of a class of poverty, which is a necessary condition of civil society. ‘The emergence of poverty is in general a consequence of civil society, and on the whole it arises necessarily out of it.’ As such, there is no solution to it:‘The important question of how poverty can be remedied is one which agitates and torments modern societies especially.’

The problem, however, is not poverty per se, but the fact that from the class of poverty a further, more dangerous ‘class’ can emerge.

Poverty as such, from the point of view of the wealthy and powerful, is no problem. The problem with poverty is the potential threat such poverty may lead to—a threat to the security of the property and lives of the ruling class. Hegel had this to say on the topic: Pages 48-49:

When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living…that feeling of right, integrity, and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble … Poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble; a rabble is created only by the disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, the government, etc.’

While charity may offer some help, it is no solution. The state’s police power is the main mechanism for overseeing poverty. But the crucial point here is this: the police is equally no solution. Since it cannot abolish poverty,because to do so would abolish civil society, all the police can do is to prevent the poverty-stricken class from becoming a criminalized and pauperized rabble. It is at this point that the work of Patrick Colquhoun becomes pertinent.”

Colquhoun On the Poor Working Class and the Police as an Organization of Order and Security for the Class of Employers

The idea that the police mainly function to enforce laws (such as it is) is an ideology—it has some truth, but overall it hides the real nature of the police. As asserted above, the real nature of the modern police system is the maintenance of a particular kind of social order. Page 51:

Colquhoun’s emphases are significant here. Like Hegel, Colquhoun sees civil society as something to be ordered, and this is the project of police. ‘The Criminal Police’ is one aspect or branch of this project. It is essentially this aspect or branch (or something like it) which became institutionalized as the police from 1829.

Colquhoun categorized the poor into different subgroups in order to identify those who would most likely commit crime (as defined by the property system based on the employer-employee relation), and the function of police was to ensure that the poor, as far as possible, maintained its status as wage workers: police and political economy were wedded to each other. Page 51:

Given the five classes of the poor identified by Colquhoun–useful poor, vagrant poor, indigent poor, aged and infirm, and poor infants– the ‘great art’ is to establish a system whereby those verging on indigence may be kept in the class of useful labour and those who are able but not willing to work (vagrants) be compelled to do so. At this stage in his work then, Colquhoun’s criticism that in the present system ‘the Police…has provided no place of industry in which those who were disposed to reform might find subsistence in return for labour. 

The problem for Colquhoun was not poverty as such; his distinction between poverty and indigence pointed the way to his approach in defining the political economic/police problem. Poverty is not a problem since it is by being poor that people seek to work for employers. What is a problem is indigence—not working for an employer. Page 52:

…he [Colquhoun] begins to recognize the importance of labour to the production of wealth, and thus the importance of poverty, and starts to separate poverty from indigence. ‘Labour is absolutely requisite to the existence of all Governments; and it is from the Poor only that labour can be expected…It is not Povertytherefore, that is itself an evil.’ Instead ‘the evil is to be found only in Indigence, where the strength fails, where disease, age, or infancy, deprive the individual of the means of subsistence, or where he knows not how to find employment when willing and able to work.

More explicitly, Colquhoun links poverty and working for an employer, on the one hand, and indigence and crime on the other. Page 53:

Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, and, consequently, no property but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life; or, in other words, it is the state of every one who must labour for subsistence. Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient of society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man – it is the source of wealth, since without labour there would be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth. Indigence therefore, and not poverty , is the evil…It is the state of any one who is destitute of the means of subsistence, and is unable to labour to procure it to the extent nature requires. The natural source of subsistence is the labour of the individual; while that remains with him he is denominated poor; when it fails in whole or in part he becomes indigent.

Modern police function to maintain workers, citizens, immigrants and migrants in a state of poverty–not in the sense of a level of consumption below a defined poverty line, but in terms of a state of dependence on having to work for a class of employers. Those who form the edges of this kind of poverty–who are almost teetering into indigence–are particular targets of the modern police since they represent a more likely direct threat to the premises of that state of poverty and dependence on employers.

Already within the capitalist factory, idleness was being dealt with through disciplinary measures of the owner and managers and through the division of labour. Page 55: 

For Colquhoun, then, the major police problem is the tendency to idleness, immorality and depravity among the indigent working class. This problem was already being overcome inside the factory through the discipline brought about by the division of labour and specialization.

Idleness outside the factory was to be dealt with by the police. Page 55: 

Colquhoun’s interest lay in the problem of idleness outside the factory. The task of police is to employ a whole panoply of measures and techniques to manage idleness, extending well beyond the administration of relief into the morality, profligacy and propriety of the working class. The working class need to be taught the morality of work and thus the immorality of idleness and related activities such as drinking, gambling, cohabitation, prostitution, political subversion, trade unionism and, a point which will become important in the following chapter, appropriation of property from the workplace, as well as ‘crime’ more generally.

Ultimately, the indigent need to be put to work for an employer, and the police are there to prevent them from engaging in activities that make them independent of that dependence. Pages 55-56: 

The general idea, then, is to put the poor to labour, to make the working class work. ‘Indigence’ is merely coda for any attempt to avoid wage labour, to refuse exploitation. As Peter Linebaugh has noted, if a single individual could be said to have been the planner and theorist of class struggle in the metropolis it would be Colquhoun.

The accumulation of wealth requires the security of property, and the security of property requires the police. Page 57: 

Since for Colquhoun the acceleration of wealth can only be achieved ‘by establishing a correct system of police’, political economy must concern itself with this. Yet the science of wealth has failed to grasp this point. ‘In all the branches of the Science of Political Oeconomy, there is none which requires so much skill and knowledge of men and manners, as that which relates to this particular object [the poor].’ Thus the main concern of his proposal for a Pauper Police Institution and a Board of General Internal Police should be seen as his contribution to the political economy of the wealth of nations, and the set of measures which Colquhoun subsumes under the police idea should also be seen as, in a roundabout way, his contribution to the science of political economy, but in the form of a science of police. This in turn consists in showing not just the necessity of police to the prevention of indigence and thus crime, but to the security of property: ‘where Property is exposed, a preventive Police must be resorted to, in order to be secure’. Far from the discourse of police being displaced by the discourse of political economy and the system of natural liberty, in Colquhoun’s work ‘police’ and ‘political economy’ are two sides of the same discursive coin. Police is a complement to the political economy of commercial society, rather than its opposite.

The police arise to secure what is inherently insecure–a society of “free” contract, where some will win at the expense of others–and therefore there will be losers–potential and actual–who threaten the system of property and the accumulation of capital. Page 59: 

…because the foundation of the modern system of liberty is itself insecure it requires state
power. On this reading the police of the poor is a mechanism for securing the insecure.

The insecurity of capitalist property is inherent in its very nature since it is founded on the dependence–and hence the lack of security–of the working class. Page 61: 

The history of security is a history of the state seeking an impossible security from the terror of the death of civil society. Civil society, after all, generates its own enemies; the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers. In class terms this means that police is necessary because capital, as the modern master, is forever at risk of losing control of the class of which it is master. The economic inactivity of the class of poverty is the heart of the insecurity of the system, the resistance of this class to the social domination of private property is its next step, and the political mobilization of the class its highest form. Thus security involves not just the prevention and detection of crime but, more importantly, the imposition of a form of social police. The history of police as a security project is a history of private
property’s fear of its most radical ‘other’.

The police has to assist in making a working class that corresponds to the needs of the class of employers. Page 69: 

The forms of policing being traced here were a political force for the making of the working
class in that the ultimate aim of the police project was the commodification of labour through the consolidation of the wage form. As such, the project of social police has historically been central to the function of political administration in fashioning the market.

Thus, traditionally workers appropriated all kinds of “left-over” products related to work despite working for an employer–such as spare wood or scraps of iron that carpenters and metal workers used to take home. The criminalization of such activities went hand in hand with the increasing exclusion of workers from obtaining their means of livelihood except through the wage–and the police were there to prevent and enforce such “crimes.” Page 72: 

The increasingly dominant bourgeois class felt that the customary rights in question jarred with
the fundamental purpose of labour, which was to earn a wage, and raised a fundamental question: are those who labour entitled to appropriate the products of their own labour, other than through the wage received? The answer given by capital was increasingly a firm ‘no’. What had previously been seen as custom was gradually being reconceptualized as crime.

Theft was redefined in order to accommodate the employers’ definition of absolute private property: ownership of the means for workers to produce their own lives (ownership of such produced things as spinning machines, power looms, furnaces and so forth) was to go hand in hand with ownership of the commodities produced by workers (as when I worked at a brewery in Calgary, where the beer that we produced was owned by the owners of, at first, Carling O’Keefe and then Molson). 

The function of the modern police as agents of security or order is of course security and order based on wage labour and not security or order in general. Page 74:

The net effect of the first preventive police system was thus not just a defence of property, but the
creation of a social order founded on private property via the consolidation of the money wage and
commodification of labour. This pattern was followed in the development of policing elsewhere in the nineteenth century. It is clear from Philips’s study of crime in the Black Country that there was a concerted effort on the part of industrial capital, police and magistrates to impose the money wage on the worker class, while in Liverpool merchants complained of the way the ‘secondary economy of the streets’ threatened the power of private property and money, not just in creating alternative points of sale but also in draining the wages and time of those who should more properly be engaged in wage labour.

Any Movement for the Abolition of the Police Requires Integration of the Working Class 

For those who aim to abolish the police (or even defund it), it is necessary to take into consideration that the police are a central component in the formation and maintenance of a working class dependent on the class of employers. Resistance by the class of employers and their representatives to the abolition of the police (or just partial defunding) will be fierce; it is vital that the working class form part of the movement for the abolition of the police and not be unrelated or tangential to it. If the working class does not form part of such a movement, it is highly unlikely that such a movement will achieve its goals since the police and the class interests of employers are intimately related. Pages 75-76: 

one should see the street powers granted to the police as an expression of the state’s contribution
to class formation as well as class domination. The new forms of police operation coming into existence were fundamental to the imposition of the money wage as a means of making the working class, and thus need to be seen in the broader context of the role of police in the fabrication of
a new, bourgeois, order. The attack on the non-monetary form of the wage and its transformation into a fully-fledged money form meant criminalizing a range of traditional working-class activities, bringing them into the orbit of police power and thus legitimizing their oppression, a project
designed to stamp the authority of private property over the living conditions of the majority of the population and confirm the power of capital as the new master. In other words, the order of the new industrial workplace was brought about in part by the ordering power of police.

Any movement that seeks to abolish the police must take into account the close relation between the maintenance of a class of workers dependent on a wage or salary–wage or salary labour–and the function of the police to maintain security of absolute private property grounded in the market in general and the market for workers in particular. Page 77: 

The problem is thus not just to use the police to prevent crime, but that crime is committed as a means of earning a living without succumbing to wage labour. The way to prevent crime is thus to enforce wage labour.

The police function of maintaining order should not be seen in the narrow sense of preventing overt acts of behaviour newly defined as criminal but of producing acceptance of the new form of absolute private property, where workers produced commodities but no longer owned anything except through the mediation of the wage form. Page 78: 

When writers talk about the fact that the new police emerged as a means of maintaining
‘public order’, the argument generally rests on a narrow and somewhat misleading vision of disorder (the typical example is riots). ‘Order’ should be understood not just as the absence of riots or generalized peace and quiet on the streets, but as the acceptance of the capital–labour relation, the domination of capital over the working class.

The maintenance of such order cannot usually be effected through military means on a permanent basis–hence the police function and its penetration into “civil society” or the market system. 

The function of forming and maintaining order of a special kind–employer order–involves separating off working for an employer from those who obtain their means of subsistence otherwise. Those who obtain their livelihood otherwise are, in turn, classified as either criminals or the indigent (claimants). Page 79: 

In this sense discussions of ‘crime’ are frequently barely veiled discussions of disorder, a point to which we shall return in the following chapter. It was only with the development of the new police and bourgeois order that ‘crime’ acquired the kind of meaning which it had only dimly possessed in the eighteenth century but which it has possessed ever since. One of the major historical achievements of the bourgeois class was to simultaneously incorporate the working class as part of the new bourgeois conception of order and impose an ideological separation on the class by distinguishing the working class from the ‘criminal class’ on the one hand and ‘claimant class’ on the other.

Before, many obtained their subsistence through various means: theft, working on their own, working for an employer for a time, or begging. However, as the new class of employers and the new working class emerged, crime and the indigent became identified as the “other” of wage labour. Page 81: 

But the key issue in each case is how the distinction in question is related to the working class. Both criminal and claimant are understood as engaged in the refusal of wage labour – the criminal steals and the claimant claims in order to avoid work – and both claimant and criminal are viewed through the lens of idleness. This is a constant feature of bourgeois order…. But both criminal and claimant became one of the mechanisms of power by virtue of being an ideological by-product of the wage as a mechanism of power. The making of the working class was simultaneously the making of a claimant class and making of a criminal class. Both claimant and criminal have failed to achieve the dizzy heights of respectability by failing to be a bona fide proletarian; as such, they fall outside of the social pact. In both cases, the threat to the order of property is apparent; and for much of the time, the bourgeois class cannot even distinguish between the two ‘threats’.

The distinction between the citizens who accepted their status as wage worker and those who did not became increasingly characteristic of police work. Page 81:

Yet the distinction between a ‘criminal class’ on the one hand and the rest of the population on the other became increasingly commonplace in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the distinction as it developed focused almost entirely on separating the ‘criminal class’ out from the ‘poor but respectable’ working class.

Once the distinction arose and became somewhat fixed, though, the category of “criminal class” became reflected back onto the working class as potentially falling into the criminal class and hence suspect. Page 82: 

But such differentiation has a paradoxical effect. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted, the sharper the differentiation between the subgroup and the larger group and the more dramatic the image of the former in contrast to the latter, the more inevitable it is that the dramatic image will be transposed to the larger group. The image of ‘pauperization’ and ‘criminalization’ was so dramatic that it spilled over to the image of poverty itself, and thus the image of the working class. In the case of pauperism, the poor become saddled with the worst attributes of the pauper; as such they are always potentially
the pauper-claimant. In the case of criminality, the working class get saddled with the worst attributes of the criminal; as such they are always potentially criminal. It is for this reason that discussions of crime are often barely veiled discussions of class. The point is not that any particular group is police
property, however true that may be, but that because it is workers who are always seen to be on the verge of becoming criminal or claimant (or both), it is the working class which is the object of police power. The military metaphors within which both criminal and claimant are conceptualized within the bourgeois mentality – the perpetual ‘war on crime’ mirrored in the equally perpetual ‘war on scroungers’ – disguise the social characteristics of the enemy in question, which if revealed would show the battle to be no more than coda for the permanent low-intensity warfare against the working class. And it should be added that this is a war which the state cannot win, for to win it would mean abolishing the condition of private property that gives rise to it, and thus abolishing itself as a state.

I will end this post with this assertion by Neocleous–since the issue of the lack of criminal proceedings against the class of employers deserves more detailed treatment. Pages 83-84: 

In fact, one could argue that the institutions of the criminal justice system are geared to conceal rather than reveal the crimes of the powerful, and this despite the much higher cost, in both human and financial terms, of corporate crime. Such ‘costing’ would have to take into account the following: first, the phenomenal scale of income tax fraud compared to the fraud perpetrated by social security benefit claimants. Taking one year as an example, ‘there were only 17 prosecutions for false income-tax returns (as against some 80,000 cases settled without prosecution). But there were 12,000 prosecutions over that period by the Department of Health and Social Security for fraudulent claims by its (largely working-class) clients. The amount recovered in these 12,000 cases amounted to less than 15 per cent of the amount recovered by the Inland Revenue in its seventeen income tax prosecutions.’ Second, the deliberate cost-cutting measures ignoring health and safety standards at work, resulting in the injuries and deaths – some in ‘accidents’, some over a prolonged period of poisoning –of countless numbers of workers. As Engels commented in 1845, a social order which allows companies to place workers in such a position that they inevitably meet an early and unnatural death should be considered to have committed the deed of murder just as much as murder may be the
deed of the individual – ‘disguised, malicious murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.’ And third, the placing of products on the market which are known to be dangerous. To give but one example: in 1970 Ford released their new Pinto car, which tests had shown would explode from a rear-end collision. A cost–benefit analysis told them that installing the appropriate safety measures would cost $135 million, while prospective law-suits resulting from fatalities and injuries would be unlikely to top $50 million. It is estimated that between 500 and 900 people lost their lives as a result. The indictment for reckless homicide in 1978 failed.

By treating corporate ‘crime’ as mere failure to follow regulations and procedures and thus not ‘crime’ at all, the ruling class has defined itself as beyond incrimination. Those with social power by definition cannot be members of the criminal class. Being for the order of private property, the ruling class is by definition on the right side of the law.

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