Police, Stereotypes and Subject-Object Dualism

LeoCasey at aol.com LeoCasey at aol.com
Sat Jun 10 12:23:49 MDT 1995


I find it interesting that a discussion of police and stereotyping has
inadvertently raised one of the major philosophical problems I see in
Marxism.

This particular thread goes like this:

Joe begins by responding to all of the stereotyping of police with his own
personal reflection of a friend, a local sheriff's deputy from New Orleans,
who is "well-read in political theory, does solid class analysis (even while
denying that he's a socialist), fulminates against the racism and municipal
corruption he sees, backs his belief in education by teaching GED night
classes a couple evenings weekly, continually publishes short stories, and
all this while tracking down and sending away parole violators."

Afraid that comfortable stereotypes may be broken down, Matt responds with a
parody designed to put everyone back in his assigned place:
>Sheriff:  Leo, those nigger gals down at the catfish plant are >blocking the
damn gates again.  I need you to get down there and >clear 'em out.
>Leo: Sir, please don't make those sort of racist comments. (Hefts >club,
heads out to the patrol car.)
And so on.

Joe responds:
>One of the less ethical purposes of parody, met here, is to simplify,
>distort, and eventually dehumanize.  Ideological abstraction and >political
generalizations frequently need rehumanization, and Leo >served as a specific
human.  It's interesting to watch how you prefer >to deal with him as an
iconic figure, as a cardboard cutout.  Human >complexities can be dangerous,
of course, if we view them as >threatening ideological convictions instead of
challenging and >enriching social thought.

Jerry then attempts to reestablish the point of Matt's parody through logical
argumentation:
Through analogy with soldiers, we are told that police are not "individuals,"
but rather carriers of the policy of the capitalist state.
>Police, like soldiers, undergo an indoctrination and assimilation >process
which TEACHES individuals to become cops. It doesn't >matter what their moral
and ethical beliefs were before joining up.  >Part of the training process
involves destroying those older values, >substituting new moral values and
group conduct and behavior, and >de-humanizing civilians.  They learn both to
"follow orders" and >de-humanize groups, classes and individuals.
Ergo, we are entitled to treat the police as the state, and thus, as our
enemy. Matt's one dimensional image is vindicated.

But there is a revealing vacillation in the logic here. On the one hand,
police and the armed forces are responsible for their actions, and the worst
type of individuals ("vicious, racist, sexist and nationalist") are recruited
by the state for the police forces for the obviously malovent reasons; on the
other hand, police are not individual subjects, acting out of their own
agency, but the simple carriers of state policy (as in "Police brutality is
the result of a POLICY.")

Perhaps nowhere is this internal contradiction more apparent than in the two
directly oppposed statements Jerry makes in the same posting: A cop is
responsible for his actions, and can not give the "just following orders"
defense (the Nuremburg trials are invoked), but Lt. Calley, who gave the "I
was just following orders" defense for the massacre at My Lai is somehow less
than responsible for his own actions. "But Calley was not simply an
individual -- he was created."

We have here a problematic subject-object dualism not unlike that the
Southern slave owners had when attempting to locate the position of enslaved
African-Americans in law: on the one hand, slaves could not be individual
human beings, with all of the legal rights and responsibilties accorded human
beings, for they had to be seen as property (complete reduction to object);
on the other hand, slaves were doing all kinds of nasty rebellious things,
from stealing pigs to burning down barns to poisoning masters, which
demonstrated  their subjectivity, their individual humanity.

Marxism as a tradition is especially ill-equipped to deal with problems of
subject-object dualism, since its philosophical outlook and heritage is
firmly rooted in its version of subject-object dualism. These notions comes
straight out of Hegel, and standing Hegel 'on his feet' did nothing to
eliminate them. Look for example at Hegel's famous passage on "lordship and
bondage" in the Phenomenology, where the slave(bondman) is reduced to
complete objectivity as a precondition for recreating himself as historical
subject. (It is also embedded in the very structure of the Hegelian
dialectic, but a demonstration of that will take us far afield in what is
already a necessarily lengthy posting). Marx picks up this same theme in his
early writings where the proletariat is conceptualized as complete and utter
objectification (the negation and alienation of all that is human), and thus
the historical force which will become the true unfettered human subject (the
negation of the negation of all that is human and the return to the human
essence). In the mature writings, such as Capital, these themes are continued
-- individuals, especially workers, are nothing but trager, bearers of social
relations, because capitalism reduces them to such, but as a class the
working class can create a new communist feature of transparent human
freedom. The transition from complete and utter individual objectification to
complete and absolute class subjectivity is never explicated in any detail in
Marx; it is the polyvalent moment of 'revolution' which successive generation
of Marxists have attempted (unsuccessfully in my view) to give meanings which
maintain the coherency of the Marxian philosophical base.

The only way I have found out of this dualism, with all of its attendant
myopia of social analysis, is to engage in a fundamental critique of this
aspect of Marxism, and to reconceptualize individuals as subject-object
dualities,  that is, as simultaneously shaped and determined by social and
historical processes (object) and as actors shaping and determining those
same social and historical processes (subject). Thus, Marx's formula in the
Eighteenth Brumaire -- men (sic) make history, but they do not make it as
they please; they make it under conditions inherited from the past -- is much
closer to the point then his philosophical cum political formulations.

Several points about the police (and the state) follow from this
philosophical diversion:
1. Let us dispense with these foolish notions that vitiate and even eliminate
individual responsibility for actions, notions not unrelated to some very
mushy thinking on class morality and double standards that preceded it.
Whatever the social conditions which shape us, the situations in which we do
not have moral choices on which we can and do act are few and far between. We
are responsible for the choices we make. Lt. Calley had a choice on whether
or not to murder in cold blood defenseless, unarmed women, children and old
folks, and he chose to do it. It is one of the great miscarriages of American
justice that he was never held responsible for that choice. (One might even
look here at Hannah Arrendt's work; she has some very interesting things to
say about the pernicious notion of collective responsibility in the wake of
the Holocaust, as well as some interesting things to say about violence.)
2. Police, soldiers and all others paid by the state are individual human
beings who make moral choices, and should be held responsible for those
choices. The problem with Jerry's analogy between police and soldiers readily
becomes clear when one extends it logically to others who are employees of
the state -- public school teachers, social workers, traffic agents, public
transit workers and so on. They too are certainly recruited into a state
apparatus, with its own distinct culture that shapes them. They are often in
a position of state mandated authority over others. If they, too, are seen as
objects, mere bearers of state policy, then it becomes clear that we are
permanently stuck on one horn of the dilemma created by Marxian
subject-object dualism -- where the hell do you find the potential, the
actors, for historical change? If, by contrast, all employees of the state
are understood as subject-object dualities, with distinct specificities (a
cop is not a soldier is not a teacher is not a social worker), then both
historical change and individual moral responsibility become thinkable.
Consequently,  when individual police violate the law (including the Bill of
Rights) they are sworn to uphold by engaging in violations of individual
rights and police brutality, they should be held responsible. When police
superiors fail -- by acts of commission or omission -- to ensure that their
subordinates follow the law, they should be held responsible.
3. Finally, this Marxian subject-object dualism leads to some very crude
thinking on the nature of the state -- it is posited simply as an unequivocal
instrument of class exploitation and oppression. (A lot of Jerry's commentary
on the police clearly relies on such a notion of the state.) The inadequacy
of such a notion of the state has been at the center of most serious (and
scholarly) Marxist political thinking for the last twenty-five years, and the
most productive and insightful moments of Marxist political theory (Gramsci,
Poulantzas) have grappled with ways of conceptualizing the state as a locus
or condensation of class struggle. (For my own part, I would no longer
privilege class struggle, and view it as a condensation of power relations in
general.) Only when the dual nature of the state -- as both a force for
maintaining existing power relations and as a structure which expresses the
power of the oppressed and exploited -- can we begin to think through
meaningful political stratgey for change.
4. And yes, this means that the utopian notions of Marxian communism, in
which the state is completely eliminated, and fully realized human beings
live in transparent unity with each other without conflict, must be
abandoned. Secularized notions of  heaven are not particularly useful in
politics, and when implementation is attempted, they tend to lead to
authoritarian projects. Thus, Jerry's conclusion -- "Police brutality will
only end when a new social order is established and the police are dismantled
as a social institution." -- leads us right into a dead end. If we reject the
notion that there is a world out there free of conflict just waiting to be
born, there will always be a state and a police -- and our concrete political
task is to think through how we can make them more democratic, more
accountable and responsible.

Apologies for the length of this posting.


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