Dissecting the American Police State 1

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In recent years, there has been growing concern in some camps about matters involving police brutality, police militarization, mass incarceration, overcriminalization, electronic surveillance and related matters.

The bulk of the concerns of these kinds have come from the left end of spectrum, and raised by those who are concerned with racial disparities that can be observed within the framework of the police state. Yet there have also been some on the right end who have become concerned about the fiscal costs of mass incarceration, the social costs to families and communities, and the fact that the police state is now attacking population groups outside of traditional outgroups. When the police state primarily targeted blacks, Puerto Ricans, hookers, and the drug culture, the right-wing was all for it. However, it is now not uncommon to find middle class persons, older people, churchgoers, business people, and others outside of the traditional underclass or marginal sectors who have had run ins with the cops or the carceral state.

The matter of the USA having the most prisoners, both per capital and numerically, on a global basis is an interesting situation because on one hand the US is one of the most “liberal” nations in terms of legal protections for free speech, religious freedom, freedom of the press, political freedom, right to bear arms, formal rights of the accused (right to a court appointed attorney, right to bail, right of appeal, Miranda, exclusionary rule, etc). For instance, Russia recently banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses which would never happen here. Groups like Scientology are illegal even in some Western European states. And there are no political groups that are formally prohibited either, unlike even many European democracies.

However, overcriminalization and the massive prison system in the US are merely a substitute the state uses for traditional forms of repression. Here, the government can’t formally ban political or religious dissent. It’s also true that more traditional forms of outgroup persecution like that directed towards ethnic minorities, women, gays, etc. have become more legally and socially unacceptable in the last 50-100 years as well. So the state uses sumptuary laws as well as overcriminalization generally as a substitute. As the libertarian types never tire of pointing out, the “war on drugs” is the most obvious example.

The “war on drugs” has largely served as the primary building block in the domestic US police state over the past 50 years, although the police that was originally built up around the war on drugs has since expanded into many other areas. Drug prohibition in the US dates back to the early 20th century during the time that alcohol prohibition was also picking up steam. Early drug prohibition laws seem to have been motivated at least in part as a means of racial control, i.e. opium-smoking Chinese, weed smoking blacks, etc. But the modern war on drugs was created by the Nixon administration as a means of inciting the rubes against a socially approved scapegoat, and for the purpose of using the drug war as a means of targeting the antiwar and black power movements of the time. One of Nixon’s former aides John Erhlichman later admitted that. Pretty soon local police departments were falling all over themselves to get funding from the federal government for the drug war. The same policies have been continued by every administration, Democratic or Republican, since them. It’s become a lucrative business to a wide range of vested interests. The war on drugs has never had any purpose other than strengthening the domestic US police state. It started with Nixon, and has been continued ever since by everyone. There are a range of vested interests associated with maintaining all that. Nothing new.

Drugs and people who use and sell them are merely to modernity what witches, Jews, and heretics were to the Middle Ages. This isn’t a uniquely American problem, although it’s true that much of the international apparatus of drug prohibition was implemented through American influence. The various drug-oriented subcultures are the equivalent of a religious, ethnic or political minority that is persecuted by the state, like black people and homosexuals in the historic US, or religious dissidents and women in Saudi Arabia.

Regrettable though it may be from a common sense perspective, a majority of Americans seem to approve of the war on drugs and want to keep it, to at least some degree. When it comes to the issue of drugs, I’d say people should be able to go to the drugstore and buy whatever drugs they want retail. However, most people think this is a horrendous idea, and that drugs are so awful that almost anything goes in the name of combating drug use. That’s true of most mainstream opinion left and right, black and white, etc.

For instance, the left end of the spectrum never pays any attention to issues like this unless they can frame it as a race issue. The liberal and left end of the spectrum has made no significant effort to oppose the war on drugs (with the exception of a fringe strand of countercultural types like the High Times/NORML crowd). The same is true of blacks and other minorities: http://prisontime.org/…/timeline-black-support-for-the…/ When it comes to formulating any kind of resistance to the police state, liberal and left opinion and the civil rights industry are just as worthless as anyone else. They generally support the police, and then start crying when the police state steps on things they actually like, like minority civil rights. Similarly, right-wingers will display “support the thin blue line” bumper stickers, and then get worked up over the use of same police state methods to enforce gun laws or environmental regulations. People should be more careful what they wish for. They just might get it, and they have.

But it’s also true that drug users are collaborators in their own persecution. There are probably more drug users or ex-drug users in the US than black people, and yet there has been no “drug user civil rights” movement. There are certainly more drug users than homosexuals, and yet there has been no “Drug Users, Out and Proud!” movement. Until something like that appears, drug users will continue to be a social scapegoat that is easily targeted by the state. In fact, given that 1 in 4 adults now has a criminal record, perhaps we need a “Criminals, Out and Proud!” movement.

The US is also one of the most reactionary nations on earth when it comes to other comparable issues like, for example, sex worker rights. But it’s also true that many libertarian types tend to focus too narrowly on traditional “victimless crimes,” like those involving personal vices, rather than overcriminalization, hyperregulation, or the growth of bureaucratized administrative law generally.

The American government the most powerful state in history, the de facto government of the world, and the world’s leading killer regime at present. Not coincidentally, it has more prisoners domestically than any other state. But there is also this curious convergence of political, cultural and historical factors that render the more traditional forms of oppression off limits for the state, so they simply use other methods instead. It is social acceptable for the state to openly attack minority drug cultures, but not minority races. It is socially acceptable for the state to attack sex workers, but not women generally or homosexuals. It is socially acceptable to put people in prison for petty offenses and violations of arcane regulatory requirements, but not for political and religious offenses. So that’s what the state does.

One comment

  1. “…there is also this curious convergence of political, cultural and historical factors that render the more traditional forms of oppression off limits for the state, so they simply use other methods instead.”
    This would fit your idea that empires tend to be replaced with more progressive empires. It also makes the point that opposing tyranny except when it’s targeting stuff I don’t like is a fruitless endeavor, which in turn means that tyranny is virtually inevitably because most people have this mentality so deeply ingrained that they aren’t remotely interested in or concerned about how hypocritical it is.
    As I’ve said before, the problem is not the reptilian elites, it’s the masses who will never rise above chimp levels of self awareness.

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