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.

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