The recent, very violent policing of protests against the G20 meeting in London has become a matter of concern. The story that the authorities tell is one of disobedient police officers. The story, with a bit of imagination, could be understood as if, perhaps, there aren’t just a few bad apples in the barrel, some individuals: maybe there is a disease inside the institution, indeed it is “very worrying“:
“Some officers now appeared prepared to flout recent orders from senior commanders to display their numbers, Huhne said, with another officer photographed at the protest staged by Tamils in Parliament Square with his numbers disguised. “What we appear to have is repeated cases of police officers ignoring the direct orders of their police supervisors and this is very worrying.
“There’s only one motive for a police officer disguising his identity and that’s because he thinks he’s going to be doing something reprehensible.”
Senior Metropolitan police officers held a series of crisis meetings throughout last week and sources said Sir Paul Stephenson, the new commissioner, was determined to get a grip. One Met source said he was ready to “kick some ass” among senior officers. The IPCC has received more than 185 complaints about the G20 protests, of which 44 are not eligible for consideration, including complaints from people who saw footage on TV. Around 90 complaints about use of force included witness accounts as well as those from alleged victims.”
It is obviously wishful thinking that the current concern will translate into institutional reforms on a large scale. Most likely it will subside into a few firings, extended suspensions (paid holidays) and early retirements with golden handshakes. The police as an institution is intricately connected to the economy and representative democracy, representing industrial, private interests, as such it is a force of violence that is mobilised when the masses threaten the elite. The police are the arms of the agents of waste.
Since the Peterloo massacre in 1819, “when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 gathered at a meeting to demand the reform of parliamentary representation“, there has been a need for a police force, a systematisation of violence and force against the people, since the society in which we live, the capitalist economy, is a system of few winners, many foot soldiers and many losers, amongst whom you can always recruit for the armed forces.
It is a forceful system of violence. That is how it operates and a debate about intra-institutional reform – boiled down to getting rid of political and career opponents, orchestrated by whoever are in the current administration – can never be anything but a finger in the wound. If the violence of the police force is to be addressed, it should be so in the context of democracy, citizenship, property laws and human rights (if you believe in democracy). Reshuffling the mid-level management of the police force and promoting friends and allies – as institutional reforms tend to – is hardly going to make any difference.
Why is the violence of the police force suddenly more visible? In your face?
There might be a clue to to answer that question in the fairly recent stories of a “summer of rage“, brought by the celebrity-industrial complex, presumably scripted somewhere in dark corridors, in which the public is prepared for more disorder and more policing. When the poor suffer during famines and financial crises etc. there is bound to be unrest, because it is a matter of life and death. The rich and powerful, of course, don’t want to share, they scale up the police force to keep things as they are. First they scaremonger: “each should keep to their own“.
The “summer of rage” story is an attempt at creating in the public imagination a certain fear – fear of those who might rise, and a seed of condemnations of such actions, should they occur – that can justify scaling up the violence of the police force. Divide and conquer. Manipulated enclosure from within and forceful enclosure from without. It is also an attempt to to “frighten people off protesting about climate change” and whatever else might concern citizens who care for community, life and the planet. The brutality of the G20 policing is only a sign of things to come – a dress rehearsal, as it were. The recent pre-emptive arrests in Nottingham is another indication of where things are going:
“Police have carried out what is thought to be the biggest pre-emptive raid on environmental campaigners in UK history, arresting 114 people believed to be planning direct action at a coal-fired power station.” – pictures and more here.
Is it really as simple as that? Looks like it.
When these dynamics reach certain proportions things can explode, revolt, revolution, or massacre and in the 1930s the crisis of liberal democracy and the capitalist economy exploded into the Second World War, continuing the war for control over resources, mainly crude oil, that began with the First World War, and which has been interestingly explored by comedian Rob Newman in his brilliant History of Oil around the Baghdad Railway.
In that period anarchism reared its beautiful head in particularly Spain – life reaffirming itself – and it took he combined forces of Fascism and Stalinism to crush the social movements and the possibilities they successfully showed the world. It is violence all over. Not much of a chance for life and community building when you are always under pressure, policed, ruled and taxed. Kept down. From the Paris Commune to the Nottingham pre-emptive arrests it is business as usual. Repression and consequent radicalisation. A cycle of violence, a spiral fuelled by violent exploitation and policed by force. Resisted all ways.
The police force is an institution that is needed in some form, but not anything like the current version. Community support and a feeling of solidarity and trust must of course be organised in any community, no matter how utopian a state of affairs it is possible to imagine and realise. The police is only necessary in its current violent form because the underlying system – the political order – requires it due to an inherent disproportionate distribution of power, wealth and health. It pisses people off.
With the rise of the urban living spaces the violence with which the armed forces acted as a protection for the landed, the gentry, the industrialists and bankers became all too visible to too many people in the middle, who might lose faith in the system. Confrontations grew too big: there are many people in a city and urban guerilla warfare soon became an architectural matter. Paris is a prime example of wide avenues where revolts can be contained more easily than in small streets and alleys, built by Napoleon after the French Revolution. After the revolution anyone is a conservative – protective of what they have gained. The middle classes took over, pushed the blue blooded creatures out of the control room of the economy, while a police force – a domestic armed force – was instituted to keep the new poor at bay.
The Peterloo Massacre was a milestone in those processes. Legally speaking, property laws – draconian property laws in a brutal system: In 1742 Pinks and Jenkins were hanged for stealing thirty-six fowls valued at £2 – go hand in hand with the extension of the police force, – as more and more people make exclusive claims to land and resources the force and violence grows to contain the starving, the despairing, the destitute and the plainly outraged. It is at this conflict point that a transcendence is needed. Appealing to the state for recognition and rights in law is to appeal for a membership in an exclusive club that will never accept everyone and everybody. To gain rights through recognition of ethnic, community, interest or preference group is to save your own, while the rest are sinking.
“It is quite wrong to assert that, in a constitutional state, the struggle for existence becomes a struggle for law. On the contrary, experience shows conclusively that the opposite is the case. And this is necessarily so, since the law’s concern with justice is only apparent, whereas in truth the law is concerned with self-preservation. In particular, with defending its existence against its own guilt. In the last analysis, a normative force always comes down in favor of existing reality.” (Walter Benjamin 1920)
It has also been observed that the working classes are subsumed into the system through the roles as representative, getting a taste of power (substitute, for instance, Tony Blair for Jaurés):
“The representatives of the working classes, Sorel observed, becomes an excellent bourgeois very easily. The hideous examples are before our eyes – Millerand, Briand, Viviani, the spellbinding demagogue Jean Jaurès with his easily acquired popularity. Sorel had once hoped for much from these men, but was disillusioned. They all turned out to be squalid earthworms, rhetoricians, grafters and intriguers like the rest” (Isaiah Berlin (1955) about George Sorel’s obervations at the end of the 19th, beginning of 20th century, on the dynamics of representative democracy).
There is seemingly little escape from the basic dynamics of the liberal, representative democratic order and its associated capitalist economy: it is a violent system at heart – it sucks you in and spits you out when need be. It is an unfair and unjust system, people are bound to get upset and foment revolt, especially when things get worse than usual.
That is what is happening these days and the police force is an extension of that system – a patriarchal, commanding and forceful hand with a message from the rich: stay away from what we have looted by enclosing your land, extracting surplus value from your labour and between exchange and use value and whatever else goes on in the financial realm.
The police has to be more violent. Their employers fear the poor, the masses, who might rise and take back what is theirs. From the streets of London, Seattle and Genova, from G8 to G20, WTO to the World Bank, IOM to XYZ, the people are organising against the elite and against the violent illusions of representative democracy. “These are unstoppable processes, until justice is done!“.
Unless there is a debate – leading to substantial change – about social justice (not legal justice!) and about the ownership of land, housing and the value of labour and the nature of representative democracy there will be no change, but for the worse. Neither the market, nor the heavily bureaucratised, coercive nation state can run things any longer.
“Due to the ideology-driven privatisation wave, the 1990s was essentially a lost decade for the struggle for clean water for all (…). Almost without exception, global water corporations have failed to deliver the promised improvements and have, instead, raised water tariffs far beyond the reach of poor households (…). While privatisation is no solution, neither is the status quo of often bureaucratised and ineffective, state-run water corporations which, in large parts of the developing world, fail to supply clean water to those that need it”.” (Reclaiming Public Water Achievements, Struggles and Visions from Around the World.)
The matters of scale are beyond central control mechanisms. Time to move over and let the people run the show, then things might slowly improve. It can hardly get worse. Otherwise history will just keep repeating itself until the entire planet is price tagged, exploited, criss-crossed by roads, concrete riverways, burned bridges and left for desert. Yet, there is still hope in common 🙂
A very good exposition of self-organising publics can be found in Christopher M. Kelty’s The Cultural Significance of Free Software. His concept of “recursive publics” is instructive and not limited to Free Software or creative agency in the intangible realm:
Recursive publics, and publics generally, differ from interest groups, corporations, unions, professions, churches, and other forms of organization because of their focus on the radical technological modifiability of their own terms of existence. In any public there inevitably arises a moment when the question of how things are said, who controls
the means of communication, or whether each and everyone is being properly heard becomes an issue. A legitimate public sphere is one that gives outsiders a way in: they may or may not be heard, but they do not have to appeal to any authority (inside or outside the organization) in order to have a voice. Such publics are not inherently modifiable, but are made so—and maintained—through the practices of participants. (p.3)
Recursive publics are publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals. (p. 7)
“‘Towards Food Sovereignty’ is an online book with full color photo illustrations and linked video and audio files. The fourth chapter describes the role of local organisations in sustaining local food systems, livelihoods and the environmen. The photos, video clips and audio recordings show farmers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, food workers and consumers all working to promote food sovereignty, -highlighting the importance of locally controlled and diverse food systems to sustain both people and nature.
Take the power back!
I have just started reading Jay Griffiths’ “Wild”, which opens in a manner reflecting its title, at a wild pace, a manifesto of The Wild Party, a call to arms. It commences with ayahuasca anecdotes from the Amazon – from the spirits of the wilderness. Far beyond narrow jurisprudence and economistic thinking, “Wild” encourages transcendence in its critique of contemporary life. It offers a way out. Shows it. A promise of a land and life beyond this. A life before death. Spirits in the trees, not shopping malls. Open horizons of thought, there where the White Man closes off with his gates and fences and subordinates all that is “other”:
“To my mind, at worst, the West operates a kind of ‘intellectual apartheid’ – the idea that our way of thinking is the only one. Really, there are more ways of living and thinking than we could ever imagine. … An awful lot of Western civilisation is absolutely beautiful in terms of art, culture and some technologies. But there’s also a deep unkindness within it: routine lives in which people feel their time belongs to others; lack of control; overwork; unaffordable housing. Such things kill people’s spirits. There’s an expectation that this is how the world is but actually it’s a very recent way of living.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself! Let’s go wild outside of society and leave the systematic violence behind. Wise Wild Words:
“There are two sides: the agents of waste and the lovers of the wild. Either for life or against it. And each of us has to choose.” (Griffiths 2008: 9)
“Wild: An Elemental Journey”
Cannibals and deserts, polar bears and passion, songlines and shamans. The essential wildness of the human spirit.
“A major book by a woman who is, no question, a major writer.” – Bill McKibben
“Incandescent, kaleidoscopic, brave, exhilarating, Wild is sensuous, cocky, magnificent, liberating … Joycean word-play, meticulous scholarship, ironic wit, crafted cadences. Wild is a profoundly important contribution, a raging oratorio.” – Richard Mabey, The Times
Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, if you’re looking,
that’s where you’ll find me.
Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society.