Sunday, 12 April 2009

G20 and the rise of disciplinary power: the bankruptcy of justice

The Guardian has posted stories of mistreatment of civilians by police during the G20 protest, along with a version of the video (above) showing the police assault Ian Tomlinson, who later suffered a heart attack, as he was making his way home. The Guardian edit of the original video (the first one to surface, shot by a bystander) includes a slow-motion replay and action highlights.

This, along with the thousands of other such stories that go unreported with every protest because they do not result in deaths (take the use of harassment legislation to curb protests, discussed in an earlier post), is a good index of the rise of disciplinary power in contemporary Western society.

The fact that no major riots or anti-police actions have broken out is a measure of the effectiveness of that power, even when it exceeds its bounds. (Think of the Rodney King riots in LA) An individual officer may get reprimanded; but the overall effect is a success, the message hit home. Just as the rhetoric of freedom and democratic values in the age of the 'war on terror' and the 'clash of civilizations' has heated up, the police on this side of the fence are getting more brutal. (Incidentally, an item in the Readings section of this month's issue of Harper's details a lawsuit filed by the family of a 12-year-old black girl in Texas who in 2006 was brutally beaten by police officers on her parents' lawn for resisting arrest on charges of being a prostitute. The family "eventually learned that the dispatch call the officers were responding to reported three white female prostitutes soliciting men half a block from the family’s home.")

This split in Power theorized by Foucault - between the conventional form it takes in the West in the sovereign legal right, and its modern form in disciplinary power, is perhaps more real than ever. Even when police actions are questioned, they are not questioned on the basis of right, but on the logic of necessity - i.e. was it reasonable under the circumstances, were security measures that led to this shooting or that beating necessary in view of the threats, etc (who gets to measure such things?).

Even when rights are infringed (think of the De Menezes shooting), this is irrelevant so long as the measures taken are deemed to have been necessary, and the innocent casualty becomes simply the victim of an 'unfortunate accident'. Rights only come into play to cover up the bare bones of disiplinary mechanics.

In other words, disciplinary power is questioned only on its own terms, on the logic of necessity. The only question that can be asked of it is: 'is it necessary to take such measures in order to produce the desired effects/goals?' One is not allowed to question the effects/goals themselves, or their justification. One is not allowed to suggest that a particular measure is illegitimate because it may or is bound to infringe on a particular political/natural/legal right.

Yet it is clear that the real 'necessity' behind the techniques of discipline is not security from terrorism or from particular threats - this can never be achieved one hundred percent as proto-fascist security barons would believe - but the disciplining of the population, the deployment of techniques of discipline and 'normalization' without popular or democratic oversight. It is no surprise that the recent crackdown on supposed Pakistani terrorists using student visas came on the heels of the police brutality at the G20 protest - the timing was no doubt arranged to downplay police brutality and conflate the threat of 'terror' with the threat of the protesters - something which New Labour politicians have attempted to do explicitly, making statements that liken anti-globalization protesters to Bin Laden, etc. It was just oh-so-convenient that Bob Quick misplaced a memo and they had to crack down early.

With each new crackdown and ensuing security measures, i.e. no bottled water, taking off one's shoes at airports, one lighter per passenger (what is it that can be done with one but not with two?) - the 'terrorists' try something else because, of course, they won't try bottled liquid explosives or shoe explosives again; and the possibilities are endless when one is willing to give one's own life up in the process. Yet the retrospectively enacted measures stay in place, however useless they are in the long run, after the fact; because their ultimate target is the population at large; and their aim is teaching discipline and obedience to authority, regulating and corralling the mass of ordinary citizens, teaching them to execute commands without asking questions. We're all in the army now.

No doubt there will soon be new restrictions on student visas and entry clearances, allegedly for security but in reality with a view to organizing a 'reasonable racism' or 'reasonable xenophobia', to borrow a formulation used by Slavoj Zizek in recent lectures.

It is notable that in the torture debate of recent years, even those liberals who maintained their principled opposition to torture for the most part found it necessary to assert that anyway, the intelligence obtained by torture is unreliable, that people will say anything you want them to under torture. It is insufficient, in other words, to assert that torture is unethical, that 'we are becoming like them', that it infringes the legal or natural rights of suspects, etc. One must always also engage the technical point; one must question disciplinary power on its own terms, on the issue of necessity and efficiency.

And the power of disciplinary mechanics is ultimately the only real power, or as Foucault put it, the 'mode in which power is actually exercised...power at the point of its application to bodies' ; as opposed to vague or abstract notions of sovereignty and autonomy and democracy and legal right. Disciplinary power constrains and subordinates any recourse to legal action or legal right, rather than being constrained by it.

It is this same power that is at the bottom of the financial meltdown and the ongoing recession, in the form of economic disciplinary power. The goal of neoliberal economics from Milton Friedman onwards has been nothing less than to wrest economics from the domain of political sovereignty and right, and bring it fully within the scope of discipline, within disciplinary power. Disciplinary power, as Foucault shows in his analyses of various social domains (prisons, hospitals, schools, etc) is constituted by what he calls the 'medicalization' of knowledge: this is where the notion of economic 'shock therapy' fits in neatly - a term that Naomi Klein in her critique of neoliberal economics did not coin but borrowed from Milton Friedman, the neoliberal shock doctor in person. (at a time when, of course, 'shock therapy' was still believed to be valid medical science; nonetheless, it is a good example of self-incriminating statements, however unwittingly made)

And it is through the 'medicalization' - one could say de-politicization - of economic knowledge that the neoliberal 'shock doctors' were able to take key economic decisions regarding deregulation of markets and other economic reforms outside the political and democratic sphere, and into the scientific/technical sphere. There is no room in the edifices of modern government to question economic policy, because economic policy has become a matter of science, of mechanical necessity, of technical knowledge - not political decision. We are meant to take it on faith that state assets, utilities, schools, prisons and the like must be privatized or turn to private sources of funding, that taxes must be lowered, that credit interest rates must be set to suit the banks, that there just isn't enough money to cover the cost of social security and other benefits even as taxes are being lowered for the benefit of the super-rich or when - even during a once-in-a-century recession - billions are given away in a massive 'benefits package' to banks, and so forth. What should be political decisions take the form of unconditional demands, mechanical necessities.

The only good answer to this is to say, as Martin Luther King did in the march on Washington, that "we refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt." We must cash our cheque. Our demands too must be unconditional.

This is a point where it is no longer even that the ends justify the means - in the Machiavellian schema one still has to justify the ends, promote a 'just' end. In the sinister logic of neoliberal capitalism, the ends are taken to be self-evidently just and fully identified with the means chosen. The relation between ends and means cannot be questioned, since it is the mechanical result of 'economic science'.

Two articles also in this month's issue of Harper's provide the most incisive critique I have yet seen of the current economic crisis and its roots in several key moments of deregulation of the US economy over the past several decades - in particular, the deregulation of interest rates and wages.

INFINITE DEBT: How unlimited interest rates destroyed the economy details how the elimination of the right to form unions in key sectors of the economy and the subsequent union-busting led to an effective pay freeze - no real increase in the minimum or average wages over 40 years, even as the economy grew - driving millions of people into levels of debt unfathomable to their parents; this, coupled with the constitutional legalization of usury - i.e. unlimited credit card interest rates - promising supernormal profit margins, drove all the capital out of manufacturing (a strong union sector but with lower profit margins) into banking and finance, lining up the key elements to ignite the crisis. This is what ensured the decline of Detroit and the rise of Wall Street since the mid-1980s.

Usury country: Welcome to the birthplace of payday lending is a more documentary account of an industry that, with its beginnings in the state of Tennessee, has effectively come into being as an industry and exploded across the USA since the early 1990s. Payday lending - as in dodgy businesses that lend people an advance on their monthly salary at six-figure annual interest rates when they can't pay the bills (no kidding) is rightly referred to by the author as a modern-day form of sharecropping. Or in Foucauldian terminology, another one of those techniques of disciplinary mechanics.

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