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Police and Plunder

In December 2014 the discussion of “police” began to look at the roots of the institution. Peter Gelderloos concluded a three part study in CounterPunch flatly stating, “The police are a racist, authoritarian institution that exists to protect the powerful in an unequal system.”[1] Sam Mitrani, a scholar of the Chicago police, concluded similarly, “The police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it.” [2] Yet a physician in Ann Arbor, Catherine Wilkerson, caused a local stir when she stated “that neither racism nor racist police violence can be abolished under this economic system, i.e. under capitalism”.

On 21 January 2015 Ta-Nehisi Coates in a speech in Ann Arbor argued persuasively that plunder is the leading social activity at the base of racist violence beginning with slavery days and continuing to now. Capitalism is such a social activity! It is relatively new in human history. It depends on the exploitation of those who don’t own the means of subsistence and production by those who do. It creates racist oppression in order to divide the exploited so that the Few may rule the Many.

Two sources of knowledge are especially pertinent. The first is the report called Lynching in America issued last week by the Equal Justice Initiative. It describes 3,959 lynchings in the American South between 1877 and 1950. The second is Stolen Lives which documents more than 2,000 people killed by law enforcement in the decade of the 1990s.[3] If we add the data of capital punishment to these data we can begin to understand that the resulting murderous pattern of terror is the punishment of capital.

Investigation into the history of police soon finds it to be inseparable from conquest, slavery, debt, industrial discipline, and social hierarchies. Armed settlers, “pioneers,” militia, army units, slave patrollers, Texas rangers, posse comitatus, slave catchers, factory guards, troopers, private security forces, vigilante groups, MPs, lynch mobs, Ford’s “service department,” death squads, night riders, and the KKK have all served police functions.

It may help to define police as armed, uniformed, salaried agents of government, part of the civil service, but it was not thus clear at the
stopthiefbeginning.

Etymologically the word is related to “policy” and to the Greek polis, or city. “Police” was a new word in English gaining usage in the 18th century at the time of the sugar plantation, textile factories, racism, and mechanization. The thing itself was integral to city forces of merchant, manufacturer, banker, shipper, factor, and insurer, as well as to planter and landlord. It developed on the one hand in opposition to parochial forces of the civil power – the constables and the watch – and on the other hand it developed separately from the military – the army and navy.

As for capitalism let us go back to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations of 1776, because it connected the actual details of the labor process (exploitation) to the world market of commodities (globalization). He said “civil government, so far as it is instituted for the sanctity of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor.”  His student, Adam Ferguson, said plainly “wealth comes from inequality.” The “poor” created wealth, i.e. worked, labored.

These ideas first appeared as “police” as reported in Adam Smith’s Lectures on Police (c.1763) delivered in Glasgow, a new hub in the Atlantic economy for banking and commerce of tobacco plantations.  He defined police as “cleanliness, security, cheapness and plenty.” At first, then, “police” encompassed health, commodity, market, privatization, labor, and force. Already policy makers and profiteers were studying the intricate political relationship between low wages and high food prices. Although political economy and police violence were soon to separate as different limbs within the ruler’s body politics, they never lost their actual association with its heart. The goal was to make people work longer and harder.

Adam Smith’s contemporary wrote An Essay on Trade and Commerce (1770). “A multitude of people being drawn together in a small territory will raise the price of provisions; but, at the same time, if the police be good, it must keep down the price of labor.” The poor house must become “a house of terror.” The workers are “a many-headed monster which every one should oppose.” To establish the six-day working week, “a good police must be established.”

Divisions within this class were formalized by wage, geographic, gender, and racial differences, producing apparently permanent segments of that class of people without much of anything to call their own. So it comes as no surprise to learn that parallel to these “economic” developments was the development of racism. Carl Linneas, the Swedish biologist and deviser of binomial nomenclature in his Systema naturae (1758) created the term homo sapiens in a hierarchy of skin color. With spurious pretensions to science he identified four “races” describing white people as gentle, acute, quick, and governed by fixed laws and describing black people as crafty, indolent, careless, and capricious. These are not biological attributes but ones concerning obedience of interest to HR, bosses, foremen, overseers, in short, slavers!

Global commodity production entailed the enclosure of the commons, the fractionation of human beings, and the enslavement of women, children, and men, The social formation of Atlantic capitalism consisted of massive labor camps in America and the “Satanic mills” or factories of Britain.  The international political order had to change and did so creating new entities of power, the U.S.A. (1789) and the U.K. (1801).

Plantation (sugar, cotton) met factory (textiles) at the port (London, Liverpool).  The proletarian woman, the slave, the factory hand, the urban artisan, and the maritime worker, sailors, dockers. The port was where the first police were introduced. A new era of history commenced.  If you call it “industrialization,” or “modernization,” or even the “anthropocene” you are in danger of overlooking the demons at the center of it, Moloch and Mammon.

By the time of the Haitian slave revolt (1791) which brought the sugar system into crisis and at the time of the invention of the cotton ‘gin (1793) which brought the cotton system into expansion, the “pushing-system” began the transition of the most dynamic world commodity from sugar to cotton. Edward Baptist in the latest historical study of slavery and capitalism notes that the increased productivity of “the pushing system” depended on a decisive technology, “the whipping machine.”[4] The whip intensified labor to the limit of human endurance. It accompanied the expansion of slavery to new territories and the expansion of the internal slave trade from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi.

Economically speaking sugar began in the realm of production (slave plantation) and in Europe entered the realm of consumption (the tea cup, the rum bottle). In contrast, cotton began in the slave labor camp or plantation like sugar, but unlike sugar it became a means of exploitation on the other side of the Atlantic. Private property may belong to an individual for consumption, or it may be used as capital as an input of production. Police protect and serve the owners of these forms of property.

Capital exists in three modes or forms, as money (bank), as production (factory, plantation), as commodity (commerce, inventory). Capital as commodity sits in dockside warehouses. Capital as money sits in banks, insurance offices, and other counting houses. Capital as production will be in the field, the factory, and the ship. Thus the plantation, the docks, and the factory became three sites of a single economic system on either side of the Atlantic.

Glasgow (Scotland) was the city of Patrick Colquhoun (1745-1821). As a youth between 1760 and 1766 he lived on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximize profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti.

In the 1790s he criminalized custom. [5] He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labor who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organized political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations. Financed by West India merchants and planters in 1798 Colquhoun established the Police Office. In 1800 Parliament passes the Marine Police Bill expanding and making official the police as a centralized, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. His treatises on police inspired the foundation of police in Dublin (Ireland), Sydney (Australia), and New York (USA).

To summarize, then, in two points. First, at the time of the independence of America (1776) “police” (intellectually, theoretically, and politically) meant the social and economic relations between the rich and the poor in the governance and planning of world-wide empire. Second, at the time of the creation of the U.S.A. (1787-1791) the actual institution of police simultaneously criminalized the urban commons and efficiently linked plantation and factory, the U.S.A. and the U.K., into a temporary Atlantic system, call it capitalism.

Finally, there is no ‘moving forward’ without reckoning with this past. If it took more than a century (a blink in history’s eye) to produce this unsustainable amalgam of production and police, work and violence, wealth and terror, we must expect that our efforts to eliminate effectively the one must be accompanied by the restoration or reparation of the other. There is no reason, historically-speaking, why this can’t be done in a hurry. The ideal of justice is indefeasible and undivided; it is a unity and does not wait.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com

Notes. 

[1] “Learning from Ferguson: A World Without Police,” CounterPunch, 29 Dec. 2014.

[2] Sam Mitrani, “The Police Were Created to Control Poor and Working Class People,” CounterPunch, 31 Dec. 2014. See his book, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894 (University of Illinois Press).

[3] Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (Mongomery, Alabama, 2015), and Stolen Lives Project, Stolen Lives Killed by Law Enforcement (New York, 1999)

[4] The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

[5] Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1796) and A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames (1798)

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Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@gmail.com

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