June 11, 2020

What happens when the police disappear? In Montreal in 1969, a police strike resulted in 16 hours of chaos in which bank robberies, arson, looting and violence were so savage the army and Mounties were called in. More recently, in 2017, a police strike in the Brazilian city of Vitoria resulted in such brutal anarchy that 1,200 soldiers were sent in to restore order.

Closer to my home, after our nearest town got rid of its police station, the result was a wave of burglaries. The nearest police station is now 15 miles away, so even if you spot thieves actually robbing your garage it’ll take a minimum of 30 minutes for Plod to reach you, by which time they’re long gone.

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Resident after resident posted furiously in our local Facebook group about the thefts. Eventually it was our turn: despite security measures our garage was cleaned out, with the burglars taking bikes, tools — even a spare set of alloy wheels.

The recent protests following the death of George Floyd have seen a growing chorus of voices calling for US cities to ‘defund’ or even to ‘abolish’ the police. Though ‘defund’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘do away with altogether’, in the light of our own garage-robbery my first reaction was to raise an eyebrow. The reflexive conservative argument against getting rid of the police boils down to “it’s a stupid idea, because only force can keep human wickedness in check”. As happened in Vitoria, and Montreal, and my small town, conservatives argue, reducing a society’s ability to enforce the common good results in more crime.

Without the police, the argument goes, you’ll end up with vigilantes and private armies. Thomas Hobbes, one of the first political theorists to envisage society as a contract, argued in Leviathan (1651) that the only way to stop societies degenerating into a “war of all against all” was for the state to have a monopoly on violence. The state, he suggested, should have an absolute right to enforce what’s best for everyone, rather than one person’s particular interest. So to avoid general anarchy, we cede our personal desire to enforce our will, exact revenge (or retrieve our bikes) to officials charged with doing so in a fair and even-handed way.

In a small town, the criminal element is usually well-known, and sure enough, neighbours had seen the usual suspects loitering by our back gate in the small hours on the night it happened. Other eyewitnesses saw one of them passing one of our bikes over a fence into a vacant lot about 24 hours later. We even saw one of them riding my husband’s bike in the market square.

In good social-contract spirit, rather than whipping up a posse, we dutifully reported all the eyewitness accounts to the police. But officers never followed up. They were, though, very keen to respond to any sign of vigilante justice. On one occasion my husband spotted the usual suspects climbing over our wall and chased them down the alleyway. Shortly afterwards, a PCSO appeared in our street, in response to a report of “some northerner shouting at children”.

So is the point of police really to act as ultimate backstop for the common good, as I believed? Anti-policing campaigners argue that no, the experience of my small town is evidence that police aren’t on our side at all. Instead, rather than being there to uphold the common good, police exist to keep the already-marginalised in their place via violence, petty rules and incarceration, while ignoring white-collar crime and protecting only the rich. There is no common good, only the interests of the wealthy and the frustrated needs of the masses: my experience just demonstrates that I don’t count as important enough to be worth protecting.

Campaigners argue that instead of calling for ever more cops on the streets, we should work to eliminate the need for authoritarian policing by getting rid of the social ills the police exist to suppress. Residents of Minneapolis are about to find out whether or not this works: the city council has declared its intention to abolish the city’s police department and replace it with an ‘alternative model’.

A look at The End of Policing by the sociologist Alex Vitale suggests that this ‘alternative model’ means redirecting resources from police violence and prisons toward housing, mental health services, youth services and restorative justice.

Here we find a clue to why conservatives react so furiously to proposals to abolish the police: it’s founded in a radically un-conservative understanding of human nature. Rousseau, the grandfather of modern liberalism, wrote in The Social Contract (1762) that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. For Rousseau, humans were naturally good and it’s the influence of society that corrupts us.

From this core premise flows the progressive belief that humans are only warped out of true by economic misery, racism, bad cultural norms and other forms of distortion on our innately prosocial instincts. If you believe this, it’s a short step to the arguments of anti-police campaigners that if only we can get rid of economic injustice, people will stop doing bad things.

You have to be very blinkered to dispute the idea that squalor and desperation breed rule-breaking, and that reducing squalor and desperation are likely to increase a willingness to abide by societal rules. So on the surface, the police-abolition argument looks a great deal like refocusing on the common good. But on closer inspection, it turns out to be a more cuddly version of the same old story.

The writer Chris Arnade argued recently that the main purpose of the police today is to stop the poor taking too literally the example of the modern rich. That is, an asset-stripping private equity partner and a ghetto gangster display the same antisocial indifference to the wider impact of their destructive selfishness. But this attitude is praised in the former, while the latter will spend his life being harassed by police.

You could say, perhaps, that in policing terms it’s Hobbes for the poor and Rousseau for the rich. The poor get ferocious authoritarian clampdowns, while the rich are encouraged to follow their instincts in pursuit of the goodness it’s assumed will unfurl naturally if only they follow their instincts.

In these terms, the anti-police argument is really that instead of having Rousseau for the rich and Hobbes for the poor, it should be Rousseau for everyone. But the truth is that these variants on the social-contract view of society share a blind spot: values.

Both the Hobbesian and the Rousseauian view, as I’ve (admittedly very reductively) characterised them, see human societies as value-neutral. For Hobbes, there are no generally shared values and the good society is enforced from the top by authority. For Rousseau, the good society has the potential to emerge naturally from humans’ instinctive goodness if only we can reorganise it the right way. But for both, humans are first and foremost individuals who can — and should — pursue their individual instincts and desires.

But how are we meant to imagine what a good society looks like, if we can’t even agree on the values we share? The police-abolishers seem to be suggesting this should be determined by local communities according to their needs. What then if a local community decided its safety depended on excluding a particular ethnic or sexual minority? A glance at the BLM manifesto page suggests such an attempt would receive short shrift from the wider movement for community-driven public safety.

So what we’ve actually done is kick the can of moral authority down the road. Who gets to set the new limits on the power of communities to determine their own public safety priorities? No one seems willing to tackle this question frankly, even as we watch a new morality toppling the statues of the old order and convening new types of public sacrament.

And even as it sidles round the question of who holds moral authority, the ‘Rousseau for everyone’ vision also skips lightly over the effectiveness of rehabilitation. That is, many would doubtless benefit from more emphasis on therapeutic interventions such as drug rehab, counselling or welfare. But advocates of these measures often seem reluctant to address the question of whether everyone truly can be healed.

The perpetrators of my town’s mini crime wave are well known locally. I can vouch that there’s nothing wrong with their mental health. This isn’t a high unemployment area. They’re not robbing garages because structural injustice has stripped them of other options; they’re doing it because they can. There’s no reason to suppose asking them nicely or giving them subsidised housing, counsellors or free stuff would make them stop. So what do you do with the minority who refuse to be cured with kindness?

It’s not enough to imagine that you can bring about the good life just by providing the poor with more resources in the hopes that they self-actualise their way out of iniquity. Rising wealth doesn’t seem to be having this effect on the liberal rich. So (to paraphrase Roosevelt) we can all agree to speak more softly, but who do we then authorise to stand in the background carrying a big stick?

We should be less troubled by proposals to reimagine the police than by this evasiveness on questions of authorised violence and punishment, and on who has the power to determine public values. So far the official answer seems to be that we don’t need any such authorised violence, or public morality — just a more equal distribution of resources and freedom. But all this does is provide a smokescreen for whoever now has the power to set ethical parameters.

My frustration with the “Rousseau for everyone” idealists isn’t that they’re advocating a new public morality, it’s that they’re smuggling it in under the guise of more freedom. And even as the actual shape of this morality stays tacit, so too do the mechanisms for enforcing it. Because make no mistake: any social order necessitates a degree of repression. And a Rousseau-flavoured reimagining of public safety might understand how you feel, but it will still be equipped with tasers.