Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Is A Police State

By Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman

Citizens were deprived of all rights and privileges. Every existence was comprehensively subordinated to the purposes of the State, and in exchange the State agreed to act as a good father, giving food, work, and wages suited to the people’s capacity, welfare for the poor and elderly, and universal schooling for children.
- John Taylor Gatto

Goose-stepping jackboots in an old documentary. Enforcers hiding behind faceless masks. Demonstrators clubbed to their knees. Dissidents “detained” without charges. These are the images of a police state: Secret dossiers kept on enemies of powerful men. Sophisticated electronic tracking devices. Ever-more present surveillance. These, too, signal a police state.

A professor loses a job for vague, political reasons. A scientist is defunded after publishing unpopular findings. People fear to reveal opinions in front of their own children, who may be spies for some hazy, but terrifying, government apparatus. Neighbors are dragged from their homes in midnight raids, charged with vaguely defined crimes. Their property is seized; their reputations trampled, their finances ruined.

We worry that these point toward a police state. We suspect that a government whose friendly face we see on television is, in some dark reality, far different than we’re told – a government of secrets, disinformation, black budgets and lethal “wet work.”

What is a police state?
Like pornography or “good art,” everybody knows a police state when they see one. Pundits right and left accuse opponents of “police-state” tactics. The media designates one foreign government as a police state while extolling another, equally brutal, regime as a democracy. We often use the term “police state” as a synonym for tyranny; forgetting that a police state is actually a complex system and philosophy of government (which can indeed be tyrannical).

Precise definitions are hard to come by. In the 1970s, Praeger Publishers issued a series of textbooks that analyzed commonly used political terms. Its book Police State2 showed in detail the origins and nature of such governments. But nowhere did the book’s author, Brian Chapman, even hint as a concise definition of the term.

Similarly, David Wise, writing his book The American Police State in the wake of Watergate, described “…wiretapping, bugging, break-ins, burglaries, opening of mail, cable interception, physical surveillance, clandestine harassment, widespread use of informants, detention lists and political tax audits” as characteristics of a police state. But what made them characteristics of a police state? Wise didn’t say.

In Police State: Could It Happen Here? Jules Archer used this definition:

A police state… is a state in which a dictatorship imposed by a single ruler, party or group exercises total, rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of its citizens, usually by means of terror through a secret police force.

Attorney Richard W. Stevens, who has written extensively on tyranny and justice, offers this: A police state exists where (1) the state imposes its comprehensive vision of economic welfare and correct behavior upon the citizens, (2) the police apparatus serves the state (instead of serving the citizens), (3) the police apparatus takes upon itself to actively enforce the will of the state [rather than respond to criminal misdeeds], and the citizens serve the state and the police apparatus because of pervasive fear of punishment.

All these definitions are useful. There are excellent reasons why it is difficult to arrive at a single comprehensive definition for a police state. One reason: The nature of police states has changed as societies, police state of Robespierre France was different from the one in Hitler’s Germany, so the nature of a police state is altered in any new country or new era. Within this book, we will need to add to existing definitions to reflect some twenty-first century realities – such as burgeoning electronic surveillance systems no Hitler, Machiavelli, or Stalin could have imagined.

Modern police statist are learning some subtleties their jackbooted predecessors never knew. Yet the electronic Big Brother states of the future will still be police states, as long as they rigorously oversee the everyday activities of citizens, mold individuals to the state’s purposes, and suppress political dissent, independent thought, or independent non-violent action through tactics of fear.

To truly understand police states – and to learn whether we are in the midst of one or in danger of ending up in one – we first need to come to terms with what police states have been in philosophy and history. Then we need to examine what one might look like if it rises up in our path to the future. This first chapter will examine the past. The rest of the book will look at today and see what it portends for tomorrow.

Polizeistaat: Original meaning of police state

Our phrase “police state” is a literal translation from the German Polizeistaat. The term was used in Prussia as far back as the seventeenth century, when Frederick William, Elector of Brandenberg (1620-88) and his successors crafted the first modern police state. The term wasn’t commonly used in English until the rise of Hitler, when it entered our language with connotations of evil and insane brutality it didn’t originally have. It’s easy for English speakers to misinterpret the term, because, to us, “police” generally signifies “the cop on the beat.” Historically, police in American and British commonwealth countries have been uniformed officers who investigate (an, ideally, aim to prevent) crimes such as murder, rape, and burglary.

In parts of Europe the term “police” has different and broader significance, deriving from ancient Greek roots – the same roots that gave us the English terms “policy” and “politics.” As Brian Chapman explains:
The [Greek] term politeia was a comprehensive one, touching on all matters affecting the survival and welfare of the inhabitants of the city [polis]. It comprised within itself the whole notion of “the art of governing the city.”… Plato and Aristotle regarded the officials responsible for “the police” as being involved with the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of the republic. This involved the power to regulate the affairs of the city in the general interest of public order, security, morality, food supplies, and welfare.

Therefore the term “police state” relates directly to our verb “to police” (to surveil or oversee). That same connotation is found in our legal term “police power.”7 This meaning of “police” is much different from, and related only peripherally to, the concept of a police force of uniformed officers.

While tyranny is an ancient curse of humanity, the police state is a relatively modern phenomenon and – surprising though it seems – grew out of Enlightenment efforts to reform and improve political systems. Just as we better understand the definition of “police state” if we go back to the Greeks, we must also return to the Greeks – Plato, specifically – for an early insight into why police states develop. Two millennia before the Prussians constructed the first police state on earth, Plato had created a proto-police state in words.

The police state of Plato
In his dialog The Republic,8 Plato envisioned what he called the “Just City.” It was the highest form of government and the highest form of human society he could conceive.

Plato’s ideal society would be run by a class of guardians, chosen in childhood and raised to their task. Directly beneath them would be a class of brave warriors. All property would be communal and all wives and children shared. The people would support the guardians and warriors, and in return these superior classes would guide and protect the state.

The fist concern of this society would be education, especially music and art. By law, however, artists
would be forbidden to depict any but “virtuous things.” No portrayals of evil or discord, or of anything disruptive
to public order, would be tolerated.

Plato’s next concern was physical training, and, after that, the character of doctors and judges. In Plato’s world, however, doctors would deal only with the temporary ills of healthy people. Chronically ill people would be left to die. The insane would be put to death.

Plato called for strict regulation of sex so that the Just city could achieve the finest genetic stock. Citizens could have sexual intercourse only within their own group and only after a relationship received the sanction of the rulers. All babies would be taken by the rulers. Children of “inferior people” would be left to die, while those judged to have superior eugenic qualities would be taken care of by nurses. In reality, people would never choose their own sex partners because the guardians would run a rigged lottery to make sure the “best” men bred with the “best” women. Plato believed it would be moral for the guardians to deceive the common people because of their greater wisdom and understanding.

All citizens would refer to each other as “son”, “daughter,” “brother,” “sister,” “father,” or “mother.” Plato asserted that this system would bring rulers and common people together as one cohesive family, free of an “us” vs “them” rivalries. In this vision of a “perfect” republic, the bounds of the nuclear family would be broken, as would ties to dynasties or classes. They would be replaced by utter devotion to society where “…the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few.”

How would all this be enforced? Although modern readers will recognize that nearly everything Plato envisioned has been tried, in one variation or another, in modern police states like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, there are no police in The Republic. (The warriors apparently only protect against external enemies.) As Plato (via the character of Socrates) blandly asserts, the Just City would function harmoniously because the guardians would all be philosophers – the famous philosopher kings.

At this point in the dialog, one of the participants astutely objects that the public will “never accept a philosopher as king, because all philosophers are either vicious or useless.” Socrates explains that philosophers in his state would be so wise and well-qualified that no one would question their will. End of argument. “Until philosophers bear rule,” he asserts, “States and individuals will have no rest from eveil.”

More’s vision of Utopia
Eighteen hundred years after Plato, in 1516, another philosopher envisioned an ideal society. Sir Thomas More, now St. Thomas More, patron of statesmen and politicians, composed Utopia.12 Utopia is also a dialog, with a nod to Plato. In it, a traveler named Raphael Hythloday describes the marvelous island of Utopia. More – a man of contrasts – makes it clear he’s not quite as serious about Utopia as Plato was about the Just City. The name “Hythloday” is Greek for “talker of nonsense,” and in some parts of the book the reader can’t be sure whether More agrees with the fictional Hythloday or is merely speculating on various means of improving European culture.

Nevertheless, Utopia, like The Republic, describes ones man’s ideal society and government. Once again it’s an ideal that leaves a state-weary twenty-first century reader asking, “How many enforcers would it take to make everybody so ‘happy’?”

As with the Just city, Utopia is a homogeneous society, based on More’s idea of rational thought. It features communal property, no greed, no serious class distinctions, no poverty, and little crime or immoral behavior (all immoral behavior is, in fact, outlawed). It imposes a strict and utter uniformity upon its citizens. Utopia is an island of 54 cities, so much alike as to be virtually indistinguishable – same size, same architecture, same customs, same ideas, same behavior on the part of all citizens. Each house is identical. No locks and keys are allowed. No private spaces exist. Hythloday, More’s spokesman, consider elimination of privacy a fine way to promote friendship and reduce harmful gossip.

More envisioned homogeneity as the key to justice, he believed that rational thought would lead all rational people toward the same values.

Each household in Utopia consists of a group of thirty people – once again, no nuclear families – who choose their own administrators. These managers operate within a detailed administrative hierarchy (a prototype of our modern bureaucracy which, as we shall see, was a key component of the first and all subsequent police states).

Anyone caught discussing issues of state outside of the ruling committees is put to death. (More, soon to become Henry VIII’s chancellor of England in a turbulent era, believed this would eliminate plots and conspiracies.) No officials can be bribed because there is no money.

City-dweller More spells out an agricultural labor plan that would make any full-time farmer laugh or cry. City residents perform two years stints “on the land.” Harvests take about a day. All surplus is shared at no charge. Utopians spend their plentiful free time on intellectual pursuits, music, gardening, and physical exercise. As Plato did, More also exempts intellectuals from the need for physical labor.

Sick Utopians receive excellent care, but those too ill to perform their duties are gently urged to let themselves be killed in their sleep rather than be a burden to society. As in Plato’s Just City, sex is rigidly controlled by the state, as are marriage and religion – with harsh penalties, including death or slavery, for violators. Of course, everyone is happy and lives in harmony under a just government that operates more on “reason” than on specific laws. More, like Plato, expends almost no ink explaining how such uniformity and perfection would be enforced. We can excuse More. Unlike Plato, he may have been “just kicking around ideas” rather than describing his desired real-world system. But philosophers’ ideas tend to end up in the hands of politically powerful people.

Eventually, through the winding channels of history, More’s conceptions flowed through the minds of French revolutionary thinkings and to Karl Marx, where they sprang to life in the doctrines of communism. It seems odd but appropriate that More eventually became the only Christian saint honored with a statue at the

Common Elements

More and Plato have a great deal in common – with each other, and with modern police states:
They begin with a philosophical ideal imposed by an elite.

They presume that there is one “right way” to live and think, and that all reasonable people will agree. Individuality is devalued and may be severely punished. (As horror writer Dean Doontz quipped about this mentality, “Apparently, utopia required the absolute uniformity of thought and purpose exhibited by bees in a hive.")

The “ideal” government reaches into every aspect of human life from sex to education to commence to religion – to the very design of houses.

People are focused on “betterment,” and betterment of the self is secondary to betterment of the whole. People unable to meet the rulers’ standards for quality are judged disposable.

Privacy is non-existent.
Though brotherhood is presumed to reign, in fact there are distinctly privileged classes (philosophers, warriors, intellectuals).

These ideals require a complete makeover of society and assume extraordinary high expectations for individual behavior; yet both authors avoid discussing the measures that would be necessary to bring about such change.

Many other philosophers contributed to the development or eventual refinement of police states. Two of the foremost were Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

Rousseau taught that man was noble, free and happy in a “state of nature,” and that only society brought about vice, corruption and misery.

He believed that the “general will” of a new type of society was capable of “forcing a man to be free” again.15 Thus Rousseau laid the groundwork for the Marxist contention, two centuries later, that a government can customize human mentality and behavior to its specifications, simply by changing a person’s circumstances. In decrying property as the chief corrupting influence, Rousseau also helped give the Communists their justification for abolition of private property. Finally, Rousseau’s ideas are the origin of the widely held contemporary belief that society, not the individual, is responsible for crime, poverty, and eveil.16

Bentham, an Englishman of the Enlightenment, was more pragmatic, less theoretical. He was among the first to promote the use of law to engineer a desired form of society. Bentham reduced human motivation to two factors: pain and pleasure. He considered the desire to avoid pain the stronger motivator of the two, and therefore viewed threats of punishment as an effective prod toward “good” behavior. In the name of producing “the greatest good of the greatest numbers”17 (the only standard by which right and wrong were to be judged, in Benthan’s view), government could legitimately practice any method – from extreme regulation of daily life to torture. Not surprisingly, this philosophy – Utilitarianism – was promoted in a time and place where government was generally benevolent (at least to members of Bentham’s race, sex and class). Bentham had no working concept of what government could do given the unlimited power be advocated giving government to inflict pain or deliver pleasurable rewards.18

As we shall see, the ideals of Plato, More, and Rousseau, combined with the legal theories and enforcement methods advocated by Bentham, became the inspiration – even the script – for some of the world’s most tyrannical police states. But the first real-world police states didn’t set out to be that barbarous.

Read entire piece: The State Vs. The People The Rise of the American Police State

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