Reform is not Enough

The violence continues. It seems pervasive. The list is long and diverse. Cops shoot unarmed Black men in every major American city. A lone deranged Air Force veteran kills five Dallas police officers. A disturbed marine Iraq-returnee assassinates three more in Baton Rouge. Suicide bombers turn Brussels, Paris, and Bagdad upside down. A wife-beating suicide truck driver runs over and kills at least eighty-four people leaving scores more injured on Bastille Day in Nice. Fear spreads wildly. No limits, no recourse, no solution. But what is the nature of all this? What is the common thread, or is there one?

Sociology in the West began in the conservative lament over the dissolution of traditional societal relations and the growing instability of institutions in the nineteenth century. Concepts like anomie and alienation became important explanations of “deviant” behavior. “Social problems” dominated the thinking of the American sociology that emerged somewhat later than its earlier beginnings in Europe, as the U.S. industrialized.

Some attribute the earliest sociological writing to Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historiographer who chronicled forms of empire and conflict in fourteenth century Arab societies. Khaldun’s theories explored transitions from sedentary life to nomadic life, and processes of social conflict, social cohesion, and group solidarity (“tribalism”). They were early precursors to modern perspectives on social organization and social change. Modern sociological understandings of these concepts now seem little improved over those of Khaldun. Do sociologists understand today’s global social chaos? Does anyone?

Today, new forms of change further disrupt social cohesion and even arouse new forms of alienated tribalism and violence. Violent reactions to the instabilities of the faltering global industrial economy are as diverse as they are extreme. The dominant endless-growth model of economics destabilizes all other forms of society (family, community, cities, towns, villages) in the ubiquitous corporate pursuit of economic profit and political power. Violence frequently accompanies social destabilization and transformation.

Economic “Progress” and the Destabilization of Everything

Social change has accelerated since the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution and its application of the energy of fossil fuels to economic production processes brought on even more rapid change. The traditional “commons” shared for village-scale farming were “enclosed” by powerful landlords to facilitate the earliest forms of industrial agriculture. Confiscation of resources, whether land or the prizes beneath it, has been the underlying theme of economic growth in the petro-industrial era. Dislocation, impoverishment, and migration inevitably accompany dispossession. What has changed? Everything and nothing.

The American westward expansion had a similar, though perhaps more deadly, effect on the native population as did the enclosures in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Settlers confiscated tribal lands across the Great Plains and westward for ranching and farming to feed the growing population in the former colonies to the east. Many of those “pioneers” descended from those European refugees – peasants who had been forced into cities where conditions of labor were deadly, and who paid dearly for the Atlantic crossing.

The American Revolution was never quite completed. The English mercantile class that controlled economy and polity in the British colonies in America never lost its power. It  gradually morphed into the financial and corporate elites that dominate the U.S. politics and economy today. A decline of the middle class and the explosive growth of poverty in America accompanied the resulting concentration of wealth. Post-slavery urbanization, followed by outsourcing of manufacturing and loss of well-paid jobs, impoverished the urban working class. Responses to urban poverty gradually morphed into mass incarceration as the War on Drugs. Its incentives to oppress established The New Jim Crow in U.S. cities where Black folks are as isolated from economic opportunity as ever.[1]

The colonial nations of Europe dominated the world even after their colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America achieved formal independence. The American case was unique in that its independence and abundant resources allowed it to become the dominant power of empire in the post-colonial world. The difference between colonialism and empire has been mostly a matter of the form of domination and the means to achieve it. Economic domination replaced political supervision.

The deployment of new technologies of fossil fuel driven industrial and military might assured the U.S. position as the most powerful nation in the world. Before seeking greater resources abroad, the U.S. extractive industrialists exploited vast oil, gas, iron, other minerals, and agricultural production at home. This allowed a unique development of industrial and military superiority – the real form of “American exceptionalism” amidst a stifling cultural stagnation. Once it exhausted most of those resources, the corporate state turned to the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing.

The means of domination by “the only remaining super-power” after the Cold War are many and varied, from financial to military.[2] U.S. efforts to establish an empire have focused primarily on controlling the main sources of petroleum in the Middle East. Images of the attacks on “the homeland” on September 11, 2001, symbolized resistance to tyranny for many victims of bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation. Diverse U.S. invasions and occupations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya have attempted to serve the energy corporations. Those ventures have produced far more terrorists than oil. Imaginary future victories continue to define current abject failures. All the while, the corporate state ignores the devastating effects on the environment.

The purpose underlying protestations of “bringing democracy” to these nations is to secure corporate control over global resources and assure continued growth of extractive capital. The “War on Terror” was in part a genuine reaction to 9-11. It was also a cover for the prosecution of diverse largely unsuccessful resource wars. The consequences of indiscriminant drone attacks, targeted killings, and counter-insurgency night-raids has been to feed new recruits to the very terrorist groups the U.S. intends to destroy. The consequent disruption of traditional and even modern forms of social cohesion has achieved an order of magnitude unimaginable by Ibn Khaldun.

Chaos and Illusions of Social Control

The leviathan of the corporate-state may seem unstoppable. Yet wars of occupation and counter-insurgency are not won. Once they fight to stalemate and widespread destruction, occupying forces abandon the resulting chaos. More enemies are created, found and targeted.

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Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Domestic attempts to suppress dissent and protest over oppressive economic conditions and police violence in “the homeland,” also produce little social order. Nor are law enforcement institutions able to control general urban violence. The ebb and flow of overall crime rates has little to do with “enforcement” practices – except for the differential police actions against the poor in prosecuting the War on Drugs. Overall crime rates have declined, but “law and order” memes dominate police thinking. Militarization of police harden “us vs. them” images of the Warrior Cop. Without revolutionary transformation of law enforcement in the U.S., the bloody stalemate will continue.

Myths abound concerning the control of urban populations in the U.S. and abroad. A standoff between more forces than are recognized is occurring. In the U.S., crass demagoguery pits police authority against minority and immigrant populations. Police and politicians conflate peaceful protest against police violence with general urban violence and terror attacks. Trump’s tropes incite nativist white tribalism, a latter-day resurgence of social cohesion in the form of a pseudo-patriotic racism not unlike fascism.

The billionaire business cheat succeeded in framing his grab for political power as an anti-establishment rebellion. That feat by the crass bully astounded establishment liberals. They underestimate the nation’s susceptibility to demagoguery. The corporate media, which will succumb to any hint of sensationalism, dutifully provided billions of dollars in free television exposure to a sociopathic narcissist billionaire. (What would have happened if Bernie had had that kind of coverage?)

Analysts remain confused. All sorts of ad hoc media explanations of diverse instances of chaos and violence fall short of plausibility. Authorities seek “terrorist” propaganda associations to explain the mass murder in Nice by a mad trucker. The mad men of Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, maybe even Orlando, seemed to mix confused ideological fragments with the desire for suicide by cop. These seem more like individual pathology absorbing some political patina than organized terrorism, which is happy to exploit such pathology. Even the allegiance of the San Bernardino killers to ISIS seemed more aspirational than organizational. More is likely to come.

We seek to fight the enemies we have made, without understanding the processes by which we have made them. They are many but diverse. Through it all, images of absolute good and evil distort the social realities, allowing ignorance and fear to prevail.

Reform or Revolution

Sustaining a culture of civility provides the social cohesion that characterizes a stable social order. The failure of U.S. invaders to establish stability in Iraq resulted from eliminating the individuals and institutions that had maintained a certain level of civility. Such civility had existed, particularly between Sunni and Shiite populations, even under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The character of the occupation bred not only insurgents, but also civil strife.

The character of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in some ways parallels the occupation of Iraq. Police in the U.S. increasingly look like an occupying force. Their role has become one of “controlling the population,” not to “protect and serve” those whom many police despise. Too many police view urban populations as the enemy. The technology of smartphone, dashboard, and body-cam video, now facilitates the documentation of widespread police violence, primarily in communities of color. The evidence of hatred abounds.

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Black Folks Response to Police Killings

The Black Lives Matter movement responded directly to the disproportionate experience of police violence by Blacks and Hispanics. The constant flow of revelations of police violence by citizens’ smartphone video on social media rivals the broadcast of racist Trump tropes on the corporate mass media. However denied, dehumanized police conduct and attitudes have achieved full public exposure. Black Lives Matter is a non-violent movement publicly protesting police violence.

The characterization of Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements as advocating violence against police, crudely promotes a self-serving prejudice against all protesters. The validity of the protest is delegitimized by the bigoted claims of the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. “Blue Lives Matter” implicitly denies police culpability in a well-documented national pattern of “excessive use of force,” while projecting that same violence onto those who peacefully protest against it.

What a civil society might otherwise sustain as indigenous law enforcement increasingly appears as a foreign occupying force. The police-versus-the-population image of law enforcement, whether held by officers, chiefs of police, or citizens, is doomed to create more chaos and violence. Minor ‘reforms’ – sensitivity training or use of force training for the violence-prone, or even more selective recruitment to weed out those with violent tendencies – will not be nearly enough.

This is where it gets even more difficult. We are witnessing the consequences of a deeply violent culture. White nativist memes deny diversity of this nation of immigrants, in service to their illusions of a “real America.” To achieve a civil society with a civil police will require a sea change in attitude and organization. No amount of piecemeal reforms will break the cycle of police violence, protest, and suppression of aggrieved populations.

The necessary seems so far from the possible. Is a revolutionary transformation of the law enforcement and justice system even possible? Illusions of American Exceptionalism prevent recognition of the obvious successes of nations like Portugal and Finland.

To root out the culture of violence and “them against us” policing will require a total transformation of police institutions and personnel. Society must pay officers much more highly and hold them to much higher standards of civility and respect for human dignity.

In the context of the corporate cult of privatization of everything, too many view police,  since they are mere public servants like teachers, as very low-level functionaries not worthy of significant pay. As I have argued elsewhere, we must recruit them carefully, pay them very well and hold them to very high standards. That includes very high standards for admission, very high standards for training, and very high standards of conduct. One case of abuse of a citizen should mean that you are out. To achieve these things would constitute revolutionary change in law enforcement, requiring revolutionary change in society. The very difficult is very necessary.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) provides an exceptionally lucid, ground-breaking, though culturally denied, account of how mass incarceration of the vulnerable populations of mostly urban communities of color has replaced slavery as the primary force oppressing Black and Brown folks in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[2] For an astounding and enlightening account of the exploitation of potential client nations by U.S. corporate-government cooperation in the use of financial and covert power, including assassination, to dominate the economies of those nations, see John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

After Indictment: Justice is not Enough

News coverage in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri have died down now. But in the aftermath, little else has been said in the national media about the underlying problem of police in America. Ferguson’s city council responded to protests with some mild reforms such as limiting the proportion of city revenue supplied by traffic fines.

It appears that the grand jury may be out for some time. Demands for social justice focus mainly on whether the officer who killed Mr. Brown will be charged and prosecuted for murder or some lesser variant thereof, or not at all. But Ferguson, if it is anything, is a small scale case in point of what is wrong with law enforcement in the U.S.A.

A common theme reflected in all the societal crises is the American penchant for violent “solutions” to almost anything viewed as problematic for “American Exceptionalism.” As the system approaches collapse, elite reactions invariably incorporate some form of force. Sure, law enforcement has a long history of defending property and power against freedom and opportunity, even when police were closer to the citizenry. But today, the militarization of police coincides with the unprecedented concentration of power in the 1% of the 1%.

The role of “law enforcement” is increasingly suspect. In an earlier post, “Incarceration Nation,” [1] I referred to “The New Jim Crow” system that plagues young men of color today. Michelle Alexander, in her book by that title [2], powerfully demonstrated how the drug-war supported police operations in poor neighborhoods produces a new stigmatized American caste of color. The central player driving the incarceration of most young men of color is law enforcement. The agencies that profit from arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of vulnerable populations, perpetrate the social crime of institutionalized racist forced social isolation.

But the problem of law enforcement runs much deeper than institutionalized racist practices – as if that were not enough. Since Ferguson, countless incidents of routine police brutality, even against whites, have surfaced in both social media and local newscasts. True to their reputation harking back to Rodney King’s beating 20 years ago, officers of the Foothill Division of the LAPD recently were caught on video exercising their aggression. They slammed a small nurse down on the pavement after stopping her for using her cell phone while driving. Gratuitous violence at best.

Even while under Justice Department investigation for questionable patterns of use-of-force practices, such dysfunctional departments continue to be issued military weapons and battle equipment. Police departments are hiring veterans of combat with “insurgent” enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan who look like the general population. These veterans’ unacknowledged post traumatic stress disorder is often left untreated. But it is exactly the condition that we should not want in a “peace officer” in a domestic city.

None of the leading indicators of the relationship between police and citizens is comforting. None of the administrative “leadership” of the departments whose brutal practices have come to light, gives one a feeling of civic security from police abuse. Many officers are self-selected by their penchant for violence; their employers condone and encourage their aggressiveness and tolerate their violence. Swat teams are often the first response to the most innocuous situations. Crisis intervention officers are underutilized. The Los Angeles Police Department alone has settled countless lawsuits for millions of dollars. The incidents of police violence and deadly shootings in Albuquerque have not subsided since the department came under Justice Department scrutiny. The list is too long – it encompasses the whole nation.

None of this will change significantly without a total ‘makeover’ of the culture of law enforcement in the U.S.A., and of our expectations too. The escalation of violence to assert total control is the norm. Any hint of ‘disrespect’ or ‘failure to obey’ is met with aggression and/or violence. An LAPD cop who was also a member of the Crips gang once told me that the police are really just another gang; if you don’t look at them that way you cannot understand them. Civil society cannot be sustained if “peace” is enforced instead of enacted.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, [3] analyzes the economic, social, and political crises that have resulted in global warming. The climate crisis both reflects deep societal failures and presents a comprehensive opportunity to solve the societal crisis and climate crisis simultaneously. As the old fossil-fueled industrial order struggles to survive, “law enforcement” has become little more than the enforcer for the oligarchy, which increasingly fears the citizenry. After all, only the people can stop them now.  The Peoples Climate March drew 400,000.

Global warming is the direct planetary consequence of the most fundamental failures of industrial capital’s domination of society in the last two centuries. The trajectory of the industrial era has many elements, including state monopoly of force. Paradoxically, it also offers a vital opportunity/necessity to solve the core problem. That is because the transformative actions necessary to mitigate climate disruption are exactly those required to address the destructive trends that have destabilized both society and the biosphere. Increasingly, the expanded political and economic powers of the surging oligarchy are  defended by force. This just demonstrates the inherent weakness of the failing system. Only the people’s rising recognition of imminent ecological and societal collapse and willingness to act to transform society and its relation to the environment will enable humanity to ‘reset’ the world.
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1 https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=incarceration+nation&submit=Search
2 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
3 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at http://thefreethoughtproject.com/policing-america-daily-actions-incrementally-criminalized/#H6Kh0RZkkOGUZxXT.99 for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=cop&submit=Search .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.

What Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy can Teach Us about Racism in America

Ignorant racism occasionally bursts onto the scene in the national media because the racists involved are unaware of the social and political impact of their blatantly racist talk. Sometimes ‘honest’ racists don’t even believe they are racists and are ignorant of the nature of their racist thinking. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay his fees for grazing on BLM land – our land – and does not recognize the existence of the U.S. government, may fall into that category, with his seemingly unconsciously racist comments about black folks. Donald Sterling, the wealthy owner of the LA Clippers, on the other hand, was recorded making private racist comments that went viral; but only then did it become public that he had for decades practiced housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in his Los Angeles properties and that the NBA had tolerated it all those years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar exposed the hypocrisy of public anti-racism a day or two later in his Time Magazine opinion piece on the reaction to the Sterling exposure. Then the NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life.

Liberal white folks don’t like to hear racist talk, but they routinely tolerate institutionalized racism. And smart “closet” racists know how to appear “politically correct” in order to avoid the uncomfortable reactions of more sensitive people, despite their racist behavior and attitudes, which are re-coded to appear to the unsuspecting ear to refer to something other than race. Some, like Sterling, talk quite differently in private and in public settings. Magic Johnson expressed hurt and disgust with that hypocrisy in an interview after the “Sterling tapes” were revealed, having been given public ‘respect’ by Sterling before his private racism directed at Magic was revealed. Sterling embraces his racism but tries to avoid the embarrassment of its expression in public. Cliven Bundy, unused to the public limelight, appeared unaware and divulged his personal thinking unfiltered, then was made partially aware by the public reaction and tried to ‘dial it back.’

But we make a big mistake if we think we can understand racism in America by assuming that “racists” are only those people who make racist statements in public. Structural institutionalized racism is alive and well in America, and it is far more important than the naïve racism of fringe isolates like Cliven Bundy, who only recognized the damage to his image when public exposure showed him his own racism. What these different cases can teach us is that personal racism can take many forms and may have different levels of self-consciousness attached to it, but it is not the essence of contemporary racism in America.

The politically correct re-coded racists are in total denial, at least publicly. By avoiding traditionally racist language, they think they are immune to the charge of being a racist, even as they harbor feelings of superiority over the Other. They think of racism as merely a matter of proper speech. But in fact these folks are the bread and butter of institutional racism in America – an endemic system of inequality whereby the racism is built into the social and economic culture and institutional practices of society. In some respects it is as widespread as ever. Many ‘liberals’ voted for Barack Obama at least in part to demonstrate their lack of racism, which in polite company allowed them to proclaim a “post-racial” America – besides Obama emulates intellectual white social liberalism, with which he charmed them.

Closet racists re-code their racism in various ways. All the attacks on Obama as being a ‘socialist,’ a Muslim, a Kenyan, by ‘birthers,’ et al, merely excuse their closeted racist belief that a black man cannot legitimately be President of the United States of America. They do all they can to explicitly not recognize him as president. Their vision is of a White-Christian Nation, not the multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that we have become. But in a twisted way, the joke is on them. This president may be a good deal smarter than Dubya, but he is as strong a supporter of the corporate-state plutocracy as any president – in that sense, he is as ‘white’ as anyone, since it is the white male who symbolically represents the status quo anti. Remember, race is a social construct – in both biology and anthropology it has failed the test as an empirically viable concept, but it is a social reality.

America’s mostly unacknowledged status as Incarceration Nation, the system of actual apartheid embodied in the increasingly corporate prison-industrial complex, with the highest number of prisoners in the world, sustains our racism. Structural racism is a set of institutional practices that produce racist outcomes of inequality whether or not the individual actors are personally racist. As Michele Alexander has so perceptively demonstrated, a New Jim Crow system of segregation – facilitated by the sustained system of residential and educational segregation and media indifference – has emerged mostly from the drug war, which incarcerates massive numbers of mostly boys and men of color – despite equivalent rates of drug use by whites – producing in effect a new caste system stigmatizing and isolating many young blacks and browns from the economy and society.
Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are best understood as anachronisms, although Sterling’s wealth institutionalizes his personal racism. We need not be so offended by them, for their personal pathologies are not today’s real problem of racism. They are relics of an openly racist past in which racist language was merely the cultural expression of an openly self-acknowledged oppressive system. Today’s re-configured system of racial oppression and re-coded racist language pose a greater danger by their camouflage. White liberal reactions of disgust over these relics reflect a discomfort with what may be a subliminal recognition of the continued racial caste system in their imagined “post-racial America.” Where are they when white male millionaire congressmen repeatedly engage in a strategy of degradation and obstruction that no white president has ever experienced? They blame it on “party politics,” not the re-coded racism they tolerate.