SocraticGadfly: Myths about the police abound from both New Left and libertarians

January 02, 2015

Myths about the police abound from both New Left and libertarians

From both the New New Left and from libertarians, we're getting all sorts of teh stupidz on modern police being created as an instrument of control (labor control on the New New Left, general quasi-fascist control from libertarians) rather than what they really were created for by Robert Peel, and that was first and foremost as a way to control crime.

Showing again why I rightly removed Counterpunch from my blogroll, Sam Mitrani spouts the New New Left nonsense.

Edited from an exchange of emails, here's my refudiation of his piece.

First, something halfway like policing existed 2,500 years ago with the Shah's eyes and ears in the Achaemenid Empire, or the Imperial urban cohorts in Rome. Chinese of antiquity also had police forces that even did detective work. Roman vigiles and urban cohorts, Middle English constables and Chinese prefecture patrols did patrolling, and even did some criminal investigation. That and more (except the Persians, who were like a state trooper unit, not city police) are discussed in the "ancient policing" section of Wiki's generally good article.

So, right there, Mitrani is wrong as rain:
Before the nineteenth century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. 
Simply not true. And, for a professor of history giving me an "invitation" to learn more about police history, an "invitation" that seemed a mix of earnestness and lecture, it's somewhat disconcerting to see him not just minorly wrong, but majorly wrong, even while issuing that "invitation."

Now, on to modern times, which is where Mitrani's "narrative" proper starts. Recent readers here will note that when I have the word "narrative" in scare quotes, I'm not talking about a literary device but rather, a sociological one.

That said, on to examination of Mitrani's "narrative."

In 19th century London, second, Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police weren't invented as the first modern police force as "an instrument of oppression" or whatever.

Sadly, I've seen this meme or variations of it running around both portions of the New New Left and libertarianism, and it's just not true.

It's true that Americans refused to follow Peel's attempts at professionalization. It's also true that, at times, police were used to "thump" labor. (As was the US Army, which Mitrani admits.)

The modern police weren't created for labor control in general as their primary focus, "oppression" or not. While the "betters" may have been worried about the "lessers" bringing more crime to the city, it was the influx of numbers in general that was part of the issue. That's why Paris, a major city before London, had a police force long before London did.

And, 17th century Paris wasn't the same thing as 19th century London, anyway. They were separated by a gulf of a steadily growing British democracy, and by nearly 200 years of British idea-making and philosophy.

In fact, Peel based his ideas in part on the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Far from being an oppressor, Bentham was a "leveler," if you will:
Bentham became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He advocated individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalising of homosexual acts. He called for the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, and the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.
Pretty hard to claim that's the stuff of "oppression." Peel's Nine Principles of policing make clear his pragmatic approach, and the desire to move police in a non-military, non-oppressive direction.

Now, it's true that 19th-century American policing leaders didn't want to follow the "professionalizing" ideas of Peel. That's because urban American police in the 19th century were part of urban political power and thus responsible for many other things, including ward heelers passing out the grafting favors to the working class in exchange for their vote.

Between various portions of the New Left and various portions of libertarians spreading memes in the last month about why the police were "really" created, including the slave patrols  claim, memes that meet on the far side of the circle, we've got plenty of ... to borrow from Chris Mooney ... "motivated reasoning" being spread around.

My motivated reasoning is looking at the actual history of police, both Peel's, and before and after, around the world, as I told Mitrani.

His, it is clear, is indeed Mooneyite (love saying it that way!) motivated reasoning, which, contra Mooney, many liberals do plenty of. It's very clear that he wants to tell a narrative rather than (despite his earnestness of silken glove hiding small brass knuckles of a quasi-lecture inside in his reply to me) actually accurately discuss the history of modern policing.

So, spread the memes; spread them like fertilizer (hint, hint, Gentle Reader) to those who readily devour "narratives." But, I'm not buying.

This is why I call myself a skeptical left-liberal (for American political stances).

That said, he's not the only one spreading the memes. I reference libertarians as well.

Radley Balko, in his book last year on the militarization of modern American police, to which I gave an iffy three stars, makes some of the same errors. He gets ancient policing history wrong, and tries to shoehorn modern policing, specifically in America, into a preconceived narrative.

Behind this is the larger libertarian narrative, that "tyranny" is lurking in, under and around every actual or proposed action by any level of government. I sometimes think libertarians have wet dreams about the word. In fact, I have mentioned that before, as part of a discussion about libertarians' motivated reasoning on what counts as criminal behavior.

None of this is to say that "bad cops" don't exist. They do, and yes, I've blogged about it. However, contra another narrative that runs through certain portions of, again, both the New Left and libertarians, that doesn't mean that the majority of cops are bad. That said, neither are the vast majority of cops Santa Clauses in uniform. Rather, they're people who are doing a job with a fair amount of stress, and probably no more, if not less, racial bias than America as a whole, at least in police forces that have a certain amount of diversity.

I noted above that these two narratives meet in a circle on the far side of nutbardom.

The "class repression" myth ultimately opens the door for Black Bloc types to steal and vandalize in the name of economic justice and equality. The "tyranny" myth, as noted at that "discussion" link, ultimately opens the door for stealing from the government.

Oh, well, this post does fit with a New Year's resolution — to be even more resolute, as part of my developing neo-Cynicism, in rejecting "narratives."


Simon said...

Would you call Cornel West, Chris Hedges and Chomsky are New Left?

I would hazard a guess they wouldn't say that modern police were created as a tool for control, but as one of arm of the state and elites it protects, they would say they have certainly developed into one.

Putting aside what appears rampant civil forfeiture and covert racism, modern policing in the US is a good way to pass on surplus military gear, and willing partner in security related profits it can generate, like the War on Drugs.

This isn't to say all police are bad apples or profit driven, but given the myriad abuses and problems, combined with profit driven prison system, it sure as hell stinks to high heaven.

Gadfly said...

Chomsky I would call a member of the New Left, from its earlier iteration, yes.

Cornel West I would call "Cornel West."

Chris Hedges, no, I wouldn't call him New Left.

That said, you've probably seen that US Attorney General Holder is at least partially pulling back on asset seizures — and in part at the prodding of the US Congress.

Simon said...

So where is the difference? While their messages aren't exactly the the overall themes are the same.

Sure there are points of difference as seen in a recent interview of Chomsky by Hedges but of the all the multiple interviews I've watched they have more in agreement than disagreement.

No, apart from Holder leaving and his token wrist slapping of bankers I wasn't aware of any moves in that area. If anything like his moves on bankers it would be mere lip service.

Simon said...

BTW after posting that I did come across this.

The Function of Police in Modern Society: Peace or Control?

Scholar Sam Mitrani says the police were created to restrain the working class and the poor

Simon said...

So if you look your link to the counterpunch article or the video part of the problem from the quote is not stating

'Before the nineteenth century, there were no [MODERN] police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world.'

And shouldn't your title be

'Myths about the [US]police abound from both New Left and libertarians'?

Personally I don't think he does present enough evidence -granted if one only reads the article or watches the clip- and would see the creation of the police as a public order and protection of property policy.

But again like parallels to the drug war and later prison industry, the fact that the impacts fall mainly on certain poorer elements of society and helps to keep them in place is a useful -even if not intended- consequence of such policies.

& Given America's racial history and current biases in sentencing against African Americans, these polices and intuitions may not have been consciously created to keep them in check, but it looks like that's what it has ended up doing anyway.

BTW would you say the GOP attack on voter 'fraud' is sincere? If I'm cynical is that motivated reasoning?

Again given the US's history I think the New Left can be forgiven for seeing oppression phantoms.

Lastly regarding how many police are good or bad and Balko, listening to some of the examples he has in his book; the fact there is no national records on how many people are killed in the US by police is I think quite telling and disquieting in itself.

Gadfly said...

Well, Counterpunch/Mitrani should have then said there are no Modern American police forces ...

I consider Peel's Bobbies modern.

You're probably right about my title. Given relatively less intense levels of policing in much of the West, these discussions probably don't happen in most countries.

And, yes, even if not the primary intent, the level of policing in the US has the effects you note.


The GOP on vote fraud is ... sincere by its own lights? :) How's that.

Simon said...

Regarding the GOP voter ID push they will claim it is a sincere attempt to address a real problem of voter fraud. But from what I've seen no such problem exists and it is a simple attempt to restrict DEM voters - many of which are African American.

Stepping back you are right on the money about all sides having motivated reasoning and one needs to be skeptical of Liberal claims.

But like the voter fraud, sometimes it is so blatant in the US that I will forgive more radical progressives on some of their claims.

Granted I wont go the 9/11 conspiracy route but I'm more open to a consilience of power and financial interests rather than conspiracies. Having said that they do happen.

So if you agree voter ID isn't sincere, can we say it is a racist policy to suppress African Americans(AA)?

I would say no. Primarily it is keep GOP in power and the fact that it has a negative impact on the poor and AA's would be a bonus. Maybe the people promoting it are racist but the main goal isn't to keep AA down.

Gadfly said...

I would agree; the primary goal is staying in power.