Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Police Shoot, Kill [X]"

“Police shoot, kill [X].” It’s the formula for an all too formulaic event. I’ve read it hundreds of times; so have you. Google News returns 19300 results when you search for it. It would be wrong to say, though, that one has read the formula “Police shoot, kill [X]” hundreds of times. I haven’t, at least. I realized this upon encountering this headline a few days ago: “Police Officers in South Jersey Shoot, Kill Man During Traffic Stop.” Normally I would click through, accumulate information about the event, and become angrier and angrier at cops who kill and the journos who invariably carry their water.  (Consider the first sentence: “A traffic stop turned deadly overnight in South Jersey.” Serving as the grammatical subject of the sentence, it as if the traffic stop mutated of itself, as if the stop itself turned itself into something else. The scenario absorbs agency and de-localizes responsibility.) This time, though, the formula arrested my attention. I don’t know why.

“Police shoot, kill [X].” We might consider it a masterstroke of journalistic economy. Not only does it communicate a great deal of information, but it economizes the communiqué by truncating the relationship between shooting and killing. Grammar itself becomes the grammar of the event: a comma links the event of shooting and the event of killing. “Police shoot, kill [X].” Rhetoricians might call this diazeugma, a figure of speech wherein a single subject controls multiple verbs. It’s not, though: “shoot, kill” has achieved the status of a legal doublet (like “aid and abet” or “cease and desist”), and so functions as a complex but functionally unitary verb. The comma marks the complexity of a unitary process, then, but it does so by leaving unremarked the substantive relations between the terms. The formula is unreadable because it gives nothing to be read, substituting the contingency of apposition—even if this contingency, this being-beside-one-another, of “shoot, kill” seems ineluctable—for a reasoned articulation of the terms.

And so I found myself, as I encountered the formula, generating a list of the possible relations that the formula’s skeletal structure makes articulable but occludes.

Police shoot, kill [X].
Police shoot and kill [X].
Police shoot and happen to kill [X].
Police shoot and therefore kill [X].
Police shoot and accidentally kill [X].
Police shoot without intending to kill [X].
Police shoot because they intended to kill [X].
Police shoot because they needed to kill [X].
Police shoot, and therefore [X] was right to be killed.
When police shoot, they kill.
When police shoot, they can kill.
When police can shoot, they kill.
When police shoot, they sometimes kill.
When police shoot, they sometimes don’t kill.
When police shoot, they intend to kill.
When police shoot, they sometimes intend to kill.
When police shoot, they don’t always intend to kill.

This list is hardly exhaustive. The skeletal quality of the formula “Police shoot, kill [X]” means that there is a nearly infinite number of ways that the relationship between shooting and killing could be enfleshed. We might say, then, that part of the formula’s work is to evacuate the event of any reason in the anticipation of reason’s post hoc construction. The forensic examination, the testimonies, the administrative review, sometimes the grand jury, sometimes the trial, and definitely us, as we read newspaper articles and debate on Twitter or Facebook: the formula incites us, all of us, to acts of post hoc reconstructive reasoning. And so we read past the headline, through it, in order to begin the work of articulating and adjudicating the contingent but ineluctable co-presence of shooting and killing. “Police shoot, kill [X]”: let the inquest begin. Just keep reading.

The problem, though, is that some of the possible ways by which the skeletal formula might be enfleshed are administrative and legal impossibilities for U.S. cops. Consider, for instance, “Police shoot without intending to kill [X].” It is inadmissible. If a cop feels himself or the public to be so threatened that shooting a gun is required, the administrative rule is always shoot to kill. (Indeed, it is when cops shoot and don’t kill that something has gone wrong—not legally, but practically. They missed.) Cops have roundly rejected shoot-to-wound initiatives, and they have had the Supreme Court on their side. With Graham v. Connor, the court ruled that the “objective reasonableness” of a cop’s use of force determined the legality of that use of force. Legally, this means that the 4th Amendment (with the protections it affords against “unreasonable searches and seizures”) trumps the due process clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments (which the plaintiff cited as the basis of his legal beef). One is not entitled to due process in the scene of the law’s enforcement; due process always comes before and after. The juridical void that attends the evacuation of due process from the scene of enforcement is instead filled in with what cops determine to be reasonable (or unreasonable).

This is in part why it’s impossible to indict a cop. But it’s not just that the cops have “leeway” or that the system “protects” them. Rather, retroactive attempts to determine the legality of a police shooting shatter upon the realization that it is the cop himself who determines the legality of the force they apply.  Police supply the legal rule. But this rule turns out not to be law but situational reason. As Rehnquist put it in the court’s opinion on Graham, the very dictates of situational reason refuse regularization or formalization:

"The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight…The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” And earlier, citing a previous case, he notes, “The test of reasonableness is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application."

There is no canon of cop reason, but reason is all cops have. If there’s a bad shoot, cops haven’t so much broken the law as they have acted unreasonably. But we can’t know if they acted unreasonably, because the reason of hindsight differs from “the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” We’re not cops, and certainly not the cops who were there. The activity of policing assembles a present asymptotic with law’s time, but it does so through the law: the provision against unreasonable search and seizure becomes legally grounded on the fluid, flexible, formless reason of cops.

Police render law inoperative in the act of enforcing it. And so the truth of the formula “Police shoot, kill [X],” which incites us to interpretive reason by its very refusal to articulate the relationship between its terms. When police shoot, kill, there is nothing legally judicable in the event—not for we who weren’t there, for we who aren’t cops. For us, there doesn’t need to be a legal or even reasonable connection between the components the event, because it is the inaccessible, incommunicable rationality of police that articulates them. The comma serves as an index of law’s presence at the event of its enforcement: it is there, but silent, a mark without semantic value, a connection that cannot speak what it connects because the cop’s reason will improvise the articulation each time, every time. Not an aporia of law but a sign of law’s infinite malleability. It just isn’t malleable for most of us.


Let’s take the comma, then, as an incitement to move beyond normative idioms when relating to police violence. The police are unencumbered by any superordinate normativity; they give the law to themselves and to us through their situational reason. In this situation, police violence can only appear as a hyper-contingent materialization of force—because that is all it is. Police shoot, kill. You get it in the headline, and it’s all we need to know.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where to Begin Reading CLR James?

[Some folks asked me where to start if they wanted to started reading CLR James. I was composing an email for them, but this actually seems easier. So here it is!]

Okay, so there is probably no good way of developing an overview of CLR James’ work. He wrote a lot, for a period of over forty years, and from and about a lot of places. The public archive of his writing is unstable, too. He wrote under multiple pen/party names for many publications, so it’s probable that occasional work in socialist or black radical papers are floating out there and we don’t know about it. Moreover, more and more stuff is being republished (or functionally published for the first time) as part of the CLR James Archive series at Duke. Finally, James himself is something of an authorial catachresis: many of his texts were co-written. The mass of writings, coupled with the heterogeneity of his concerns, means that any number of CLR Jameses are possible: James the Marxist historian, James the pan-African anticolonialist, James the cultural critic, even James the fiction writer. On and on.

The list of James assembled here reflects my own interests in James as someone whose work a) attempted articulating Marxism to black radical traditions and b) theorized key features of capitalism that align neatly with various forms of workerism and autonomism. (They align so neatly, I argue here, because the work of James and his coterie was actually read by those who would give us the sexy European post-marxisms we know and love; the black radical tradition is the denegated center of much Marxism today.) My aim is also, really simply, to keep reading manageable. I know y’all don’t have oodles of time, comrades.

These aren’t presented in any particular order. Publication dates can indeed matter a lot with James. A great deal of his work in the 40s was occasioned by sectarian squabbles in the world of U.S. Trotskyism, and so the immediate occasion for any writing might be localizable to the need to respond to Shachtman or Cannon. Moreover, James’ break with Trotsky—in terms of party affiliations, yes, but also intellectually—decisively impacted his work in the 50s and 60s. That said, all of this material has implications that exceed the polemics that occasioned them (e.g., party disputes on the status of the Soviet Union, debates over the Negro question, and so on).

On with the show.

* The Black Jacobins (1938/1963). I probably don’t need to say much about this one at all. If you can find it, I highly recommend reading James’ “Lectures on The Black Jacobins,” published in Small Axe. I say “if” because I’ve just gone through the journal online and haven’t been able to locate it; it’s supposed to be in Small Axe 8. It is worth finding, though, because James reads The Black Jacobins alongside Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and it is pretty much amazing. I also highly recommend David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity for a reading of the significant reorientation of the text’s political horizons in the second edition (which is the edition you would read anyhow). This could also be paired with (the somewhat sloppy) The History of Negro Revolt (1938), later republished as The History of Pan-African Revolt.

* “The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society” (1943). (This is included in CLR James on the ‘Negro Question’, and I recommend the entire volume.) This is a crucial text for understanding the practical relationship that should obtain between black struggle and Marxist political organizing. He begins by sketching the dialectical tension of racial capitalism: “side by side with his increasing integration into production which becomes more and more a social process, the Negro becomes more than ever conscious of his exclusion from democratic privileges as a separate social group in the community.” For James, this dynamic means that black organizations and mass movements agitating for inclusion in the polity would necessarily bring it into a confrontation with capitalism itself. Indeed, “such today is their proletarian composition and such is the interrelation with the American proletariat itself that their independent struggles form perhaps the most powerful stimulus in American society” toward revolutionary socialism. James would argue, basically, that Marxist parties should trust to the intensity of this dialectic. Instead of trying to steer black democratic movements or subsume them into Marxist organizations, “the party, with the fullest consciousness of the significance of the mass independent struggles of the Negroes, considers that its main agitational work among Negroes is the stimulation and encouragement of these mass struggles.” Put simply, “[The party] sharply condemns that distortion of Marxist truth which states or implies that the Negroes by their independent struggles cannot get to first base without the leadership of organized labor.” To be sure, there is residual vanguard-y Party-talk in here; it was, after all, a party document. But it operates in tension with the analysis provided. So one thing to take away is that James’ ultimate break with the Party-form is very much an effect of his engagement with black activism—not simply a result of his interpretation of the emergent political economy of post-Fordism, as we’ll shortly see. Another thing to take away: I think that this is a crucial analysis for any leftist or left organization trying to map the potentialities of, and its own relation to, the ongoing revolt.  

* Facing Reality: The New Society: Where to look for it & How to bring it closer (1958), written with Grace Lee (soon Grace Lee Boggs) and Cornelius Castoriadis. “The whole world today lives in the shadow of the state power. This state power is an ever-present self-perpetuating body over and above society…Against this monster, people all over the world, and particularly ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices, are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention.” Facing Reality marks James’ starkest break with vanguardism, and it makes sense: the text was published in the wake of the Hungarian workers revolution of 1956, which exemplified for James the ordinariness of the desire for freedom and the extreme level of political sophistication possessed by “ordinary working people” everywhere. For James et al., this event signaled the definitive end of the Party-form, whose logic of organization was as monstrous as that of the state. In a Negrian idiom, Party and State organizations were functionally apparatuses of transcendence that blocked or appropriated the immanent functioning of the social. (He and his crew articulate this wonderfully in State Capitalism and World Revolution [1950].) We also get a sense in this text of why it was that James became so preoccupied with the cultural fabric of U.S. life, as shown in texts like American Civilization and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. For James, culture isn’t just a repository of prolie dreaming, although it is that. It is more importantly a primary place at which the cognitive, affective, and social competencies of people are enhanced—an inchoate articulation of the social factory thesis. What remained for radical organizations? Aside from showing up—at the demo, at the strike, at the barricades—nothing more than publishing a newspaper, elucidating the global state of things and the tendential drift of the world.

* “Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the Caribbean,” “Marx’s Capital, the Working-Day, and Capitalist Production” (late 1960s) in You Don’t Play with Revolution. These are lectures that James gave to some Caribbean students in Montreal in the late 60s, and whoa: they are amazing. I mean, the entire collection is just fantastic, but James is actually a wonderful reader of Marx. The Brumaire essay is in many ways an attempt to read the current political scene of Trinidad (and Eric Williams in particular) through Marx. For James, it doesn’t quite translate: the political and social composition of Trinidad scrambles the operative analytic categories of Marx’s text. It’s James at his best, putting two things together in order to transform our understanding of both of them. His reading of the “Working Day” section of Capital is equally brilliant, and tracks the theoretical developments of workerism and autonomism neatly. Basically, the scene of production is constituted by political antagonism, and capital is reactive to the self-activity of workers. Rad stuff.

* Selma James, “A Woman’s Place” (1952) and The Power of Women & the Subversion of the Community (1972, with Mariarosa Dalla Costa, should include “A Woman’s Place”). A few things to say here. First, I think that it is impossible to understand CLR’s theoretical trajectory through the 50s without considering the impact of Selma James’ work on his thinking. Selma published “A Woman’s Place” in Correspondence in 1952, three years before she married CLR. Selma’s exploration of the doubly worked working-class woman, the way that a particular form of subjectivity is shaped in the unendingness of labor, not only shaped CLR’s thinking about gender and capital; it also attuned him more concretely, I think, to the necessity of recovering the concrete particularity of workers’ subjectivity. As for The Power of Women: I’m never sure how to understand the authorial relationship that obtained between James and Dalla Costa. Some versions do not cite James as a co-author. I also think I recall encountering James saying she doesn’t care to talk about disputes over the text’s authorship. (But see here.) Whatever the case, it is a brilliant extension and concretization of some of the concepts that were only incipient in CLR’s work. That is to say, in addition to all of its billion merits, The Power of Women allowed me to re-read CLR in a more productive fashion.


So, that’s it! Like I said, I wanted to reduce the reading load. Some of my favs aren’t on here: his book on Nkrumah (which has the best dedication ever), “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity,” and on and on. But if you find this useful and trust my taste, I’m totally willing to do another. Or feel free to yell at me for my omissions. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Brief Note on The Economist's Slavery Problem

The Economist has a slavery problem, as Greg Grandin has recently called it. Grandin’s wonderful article is a response to a series of lamentable book reviews published by The Economist that deal with the topic of slavery: Grandin’s own The Empire of Necessity, and more recently Edward Baptist’s The Half Has NeverBeen Told. The list goes on, as Grandin reports. But, as he continues, this slavery problem is old, well pedigreed even. During the U.S. Civil War, he notes, The Economist “stood nearly alone in supporting the Confederacy against the Union.” If cheap cotton was blood cotton, so be it. Summarizing this long running slavery problem, Grandin concludes: “The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery [i.e., capitalism] is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism.”

Indeed. The Economist’s “slavery problem” is even older than Grandin suggests, though. It dates back to the very first issue of the paper itself.

It’s almost certainly a coincidence, to be sure, but a suggestive one, that The Economist’s first issue was published on 1 August 1843. That is, on the ninth (or fifth, to account for the end of Apprenticeship in 1838) anniversary of Emancipation Day. The anniversary was celebrated throughout the Atlantic world. Emerson and Douglass gave speeches on it; US abolitionists held picnicsand of course gave speeches tooto mark it. In the British West Indies, shops shut down, holidays were granted. Newly freed folk prayed in church and celebrated with whatever means were available to them; the better off feasted and drank (with plenty of toasts to Victoria and the Empire). Creole newspapers would go all prolix on the event, taking the anniversary as a chance to reflect on the beneficence of empire as well as the work still to be done to secure a meaningful (or, for the plantocracy, sustainable and profitable) freedom. And so, given the liberal bent of The Economist, given its belief in the glorious mission of Britain in this our fallen world, one would imagine that it too would participate in the convention of mouthing a “Glory be to Empire!” or toasting Wilberforce on the anniversary of emancipation. It was simply what Britons did.

Nope. Not a word. It’s not that the West Indies don’t make an appearance, though, in the august prospectus heralding the emancipation of the market. They do. But as refuse to be jettisoned.

It all has to do with The Economist’s guiding principles. Simply put, The Economist was founded as a pressure rag for free-trade agitators. Its first issue offers a lengthy essay that details both the economic problems derived from Britain’s “restrictive system” of mercantilist tariffs and the glories that awaited a free-trade Britain. Sound familiar? Like something you might have read in it yesterday? The Economist is literally the most ideologically consistent publication to have ever existed.

For The Economist, two commodities in particular figured the irrationality of the “restrictive system” of mercantilism: corn (i.e., cereal grains, in particular wheat) and “the greatest foreign article of consumption, and therefore of exchangeable ability, SUGAR.” Together, corn and sugar accounted for most of the caloric intake of your average Briton. For this reason, the price of corn and sugar was understood as having a strong determining effect on wages, and so the costs of production, and so the costs of goods, and so the costs of production, and so on and on. The cheaper these primary goods, the lower the cost of production, the greater would be the abundance of Britain. The problem, though, was that tariff walls favoring British farmers on one hand and West Indian sugar planters on the other kept the prices of these goods high.

Quite high. Sugar production in the British West Indies didn’t totally collapse after emancipation—it’s a debated topic, anyhow—but it dropped. It had been dropping for years, as an effect of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, soil exhaustion, bad cultivation technique, the collapse of estates due to impossible debts, the quotidian resistance of the enslaved, and so on. With the end of slavery, many more plantations went bust, free people worked out multiple arrangements with plantations that invariably entailed a diminished production of sugar, and no British capitalists were really willing to sink much into most of the islands. Free trade agitation, too, affected the capitalization of the islands; it was widely understood that it was only the restrictive tariffs that kept the West Indies afloat, and few capitalists were willing to risk the investment when the tariff walls were starting to come down. And so the situation: More Britons were consuming sugar, but the supply was inadequate, and so expensive.

The West Indies and their protected markets were thus a primary target of The Economist, the best example that one could find to describe the idiocy of anything but liberalized markets. (It’s always a shame to me, when reading The Great Transformation, that Polanyi so absorbed the Little Englandish imaginary of free-trade liberals that he can’t think sugar with corn, his primary example.) And so the solution: liberalize sugar markets. “We must be willing to take,” The Economist’s first issue declares,  “the sugar and coffee of Brazil, Cuba, and Java,” “to avail ourselves of the vast and rich productiveness of Brazil, Cuba, Java, &c.”

Of course, the “rich productiveness” of Brazil and Cuba owed everything to slavery. The Economist didn’t agitate for the resumption of slavery in the British Empire, no; it simply demanded what amounted to its externalization. On a day when about a million emancipated humans celebrated their freedom, The Economist agitated for a position that would intensify slavery elsewhere. When news reached Cuba that an act to liberalize sugar markets was passed in 1846, the slaveholding elite reportedly partied well into the night: they now had access to the biggest sugar market in the world. British capital poured into Cuba and Brazil—it had been for some time—and so too did enslaved humans captured in Africa. (Following Engels on the late re-constitution of serfdom in Eastern Europe, Dale Tomich with good reason calls the period following liberalization the “second slavery.”)

In one of the weirdest about-face alliances in British political history, some antislavery activists joined with the West Indian plantocracy to protest liberalization—but not many. By the 1840s, free-trade activism absorbed much of the utopian impulses of antislavery organization; free-traders cribbed antislavery organizational practices to boot. Friendships were shattered, groups dissolved, and all because there was a simple choice: free trade in “slave sugar” or moral trade in “free sugar.” Free trade activists with prior antislavery connections such as Richard Cobden insisted that slavery could only be abolished through free trade, when rational, liberalized markets would reward the best, most rational form of production, which was always taken by liberals (with good evidence to the contrary) to be free-labor production. Freedom meant cheapness; cheapness meant freedom. Or, as The Economist put it in its first issue, "we seriously believe that FREE TRADE, free intercourse, will do more than any other visible agent to extend civilization and morality throughout the world—yes, to extinguish slavery itself."

By opening British markets to “slave sugar,” Britain effectively guaranteed the hyper-underdevelopment of the islands. Indeed, if just a decade earlier, abolitionists insisted that enslaved humans were just like any other British subject, entitled to the same rights and protections, liberalization cut into this flickering moral geography, decisively constituting at the politico-economic level an inner Britain and an outer one. The postemancipation world was rendered institutionally foreign and so not as deserving of British care regarding its level of economic development—or, really, much care at all. In practice, then, liberalization entailed the economic and political abandonment of the islands. As Disraeli later asserted, the "wretched" colonies had been a "millstone" about Britain’s collective neck; he tore the millstone away. (He didn’t, and it’s weird that he, an arch-protectionist, should say he did, but free trade had become so ideologically hegemonic that down was up.) It became common to compare creoles’ resistance to emendations of tariff protections with Luddites’ destruction of machinery—with the implication, of course, that machines won out in the end. Nature following its course, Providence providencing. (Marx would absorb this figuring of the West Indies in his remarks on free trade, but only to insist that flows of capital and distributions of commodity production are not natural.) Still, plenty of liberals fantasized that the islands would simply sink into the sea. "[I]f we could," Anthony Trollope writes in his West Indies and the Spanish Main, "we would fain forget Jamaica altogether. But there it is," he lamented. Indeed. Brontë's Rochester responded to the inconvenient presence of the West Indies in manorial Britain by locking his mad creole wife Bertha in the attic. Just think about how some Yanks think of Detroit.

The result of liberalization, then, was not simply to intensify slavery throughout the Americas or to more fully saturate British markets with slave produce. Nor was the result simply to decimate an already decimated West Indian economy, although it did that too. Most importantly, the result of liberalization was to reduce Britain’s relationship to the West Indies, and to West Indians, to a market rationality, and one wherein the market directed Britain’s attention from subjects who just a decade earlier had been the focus of Britons’ intense political and moral concern. (As Eric Williams half-melancholically, half-sarcastically put it, echoing Burke, "The age of empire was dead; that of free traders, economists, and calculators had succeeded, and the glory of the West Indies was extinguished forever.") That is, of course, not how the emancipated understood their relationship, not normatively. Not when they offered letters of thanks to Victoria for their emancipation, not when they wrote petitions to Victoria soliciting economic assistance for the islands, not when they declared themselves British subjects and so entitled to all the rights and privileges attaching to that quality. It’s hard for us to read such documents now, with our postcolonial eyes, and see anything but imperial hegemony. But in such supplications we gain quotidian access to what emancipation, at least in part, meant for creoles: freedom to transact with Britain, to be included in an expansive polity, and to possess a legibility there that differed from the logic of the market.

The Economist has a slavery problem then, to be sure. But it has another one, too, and a bigger one. Call it a freedom problem. It’s partly, as Grandin suggests, that The Economist offers the same (neo)liberal solution to every (neo)liberal problem: more freedom (for capital). And yet, were The Economist to recognize the complicity of its ideology in the production and persistence of slavery, I’m not sure much would change. After all, the publication was quite conscious that cheaper sugar purchased on liberalized markets entailed, in the short run, intensified slavery abroad. One lesson here, one I wish people effusing over new studies of capitalism and slavery or the new capitalism studies stuff, is that we need to stop thinking that somehow naming capitalism’s imbrication in slavery in any way constitutes a radical act, an emancipatory gesture. Capitalism already knows how shitty it is. It doesn’t care.

The Economist’s freedom problem runs deeper than its willingness to capitalize on a form of production premised on freedom’s negation. It is rather that its monochromatic definition of freedom as market freedom rendered it incapable of hearing the other kind of freedom articulated both as a demand and as a gift in each black creole missive of gratitude or supplicatory petition to the queen. In composing freedom in the economy, as the economy, The Economist rendered itself, and its liberal readers, and a liberalized Britain, incapable of hearing the aneconomy that inheres in every demand for black freedom. To be a person, not a thing; to be described in print as a British West Indian, not metonymized as sugar; to be a subject one hangs around with, celebrates emancipation with, and even after the cane juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Indeed, sticking around when there’s no good reason to do so is probably the basis of any politics worth sticking with; such a practice entails a collective fracture of social necessity that originates (as) anything I’d call freedom. The rebels of Morant Bay didn’t get going because their economic prospects were bleak; they were always like that. They got going because the queen told them to fuck off.


And so let’s say this: If The Economist’s slavery problem consists in its abandoning ideological responsibility for capitalism’s deep ties to slavery, its freedom problem consists in its redefinition of freedom as the capacity to abandon. Ex-slaves were the first, and foundational, victims of this freedom.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Selling Loosies, Stealing Cigars, and Cribbing from Hamilton

The other comment I want to make concerning this relationship between police and, let’s say, urban existence, is that you can also see that police, the establishment of police, is absolutely inseparable from a governmental theory and practice that is generally labeled mercantilism, that is to say, a technique and calculation for strengthening the power of competing European states through the development of commerce and the new vigor given to commercial relations.- Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population

Eric Garner sold loosies. Sold individually, priced from fifty cents to a dollar, loosies enable folks who want to smoke but can’t afford an entire pack at once to fill their lungs. They may also, per pack, secure to the seller a tidy profit on top of what a pack normally goes for. Given that lots of loosie vendors are supplied with untaxed cigarettes from states like Virgina, they make a tidy profit indeed. So they’re illegal.  And so it was that cops went to Eric Garner’s market, in part, to pick him up for selling untaxed cigarettes. He was then murdered. We know that a black man can be killed by a cop for just about anything—and, of course, for no reason at all—but the fact that Garner’s death was touched off by individually-sold cigarettes struck many of us as ludicrous. Rightfully so. Ordinary cops are rarely called upon to enforce tax laws. The US has a host of agencies responsible for enforcing those such laws: the IRS for income tax, US Customs and Border Protection for the taxation of trans-border commerce, etc.  Thus, even as there was something grippingly, urgently present about Garner’s murder—the intensification of antiblack policing, the consolidation of the New Jim Crow—there was something excessively strange about it, too, about how selling a loose, untaxed cigarette could have such consequences. Kind of anachronistic.

One might even say mercantilist.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric Garner since reading Christian Parenti’s “Reading Hamilton from the Left” today. Through a reading of Hamilton, Parenti recovers a Founding-Dads idiom for critiquing the neoliberal withdrawal of the state from the field of the economic. Hamilton’s work, as he puts it, “reveals the truth that for capital, there is no ‘outside of the state.’ The state is the necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for capitalism’s development. There is no creative destruction, competition, innovation, and accumulation without the ‘shadow socialism’ of the public sector and state planning.” And so the remainder of the article is basically a listicle of the dope things Al demanded, some of which he got: central banking, protective tariffs (eventually), industrialization (such as it was), and so on. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who “feared the proletariat” (insofar as, well, he didn’t want to see white Yankees proletarianized), Hamilton leaned into a pro-industrial, protectionist, nationalist development model. And it would’ve worked, if it weren’t for those meddling Jeffersonians. (Then Jacksonians. And then a war happened.)

Fine. Look, I get nostalgia for mercantilism. Really truly. I’m writing a book about a bunch of West Indians who wanted nothing more than the retention of the British mercantilist policies, the very ones a putatively progressive Hamilton attempted to mimic in ‘Merica. (Indeed, Parenti’s article was basically published in every planter newspaper across the British West Indies by 1854.) And I get that our neoliberal world is so imaginatively depleted that one might have to look back to look forward, Marx’s prolie poetry of the future be damned. But when I try joining Parenti in looking back to Hamilton in order to look forward to a socialist future, all I can see is a lot of folks getting killed for doing things like selling untaxed cigarettes.

I think of Eric Garner, in other words, because state-interventionist economic policies have always involved the police. Even in the neoliberal world left behind when the welfare state cheesed it.

Indeed, the police sit at the origin of all mercantilist policies. It’s what “police” meant. When Adam Smith offered his lectures on “justice, police, revenue and arms,” police referred to forms of economic governance. As he puts it, “The [analytic] objects of police are cheapness of commodities [and] public security and cleanliness.” The police, in this sense, refers to the “policy of civil government,” or more specifically “the regulation of inferior parts of government,” those that dealt with material provisioning of the population. It was utterly conventional usage, hardly unique to Smith. And so we get in Wealth of Nations: “The police must be as violent as that of Hindostan or Egypt…which can in any particular employment, and for several generations together, sink either the wages of labour or the profits of stock below their natural rate.” Examples can be proliferated. Today lazy critics and lazier supporters of neoliberalism tend to think of Smith as anti-state; he wasn’t, or not in those terms. Indeed, when he uses the term “state,” he is most frequently using it to describe a level in a stadial progression, or in the diffuse sense of a politico-ethico-economic totality akin to the Hegelian Stadt. He almost never used “state” to describe the machinery of governance. He did talk about police, though, and he didn’t like what he saw.

Of course, the violence that Smith is talking about in his complaint about EIC-ruled Hindostan has little to do with the forms of embodied violence visited upon folk who couldn’t get with the program; he’s talking about how laws, protections, tariffs, and bounties shape markets. But the immaterial violence Smith laments always entailed actual, physical violence against ordinary people in British South Asia, in Egypt, in Britain, in New York. In a very simple way, all mercantilist programs for development entailed the extension and intensification of the powers of the fiscal-military state. This isn’t an abstract conceptual thing; mercantilist policies mobilized a lot of people who did a lot of things, all for the state. Surveying land, counting bodies, collecting taxes, inspecting ship bottoms. No statist development without police, because it’s through surveillance and force that the state directs, in quite quotidian fashion, value from one sphere to the next. The state doesn’t work through the market, as a producer of value, so force latent or actual is what it has—all to make the market work. Passes on market days to prevent glutting. Restrictions on purchasing to prevent specie drains. Officers patrolling wharves to ensure that goods aren’t being smuggled in tariff-free from non-treatied, driving domestic prices down. High taxes on cigarettes to shape biopolitically normalized bodies; cops making sure cheap smokes aren’t being sold singly.

To say “mercantilism” is to say “police,” as Foucault suggests in what I’ve tagged above, and modern police forces are one of the most vibrant vestiges of the era that liberals like Smith hoped to call quits with. It’s not a huge leap from the forms of petty peculation that West-India merchant and police theorist Patrick Colquhoun attempted to interdict on the eighteenth-century Thames—theft that both diminished private profit and state revenue—and that the NYPD attempted to interdict on Staten Island. The gallows at Tyburn or transportation for the former; extra-judicial murder for the latter. (Tobacco remains a constant.)

My point, of course, isn’t that liberal critiques of “the mercantile system” were somehow anti-police. They weren’t, and they haven’t been. Smith’s theory of value was first articulated in the sections of his lectures on police, and the liberal value theory it originated basically attempted to calibrate British forms of policing, making them adequate to what all those Scottish guys thought of as a commercial society. We know, too, that neoliberal economic policy in practice requires the mass policing and incarceration of people, most of whom are of color. Indeed, the opposition between neoliberal and statist economics is best viewed not as an abstract conflict of doctrine, but as opposing strategies deployed by different states in different constellations of and from different positions within the world-system. This was Friedrich List’s point, whom Parenti wants to recover but for all the wrong reasons. (You might get the impression, from the article, that Marx and List were somehow on the same page. They weren’t. The latter hated the former, and was an anti-anti-free-trader to boot.) The analytic assumption underlying all of List’s arguments is that all markets are products of (nation-)state policy. Whether free-market or mercantilist, whether derived from the Manchester School or aligned with the American System, the state is right there—after all, it’s the state that “mercantilist” or “free-trade” would grammatically predicate. Indeed, List’s critique of Smith wasn’t that the latter was methodologically individualistic, as Parenti suggests, but that the free-trade tenets of British political economy were simply the form that mercantilist practices took for the hegemon of the world-system. Free-trade Britain was just the global cop, and they have a roster of small wars throughout the Pax Britannica to prove it.

The “state” versus “anti-state” economic binary, in other words, is a false binary, and the primary subject that unifies these seemingly opposed parts is the police. From the petty smugglers hanged to prevent poorer folk from enjoying a bit of baccy in the heyday of mercantilism, to the black bodega owner killed in part because he sold loosies in the era of antiblack neoliberal penality, the most basic, transhistorical, and violent agent of state economic development has been the police.

What’s weird to me about the Parenti article is that, ultimately, I think he gets that. As he put it in a line I’ve already quoted: “for capital, there is no ‘outside of the state.’” But he does so only to conclude: “Like Hamilton, we face a profound crisis rooted in an economy that demands to be remade.” But why indeed would we want to remake the economy at this moment, which would necessitate remaking the state, when we might call quits with both?

This question becomes all the sharper when we consider what we’ve seen of the state in the midst of being “remade” over the past few weeks—the murder of Eric Garner, yes, and then the murder of Michael Brown. It can’t be forgotten that, when the rebellion in Ferguson set off, it was small business owners who demanded the saturation of the area with police—small capital demanding the state to reappear in what might have been a neoliberal, post-state paradise. And then, when a harassed police department attempted to produce post mortem justification for the murder of Brown, they reached about in the grab bag of mercantilist ideological material.


He stole cigars, they said.