Sean Monahan’s latest seems right up my alley. As a frequent quoter of Saul Alinsky’s plea that the left should “play the game to win” and not just yell “kill the umpire” and as an ardent critic of nihilist strains of psuedo-leftism I have openly voiced similar concerns. Concerns that have caused me some consternation due to the knee-jerk responses they would elicit. I don’t want to fill this role nor do I want to look like a contrarian by now rebutting some of Sean’s arguments. However I do think it’s important to debunk the inflammatory notion that police forces represent a part of the working class and deserve any sort of solidarity from progressive forces.
like capitalists, police are human beings, but not workers
There is a story about the Cyclops Steel and Iron Works factory in Capital. Marx writes about a discussion between the directors of that workplace and a factory commission. The capitalists argue that boys as young as twelve should be allowed to work throughout the night. If this is prohibited they protest,
“…there would be the loss from so much expensive machinery, lying idle half the time, and to get through the amount of work which we are able to do on the present system, we should have to double our premises and plant, which would double the outlay.”
When I recant this story to insufferable, self-righteous ultra-leftists they usually proclaim their disgust at the inhumane capitalist “pigs.” But should these “pigs” really be personally blamed? It’s fair to criticize the owners relentless pursuit of surplus value, but what is their alternative? Be altruistic, rebel against their interest to maximize the rate of exploitation and be undercut and driven out of business by less amiable competition? Leave both them and their employees destitute? Individual capitalists are held hostage to a system beyond their direct control and to market forces that appear to supernaturally hover in a sphere above conscious human activity.
The truth is that most capitalists aren’t sadistic. I’m sure even most sweatshop owners in Indonesia don’t really want to see their employees suffer needlessly. So I pose the same question as Sean: “are these men enjoying themselves?” Do the directors of General Motors genuinely like having tens of thousands of laid-off workers spurn their name and suffer a recession on food stamps? I think not. Capitalists, like police officers, are small actors in a game much larger than themselves.
As low-to moderate-income government employees whose livelihoods are threatened by budget cuts, police have as much of a stake in the success of the progressive movement as anyone else.
Unlike our liberal erstwhile allies, socialists don’t see class in terms of income, but rather through the lens of social function (relationship to the means of production).
The visceral hatred of law enforcement in many of America’s most marginalized communities represent a little piece lingering of class consciousness. Police are part of the “armed bodies of men” who work to defend the social and political dominance of the capitalist class. That means that they exist solely to defend present property rights, structural inequalities and everything else we oppose. Whether as individuals they joined the police force because they read too many jingoist comic books, wanted to help old ladies cross the street, had no other job opportunities, or needed to compensate for sexual inadequacy is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is their social role. (For reasons that I don’t have room to delve into it is also a serious mistake to conflate the social role of the men and women of the armed forces with those of law enforcement.)
I am aware of budget cuts hitting our community school districts, hospitals and libraries hard, but I’m unaware of it affecting the public employees I don’t care about. Namely prison guards, police officers and that one parking meter lady who use to show up on Wheeler Avenue when I was in high school, after her working hours, just to give me tickets for being awesome. But if for some illogical reason the bourgeoisie decided to let their police officers live on the same slave-wages they give to some members of the real working class, no progressive, especially a “socialist,” would be justified in aiding their struggle while they retained their corrosive (anti)social role.
Copious amounts of post-tonsillectomy codeine is keeping me from ending this article with some hyperbolic '60s-era rhetoric. Again I’m not saying dehumanize the enemy. I’m saying recognize their social function and oppose them.
a quick note on Alinsky
I cut and pasted the following in Evernote last month and attributed it to Chris Maisano. I can’t seem to find its origin, but I think it’s safe to assume its from our Chris Maisano and not someone else.
The biggest reason why the Alinsky organizing model doesn't seem to have accomplished much to change power relations is because it focuses on choosing campaigns that are "winnable" and avoiding the supposed pitfalls of "ideology." Because of this, the big issues come off the table before any activity even occurs and activists learn to continually trim their sails to accomodate to "reality," as we have seen in the flawed strategy many liberal and "progressive" groups adopted around healthcare reform. The Alinsky approach is also completely allergic to any kind of systematic theorizing or long-term vision, and because of this groups like IAF, ACORN, and anyone else who adopts a similar method can't tie individual struggles to a larger goal of transforming society. It's a really frustrating point of view to deal with, and in a lot of ways it's a perfect "left" politics in a neoliberal, postmodern period - metanarratives like Marxism are bad, local is good, radical change is impossible, etc.
One of Sean’s underlying points is actually fine. He is absolutely right in acknowledging that the fault lies with the system, not with these individual police officers, but by the same extension why don’t we show the same proposed solidarity with the Chamber of Commerce and our local prison guard union? Should we really go into communities of color suffering from a generations long war on drugs, systemic police brutality and advocate for public funds for police officers instead of local schools and health clinics? We don’t of course, because that would be terribly insensitive and profoundly idiotic. Sure it would tickle my warm, pinko-heart for some fine police officer’s kid to have lots of nice things underneath the Christmas tree this winter, but hey, no one said being a class warrior would be easy.