The New (Neo)Liberal Democratic Policing State
Liberal democracies are not conventionally thought of in terms of being police states. While the need for some forms of government intervention and social regulation is understood to be necessary, these practices must always be balanced by an ethos of “self-restraint” on the part of the state (Schedler et al., 1999). This is perceived to be perhaps especially true in the age of neoliberalism, where all forms of government activity are thought to be in retreat. However, this onrush of marketization is actually connected to a widening and diversifying liberal democratic set of policing regimes. Specifically, “In the name of public and private security, life has been accorded a ‘social dimension,’” observes Rose (1996: 144), “through a hybrid array of devices for the management of insecurity.” While such social management extends deeply into the “private sphere” - ranging from the enhanced power of managers to demands for “self-discipline” - it has also granted fresh capabilities and justifications for state power. Hence, the established policing function of the state under traditional liberal democracy has transformed progressively into a neoliberal democratic policing state.
Contrary to popular assumptions, early neoliberals championed the continued and in some cases expanded role of the state for preserving capitalist values both ideologically as well as in practice. As Jackson chronicles:
Neo-liberals of the 1930s and 1940s therefore believed that the legitimation of the market, and the individual liberty best secured by the market, had to be accomplished via an expansion of state capacity and a clear admission that earlier market liberals had been wrong to advocate laissez-faire. (Jackson, 2010: 129)
In the present age, its supporters vocally advocate for less government in favor of freer markets. The “march of the neo-liberals” is “grounded in the ‘free, possessive individual’ with the state cast as tyrannical and oppressive. The welfare state, in particular, is the arch enemy of freedom.” In particular, “The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth” (Hall, 2011). Yet this anti-statism is belied by the fact that under neoliberalism the public sector and its bureaucracy have been increased, often dramatically so. Indeed, “across the world the state is, after several decades of accelerated globalization, in most cases larger and more entrenched in social relations than ever” (Scholte, 1997: 441).
This seemingly contradictory expansion of the state associated with marketization, becomes clearer when seen in terms of the strengthening of the government as a social policing institution. Tellingly, even as early as the 1980s, the “neo-conservative revolution” was witnessing dangerous levels of policing for ostensibly liberal democratic states. “Police involve themselves in too many areas of public life and are capable of upsetting the delicate constitutional balance between individual and state that must exist in a liberal society,” reports Uglow (1988) at the time; “Modern policing reflects the increasing authoritarianism of liberal society.” For some, these emerging forms of “state-making” were akin to “organized crime,” a type of mafia-like protection “racket in which a local strong man forces merchants to pay tribute in order to avoid damage - damage the strong man himself threatens to deliver” (Tilly, 1985: 170). Thus, whereas neoliberalism “is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices” fixated on spreading individual freedom through the freeing of the market, the state, nevertheless, must “create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices” including “police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets” (Harvey, 2005: 2).
Consequently, neoliberalism was initially associated, under Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA, with a politics of “authoritarian populism” (Gamble, 1979: 6). Hall (1978) proposed that this authoritarian populism results from the ways Thatcher was able to tap into large-scale discontent with the economic order and mobilize mass support through a populist appeal to free-market fundamentalism, social conservatism and a strong coercive state able to “police the crisis.” Importantly, this was a form of “consensual authoritarianism” in that it simultaneously evolved from the coercive role of the police in liberal societies and built mass support for these repressive “crime and order” strategies (Norrie and Alderman, 1988).
Notably, these populist appeals point to a broader affective political discourse of authoritarianism central to the advancement of marketization agendas within established liberal democracies. They represent a desire to recapture social agency through a reinvigorated coercive state, revolving around the policing of foreign and domestic “enemies” within a socio-political backdrop of permanent crisis. While perhaps exaggerated, this shift is indicative of a broader move toward authoritarianism within these societies. Speaking to the twenty-first century US context, Giroux (2007: 98) contends that “the United States is not simply governed by a center-right party supported by the majority of the populace, it is a country that is moving rapidly towards a form of authoritarianism that undermines any claim to being a liberal democracy” characterized by “the attack on immigrants and people of color, the assault on civil liberties, and the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich and elite corporations.”
This affective authoritarian governance significantly emerges from, and is a response to, the structural problems created by neoliberalism. Concretely, greater policing is needed to deal with the fallout from the diminishing welfare benefits once provided by a now retreating state. It is also required to help implement, forcefully if need be, these economic changes. Law and order policing should “be properly understood as one component of a broader monetarist and neoliberal state strategy geared towards inhibiting working peoples’ opportunities to avoid the worst forms of wage labor and, concomitantly, diminishing their expectations with respect to wages and job security.” As such “neoliberal restructuring has not resulted in less state, as is fashionable to argue in some circles today, but in a different, often more coercive, role for the state” (Gordon, 2005: 53-4).
Yet it is also borne out of the profound social and political dislocations caused by neoliberal transformations. The “creative destruction” at the heart of neoliberalism serves as a primary means for the legitimization of the state as a repressive force for policing this crisis rhetorically and in practice. More precisely, enhanced policing is linked to the social construction of a profound cultural and political insecurity. The existential fears over the ability of traditional liberalism and social democracy to provide for collective economic security and prosperity are currently translated into a strategic promotion of a “crisis” logic for simultaneously spreading coercive state power and economic marketization. Brenner and Theodore (2002: 349) maintain “Throughout the advanced capitalist world ... cities have become strategically crucial geographical arenas in which a variety of neoliberal initiatives - along with closely intertwined strategies of crisis displacement and crisis management - have been articulated.”
More broadly, this reveals a contemporary liberal democratic politics linked to “neoliberal penality.” Critically, it points to the shift from “mass” to “hyper” incarceration, signifying the “rolling back of the stingy social state and rolling out of the gargantuan penal state that have remade the country’s stratification, cities and civic culture” (Wacquant, 2010: 74). This “neoliberal” penality is also evidenced in the United Kingdom, where the prison population has more than doubled between 1993 and 2012, increasing from 41,800 to over 86,000 (see Ministry of Justice, 2013; also Berman and Dar, 2013). Present is “the distinctive paradox of neoliberal penality,” whereby:
[T]he state stridently asserts its responsibility, potency and efficiency in the narrow register of crime management at the very moment when it proclaims and organizes its own impotence on the economic front, thereby revitalizing the twin historical cum myths of the efficient police and the free market. (Wacquant, 2009: xviii)
More than just being penal in character, present is an authoritarian policing logic at the core of present-day (neo)liberal democracies. This paradox is manifested in the expectation of governments to deal with an ever- proliferating set of “enemies.” The increased militarization of the police (beginning in the 1990s), for instance, reflects “the aggressive turn many law enforcement agencies are assuming behind the rhetoric of community and problem-oriented policing reforms” (Kraska and Kappeler, 1997: 1). It is, moreover, witnessed in the ongoing “War on Drugs” that has combined with the private prison-building industry and the effects of economic globalization to explode incarceration rates within advanced liberal democracies (Reynolds, 2008). To this end, this domestic “war” constitutes a “global lock down” that affects marginalized populations across the world, disappearing the national boundaries of governments to police vulnerable “irresponsible” citizens (Sudbury, 2014). This authoritarian policing logic produces systematic police brutality (Cooper, 2015) that is “much more diffuse, insidious and variegated” than often scholarly or popularly assumed (Lynch, 2012: 175).