Anarchists are typically not friends with the police. This is both a practical matter of broken windows and broken bones, and also a theoretical one. If your goal is a society without authority or hierarchy, where does such a hierarchical and authoritarian institution as a police force fit?
Yet at the same time, such a suggestion often prompts a certain bewilderment in non-anarchists – how will crime be dealt with? How will order be maintained?
A common response of course is to point out how much crime is a social product – most crimes are crimes against property, for a start, and most others are committed by people suffering from socially-constructed affliction like poverty or unemployment. More generally, it is argued, hierarchy and alienation and a society that conspicuously works for the benefit of someone else are all likely to encourage anti-social modes of behaviour.
However, that response is unlikely to be the desired answer. It may be true, and important, but it still leaves uncertainty about what could replace a police force in the case of whatever crime remained.
So let’s ask, what is a police force for? I would suggest we can distinguish force broad functions: 1) the police meet force with force, 2) the police enforce other laws with force, 3) the police investigate crime and gather information, and 4) the police have a military role.
Now, of these roles, it seems to me that two, (2. and 4.) should be abolished. By abolishing 2., I mean the idea that when people commit ‘crimes’ which are not themselves violent, non-violent methods of deterrence or punishment will usually be adequate: social ostracism, denial of privileges, refusal of services, etc. In any society these things can be a substantial threat, but especially so in a technologically advanced society (where we are more dependent upon the services of others) and in a society with a strong sense of solidarity or community (as opposed to a divided, bitter, alienating one).
By abolishing 4., I mean – well, I should explain what I mean by 4. I mean that often the police operate in an area where, despite their official role as ‘defenders of society’, a substantial part of the population sees them as enemies. Probably the most familiar (even cliche) example for Westerners is the way that police in ‘the ghetto’ operate as representatives not of the (black) community, but of the (white) government. In such a situation, crime can prosper precisely because it isn’t really crime – it’s not acting in defiance of society’s rules, it’s acting in accordance with the rules of (at least much of) local society, but defiance of the rules of the remote government. Able to rely on such widespread public support, crime flourishes. In such a situation, therefore, the police are not really even acting as police, but rather as an occupying army from a foreign country.
So when I suggest abolishing this role of the police, I mean to affirm a principle I have argued for at more length elsewhere – no military solutions to political problems. If that many people are on the side of the criminals, the problem (insofar as it is a ‘problem’) is a political disagreement between or within communities. Trying to respond with force is thus inappropriate and counter-productive.
Anyway, that’s those two roles gone. That leaves two: force against force (e.g. someone is trying to kill me, the police arrive to physically stop her), and information-gathering.
Now the information gathering, broadly speaking, is not necessarily a very hierarchical process – there’s much less need for some people (the police) to have rights and powers that others lack (like the right to hit people with sticks). The police aren’t hugely different in this respect from private detectives, nor from auditors. There may be issues around privacy and when people can demand to see some piece of information, but if this role were separated from role 1, then I don’t feel it would need a noticeably hierarchical body (bear in mind also that information is likely to be much more freely available and public in a society of direct democracy and common ownership).
Which just leaves the hard kernel of picking up the stick when someone is being attacked. And here, I would suggest, the simplest and most effective approach would be to seek to rely on people in general to provide this force. In any fight between an anti-social violent individual and society, society has overwhelming force on its side (unless the individual is either a superhero or a political conspirator with their own army). Of course random passers by will often either not be there (if you’re attacked, for example, in your own home) or will be unsuited to helping you (if the assailant is large or armed, and they are small and not). But this can be dealt with simply by having arrangements in place to ensure that at any one time there are people available to be called in. Maybe not every single citizen need be on-call at some point (people with very restricted mobility, for example, or a history of violence, might not be suitable) but if some large chunk of people were (40% or more) then the result would be radically different from it being confined to a tiny specialised body.
The reason that tiny specialised body is needed is not that it’s better at deploying force in the (in any good society, fairly exceptional) cases where that’s needed, but that it’s more useful politically. It can be used for things that ordinary citizens are too unreliable to use for – such as functions 2. and 4. described above.
It has sometimes been suggested that if ordinary people were responsible for enforcing order and peace, there would be a risk of vigilante violence. I think this is misplaced. Assuming that there is a system of conflict resolution that protects individual rights and values impartiality, then someone beaten up by vigilantes can take them to court for it.
If every individual is essentially in the same position, then any individual has to act in a way that they are confident would be recognised by a jury as peace-seeking – using only the bare minimum of force necessary to suppress greater use of force. Because when they and the other person go to court, they’re on an equal footing.
What happens at the moment is the complete opposite. The police can basically murder people for no reason and their risk of being tried for murder is miniscule. They can be basically confident that the odd beating they dish out will have no consequences for them. Anyone who is more scared of their average fellow citizens than of the police needs to read more about police brutality.