Law enforcement and prison: their origin during the Great Expropriation and their role in the return to primitive accumulation.

C.W. racism, slavery.

To put law enforcement and the prison-industrial complex in their historical and social context, these are very recent innovations, hastily constructed by the ruling class in response to a crisis.

This is the way ruling classes have worked pretty much since records began. They create a disastrous state of affairs and introduce drastic measures, then persuade their subjects it was unavoidable.

What is striking about these institutions is their absolute continuity of purpose since their inception during the Great Expropriation. We had been ripped from the land that supported us from prehistory, robbed of our means of subsistence and forced into alienated labour in the factories, workhouses, and prisons.

Factories and prisons developed in parallel for the same purpose, to use our bodies for the augmentation of capital.

Look at a Victorian prison, workhouse or factory and spot the difference. Workers who had hitherto been disciplined only by the sun and the seasons were chained to the clock and the machine, forbidden to speak or associate freely, housed in overcrowded, unhealthy slums.

One of the consequences of the creation of ‘free proletarians’ was that the iron discipline of the machine age ended at the factory gates. A mass of very unhappy people were being trained to think and act as a unit rather than as individuals then turned loose every night; how would they react when threatened?

There were no prisons in late mediaeval society.

There were dungeons for political prisoners and captured soldiers. There were local lock-ups for unruly characters, those awaiting trial or held hostage pending payment of a debt or fine. By far the most common reason for incarceration was debt, and this was a simple extortion racket.

The first state prison was Millbank, built in 1816, in the white heat of the Great Expropriation, three years after the Luddite insurrection. The land enclosures were a fait accompli but there were revolutions on the continent. Across the Atlantic there were slave uprisings in the Caribbean and the plantation states.

Law enforcement came first.

Anglo-Saxon communities were protected by the concept of frankpledge (frith-borh) or collective accountability, based on the tithing, a voluntary association of ten households, grouped into hundreds, then into shires. Members of the tithing swore to be responsible for each other’s good conduct and to offer up or stand surety for any member accused of an offence. Each was obliged to raise hue and cry and to assist in the pursuit and apprehension of the offender. Mutual responsibility was ultimately underwritten by the hundred’s land holding. The Norman Conquest turned land into property held in feudal title by lords; so serfs could not offer surety, making the lords responsible for justice on their Manors, administered by constables and sheriffs (shire-reeves).

The system of mutual social obligation gave way to the values of one class being imposed on the other by force.

Prompted by the French Revolution and threats of invasion, yeomen cavalry were raised, low-grade gentry who were given a uniform, a horse and free grog then turned loose on the Working Class, as in the Peterloo massacre of 1819. In the cities there were hired ‘thieftakers’ and professional perjurers called ‘strawmen’, and stipendiary magistrates, petty bourgeois dispensing summary punishment.

The architect of modern law enforcement was Napoleon Bonaparte’s police minister Joseph Fouché, the ‘butcher of Lyons’, former enforcer for the revolution’s National Convention.

What the butcher gave Napoleon was his innovation of ‘high and low’ policing. On the one hand political surveillance by a network of undercover cops, paid informers and agents provocateurs. On the other what he contemptuously called “the policing of prostitutes, thieves, and lamp posts” which was best left to the lower orders. ‘Workers in uniform’ who were explicitly not to be selected for their intelligence, initiative or integrity. With the uniform comes a baton, a foolish swagger and a fantastic sense of entitlement.

The Peterloo massacre led to outcry even amongst the petty bourgeoisie. The class interest of the yeomanry was too obvious. Robert Peel introduced Fouché’s system lock, stock and barrel with the formation of the Metropolitan police in 1829.

Peel wanted the Working Class complicit in its own oppression.

Peel said things like: “workingmen (sic) must be disciplined by workingmen”. “The police are the public and the public are the police” But what exactly did Peel mean by the public? He was opposed to the people’s charter and universal suffrage, and only about nine percent of the population of England and Wales had any say in the laws that made crime a matter of survival for the rest.

The Met was used as a de-facto riot squad from the start, even being dispatched to Birmingham to take on the Chartists. In February 1832 it inserted Sergeant William Popay under a false identity into the National Political Union, as a spy and agent provocateur. It was more than a year before he was unmasked, in a routine that will be familiar to the reader, Popay was dismissed as a ‘loose cannon’ and it was business as usual for the rest.

In 1819, the year of the Peterloo massacre, the government of South Carolina established mandatory slave patrols.

These were a form of yeomanry. Since 1671 there had been slave patrols that brought back runaway African-Americans to be tortured and killed. Once a plantation worker had escaped they were considered worthless as a slave so the agenda was to inflict on them grotesque punishments from which they would inevitably perish.

Prompted by two attempted insurrections, the new law compelled all white, adult males to serve in the patrols, so that the whole of white society was deputised into the subjugation of the majority (in the Carolinas) African-American population. Patrols were given carte blanche to enter dwellings, detain slaves and dispense summary justice.

Carolina’s constitution, the first document to enshrine human chattel slavery in law, had been co-written by the philosopher John Locke, ‘father of Liberalism’ and originator of the ‘Social Contract’, whereby citizens consent to be governed in return for a measure of security and utility. Locke’s theory of property derived from ownership of the ‘self’. He managed to work justifications for conquest and slavery into his philosophy, as he had a great deal of money invested in them.

The constitution defined the slave as one who could not own property. In Locke’s terms, this applied to a slave’s own flesh, time, their productive and creative abilities. Other articles created hereditary nobility and serfdom, and a hierarchical voting system based on land ownership.

When the United States government ‘abolished’ slavery in response to the Civil War, it left itself a loophole. The Thirteenth Amendment allows for the enslavement of prisoners “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. All that was necessary then, to retain people as slaves was to get them duly convicted. The remainder would be proletarianised with incarceration as a penalty for refusal.

The US plantation to prison-industrial system evolved smoothly from the Louisiana Purchase to the present day – we all know the Parchman Farm blues. Even the Civil War was barely a shudder. Modern US prisons are full of black and brown bodies generating surplus-value at maximum efficiency.

Proletarianisation is incarceration.

Simply because it makes the survival of our bodies dependant on their availability to augment capital and reproduce capitalist power relations.

The indignity of wage labour, of submission to command, of maintaining a pretence of deference and servility in return for not much more than the reproduction cost of your labour-power, is a gross violation. It sits on a sliding scale that leads logically to prostitution and enslavement. It forces you into complicity, not only with the reproduction of capitalist power relations, but with the maintenance of racial, gender and class roles written for you by the hegemonic group.

The line between legal slavery and legal freedom is in the subtle distinction between power based on a right to take life, and the capacity to restrict access to the necessities of life. The advocates of chattel slavery understood this all along, perhaps even better than their opponents:

“Mr. President, if we recognize no law as obligatory, and no government as legitimate, which authorizes involuntary servitude, we shall be forced to consign the world to anarchy; for no government has yet existed, which did not recognize and enforce involuntary servitude for other causes than crime. To destroy that, we must destroy all inequality in property; for as long as these differences exist, there will be an involuntary servitude of man to man. … Your socialist is the true abolitionist, and only he fully understands his mission.”

– Virginia Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, March 25, 1850

My italics.

The modern state maintains social relations by putting the means of production, and thus all the products of social labour, behind the barrier of private property. All citizens have the same rights to acquire and dispose of property, but having the legal right to do something does not give you the means to do it. The state decrees that the barrier may only be accessed by exchanging its currency for the property-right, and that its subjects must compete for this social access by excluding others. The state would be buggered if people stopped competing for its currency.

The money economy is not concerned, as economists often claim, with allocation of scarce resources, but with the regulation of human activity by limiting access. We are all, for practical purposes incarcerated; there are no exceptions. In the modern prison-industrial system you are either a cog in the machine or the grease, you are a generator of surplus-value or raw material to the industry that profits from managing your inability to do so. A raw material that, if carefully managed, need never be consumed.

As technology makes wage labour ever less profitable and more futile, bourgeois society relies increasingly on fictitious capital, that which augments itself without the medium of commodity exchange, threatening to force us all into precarity, pauperage and prison. Capitalism returns inevitably to primitive accumulation, as wealth inequality reaches Pharonic proportions, slavery is back with a vengeance.

We are ceasing to be productive forces and becoming raw materials. The cohorts of petty managers, the DWP, cops, courts and probation, security firms and private mental hospitals that charge a grand a day, all have a vested interest in keeping you on their books. Yet another industry is dedicated to making us fear one another, creating suspicion and hostility among our Class, and feeding off the resulting misery. Now the media make us complicit in our own oppression.

If you’ve even been locked up, even briefly, subject to the whims of guards and warders, part of you remains incarcerated; for as long as there are locks and turnkeys, your agency is on loan to you. Once you’ve looked down the barrel of a gun you understand viscerally that the state stands always ready to kill, that the gun was at your head since the day you were born. The rich slaughter us in droves but the prisons are full of poor people.

Either side of the prison walls the engine runs on material inequality and imbalance of power, white supremacy, ableism and patriarchy. The violence bred by poverty and exclusion, and the fear of it, the jealousy and hate that are the inevitable companions of status and hierarchy give rise to every malevolent act, legal or illegal.

Without these aberrations, the only cause of ‘crime’ would be a malfunction of the brain, a grave misapprehension, a temporary loss of control. No law or penal system ever stood a chance of preventing or remedying such an event.

Justifications for prison fall into four categories, in no particular order:

Deterrence, Rehabilitation, Punishment or Removal for public safety. However, there is no consensus among prison advocates/apologists on the validity of any of these concepts or their relative importance.

Deterrence is a preposterous idea that flies in the face of everyday experience, most of us learn early in life that the people you’re afraid of aren’t afraid of you. If crucifixion and scaphism didn’t put them off, prison isn’t going to do it either.

Rehabilitation is demonstrably ineffective, wishful thinking.

Punishment is a metaphysical concept, a sort of abstract revenge; the law actually calls it ‘retribution’. However, the state can’t take revenge because it doesn’t represent any people, only a mode of production. Crimes against the person are merely breaches of the state’s monopoly on violence so the victim is not a protagonist but a witness and/or a piece of physical evidence. Retribution is reserved for the ruling class, unless you’re a member of that class it offers you nothing but a pathetic schadenfreude.

The last one applies in a vanishingly small number of cases and only defers the problem.

It’s a weird kind of argument to say “one or more of these propositions must be true but we’re not sure which ones”

The abolition of wage labour and the abolition of incarceration are inseparable.

Transaction and coercion are two sides of the same coin. Coercion is a negative transaction; it makes no sense to do away with one and keep the other. Where free people associate voluntarily to their mutual benefit, they will agree codes of conduct and remedies for transgression. They will reserve the right of self-defence against predation, but such actions will be mandated by the entire community, not by a select cadre of bureaucrats or professional thugs.

It will be an issue for the autonomous community how it arranges these matters, but I have not the slightest doubt that a free association of liberated, self-confident individuals, will come up with better solutions than the bourgeoisie. Especially to problems created by the residue of bourgeois values. The left may love their gulags, but there will be no prisons in a real communist society, for none may be free until all are free.

Senator Hunter can spin in his grave, we’ll consign the world to anarchy.

Mal Content.

Written August 2019, on the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

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