Security and the Police of Souls: An Interview with Mark Neocleous, Part I

Mark Neocleous is Professor of the Critique of Political Economy at Brunel University in London, England. For twenty years, Mark was a member of the Editorial Collective of the journal Radical Philosophy and is currently on the editorial board of Red Quill Books. He received his doctorate in Philosophy from Middlesex University London and is the co-editor and author of a number of books including The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, Critique of Security, Anti-Security, and, most recently, The Universal Adversary: Security, Capital and ‘The Enemies of All Mankind.’ As a critical theorist examining issues of state power through the lenses of security, police, and war, Mark’s contribution is without peer and I thank him for taking the time to offer his analysis.

Nicholas:  What is pacification theory and how does it differ from counterinsurgency practice and doctrine, given your argument in your contribution to the recently-released book Destroy, Build, Secure: Readings of Pacification entitled “Fundamentals of Pacification Theory: Twenty-six Articles” which argues that counterinsurgency is “implicit in the concept of pacification” and that “pacification is implicit in the concept of counterinsurgency” conversely?

Mark: The first point to note is the conjoined history of the ideas of pacification and counterinsurgency. It’s quite a remarkable history. On the one side there is the long history of ‘pacification’ as an idea, traceable at least to the sixteenth century when it was used to try and describe the violent conquests of colonialism without using the term ‘conquest.’ In so doing it played on the idea of the ‘pax’ and its connotations of peace. In other words, it was a way of describing the violence of early modernity as a form of peace-building. On the other side, ‘counterinsurgency’ is a much more recent term, appearing for the first time in 1961 in a memo issued by the U.S. security state. But then, just three years later, the American state decided that it would also use the much older idea of ‘pacification’ to describe its own counterinsurgency practices. From then on the terms have a history that is intertwined although more recently ‘counterinsurgency’ has been predominant. For example, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was published in 2006 has a short section, just a couple of pages, in which it describes the pacification techniques used in Vietnam and the section ends with an oblique comment along the lines that such pacification measures are a useful guide for thinking about counterinsurgency. One senses that the authors knew full well that they are talking about pacification through the whole book and that they want the reader to know that they are talking about pacification but that they are going to use ‘counterinsurgency’ instead. The predominance of ‘counterinsurgency’ now, not just in the Manual but in political discourse more generally, is probably because it plays on the idea that there is some kind of insurgency to be countered – a rebellion to be crushed, a revolutionary movement to be stopped, a terrorist group to be thwarted – although from a socialist perspective we might observe that it’s more often than not the counterinsurgency that creates the insurgency, in that the insurgency exists precisely because a people is being conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt. That is, a people is undergoing pacification. But in terms of your specific question, the first point is to stress the interconnectedness of these terms in the mind of the state.

The second thing I have sought to do is to tease out from the idea of pacification something for our understanding not just of counterinsurgency, but of state power and capitalist violence more generally. Because when one works through the idea of pacification what one finds is not just an attempt by the state and its intellectuals to think about the crushing of opposition but in fact a whole logic of building a new social order and, as part of that building, the idea that the social order can and will be secured, that it can and will be based around the idea of ‘security.’ Hence the title of the edited book that we have just published: Destroy, Build, Secure. Everywhere one looks in the history of the idea of pacification one finds references not just to destroying, in the sense of destroying the insurgency, but of ‘securing’ and ‘building.’ The U.S. state in Vietnam used the conceptual triad ‘Build-Secure-Clear,’ which played in turn on a prior conceptual triad used by the French state in its attempted pacification of in Indochina, ‘Clear-Secure-Build.’ And when we reach for the U.S. Counterinsurgency Manual just mentioned what do we find? ‘Clear-Hold-Build’ as a core principle. What we need to pay attention to in the idea of pacification is not just the destructive side but the fact that the destruction takes place in order to build. Understanding this destructive use of state violence to build a new social order takes us to the very heart of bourgeois modernity in the sense that it reminds us of the fact that the bourgeoisie seeks to constantly build a world after its own image. If we accept that the starting point for socialist theory is to understand how the bourgeoisie undertakes this task – which is why Marx spends so long in Volume 1 of Capital describing this process and why Marx and Engels take several pages at the start of the Communist Manifesto pointing to the ways in which the bourgeoisie does this – then, in a sense, we can begin to make ‘pacification’ a concept central to the socialist critique of capitalism and its violence. What this would do is place the concept of pacification at the heart of critical thinking about capital and the state.

Nicholas: Much of the Left engages in critiques concerning the ‘militarization of police’ (and, less frequently, the ‘policization of war’). You argue that this distinction and delineation between police power and war power serves an ideological function for the bourgeois state by advancing the notion that policing is somehow more accountable than the military due to its legal constraints. According to liberalism, police can be reined in through greater enforcement of the law, which further obscures the role the law plays in cementing capitalist social relations of private property, accumulation, and criminalizing working class behavior. Would you first define police power and war power for our readers before analyzing the relationship between law and pacification?

Mark: That which can be defined has no history, as Nietzsche puts it. But more importantly, definitions of the kind you are asking for are the kind that appear in bourgeois social science, which works ideologically to impose precisely the kind of differentiation that is in fact the problem. Students pick up a text book and get definition 1: the police is an institution for the enforcement of law and order. And then definition 2: the military is an institution for defending the nation and maintaining peace. And there then follows a series of liberal dilemmas: how do we maintain their difference, keep them separate, and what do we do when they appear to be getting to close together. Hence the ‘militarization of police’ and ‘policization of war’ arguments. Our starting point has to be elsewhere. For a start, we need to avoid simply focusing on institutions. Policing is about much more than the police and war is about much more than the military. Thinking about war and police simply by considering those two institutions is to think in exactly the way the state and its ideologues want us to think. That’s why I like to stress the idea of police power and war power together and why it is important never to separate them.

Nicholas: Hence the title of your book War Power, Police Power.

Mark: Precisely. The comma in the title of that book is a dialectical comma.

Nicholas: And so where does law fit in this argument?

Mark: You pointed out that the distinction between police power and war power serves an ideological function by suggesting that policing is somehow more accountable than the military due to its legal constraints. That’s not quite right in that the whole logic of accountability and legality also surrounds the exercise of the military as much as it does the police institution. After all, we are often told that military power is only ever exercised according to the laws of war, and that the laws of war were agreed precisely so that war could be carried out legally – legally, that is, in terms of both the reasons for the war and the conduct of the war. This ideology of legality concerning war is important to recognize but, perhaps more important, the ideology of legality also underpins the exercise of the police power. It’s an ideology that insists that the police power is founded on the law and can be regulated by law, or ‘reined in’ as you put it. In terms of understanding something like police violence it is crucial, since time and again exercises of police violence get a legal justification, right down to police killings. The law more often than not recognizes a police officer’s right to shoot you far more often than it recognizes a cry such as ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ as grounds for not shooting you. So in one sense we might say that far from reining in police violence, law ordains it. Police work hand in hand with the law. Law provides a certain foundation for police actions and a legitimization of police actions. This is true despite the fact that the operative concept underpinning police power is order, since what the police power does is use law in its fabrication of order. This is one reason why ‘law-and-order’ live together as ideas within the bourgeois system.

This explains the centrality of law and legal ideology to the process of pacification. Time and again we are told that this or that form of violence is carried out in strict accordance with the law, and time and again we are told that pacification is being carried out in the name of law and order. Indeed, time and again we are told that without this pacification there will be no law. What this means, in turn, is that a critical theory of pacification has to involve a critique of law and legal ideology. This critique extends beyond pointing to law’s legitimizing role surrounding violence, and points to law’s far more general constitutive role in the process of order-building, of the kind we have just been discussing. To build a new social order requires the constitution of new forms of subjectivity and new forms of legal subject, most obviously – and again we could go back to Volume 1 of Capital here – law’s role in the constitution of wage labor. And the constitution of wage labor has historically been at the heart of the police power, which is why that power has been focused largely on the working class.

Nicholas: You’ve mentioned pacification as disappearing from official security documents after the U.S. war on Vietnam. What explains its recent resurgence within army field manuals, official reports, and other security-related documents? Further, what historical and contemporary insights does pacification offer in terms of making sense of the many past and ongoing “wars” undertaken in the U.S. and elsewhere (i.e. the War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Poverty, War on Undocumented Immigration, liberalism’s War on Waste, etc.)?

Mark: I’m not suggesting there has been a resurgence. Rather, I’m suggesting that the idea has never gone away and that it has remained a consistent presence within national security discourse and documents that have emerged from the national security state. In relation to the wars you mention, one thing that is so useful about the idea of pacification is that it brings together the ideas of war and police in the same concept. Pacification is the unity of war and police and, in particular, their unity in the building of bourgeois order. We can see this in the wars that you mention, which we can think of as modes of pacification, and which are wars conducted as police power or, to put it slightly differently, forms of mobilization of the war power in order to reconstitute or rebuild social order. The Left has tended to respond to such wars by treating the term metaphorically. I think we can do better by understanding them as police wars. Doing so enables us to better grapple with the way that the forces deployed in such a war shift from the inside to the outside and back again so that, if we use the war on drugs as an example, battles in this war fought in Colombia are said to be connected to battles fought in the same war fought on the streets of New York. But then battles in one ‘war on x’ turn out to be connected to battles fought in another and so we are constantly told that the war on drugs is connected to the war on crime and the war on communism and the war on terror and so on. Such interconnectedness is a way of encouraging us to believe that the wars in question require the exercise of state power in its entirety and never simply one institution. And we should note that such wars are almost always wars which will never end. This is why the policy documents and academic research which say that the war on drugs is not working tend to miss the point, which is that the war on drugs creates the space for exercises of power in the conduct of such a war. And if we are thinking about a socialist approach to this, we should add that the concept of pacification allows us to think of such wars in relation to the most significant police war of all, namely, the class war.

Nicholas: In your past work, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, you argue that part of liberalism’s ingenuity is that it equates the state, as reified through the police officer, as one and the same with civil society. Thus, to disrespect and/or disobey the police is to pose a direct threat to liberal capitalist notions of order. However, in the book you didn’t yet explicitly make the connection between this liberal gloss/sleight of hand and the mythology of pacification wherein “the police = the people.” Would you expand upon what order implies under capitalism (i.e. liberal peace) and what ideological function this equation serves (i.e. the revanchist Blue Lives Matter movement in the United States)?

Mark: The Fabrication of Social Order was written a long time before I started working with the idea of pacification. One of the overall thrusts in my work has always been to try and grasp the constitutive power of the state. That began with Administering Civil Society, published in 1996, where I sought to understand that power through the idea of ‘political administration,’ which then developed into an account of the police power at the heart of the fabrication of social order – hence the title of that book on the police power. The Fabrication of Social Order then opened the space for two key themes. The first was a broadening out of the ‘critique of security’ into a book with that title, and the second was a development of the connection with the war power, which became War Power, Police Power. This series of books is in many ways one long argument about the constitutive power of the state, and the idea of ‘pacification’ is a way of developing precisely that argument and bringing some of the claims into closer proximity.

Anyway, that aside, you are right to say that one of liberalism’s biggest myths is precisely the myth that the police and the people are one and the same. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a glance at the plethora of powers possessed by the police but not the people shows. We have to challenge such myths, partly because they underpin other myths, such as the idea of ‘community policing,’ but also partly because they reinforce some of the dominant concepts of bourgeois ideology. The most obvious of these concepts is ‘order,’ connected to which is ‘law,’ and then there is ‘security,’ connected to which is ‘peace.’ It is remarkable how much these concepts operate as a ruling class mantra: law and order, peace and security, over and over again. On the question of order, one might note that order is the central police category, much more than law, which is why ‘disorderly’ is so frequently used when the police power is being exercised – as in ‘drunk and disorderly.’ It is also why, going back to our previous comments, what is to be regarded as suspicious or a potential security threat is anything deemed slightly ‘out of order.’ More generally, the couplets ‘law and order’ and ‘peace and security’ are the things we are told we all desire and which can only be achieved under capital, so long as the ruling class is allowed to manage capital in the way it thinks best. Hence anyone who challenges, questions, or criticizes these ideas is an enemy in the eyes of the state onto who the full force of the police power must be brought to bear. And if we turn this round we have the idea that rather than the police equated with the people, the police may actually be the enemy of the people.

Read the full interview in the Anti-Security Issue of The Socialist.

Nicholas Walrath

is an independent researcher who examines issues revolving around policing, police power/war power, security, the political imagination and surveillance.

2 thoughts on “Security and the Police of Souls: An Interview with Mark Neocleous, Part I

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  • August 23, 2017 at 12:16 am

    I remember the “pacification program” in Vietnam. Very naked use of military power/policing to try to confine the Vietnamese people as a whole in “strategic hamlets” (AKA open-air prisons, like the Palestinians in Gaza). For me, pacification has always had a more heavy-handed meaning than counter-insurgency, perhaps because of that experience. But I do think it is used more in terms of suppressing resistance to a recent or on-going conquest and occupation, and I think was used in that way in US history around the forced movement and control of Native populations on “reservations.”

    For me, counter-insurgency differs in several ways.

    A) It is often pro-active, despite the name; that it, it doesn’t wait for the insurgency to develop and THEN counter it; it attempts to pre-emptively counter the development of an insurgency, to “nip it in the bud.”

    B) Counter-insurgency, unlike pacification, may arouse and organize populations in order to prevent actual insurgencies or oppose them if they develop. I refer to this as the “manufacture of dissent,” which works hand in hand with the manufacture of consent. These can take two forms — openly reactionary and racist mobilizations (Venezuela, Brazil, the “alt-right”) or “killed-virus” simulations of insurgencies (Gays in the military, Gloria Steinem/bourgeois feminism, Bernie Sanders) that contain and absorb the social base for real insurgencies.

    In this regard, look for Frank Kitson, a British counter-insurgency expert who generalized from the British experience in dealing with anti-colonial movements in (I think) Malaysia and in Northern Ireland. Kitson talked about the use of “pseudo-gangs” — essentially government created, monitored and controlled groupings that operated in the same social milieu and class strata that the potential insurgents sought to organize.

    C) Pacification, despite the “peaceful sounding” name, tends to rely more on overwhelming military might and physical coercion to achieve its goal through intimidation. Counter-insurgency is more about PsyOps — psychological operations to control the thinking of the population and the enemy. “Hearts and minds”.

    A contemporary example or contrast might be the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel tends to use pacification on Gaza and Hamas, and counter-insurgency on the West Bank and the Palestinian “Authority” (Fateh), even though the Israelis at one point encouraged or promoted Hamas as a pseudo-gang Muslim fundamentalist counter-insurgency effort against the more radical secular socialist elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) such as the PFLP. You could see Morsi & the Muslim Brotherhood as counter-insurgency against Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring in Egypt, and Sissi and the military coup as pacification.

    I don’t think it’s useful to simply conflate the two, because I think there are “policy debates” and contradictions within the ruling class and its military that actually go on, and shifts between methods and techniques that may be favored at different points, or that get combined despite the contradictions, to assuage the other faction. The CIA used to be much more counter-insurgency oriented (why they were seen as “liberals” by other factions in the national security state) but they have moved much more towards pacification and become almost another branch of the military (just more covert).

    The police describe “community oriented policing” as the domestic equivalent of psychological operations in the military. They are very concerned about winning over “influentials” and “influencers”. LAPD has a Homeland Security deputy chief, and sees itself as embedded in a global “anti-terrorist” campaign which it thinks local policing agencies are uniquely equipped to contribute to.

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