The fact that “we live in a post-9/11 world” has become a convenient refrain for law enforcement over the past decade — and one that can apparently be called upon to justify limitless growth of the American police state.
This week, reporting on the protests still underway on Wall Street, the New York Times’ Joseph Goldstein noted that the “police’s actions suggested the flip side of a force trained to fight terrorism.” That’s because the NYPD have dealt with demonstrators with all of the characteristic brutality that we’ve come to expect from our cities’ militarized patrols.
A quick search in YouTube is enough to reveal the kinds of excessive, violent tactics that the police have employed, arresting many protestors without cause under the thin pretense of “disorderly conduct.” The story reminds us that today police departments are more often a greater threat to peaceful society than the criminals they ostensibly protect us from.
John Locke said that “men enter into society,” instituting a state, in order that they might preserve their property and protect their person, and — in so saying — gave us a romanticized idea of government. The laws of the state were, he maintained, to be as “guards and fences” around “the properties of all the society, to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of society.”
Protecting the weak against the strong, setting all individuals on equal footing before the law, Locke’s state is the paradigmatic “night watchman,” a benign protector with blind lady justice as his aid. This is the account of the state as a servant of community and civilization, as a garrison against the cruel barbarity that peers menacingly at us from a not-so-distant past.
But for all of the traditions and the intellectual ramparts built up around it, this picture of the state is far and away more utopian than even the most optimistic projections of the typical anarchist (if indeed such a person can be said to exist).
The state’s apologists assume without reservation that an institution with a monopoly on legal violence, always administered in practice by a tiny elite, will use that monopoly only for the defense of liberty and justice. These are the same people who give credence to the idea that the police really are just there “to serve and protect.”
With little or no incentive to brandish the power of the state for any use but their own enrichment, the ruling class is nonetheless regarded as having none but the best intentions. Whereas, in all other matters, our every instinct would alert us that no one could be trusted with such power, we have come to look upon certain spheres of human life as specially the province of the state.
Among those important roles is that of protecting us from one another, presumably something that can only be accomplished through a territorial monopoly. But why allow such a presumption to go unchallenged?
In an age when the total state impacts virtually every facet of social and economic life, few care to remember that the modern notion of the sovereign state is relatively new on the scene. The institutions of the Late Medieval free cities, for example, whose borders were often ill-defined and their reach limited, essentially competed for the loyalty of locally-oriented populations.
During this time, everything from armies, to tribunals, to tax collectors was obliged essentially to compete, having its legitimacy and its primacy tested — and undermined — by others doing the same thing. And though it may not have been anything close to the stateless society we market anarchists envision, the period provides compelling testimony to the utter lack of a need for thuggish monopolies to provide these services.
Anarchy is not lawlessness, but statelessness; it asks not an end to the organization of law and defense, but a perfection of that organization and its removal from the hands of the criminal gangs that roam our streets today.
Translations for this article:
- Portuguese, Capangas da Classe Criminosa Organizada.