You go, Lem!

It’s long been a favorite aphorism of mine that a police state is not only run by the police; it’s run for the police. Of course this is an exaggeration, but I think there’s a truth in it.

I happened to use this line the other day on one of my mailing lists — not a Lefty one; this one concerns itself with the classical languages. Somewhat to my surprise, I got a rather tart response that would have been less unexpected from the Lefties:

Not really. It’s run by the elite, using the police as a tool. All states are police states to a greater or lesser extent.

Well, this got me thinking.

At the most fundamental level, the former proposition is certainly true. I’m not so sure about the second. But even the first misses some important detail, I think.

One very striking feature of life in the States (dunno about elsewhere) in recent years has been an appalling hypertrophy of the enforcement and incarceration sectors: there are more and more cops every year, they’re more and more heavily armed, they’re more and more arrogant, overbearing, self-indulgent and unaccountable, they’re more and more intrusive and activist, and more and more they have become an important political force in their own right.

And all this is entirely disproportionate to any underlying need for increased repression on behalf of the US elites. Indeed, the polloi have been remarkably passive and acquiescent in the face of a really brutal campaign of immiseration on the part of the oligoi.

Nor do I think the latter are quivering in their boots at the mere hypothesis of a sansculotte insurrection. If anything, they seem to be giddy with triumph and convinced that the sky’s the limit – or rather, the abyss is the limit. Full speed ahead!

Social phenomena can’t just be ‘read off’ in detail from the underlying laws of large-scale motion. Of course the elites ultimately run the show – until the aforementioned sansculottes show up pulling their tumbrils, and it can’t be too soon for me. But even when the elites’ rule is tranquil and undisputed, there’s a certain internal dialectic in the workings of dominance itself. The instrumentalities of dominance take on a Golem-like life of their own. The tail doesn’t quite end up wagging the dog, but it
can become a lot more tail than the dog really needs.

Another contributor to the thread corrected me on the facts:

Numbers may vary locally, I’m sure, but the stats for the whole USA on don’t bear this out.

It looks like the numbers as a percentage of the population are pretty constant, and even falling a little for the years 2006-2011.

I expect they do vary locally, and even here in NYC what we saw was a long period (late 70s to 2000 or 2001) where the force really ramped up dramatically — from 20,000-odd, IIRC, to 40,000 or so at the peak. It’s slumped a bit since then, and I think it’s around 35,000 now.

That’s just NYPD of course; no idea what the stats look like for the various suburban and ancillary police forces — the Port Authority has its own police, as do the MTA and the TBTA and so on.

It probably varies a lot by neighborhood too. In my fairly well-off neck of the woods, it’s routine to see a dozen or more cops ‘responding’ to some fairly trivial event; one gets the very strong impression that they really don’t have enough to do, except for gratuitously rousting people (‘stop and frisk’), and the preposterous theater of searching knapsacks in the subway.

The reasons for the slump since 2001 or so are variously explained. There do seem to be fewer vocations, for whatever reason. Perhaps Nineleven(tm) had a chilling effect on the ardor of the police recruitment demographic.

Mayor Bloomberg is of course very much a technocrat and it’s also possible that he’s decided the tail is now big enough for this particular dog, though he slathers the force with the usual grovelling flattery that it now feels entitled to expect, as its due, from politicians and the official media.

This is in public, of course, where the liturgies of police worship are obligatory, and the word ‘cop’ can’t be uttered without its usual Homeric epithet ‘hero’. But Bloomie may
have his own secret counsel on the subject.

Of course neither tails nor police departments can grow without limit.

Department of esprit d’escalier: I neglected to ask the classicists whether  anybody knew the time-series stats on the size of the Praetorian Guard, another overgrown  body of thugs in uniform; another tail that got pretty close to wagging the dog, now and then.



3 thoughts on “You go, Lem!

  1. duderino, i think there may some thucydides on this: what starts out as action against furriners becomes policy toward internal dissent. and i don’t just mean modes of repression (e.g., drones, coming soon to a failed city near you), but the habit of throwing money at something, e.g. afghanistan. lots of ifs & what have you’s there, but perhaps “we” are there to continue throwing money at being there. the profit stream to corporate sectors in afghanistan must be maintained, whatever else is/not going on (Gawd, we can’t just pack up run, can we? Vietnam all over again!) ditto the internal forces.

  2. What kind of cops? How many administrators, cybersecurity guys, filing archives guards, accounting coordinators, et cetera, are counted as “cops”?

    There’s a vast divide within different “police”-like agencies between the people who actually police–who actually have to respond to armed burglary calls–and Dilbertian middle-managers who harass beat cops about paperwork requirements, man mass-transit and drunk-driving checkpoints, give expert witness testimony about ballistics during the latest minority urban plea bargain or white mass shooting, and swagger around low-crime neighborhoods.

    It’s inaccurate (though tempting) to paint all “cops” as the administrators, just like it’s unfair to paint all physicians as drug-company reps or all teachers as deans of the NCAA. Consider this one’s Look to the Police (it must be something in the air this week, Mr. Smith).

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