Fuck, the Police! Foucault, Rancière, and Graeber.

[Fuck, the Police! – How are we to identify the police? What constitutes the police force and process of policing? Why are the malign, oppressors rather than benign, peace-keepers?]

The general image of the police is not nearly broad enough: in fact the proliferation of the image (truncheon wielding, horse riding, car chasing)is a subtle way in which society ensures control. For if we are not in a situation of being confronted by the boys in blue, we are acting free of legal control, with autonomy and not in any political site. The writings on the police (as shall be revealed, a term which refers to a great number of things and structures) by Jacques Ranciere, Michel Foucault and David Graeber highlight the the realities of police work, and the society of strict control that we inhabit. The basic argument/idea of this post is to reveal the different ways in which it is possible to think of what we mean by police. As a clear institution of largely direct, bureaucratic and direct control (Graeber), as a broader system of control which ensures homogenity and normalisation in society (Foucault), or a term more akin to our common idea of Politics, which structures society as a whole (Ranciere).

David Graeber

David Graeber, renowned anthropologist and anarchist activist, provides perhaps the most sober, empirical and clear account of the police in his essay Dead Zones of the Imagination (compiled in his book, The Utopia of Rules). Simply stated; “The police are bureaucrats with weapons”. This notion of the police, based on sociological evidence, the vast majority of police actions are based not on responses to crime but the enforcement of administration (1), regulation and arbitrary rules. This fits in well with the well-established tradition within Leftist thinking: the police do not exist to ensure a well ordered, safe and society which functions within legal boundaries, rather it is a tool of the specifically capitalist state. The police exist to protect the owners of capital and their systems of exploitation. (e.g. private property is the core of the capitalist system of domination and the police ensure it cannot be disrupted through workers taking control of it through violent means). The work of Kristian William in his book Our Enemies in Blue provides a historical argument for this notion of the police: modern American police force was born out of the Slave Patrol system, and our intuitive idea of the role of police is largely inaccurate. The US Supreme court itself declared that Police officers have no constitutional duty to protect individuals from harm, in 2005. Graeber thus seemingly seems to view the police as a particular institution of control within society: a tool of the capitalist state which is able to enforce arbitrary regulations upon our society, through its constant threat of violence and punishment. Although a far broader notion of the role and presence of the Police than the majority intuitive image of the police, the police (or at least the term) is used with even greater breadth in the works and theories of both Foucault and Ranciere.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault’s idea of the police, formed most notably in his works Discipline and Punish, the lecture Security, Territory and Population, offers a far broader and theoretical account of the nature of the police and the act of policing. Although still concerned with the largely bureaucratic structures and behaviours of the police, Foucault gives greater emphasis to the process of enforcing normalisation and how the police is system distributed across society (unlike the more particular, identifiable institutional police of Graeber) (1). The Police does not exist just as a tool for the benefit of the capitalist class, but has a greater role in the whole normalisation of society to render certain practices, behaviours and outlooks as the only acceptable within civil society. The police as a body of social regulation are more expansive than Graeber identifies: they act across nearly all bodies of civil society with the power of the state and constitutes civil institutions themselves (“The police includes everything” (2)). In this blog post by Ali Ravizi, he presents a concept of the police perhaps quite similar to that of Graeber: “‘police’ is the ensemble of mechanisms serving to ensure order, the properly channeled growth of wealth and the conditions of preservation of health in general’”. The police as a body of normalisation, but still one which exists to ultimately protect the socio-economic system in society (whether feudalism or capitalism), is the crux of the view. It my final look at the phrase and concept of the Police, Ranciere constructs the broadest idea, and one not concerned necessarily with stabilising a particular economic system from any individual or collective dissent.


Jacques Ranciere

Ranciere’s use of the phrase Police is by far the broadest and the one which constrasts most sharply, and powerfully, with both our common conception of the Police, but also politics as a whole. Thus a slightly more complete outline of his outlook is necessary.

In his work Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Ranciere himself provides a a brief outline (although clearer than my own) of Foucalt’s concept of the Police:

“Michel Foucault has shown that, as a mode of government, the police described by writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries covered everything relating to “man” and his “happiness.”3 The petty police is just a particular form of a more general order that arranges that tangible reality in which bodies are distributed in community. It is the weakness and not the strength of this order in certain states that inflates the petty police to the point of putting it in charge of the whole set of police functions. The evolution of Western societies reveals a contrario that the policeman is one element in a social mechanism linking medicine, welfare, and culture. The policeman is destined to play the role of consultant and organizer  as much as agent of public law and order, and no doubt the name itself will one day change, caught up as it will be in the process of euphemization through which our societies try to promote the image, at least, of all traditionally despised functions.” – Disagreement, 28

His outline hopefully seems to show some similarities with my own: the police in reality is a body which enforces order over a far larger social space than just what the ‘petty police’ (perhaps as Graeber envisions it) does. Ranciere then goes onto outline his own view of what constitutes the Police, which I shall attempt to summarize: first, it is important to make it clear that Ranciere does not refer to the police in a universally pejorative sense. He stresses there can be good and bad polices, of varying benign and evil degrees. Secondly, he presents the Police as the body which structures, justifies and distributes identities in social hierarchies. Policing is the process of denying the part that has not part’ in society from having a part. ‘The part that has no part’ might be seen as a great multiplicity of things: women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, the mentally ill, gay people, workers, and the Police order ensures that they can never have any active role in determining the social hierarchies and distributions of power in society (they cannot restructure the police order because although the constitute the order itself, they are not recognised as part of it.)  Ranciere argues “politics occurs when there is a place and a way for two heterogeneous processes to meet.” That is to the say a non-police order (for Ranciere, one based on the presupposition of equality) meets with the Police order and subverts it: not just restructuring the hierarchy of identities within the order, but completely subverting it and importantly, showing it to be unnatural and contingent. I hope to cover his notion of politics v police in future blog posts, but a brief outline of what he labels the police is all I feel necessary for this post. The police order is not simply the state which enforces certain political and social hierarchies, alongside allocating resources, justice and numerous other things on a basis of these hierarchies, but a wider social system which determines “ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task…”.

What does my short comparison and comment on the three thinkers writings and ideas of the police enable? It certainly shows that our simplistic, imagistic idea of the police is not sufficient for explaining their actual role in society. It allows the phrase Police to describe a number of different social phenomona and institutions: which arguably aren’t conflict definitions of the police, rather are simply broader and deeper understandings of what policing is.








All from his essay Dead Zones of the imagination + (1)”because generations of police sociologists have pointed out that only a very small proportion of what police actually do has anything to do with enforcing criminal law” page 44, + https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JTE0WI5C1Y for Kristian Williams’ work introduction.


(1) foucault interview – alien media video




All from his work Disagreement, and my understanding aided by Todd May’s book Contemporary Politica Movements and the Thought of Jacques Rancière (by far the best introduction to Ranciere’s political philosophy and thinking I’ve found).




Removed parts

[Graeber ultimately argues that Police as a body for social regulation is unnecessary and is in fact the body which generates most violence in society (albeit, “bureaucratic violence pg 49). The police hardly even function effectively in the way we imagine they do: most violent crimes and burglaries aren’t reported “unless insurance forms are to be filled out” (pg 45) and bring violence to non-violent situations. His anthropological work in Madagascar prompts him to make the argument that with the withdrawal of the state, and particularly the police, society seems to function quite well. It is neither a necessary nor a positive element in society: rather it is oppressive, bureaucratic and works on the assumption of fear and punishment.]


[Foucault is a thinker in whose writing and views, the revolutionary nature of his politics never quite matches the revolutionary aims of his philosophy. Skeptical of the idea of avant-garde administering of revolutionary roles and telling groups how to resist and overcome their situation, he was oft quiet in his recommendations for praxis and how the systems of control he identified he could overcome. ]




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