Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mind's Eye Re: Cops and robbers

If a society is broken, you won't be able to fix it with policing. Neil pointed out that the "police" and "polite" have a common linguistic/cultural root: the Greek word polis. "Politics", of course, has the same root. All of these concepts go back to the basic meaning of polis, "town" or "city", that location where people come together in societies larger than the original hunter-gatherer groups where questions of power and conflicts of interest could be regulated in easy, informal ways, usually resulting in decisions which were accepted and supported by some kind of consensus. It's worth remembering that this was the universal form of societal organisation for humans for around 98% of our existence.

It was only around 10,000 years ago, with the discovery of agriculture, that humans started living in larger organisations. The spread of agriculture, cities, and the differentiation of functions and competencies in larger societies was accompanied from the very beginning by a power grab by the strongest – no longer inhibited by the consensus mechanisms of the small family/clan group (maximum size around 150 members). If anyone wants to read up on this kind of stuff, the writings of people like Jared Diamond are one way into it.

Since then, humanity has largely been controlled by elites of one sort or another. In the better iterations, those with power have realised that life is actually better for them if they can win the support of a broad group within the polis, rather than retaining power through oppression. The best way to do this is with ideas/shared mythologies/common narratives, which gain legitimation as they become part of the self-identification consensus in the society. Examples would be the Roman concept of the res publica ["the common thing"], or the idea of the king as the divinely ordained guarantor of the security and the protector from oppression of the little man, or the Enlightenment/bourgeois idea of universal human rights.

The real motivation for the power elites in these cases is the realisation that they actually do better when the mass of society is basically contented, and has the feeling that they are secure and have the possibility of some kind of prosperity. Built-in mechanisms for upward mobility and participation also help. If you want to see it completely cynically, it's just a development of the "bread and circuses" concept.

Ideas, however, also bring problems, because their constituent memes have a tendency to take on a life of their own. In other words, they work because people accept them and believe in them, but then they can also become a threat to the elites, because the working-out of their consequences often threaten their hegemony. This dialectic is one way of looking at modern history from the 18th to the end of the 20th Century. The Enlightenment memes of rationality, human rights, democracy, etc. had immense power to motivate and activate people, who actually believed in them. "Power to the People", if really applied, means "power away from the elites".

There was a moment in the West, in the immediate aftermath of the horrors of WWII, where the Enlightenment/modern/liberal programme seemed to have won the day. It didn't last. Even in the late 50s, Eisenhower (a Republican!), in a prophetic insight into deeper practical reality, warned against the "military-industrial complex" and its ability to practically negate the whole civil-liberal programme. The struggle for the "soul" of society continued through the 60s and 70s before – as Alan points out – the rise of neo-liberalism as propagated by Reagan and Thatcher finally sounded the death-knell of the inclusivist participational Enlightenment modernist project. The really insidious part of this was that the liberal "form" was left in place while the content was completely subverted.

There was a realisation among the elites that Lincoln was wrong, you don't have to fool all the people all the time, you just have to fool enough of them enough of the time. It doesn't matter if the hopeless underclass is growing, if more and more children are left behind, as long as you can continually manipulate the balance of power in your favour. Keep the bread and circuses going, keep enough of the people "believing the dream" (while at the same time controlling practical access to its actual realisation) so that discontent is kept below a potentially dangerous threat level. Even modern, sophisticated, information societies need an underclass to flip burgers, clean offices, mow lawns, and deliver packages of stuff ordered online – hewers of wood and drawers of water. In the US they're mostly black and Hispanic, in Europe they're immigrants from Eastern Europe, former colonies, and all those in Africa and the Middle East who are prepared to take the chance of drowning in the Mediterranean just to get away from the nightmare of their failed countries of origin (in which failure the West itself is deeply complicit). Then you tweak the situation even more to your advantage by persuading that proportion of your indigenous society which is rapidly falling down the social ladder (people who might have had a proud working-class identity fifty years ago but are now increasingly becoming just "poor white trash") that the immigrants are the ones to blame for their misery. The result is Tea Party, Front National, UKIP, Jobbik, etc. The long con, the big lie, getting turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.

Getting back to the point, before this background policing is no longer an expression of the self-regulation necessary in an empowered, functioning society; instead it's more and more an instrument of oppression, a necessary instrument of social control, the defence of the status quo. The Rent-a-mob phenomenon (with strong criminal tendencies) Molly refers to is just another consequence of deep dysfunction in our civil societies.

It seems to be the consensus among the elites that this situation is – from their point of view – controllable, stable. I don't really believe that this is a conscious conspiratorial consensus, most of it is ad hoc, a confidence that they can go on riding the tiger indefinitely. Most of the educated, working middle-class (and that includes everyone here on ME) is lulled into complacence, or moved to supporting the status quo by fear of the increasing alienation of the alien underclass in the 'hoods, banlieues, or camps for refugees/asylum seekers.

I'm afraid we're all playing with fire. I think of 1788 in Paris, or 1916 in Russia. Policing as control rather than regulation is trying to increase the weight on the lid of a boiling pot rather than turning down the heat. The longer this goes on, the bigger the bang when the mechanisms finally fail.


Am Montag, 4. Mai 2015 12:59:15 UTC+2 schrieb Molly:
The big ongoing news here in the states is the rash of clash between demonstrators and police. The demonstrations are (supposedly) brought on by the ever growing voice against the use of excessive force by police. It is such a complex issue, and the demonstrations themselves are not a simple problem.

Since living in Detroit I've heard many storied about how the riots of 1967 altered the course of history for the city, and changed individual lives forever. Most recently, I cried like a baby listening to the eulogy of a fine man given my his loving wife, my friend. He was a catholic priest at the time, and she a Detroit resident. He left the priesthood afterward and they married a couple of years later. There were over 40 priests at the services, three from Rome officiated the funeral mass. This guy was on the fast track to Cardinal when the riots shook his very core and changed his value system forever.

It gets me thinking about the very nature of the waves of demonstrations. In the sixties, of course, they were spurred by civil rights issues, Then the war in Vietnam (four dead in Ohio). Now it seems, in the age of transparency, the relationship between law enforcement and the criminals they deter (treatment during the time of arrest.) Complicated and exacerbated by the new "protest for hire" gang, the same well funded group that travels the US heightening racial tension (Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson.) Baltimore's riots had a big gang problem that hasn't been seen yet, the street gangs hoping on board in an organized way to conduct criminal activity in the chaos. Something's gotta give.

Certainly, the police methods employed in some metropolitan cities should be eliminated and cleaned up. But the police have to be able to defend themselves and do their job (which should be protecting and serving the public.) Where any of that goes off the rail is where it gets murky.

When we can't have civil unrest without it being corrupted by monied interests looking to make things worse, there is little hope for societal change. This may be the reason for the current chaos. Follow the money.


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