It’s over. As the evening started on Thursday (May 15), the Military Police of the State of Pernambuco, in Brazil decided to finish a strike that had lasted the whole day. Looting, depredations, disorder and murder all happened during the strike. Stores closed, people went home. “Arrastoes” (“draggings,” where large groups of people set off to plunder) were common, cars were set on fire — perhaps to make sure that the firemen were also on strike (they were).
As I left home here in Pernambuco’s capital, Recife, the prevailing sensation was that nothing had changed. Pernambuco is one of the most violent states in the country, and Recife is the 39th most dangerous city in the world, with 36.82 homicides per 100,000 people. When the police function normally, we are in constant peril. Without them, was it actually more dangerous or had little changed?
What actually changed was people’s perceptions. They thought no one could be punished for crimes anymore. People took the streets and plundered. Big retail stores moved their merchandise and were able to protect themselves, but many small businesses lost everything. The situation seemed to have gotten out of control, but government decided to exercise its monopoly of violence radically and put army tanks on the streets. I imagine they hoped to blast some people who were getting away with stolen TV sets — the World Cup is less than a month away, TVs are valuable right now.
But the perception that there weren’t any police was much stronger than reality: The truth is that Pernambuco never actually has a police force. When it does, it’s seen as a threat, not as protection, by 80% of the population. In our everyday lives, we hardly ever feel protected by the police and nothing had changed in that regard on Thursday. If, on any given day, people decided to do the same they did then, they would be able to and would go unpunished. They just haven’t realized their power yet, but the police are nothing but a small group of people, incapable of dealing with a much larger number of people who are not willing to obey them.
The fact that the police stopped working and everything came crashing down so quickly was supposed to show us how essential the police really are, but the message seems to be the very opposite. In Recife, 1,416 people died in 2013 — almost 4 each day. On the 15th, when anomy and anormality supposedly reigned, there were 7 deaths. The police strike should make stop and think for a moment that, ultimately, the Military Police are an exercise in futility, an institution that survives on stated purpose rather than results.
Order only survives when people believe it will survive; if people believe that it is government’s enforcement branch that keeps order, this order will only subsist while government does. Thus, order is not sustained by force, but by culture — and the same goes for rulers. If people, collectively, stop thinking that the police are needed, there will be order and freedom without looting, depredation or deaths. Power is just a public fiction, something that does exist, but which can disappear with a simple change in public opinion.
Ayn Rand would say that power only exists by the sanction of the victim. La Boétie asks us which power our rulers have, if not those we give them. David Hume concludes that power is sustained by little more than opinion; while Gramsci knows that any order is created and maintained by a cultural system that legitimizes it. And, as Lord Varys puts it, on Game of Thrones, “Power resides where men believe it resides.”
On Thursday, people took the power they always had and used it for evil. And, by the end of the day, they decided to hand it over to the police, that announced the end of their strike — but if the people didn’t want to hand power back over, what could the police do? When cops announce their next strike, maybe the people will realize they don’t really need them and will keep on living normally. Because order exists where people believe it exists.