The Prose of Purification: Critical Theory, Police Power, and Abolition Socialism.

AuthorMcQuade, Brendan

After decades of growth and expansion, the US prison population is finally trending downward. The decline began in 2010 and, with the exception of 2013, the decreases have continued, even in the face of the Trump administrations law and order populism. What started as elite-brokered tweaks on the edges of the system--often prompted by fiscal pressures following the Great Recession--has become something further reaching. Years of protest and agitation from Black Lives Matter (BLM) has made the abolition of police and prisons a serious position. Across the country, movement coalitions are fighting for the abolition of cash bail, the decriminalization of drug use and sex work, and the pursuit of other non-reformist reforms to reduce the reach and power of the criminal legal system (Berger et al. 2017).

There is no doubt that this is an exciting time but it is also a dangerous one. While movements fight for fundamental change, the political establishment tries to mollify discontent with a series of traditional reforms to reaffirm the legitimacy of the criminal legal system. With regard to policing, liberal reformers propose tighter protocols, body cameras, de-escalation trainings, and renewed emphases on community policing. These procedural reforms sideline the more fundamental critiques and questions raised by contemporary movements. Policing itself is the problem and solutions require a paradigm shift away from police agencies and the criminal legal system (Vitale 2017). As Angela Davis (2005, 73) explains, however, the work of abolition is not simply "the negative process of tearing down"--depolicing or reducing the scope of policing--but also a positive task of "building up, creating new institutions" that render policing irrelevant.

This conception of abolition presupposes a systemic understanding of the administrative state and not just incarceration and policing--or even the entire security apparatus. The challenge of abolition is developing a new practice of administrating societies. At first glance, Michel Foucault's influential account of power seems to be a necessary touchstone for abolitionist politics. Thinking through the shifting meanings of police helped Michel Foucault (1980, 121) theorize modern forms of power as a series of governmentalities that operate through decentralized webs of relations and institutions, a project he famously described as the work of "cut[ting] off the King's head" in political thought. Flowever, Foucault and his followers have approached "the police concept so abstractly" that it "is emptied of the humiliations administered both on the street and in the police station, the thud of the truncheon and the gratuitous use of 'discretionary' force" (Neocleous 2000, ix-x; 2021, 43-44). The same critique applies to Foucault's larger theory of power. In an early and influential account, Nicos Poulantzas (1978, 44, 68, 149) characterized Foucault's understanding of power as "metaphysical and mystical," a conception that "scatters power among innumerable microsituations" that have no "other basis than itself ... a pure 'situation' in which power is always immanent."

Here, Mark Neocleous's (2000,x) effort "to recover the concept of police ... and to resituate it into the mainstream of social and political theory" provides needed clarity. Neocleous "recover[s] part of the original meaning of police as it emerged with the collapse of feudalism" (x). He finds that "the early police idea reveals that central to the original police mandate was 'good order,' in the broadest possible sense, and that policing took the form of a range of institutions concerned with far more than crime" (x). Although the meaning of policing contracted with the rise of liberalism starting in the late eighteenth century, the expansive, initial meaning of policing left a lasting imprint on the modern state. Neocleous's (2000, xi; 2021, 46) goal is to "encourage the use of an expanded concept of police, to reflect the expansive set of institutions through which policing takes place." Neocleous (this issue) clarifies the expansive and original conception of police power that is hidden within and obscured by our common sense understanding of the police. Policing is not just the work of police to enforce law and order. It connotes the administrative apparatus of the state, which operates to both fabricate capitalist forms of order and manage the resultant contradictions.

By theorizing policing power in relation to the histories of state formation and capital accumulation, Neocleous presents a novel theorization of modern power, where police power--recuperated from bourgeois social thought as a concept for critical theory--replaces the ill-defined and ahistorical concepts advanced by Foucault. This is not just an academic exercise in parsing concepts. Indeed, Neocleous returns to the nondebate between Poulantzas and Foucault about the materiality of power. What is at stake, then, is our understanding of material structures of power like capital and state. What Foucault and particularly his followers tend to obscure, Neocleous centers: the police powers that made historical capitalism. This expanded concept of police not only offers a comprehensive theory of the security apparatus that is implicit in the abolitionist project. It also contains the seeds of an alternative conception of discourse, what I call the prose of pacification. Where governmentality pervades a decentered series of power apparatuses, the prose of pacification connotes all the ways that the imperatives of capital haunt the language and practice of administration. This is a massive domain of cultural production. It is grounded in the way bourgeois discourses systemically deny the class content of the social world and pathologize working class agency and resistance. These dynamics are best displayed in the criminal legal system, where the consequences of collective social problems are reduced to individual choices. The prose of pacification also includes the rituals of bureaucratic compliance, the forms of knowledge and practices of social policing that administer us from cradle to grave. It is the evident lyrical exaltation of copspeak in popular culture and political discourse that invites us to internalize the politics of fear and lend our energies to the police wars against so-called criminals, delinquent youths, terrorists, migrants, and other official enemies.

The prose of pacification is a major impediment to social transformation but naming the problem is a necessary step toward glimpsing vistas beyond capital accumulation and police power. Here, reckoning with the expanded concept of police can help expand our political horizons. The original, expanded concept was a product of the system transition from feudalism to capitalism. We need to think about the positive task of abolition in similar terms. This does not mean, as Rigakos (2016, 120) suggests, socialist police science. Both the police idea and institution are likely beyond recuperation. As Seri (this issue) explains, "Without incorporating the critique of police, materialist state theory risks reproducing the ideological common sense framework of market liberalism that defines the object of its critique." Instead, it means crafting non-reformist reforms that systematically disarticulate the security apparatus and build new institutions that challenge what is specific about the rule of capital. This work is no doubt generative. The transition to socialism is a process. However, much of the work must center on the reconstitution of the commons and the complete reformation of social property relations. From this perspective, abolitionist demands like de-policing and repatriations (the negative aspect of abolition) should sit alongside socialist strategies like decommodification and public ownership (the positive process of building alternatives) in a coherent, if provisional, strategy of systemic transition to abolition socialism.

The Poulantzas-Foucault Non-Debate, Neocleous, and the Recuperation of Poststructuralism

Foucault (1978/2012, 99) was notoriously coy about positioning his work in relation to other scholars, once telling an interviewer that he "prefer[s] secret citations of Marx that the Marxists themselves are not able to recognize." Not all Marxists were fooled, however. Poulantzas (1978, 67), the first Marxist to take Foucault seriously, found "considerable value" in Foucault's work on the asylum and the prison as it "furnishe[d] a materialist analysis of certain institutions of power." While Foucault positioned these disciplinary apparatuses outside of the state, Poulantzas considered them as part of the strategic field that constitutes the wider state apparatus. Reinterpreted from this perspective, Foucault, as Poulantzas (1978, 67) suggested, "resolve[d] the essential problem for the theory of the State: that is, to pin-point that individualization of the social body which is the original ground of classes in their capitalist specificity. "The prison, the asylum, and other disciplinary apparatuses produce and enforce the atomization of social relations entailed in the alienation of labor power at the heart of capital accumulation, what Poulantzas (1978, 67) described as "the material expression in capitalist bodies of the existing relations of production and social division of labour, and it is equally the material effect of state practices and techniques forging and subordinating this (political) body."

Although Poulantzas took much from Foucault, he also drew a clear contrast between Marxism and Foucault on the materiality of power. For Poulantzas (1978, 148),"power always has ^precisebasis"in a "material system of place-allocation throughout the social division of labour"--that is, the type of disciplinary apparatuses and biopolitical rationalities that Foucault analyzed--but it is a materiality that "is fundamentally, though not exclusively...

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