Sentinels of Liberty – Police Power and Capital: An Interview with Dr. Tyler Wall, Part I

Tyler Wall is a sociology professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, formerly an associate professor for the EKU School of Justice Studies. He received his doctorate of philosophy in justice studies from Arizona State University. His work focuses on the politics of security and state violence, as well as the issues of police power and police violence. He is also the editor of Destroy, Build, Secure: Readings on Pacification (recently released by Red Quill Books) as well as coauthor of The Police: A Field Guide with David Correia, which is set to be published by Verso in January 2018. I contacted Professor Wall through a series of emails for this interview and thank him for his careful, original, thought-provoking responses.

Nicholas: What is meant by “anti-security?” Why challenge the notion of “security,” which, as Dr. George S. Rigakos (professor of the Political Economy of Policing at Carleton University) has written in his book Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification, is not becoming hegemonic but instead, is hegemony. Doesn’t everyone deserve to be safe and secure in their person and possessions, food, shelter, energy needs, and so on?

Tyler: For me, the idea of “anti-security” is first a provocation and intervention — a provocation trying to facilitate a line of thinking and analysis about just how much the logic, mythology, and politics of security structures, or even colonizes or dominates, everyday life in liberal capitalist society. Of course, you are exactly right of the need for “security,” and today we know inequality, hunger, poverty, and violence, for instance, make so many people “insecure,” especially the poor and dispossessed. But when we turn social, economic, political, [and] cultural issues or problems into first and foremost a “security issue,” then all of a sudden our responses become caught up in acting in ways not necessarily conducive to the overwhelming majority of people, but instead actively
working against the well-being, or “safety” or “security,” of the multiracial working class, the poor, and [the] dispossessed. What the idea of anti-security is trying to do, in my view, is point to how calls for “security” by ruling elites and their administrators of class war — from police forces, establishment media, and “better business bureaus” to bourgeois bureaucrats, landlords, and business owners — not only fail to provide any meaningful “security” for the overwhelming majority of people, but actively produce all sorts of insecurity, violence, dispossession, and racism in the name of “security.”

So much of liberalism seems to boil down to the idea that liberty can’t really exist without security — security is that which secures liberty. Recently, I was going through the digital library section of Bill Clinton’s presidential library, [and came] across a speech (written by a speech writer of course), where he referred to police as the “sentinels of liberty,” and I think this is a good example of what I am talking about. Liberty, then, presupposes some system or apparatus or technologies of “security,” including an executive prerogative that is above and beyond the rule of law or accountability. If security is “the supreme concept of bourgeois society,” as Marx once wrote, and which Mark Neocleous has expanded on at great length, then thinking about anti-security is to call into question the ways that liberalism is itself an ideology or discourse of security, and I would add to this that security politics is always racialized in insidious ways, always targeting the most vulnerable or oppressed. The quintessential “security state” isn’t usually thought of as the liberal state, instead we have terms like “police state” referring to totalitarianism and fascism. This isn’t saying we should simply adopt the language of police state to think about the liberal state, as that in itself seems to be a shorthand (and even sloppy) way of thinking about the very real differences between the two. But as the Clinton quotation I mentioned makes starkly apparent — the logic of security, or what we could call police — is so often thought of as a prerequisite for liberty. Security is the most powerful language of fear, as Corey Robin has argued, and it certainly gets a lot done for the powers-that-be. Anti-security, as a provocation, is trying to confront head on this idea that liberalism is a tradition of security, and this is also to say a politics of fear and racialized state violence that brings into being and reproduces capitalist social relations. Of course, central to liberal democracy is the idea of a “balancing act” between liberty and security, and this mythology does great ideological work in making liberty appear as the supreme concept of bourgeois society, allowing security to be misunderstood as somehow secondary or not the foundational principle of liberal democracy. Perhaps it’s better to think of the conflict between liberty and security less as a balancing act and more like a boxing match where security wins most of the rounds, often scoring a knockout. This is why I also think we need to think more stringently about “police.”

Nicholas: So security, as Dr. Will Jackson has argued, essentially serves as pacification (and vice-versa) by utilizing fear to co-opt more radical demands toward addressing climate change, income inequality, war, famine, and so forth, and channeling them into “legitimate” solutions that are sanctioned by the security state (and which, ultimately, pose no direct threat toward capital’s incessant drive to accumulate). By producing insecurity through “security measures” and security products, security prolongs its own longevity by selling the public a poison that is falsely marketed as a panacea. Further, security exploits the insecurity of bourgeois order by constantly selling us “more” and “better” security. Would it be fair to say that security discourse essentially colonizes the political imagination in terms of setting the limits to what the public can conceive of as possible solutions to these existential issues?

Tyler: Yes. I think that is a good way to put it. What is the best we can hope for when “security” becomes the first and last resort to social problems?

Nicholas: Tying the notion of “legitimacy” into this discussion, one of the central tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine is to not only discredit insurgents’ efforts to delegitimize the power or government in command but as Neocleous writes, “to win, retain, or regain the complicity of the pacified.” This is accomplished through building schools, infrastructure projects, food, and healthcare provisions; basically, anything that is conducive to establishing industry, a class of wage laborers, and facilitating capital accumulation (even the process of urbanization can be viewed as pacificatory). Given that you are one of the co-editors of the recently released Red Quill title, Destroy, Build, Secure: Readings on Pacification, how would you distinguish counterinsurgency from pacification? What deeper understanding(s) does pacification theory facilitate that counterinsurgency fails to and why?

Tyler: Well, I am not sure we need to completely separate the two terms into some binary. What I find useful thinking about the idea of pacification is how it helps us account for the ways subjugated populations are controlled and “order” built through the tandem of “hard” and “soft” power. It confuses the “coercion” and “consent” dichotomy, or even “violence” and “law,” by packaging them into a single concept or idea. “Hearts and minds” projects are important in terms of incorporating subjects into a particular social order, and often the role of repressive violence gets more critical attention for some obvious and good reasons. The very idea of pacification implies the existence of an unruly population, and both coercion and consent are used simultaneously as counterinsurgency, as pacification. Let me provide an example: think of all the controversies surrounding racialized police violence in the United States. At the same time poor and working class communities (especially Black and Brown communities) are constantly under attack by repressive police forces, these same police engage in all sorts of “outreach” and “community policing” efforts designed to forge consent within the very communities police routinely and legally resort to coercion and violence to pacify. In my view, the idea of pacification helps us develop a language to critique not only of the aims of the direct physical violence, but also those “kindler, gentler” forms of security that work alongside violence to transform potentially unruly subjects into ideal police subjects: polite, orderly, docile workers. When the cop comes into the public school to visit a 3rd grade classroom to read a book to the children or talk about “policing as a career,” or when the local chief develops “coffee with a cop” meet and greets or cops pass candy out at parades, these efforts are not innocent (to use cop language myself!). In my view, we need to be just as skeptical and militant in our opposition to these “velvet glove” tactics as we are the police use of direct physical violence. They can’t be separated out. There is a classic book by Tony Platt and some of his colleagues that started to lay out this framework: The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove an Analysis of the U.S. Police.

Nicholas: Your work, as well as the work of others who have elaborated upon and advanced a critical discourse around security, make reference the concept of “police power.” I’m certain hearing or reading these words our audience would, upon initial impression, attribute the notion of police power to the wide discretionary latitude
afforded to our “(wo)men in blue:” uniformed law enforcement. Yet, reading your work, police power implies a wider set of measures carried out by not only law enforcement but other institutional actors. Would you expound upon the concept of police power, its relation to capital, and why activists, agitators, and critical academics should broaden their conception of (the) “police?”

Tyler: Well, I have been influenced by a broad understanding of police power as more than just cops. That is certainly true. Here police power becomes a way of thinking about state power more generally, especially in the ways that security becomes a key way of policing populations and building order. Or as Foucault talked about police as a concern with the security of the “public health and wealth” of the population. But I also think my work is trying to use this broader, and older idea of police than simply the development of the uniformed officer, as an insight into what we might think of as “the police.” Yes, we need broad understandings of police power, but I also think what might get lost here is the actual power of the “boys in blue.” It is common for treatments of cops, from mainstream but even radical left treatments, to have no working theory for situating cops within more general and broader notions of police power as state power that can’t be reduced to uniformed forces. Yet the risk is then losing sight of the very real power cops have in terms of forging a racialized order of capitalism.

I am interested in thinking about a broad police power and a more specific cop power as a particular unified formation that wields consent and coercion in the building of propertied order. Within capitalism, police have long been fundamental — from the idea of police as broad social policy, to slave patrols, to the advent of “the police” in the early 1800s to today. Obviously, resistance and opposition to structural and institutional racism and capitalist inequality has long been wrapped up in confrontations with police, and today Black Lives Matter and associated groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Collective or We Charge Genocide have really helped bring this back to the forefront within the U.S. I also think real-world struggles against racialized state violence, which inevitably manifests as a struggle against the “men and women in uniform,” need radical theories of and clarity about police more than ever, which can inform, however slightly, actual struggles. Police is itself a force with not only its own multiple, complex, histories, but with some internal, administrative logic. The Left needs theories of policing beyond simply saying that the police institution is historically racist or white supremacist or protects private property. All of this is true and absolutely fundamental, of course! And we need to be very clear about this and keep insisting on this as truth. But often, even when these issues are discussed in relation to policing, police is only a conduit to talk about these other things. We can see this when so often police is rarely defined. It is just assumed that it is clear what police are and what they do.

But what really is the relationship between law and police, or police and the state? Is law really meant to hold accountable police in a liberal democracy? How exactly has race and the idea of policing developed together? Often the focus becomes on these other things, instead of developing radical theories of police power within the histories of racial capitalism and settler colonialism. That is, instead of incorporating a theory of police into a theory of capital and its racialized violence. As my friend and colleague David Correia and myself have recently written in a forthcoming book for Verso, capitalism needs cops, and so to think rigorously about capitalism requires directly thinking about cops and police power in tandem. If we think better about police we will, it seems to me, think better about capital and therefore be able to challenge its dominance.

Here is the example I always give: you can go into a bookstore and find tons and tons of books on military history, written by people from all political persuasions. Yet you can hardly find anything of serious substance on the history or theory of “the police” outside of quite mainstream, or classical liberal or conservative, perspectives. Military history and martial politics, as usually understood, is understood as being the stuff that makes history — generals, soldiers, tactics, strategies, battles, [and so on]. But how can you really discuss, say, the history of the “United States,” or the city of Los Angeles or even Knoxville, Tennessee, my current city, without taking into account the important police role in the building of that particular urban order, with violence but also an assortment of more “soft” means at winning over hearts and minds? There are obviously international dimensions to this too in terms of how police power, and cops, fit within imperialism and colonization. Why don’t we more readily know the names of the historical police theorists and reformers and police architects that have drastically fabricated social order? My point isn’t that there isn’t any writing on this, of course there is, but that there needs to be more of it and we need to take this more seriously in order to forge through to better futures.

Nicholas: Another category you mention is “war power.” What does this concept entail and what is its relationship to the order building, pacification mission of police power? I’m thinking here of otherwise critically-minded activists on the Left who mobilize around issues of police brutality as well as the “militarization” of domestic law enforcement but too often subscribe to a neatly-partitioned view of the military and police as being (once) separate (e.g. two different “beasts,” if you will: foreign and domestic, military barracks and police stations, Franz Fanon’s “rifle butts and napalm”).

Yet, your work as well as Neocleous’ illustrates how the two have not only operated in tandem but are inextricably linked through a “language of pure force” guided by the logic(s) of (in)security. In short, war and police are “always already together.” What is the theoretical lynchpin holding the two together that causes them to act in a symbiotic, mutually-reinforcing manner?

Tyler: One way to cut to the heart of the issue is to think about the politics, or political construction, of distinctions. To account for the ways that commonplace distinctions such as military/police are produced and consolidated as commonsense. The historian Micol Seigel makes this point in relation to the “police militarization” debate, which in the most basic way depends on some distinction between police and military, police and war. What she shows in relation to cops and security professionals during the Cold War, and to great effect I think, is how the distinction between police and military is itself a political construction that does great ideological work. Police and military have always been linked in the most material of ways, but we have to ask how exactly did they come to be seen as distinct, as different processes and institutions that operate on some related logic of state, but nevertheless have fundamentally different operating logics. This is where policing is said to be about the “rule of law” and “enforcement” and “criminals” whereas the military or war is about “destruction” and “enemies” and “violence.” The implication then is that police [power] comes to be understood as somehow completely different from war power, or as we see so often in the “police militarization” framework it is “military ethos” or “martial metaphors” or “military technology and weapons” that essentially corrupts or penetrates what is often assumed to be a more or less more noble and necessary police institution of “public service.” Hence we then get calls for an apparently kinder, gentler “community policing” that fails to account for the ways that community policing is very much a mirror of pacification strategies of winning hearts and minds in more formal military theaters! Instead we would be better served acknowledging the ways police have always been animated by war, that war is internal to the logic of police, not external.

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 “Sentinels of Liberty – Police Power and Capital: An Interview with Dr. Tyler Wall, Part I

  • Avatar
    August 23, 2017 at 12:15 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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