The Relative Invisibility of Policing in Contemporary Capitalism

Skill improves with experience. An experienced artist may be able to paint with one quick line something that would previously have taken a whole canvas full of brushstrokes. This is an individual process, but it happens in society as well. Social systems also become more efficient with increasing experience.1 A shepherd with a dog, a fence, and an ATV can control more sheep of the sort bred to respond to those tools with less effort than could ever have been done without them. They’re all elements in a social system.2

Policing in the United States is also a social system, founded in the need to control enslaved human beings. The very visibility of the horrors of slavery, the constant terrorism required to hold human beings in bondage, was a weakness in the system. The enslavers’ legal technology didn’t constrain their brutality towards their victims, so any systemic restraint must have gone towards stability. Isolation of slaves was one solution to this problem, a solution adopted by England with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which kept slaves out of sight in the Americas even as the blood soaked money continued to pour into the treasury.

In this sense plantation slavery was much less of a threat to the stability of the American slave system than was slavery in the cities. In a city slavers’ neighbors could see and hear them beating, raping, torturing, and killing their victims. People talk to each other in cities. That kind of visibility is a very serious threat to a social system that relies on violence for its survival. No one wants their neighbors to see them as a monster, especially if they are a monster. Urban slavers developed many solutions to this problem, among which was the ability to send enslaved people to the police to be whipped in secret, out of the neighbors’ view.3

This is an early stage in the process of increasing police power in the face of constant resistance by the policed. As the violence becomes visible again through new methods and ideologies of resistance new iterations of camouflage are necessary, and by this point cops and the social systems they protect can accomplish with a few deft touches what would formerly have taken battalions of violent cops. Ubiquitous cameras have lately increased the threat, again making the required violence too visible. They need to keep their violence invisible, stochastic, and when it’s otherwise the threat to which it responds must be great.

  1. More efficient at meeting the needs of those who control the social systems, almost certainly not at meeting the needs of their victims.
  2. Obviously I’m leaving out a lot of detail here, but it does hang together. The comparison is to early methods of hunting animals, all of which took a great deal more resources than the current methods from the point of view of those reaping the fruits. Current methods do infinitely more damage and require infinitely more effort from so many more people, but from the point of view of capitalists modern methods are much more efficient.
  3. Richard Wade’s Slavery in the Cities is very good on this topic. In particular see pp. 94-5. “Ordinances provided that a master could send blacks to the local prison for ‘correction.’ He simply made out a slip for the number of lashes, gave it to the slave to be whipped, and sent him off to jail for punishment. Planters, of course, had the same option, but distances made its use impractical. Increasingly, however, urban owners found the system convenient. It was easy and quick; it saved the master the grim experience of wielding the whip himself. […] Negroes and outside observers felt that beyond convenience there were other reasons for the wide use of this public system. In the city, an owner’s treatment of his slave often was no private matter. What happened on a plantation was not general knowledge, but in an urban environment news traveled quickly. And the handling of blacks was part of that news. Masters therefore preferred to avoid a reputation for harshness by relying on the jail or workhouse. ‘The general sense of decency that must pervade’ towns, wrote Frederick Douglass, ‘does much to check and prevent…atrocious cruelty…and…dark crimes…openly perpetrated on the plantation.’ ‘He is a desperate slaveholder, the former slave continued, ‘who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors, by the cries of the lacerated slaves; and very few in the city are willing to incur the odium of being cruel masters.'”

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