Can we get rid of the police?

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.

6 Responses to “Can we get rid of the police?”

  1. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    If we’re looking at the long term, I think we can realistically eliminate 1 (meeting force with force) as well, and remove 3 (investigating “crimes”) from the domain of the police.

    If we’re at the point where mutual cooperation under PD conditions is well-supported by psychological and social constructions, then it’s just a baby step to employ those selfsame constructions to deter “rational” violence; the only people who will be violent under those circumstances would be those with medical mental illness.

    In the short-term, though, I don’t see how we can eliminate either 2 or 4; although we can definitely reduce police violence in the short term by many orders of magnitude just by ensuring the police are not used to support exploitation.

    We will still have the political problem of the bourgeoisie (and bourgeois elements within the government) attempting to regain power — the psychological and social constructions within the masses that support bourgeois rule will not evaporate overnight — and the police will have to oppose the bourgeoisie militarily.

    Until we have massive material abundance, we will also have the problem of “free riders”, those who desire the benefits of a socialist society but resist the concomitant responsibilities. We need deep-seated social and psychological constructions that internally impel people to act in their mutual self-interest. These constructions take time, and until they are in place, we will have to rely on a degree of coercion.

    I don’t think it’s possible to justify this kind of coercion on the basis of “no force”; I’ve seen the Libertarian-capitalists try this strategy and at the end of the day it turns into the dishonest strategy of defining the “initiation of force” as the initiation of the wrong kind of force for the wrong reasons. In other words, they bring back “coercion” by the back door, but don’t call it coercion.

    What do we do, for example, about the (metaphorical) guy who’s sitting on a well and demanding exploitative concessions for access to water? Who is “initiating coercion” when we push him off the well and distribute water by need? Who is “initiating coercion” when we then prevent someone from wasting a limited supply of water?

    Who is “initiating coercion” when we take food from a farmer to feed workers building a road on the other side of the country, because people are starving there and we need to improve their infrastructure? Who is “initiating coercion” when the farmer resists, saying she and her family will starve if their food is taken (and when the government says they’ll still have plenty of food left)?

    Trying to feed, house, clothe six billion people (or even 300,000,000) is a non-trivial project, and I don’t see how we can achieve such a project under current economic, political, social and psychological conditions simply by relying on good-will and enforcing only the absence of coercion.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “the police will have to oppose the bourgeoisie militarily”
    Well, anarchists typically are all for the formation of some manner of army, though one with elected officers and so forth (apart from the anarcho-pacifists with their nonsense).

    Anyway, I’ll freely admit, I can’t try to rule out all coercion at all times. But I think there’s a difference between exceptional and routine, between the guy who pushes the other off the well to get the water not being convicted when they go before a jury, and a whole special organisation being set up whose entire role is to initiate force.

    On the other example, which sounds basically like the ‘war communism’ of the Bolsheviks (and probably other examples I’m less familiar with) I think, there is an answer: the government/people taking the food are initiating coercion. And I think this example illustrates my point very well. Sure, if one person or the other has to starve, then there’s no fantastic option. But the option you seem to be implicitly endorsing, and which the Bolsheviks took, was one which sets up society on the basis of some people being able to take food away from others with those others having no say in the matter, a society where the representatives of the government (which while sometimes as noble and desperate as you say, will no doubt many times be drunk, corrupt, louts heady with new-found power) can dictate to the peasantry how they are to organise their lives, a society which produced a spectacular and racist famine in the late 20s, and which then did more than any other government in the world to defeat communism.

    This is, I guess, kind of the point. We can easily imagine scenarios where it seems justified to break the rules for the greater good, but where it also seems like there will be enough resistance to make it costly. When we do break the rules for the greater good, however, the results are often pretty much the worst they could possibly be. If you decide to rob and plunder and kill because you are just so sure that it’s necessary and right, you have to totally own whatever consequences follow, like the century-long strangling of world communism.

  3. Red Carnival « Blue Linchpin Says:

    […] Can we get rid of the police?, Directionless Bones explores the reasons behind why a police force is unnecessary and possible […]

  4. ANONYMOUS Says:

    START BY NOT PAYING YOUR PROPERTY TAX, IS SOURCE OF ALL EVIL, THAT FEEDS & LIVES ON P.T.

  5. NoOne Says:

    Police promote crime; not prevent it. A criminal feels perfectly comfortable committing crimes where police have a presence as laws preventing the individual of protecting themselves are enforced by these police effectively protecting the criminal. In areas where police have no presence, would be criminals are too fearful of suffering the natural consequences associated with affronting an unhindered free man or his family. I must point out I’m referring to un-policed areas with particular demographics. I hate to have to through that in but facts are facts. When disaster struck New Zeeland leaving the people without power or services for several weeks, there wasn’t a single act of looting or violence; New Orleans was a very different story. You know what I’m saying.

  6. NoOne Says:

    Wow; I make a lot of typos when I’m tired.


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