Police Then and Now
In Ancient Spartan society, Helots were, more or less, the agricultural slaves of the entire Spartan State. They were required to surrender a portion of their harvest to the Spartan citizens while being allowed to keep any produce beyond this. Additionally, they outnumbered the Spartiates by significant margins at times. The krypteia was a secretive martial organization made with the intent of keeping the helots as helots, preventing their rebellion. What follows are some quotes which should help paint the picture of Spartan society as it relates to the helots and krypteia
“It may be that Plato was likewise led to this opinion of Lycurgus and his constitution because of the Spartiates’ so called krypteia – assuming this really was one of Lycurgus’ institutions, as Aristotle has maintained. Its character was as follows. Periodically the overseers of the young men would dispatch into the countryside in different directions the ones who appeared to be particularly intelligent; they were equipped with daggers and basic rations, but nothing else. By day they would disperse to obscure parts in order to hide and rest. At night they made their way to roads and murdered any helot whom they caught. Frequently, too, they made their way through the fields, killing the helots who stood out for their physique and strength…Aristotle makes the further notable point that immediately upon taking office the ephors would declare war on the helots, so that they could be killed without pollution”
“The serf class in Thessaly repeatedly rose against its masters, and so did the Helots at Sparta, where they are like an enemy constantly sitting in wait for the disasters of the Spartiates.”
“Indeed fear of their numbers and obstinacy even persuaded the Lacedaemonians to the action which I shall now relate, their policy at all times having been governed by the necessity of taking precautions against them. The Helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever knew how each of them perished.”
-Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
In brief, the krypteia were selected for their intelligence and were meagerly equipped to conduct state sponsored terrorism upon the helots. Except, war was declared upon the helots, making them enemies of the state, and the krypteia were not terrorists. They were, after all, killing helots not people. When the helots attempted to gain their freedom through means offered to them by their citizen masters, they were massacred, most likely by the krypteia.
Having painted a picture of the krypteia, let us now paint a picture of the modern American police force.
In 2017 1,129 workers were killed by police in America. At the time of writing, 396 more workers have already been killed by police in 2018.
The Department of Defense’s 1033 program allows the transfer of military equipment from the DoD to local law enforcement agencies. $5.1 billion worth of military equipment has been transferred from 1997 to 2014, with $449 million worth of equipment being transferred in 2013.
A US court ruled in 2000 that it was fine to bar intelligent individuals from becoming police officers.
The following quote from Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman should tell you everything you need to know about the War on Drugs.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Speaking of SWAT deployments, “The most common mistake is hitting the wrong door.”
“We [police] trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector.”
Every battlefield, of course, has its enemies. For the police, the citizenry, particularly the black citizenry, are the enemies.
The modern police in America, by contrast with the krypteia, are bloated with military equipment and stupid by design. Rather than intentionally murdering the most powerful segments of the working class, modern police trend towards targeting the most impoverished and helpless.
“Jonathan Murray, who now works in sales for Dell, said instructors repeatedly degraded the homeless and prostitutes, referring to them as “cockroaches” and suggesting they [police] “find a transient” if they were bored and wanted a felony arrest.”
Despite these differences, however, modern police serve the same function as the ancient krypteia, control.
“But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.”
While Marx may have written the above with the transition from feudal to capitalist society in mind, it is no less true that the armed force of police functions as an economic power. By forcefully maintaining precarious living conditions among black communities with terrorist methods, the higher wages of other segments of the working class can be checked by the dead-weight of lower wages.
At Anti-Capital much has been written on the front of organized labor. It is relatively clear what victories and defeats look like in this realm. The methods in the struggle are also comparatively well known. The rising power of the police force, by contrast, has garnered less attention. The dynamics at play on both fronts are similar, however, with quantitative and qualitative victories and defeats existing. A quantitative change in the realm of organized labor, for example, would be a change in the agreed upon wage. Similarly, a quantitative change on the front of police violence would be a change in the funding allocated to police departments, or a decline in the number of police stationed at schools. Quantitative changes have, at their basis, merely a shift in the status quo; a higher wage is still a wage, fewer police are still police. Because of this fundamental lack of change involved in quantitative shifts, the organizations responsible for mediating these changes are limited. Unions have, historically, demanded a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work which leaves untouched the problems of cyclical and structural crises in capitalist reproduction. These are problems which can only be solved with the complete overthrow of the value-relation and thus capitalism. Shifting back to the question of police, those spontaneous uprisings which demand police accountability still assume the fundamental legitimacy of the armed institutions of the capitalists.
So what occurs when qualitative changes take place? If a qualitative change in the situation takes place without a corresponding qualitative change in the organizations of labor, the short answer is that a defeat is experienced. An example of a qualitative change in the field of organized labor at the workplace would be a factory closure. If a qualitative change to the organization of labor at that workplace occurs, the factory could potentially be seized and administered by a factory committee. Barring this, a union ultimately has little power to prevent factory closures. Unions can, however, spark factory closures by raising the wage so high that the rate of profit drops to the degree that the factory would need to be closed.
Using the example of Baltimore in 2015, lets take a look at what happens when qualitative shifts happen in the streets.
In 2015 Baltimore police officers murdered a black working class male which sparked a huge wave of riots. The riots were so successful, that they actually managed to drive the armed hand of the bourgeoisie out of certain areas of the city. After forcing the police out of parts of the city, the insurgents failed to change their organization such that it could cope with the new situation. The new situation, namely, was the fact that after the police had been driven out, criminal elements were allowed to more freely manifest themselves. While likely exaggerated by the bourgeois press in order to make the proletariat miss the police, homicides after the riots did see a large increase. The lesson to extract here is not that the police are a necessary evil, but that the proletariat must be ready to meet the new challenges associated with winning victories in old struggles. Only a party organized by, of, and for the working class is flexible enough to generate and regenerate the organizations necessary to meet these challenges as they arise.