New Formulation

Volume Two, Number Two --- Winter Spring 2004


Social Control, Repression, and the Role of the State:
Controlling Radical Movements

Review by Luis Fernandez

Taking Liberties: Prison, Policing, and Surveillance in an Age of Crisis
By Christian Parenti
Oakland: AK Press, 2002

In a Pig’s Eye: Reflections on
the Police State, Repression,

and Native America
By Ward Churchill
Oakland: AK Press, 2002


Visions of Social Control: Crime, Punishment, and Classification
By Stanley Cohen
Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985

For years, the state has used various forms of social control to attack radical social movements that challenge its power. The three works reviewed here explore the power mechanisms behind the repression and pacification of political dissent. They help us understand the various ways that the state intervenes to suppress radical movements and prevent social transformation.

In order to make more sense of social control, repression, and the role that the state plays in it, it is useful to make at least two distinctions between modes of social control. The first mode can be thought of as “hard-line” social control, which includes the “hard” tactics used by such groups as the FBI to directly undermine and abolish radical movements. The first two works reviewed here, Christian Parenti’s Taking Liberties: Prison, Policing, and Surveillance in an Age of Crisis and Ward Churchill’s In a Pig’s Eye: Reflections on the Police State, Repression and Native America, examine this kind of social control. Both selections are recorded lectures distributed by AK Press in CD format.

The second mode of social control is not generally discussed within the anti-authoritarian literature. The “soft-line” mode of social control includes less direct modes of oppression, such as the control of dissent through the legal regulation of physical space. Stanley Cohen’s Visions of Social Control attempts to understand how “soft-line” social control is an equally effective tool of the state for maintaining control. As anti-authoritarians, we need to start thinking about “soft-line” social control and the effects that it has on our movements, since both “soft-” and “hard-line” modes tend to work in unison.

Taking Liberties
Christian Parenti, the son of the Marxist scholar Michael Parenti, focuses his work on the study of repression and state power in the United States. He is the author of Lockdown America(1) and his writings appear in magazines such as The Nation and Monthly Review. Parenti’s latest work, entitled Taking Liberties: Prison, Policing and Surveillance in the age of Crisis, is a CD recording compiled from lectures delivered in April 2000, October 2001, and December 2001. The CD focuses on three broad issues. First, it presents an explanation of the function of poverty in a capitalist society. Second, it delves briefly into political surveillance, focusing on the powers of the FBI prior to and after the USA Patriot Act. Finally, it contains a long, detailed discussion of the intricacies of the rise of political Islam.

Parenti starts by noting a paradox within the capitalist system. “Capitalism needs poverty,”(2) states Parenti unequivocally, arguing that without enough poor people around workers start demanding better conditions and higher wages. However, at the same time, capitalism is threatened by too much poverty. Poverty, he argues, tends to breed dissatisfaction, which makes revolt more likely. The question is “How do you have poverty and manage the threat of poverty?”(3) The answer, for Parenti, is by expanding social control mechanisms through the criminal justice system. The buildup of prisons and policing in the last two decades is not a result, as some might have it, of corporations expanding into the criminal justice system for profits.(4) Rather, the growth comes from an increasing need by the capitalist class (in collusion with the state) for greater social control, a growth necessary to keep the poor from revolting. Prisons, mandatory sentencing, and the “war on drugs” become the means by which the state is able to subdue the working class and keep poverty at a level that maximizes profits while minimizing dissent. Here we see a clear example of “hard-line” social control.

Parenti also describes a second, softer tactic of social control, mainly co-optation. He briefly describes the way that workers’ movements in the 1960s were co-opted by turning their leaders into administrators of low income housing and social services. This co-optation happened at a time when the Unites States was economically strong enough to absorb the poor in order to legitimize the system. However, the economic crisis in the 1970s put an end to this tactic and brought with it the harder modes of social control. Parenti concludes that, “In a class society, rule comes down to two things, as Machiavelli said. The prince has two choices. He can either treat men [sic] well or crush them. . . . Sometimes economic conditions are plush enough that people can be treated well, but more often then not, in a capitalist society, the ruling class, through the state, must crush and intimidate people to reproduce their system. And that is what the criminal justice system is all about.”(5)

The CD also contains several tracks devoted to the issue of political surveillance as a means of social control. One of the tools that the state has for suppressing dissent and reducing the impact of radical movements are the powers grated to the FBI for the purpose of surveillance.

Analyzing the powers granted to federal agencies before and after September 11th, Parenti makes the argument that the changes in the USA Patriot Act are not as serious as they might seem. However, this is not because the FBI has little power over political dissidents, but because the organization already had all the repressive power it needed prior to the adoption of the act. The FBI has always been well funded, with over “30 billion dollars devoted every year to intelligence gathering,”(6) even before the Patriot Act. They also had plenty of power to search premises, to tap telephones, and look over e-mails. If they wanted to search your home or tap your telephone, they could do so by getting a Title 3 warrant. If this warrant was too difficult to acquire, which often it was, then they could use the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to acquire the needed search warrant. In the history of the FBI only one FISA warrant was ever denied. Parenti’s point is that the FBI had plenty of funding and full powers of observation prior to September 11, 2001. The USA Patriot Act only solidified existing powers.

According to Parenti, the main change resulting from the USA Patriot Act is that “it merges FISA and Title 3 warrants, even when intelligence is not the primary reason . . . In other words, they get carte blanche. But in a way that is what they were already doing.”(7) The Patriot Act also allows for “judge shopping,” which gives the FBI the ability to seek a FISA or Title 3 warrant in any jurisdiction and apply it to any other jurisdiction. “Judge shopping” means that the FBI can now use a conservative judge to give them the power of surveillance anywhere in the United States, thus successfully getting around any civil libertarian judge that might want to protect civil liberties.

The last section of the CD lectures shift sharply away from issues of suppression and surveillance. In this section, Parenti provides a detailed (and sometimes tedious) description of the rise of political Islam, arguing that to understand it one has to study capitalism, modernity, and the state. According to Parenti, political Islam develops in response to colonialism and capitalism. However, he presents this movement as deeply embedded in the modernist project, seeking the state as its final prize through the means of a vanguard-like party organization. Even though slow going, I would recommend this section to anybody needing an introduction to the political landscape of Islamic politics and the role that the CIA played there.

With Taking Liberties, Parenti gives important political information on recent changes to the powers of the FBI, presented in an accessible format. This CD lecture could easily be used for teach-ins and classroom education as a quick way to expose people to radical ideas. However, the more seasoned radical will discover little new information not already found in other works by Parenti. Finally, some of the information contained in the lectures is quickly becoming dated. The current political mood in the United States is changing so quickly that some issues that were topical in 2000 and 2001 have been superseded by newer developments, such as the War on Iraq. Nonetheless, the lectures contain important reminders of the continuing increase of the state’s “hard-line” powers.

In a Pig’s Eye
Ward Churchill has spent a lifetime studying political repression in the United States, uncovering and documenting the bloody legacy of the FBI in suppressing radical movements. He is a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado and the author of numerous books, including Agents of Repression and A Little Matter of Genocide.(8) AK Press recently released a two CD set of Ward Churchill’s lectures recorded in May 2001. The release is entitled In a Pig’s Eye: Reflections on the Police State, Repression and Native America(9) and contains almost two hours of dialogue.

The primary purpose of the lecture is to explain and contextualize the firefight that occurred at Oglala Village, on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1975, where two FBI agents were killed, resulting in the controversial imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. Churchill argues that in order to understand this incident, and the symbolism of Leonard Peltier, one needs to “understand two lines of history that feed into that particular event.”(10) The two lines are the history of the Native Peoples’ struggle and the history of the FBI. It is only by looking at these two long trajectories, he argues, that we can fully comprehend Peltier’s arrest and what it means. Churchill devotes the entire two CD lectures to the examination of the two historical lines.

Churchill starts by describing the historical context of the native people’s struggle, particularly focusing on the American Indian Movement (AIM). To Churchill, Peltier is a prisoner of war, “a prisoner of the longest on-going war in this hemisphere.”(11) He reminds us that in 500 years the native people were reduced in population by ninety-seven percent. Their land assets, if recognized as property prior to the arrival of Columbus, were also reduced by approximately ninety-eight percent. But even with this genocide and mass expropriation, the two million or so Native Americans alive today still own fifty millions acre of land. This land, Churchill argues, is some of the richest land in natural resources, with two-thirds of the US domestic uranium reserve, twenty-five percent of coal, and twenty-five percent of oil and gas. Yet, Indians on the aggregate are the poorest people on the continent. Life expectancy for an Indian male is fifty-four years, and fifty-seven for females. Infant mortality is fourteen times higher than the national average. The unemployment rate on the Pine Ridge reservation has been a calamitous ninety-two percent for the last fifty years. How can we explain the catastrophic discrepancies between resources and Indian wealth? For Churchill, the answer lies in the US Government and their self-proclaimed trustee and fiduciary responsibility over Indian land, which it uses to extract wealth while leaving behind a devastated population. It is this devastation and colonial oppression that frames the uprising at Pine Ridge, Peltier’s imprisonment, and the American Indian Movement.

The context of the insurgency of 1975, then, is poverty, subordination, and the extraction of resources. This was the nature of the set of circumstances that were confronted by the American Indian Movement at the Pine Ridge Reservation. What happened at Pine Ridge was an “assertion of the rights to sovereign control over lands, lives, and destiny”(12) that is an inherent right of American Indian people. And it was this assertion of rights that brought the repression of the American Indian Movement by the FBI.

Churchill explores the second line by tracing the history of the FBI as a repressive tool of a police state for the control of radical movements. The myth, according to Churchill, is that the FBI is an investigative agency having to do with the unbiased application of the rule of law. In reality, the FBI is an institution set up, from the start, as a political police force at the national level to preserve the interests of the capitalist class by maintaining the status quo. Using a similar argument found in Parenti’s CD lecture, Churchill describes the function of the FBI as a tool for “hard-line” social control, that is, a form of state control that “neutralizes” political dissidents by any means necessary, including violence, repression, and assassination.

Churchill places the origins of the police state not with the founding of the FBI in 1913, but in 1852 with the creation of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was a private investigative organization hired by both the federal government and the leaders of private industry to investigate labor dissent. It is here that Churchill finds the first connection between industry and government, and all the necessary ingredients that ultimately lead to the establishment of the FBI.

It is in the Pinkerton Agency that we see the future tactics adopted by the FBI. A poignant example, which sheds light on the current FBI practices around the “War on Terrorism,” comes when Churchill describes the way that the Pinkerton Agency provided security for Abraham Lincoln. According to Churchill, the Pinkerton Agency manufactured an assassination attempt on the president, then pretended to prevent it, thus proving how effective the organization was. This is a technique used by the FBI today that Churchill describes as the “manufacturing of a total hallucination, spinning it so that it sounds scary, no matter how impossible, and then preventing this fiction from occurring and proving, therefore, that you are a barrier against devastation, protecting the well-being of the population, demonizing opponents and gaining license to naturalize them.”(13)

Between the creation of the FBI in 1913 and its attack on the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, there is an extensive history of oppressive campaigns on political dissidents that looks eerily familiar to recent FBI activity around the “War on Terrorism.” For example, shortly after World War I, the FBI undertook the Palmer Raids. The Palmer Raids was the roll up of the Anarchist and Anarcho-syndicalist movement, where 15,000 people were arrested overnight primarily because they were recent immigrants to the United States. Each person was questioned regarding subscriptions to radical magazines or their involvement in radical organizations, resulting in mass deportation to Russia without a hearing.

Churchill discusses several other examples of movement suppression, such as the attack on the Industrial Workers of the World, The United Negro Improvement Association, the Communist Party, and the Black Panthers. He details the various tactics developed and used by the FBI, including discrediting movement leaders, infiltration, agent provocateurs, manufacturing legal evidence, and assassination. By the time the American Indian Movement arrives at the scene in 1970, the FBI had fully developed methods of suppression, which it wasted no time in using.

What happened at Pine Ridge, then, is the result of the struggle between people asserting their autonomy and an organization that had sixty years of experience in social control. “The most intensive of all these operations that were carried out [by the FBI] was against the American Indian Movement” asserts Churchill, “because [the FBI] had benefited, ultimately, from all the experience it had obtained . . .”(14) In the end, Churchill describes the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier, and the sixty-nine deaths of Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation in the expanse of two years, as the arbitrary ability of the federal government to repress the legitimate aspirations of liberation within its boundaries. “And in so far that they can repress us, they can repress you,”(15) concludes Churchill.

Vision of Social Control
Stanley Cohen is a professor at the London School of Economics, where he teaches courses in crime and deviance.(16) Cohen is a renown scholar who has written about social control for over thirty years. While Cohen is primarily an academic writer, his works provide insight into how social control might work and how it might be challenged.

Cohen’s classic book, Visions of Social Control, focuses on the history of social control movements within the state. He describes the changing nature of social control in “post-industrial” society and the “organized ways in which society responds to behavior and people it regards as deviant, problematic, worrying, threatening, troublesome or undesirable in some way or another,”(17) with “planned and programmed responses to expected and realized deviance.”(18) He centers his analysis on the various ways that the state has evolved as it deals with the control of “deviant” behavior and people. Unlike Parenti and Churchill, Cohen’s work is broader in nature, only peripherally including the social control mechanism applied directly to political “deviance.” However, his focus on the use of social control allows a look at the way the state uses “soft-line” methods to control.

In the first chapter, Cohen describes the shifting societal strategies and beliefs regarding social control. He begins by focusing on criminal justice, then traces the shifting behaviors of concern, the strategies employed by the criminal justice system (i.e., the state), and the quite different “visions” and interpretations of the nature of such change. Cohen presents a master narrative regarding the development of social control, explaining how it develops and the ideologies behind each change.

If you are familiar with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish,(19) then the outlines of Cohen’s argument will sound familiar: the optimism born from the Enlightenment led to the construction of prison and mental asylums, each designed to “correct” deviant behavior. Then, a criminal justice system develops through the aid of professional discourses such as psychoanalysis; traditional notions of punishment which focused on inflicting pain on the body were replaced by moralistic theories of punishment focusing on treatment and the study of criminal behavior. The key to the analysis is that, in the end, the forms of social control expanded and became more prevalent throughout society, even through numerous reformists attempts to dismantle various state apparatus of control, such as prisons. The state appears to have an amazing ability to incorporate and co-opt reformist approaches that attempt to challenge the core of state power. It is this ability that Cohen finds curious.

Cohen argues that there is a struggle between what he identifies as the “exclusion” and “inclusion” modes of social control. By “exclusion” he means a system of social control that was dominant in the 19th century, where deviants are excluded or separated in order to protect society. “Exclusion,” as a mode of social control, includes practices of segregation, expulsion, classification, and stigmatization. They are practices that leave the “deviant” person or group isolated from the larger society. Examples of this “hard-line” mode of social control abound. The Red Scare (and the Palmer Raids described by Churchill) are perfect examples of the state identifying political “deviants” and excluding them by expelling them from the country. A more recent example is the case of the Arab-Americans abducted by the Bush administration as a measure of “national security.” It is this mode that both Parenti and Churchill describe well in their works.

If “exclusionary” modes of control represent the “hard” side, then methods of “inclusion” are characterized by “soft” approaches to deviance. Cohen describes “inclusion” as the desire to deal with offenders and deviants in the community, to dismantle state apparatus, to decentralize, and to root the solutions in a community-based approach. Under this mode of social control, “deviants are retained, as long as possible within conventional social boundaries and institutions, there to be absorbed.”(20) Cohen argues that as reformers created and implemented programs designed to replace the “hard” approaches (such as imprisonment), the unintended consequence was an expansion of the social control “net” that captures people into the system, while leaving the larger more coercive system in place. The ultimate paradox, according to Cohen, is that soft interventions (or reformist practices) tend to expand social control into areas that were otherwise free from state intervention; they supplement rather than replace the old institutions of control. As a result, the boundaries of the system are less visible, but more intrusive. The state grows its tentacles into new spheres.

Cohen’s book is a little convoluted, somewhat academic, and written mostly for individuals familiar with the criminological literature. The lay person may find some of the arguments unclear, which is why I would not recommend this book. However, the important point to draw from the book is that, for Cohen, “hard-line” approaches to social control may not be the only (or even the primary) way of controlling populations. In contrast to Parenti and Churchill, Cohen states that “Telephone tapping, agents provocateurs, censorship of political writings, interference with academic freedom are not, after all, part of the everyday experience and concerns of the vast bulk of the population.”(21) Therefore, he argues, populations are controlled not only through “hard-line” tactics, but also through less menacing strategies that were once developed by reformists to challenge state power.

There are a number of lessons that anti-authoritarians can draw from the works reviewed here. First, as Parenti reminds us, it is important to keep the changes brought by the USA Patriot Act in context. That is, while the powers of the state grows, we must remember that the state already has plenty of repressive power, a fact the Churchill makes poignantly clear in his retelling of the history of the FBI. Second, we need to be aware of the history of repression of radical movements as we build our own. The more informed we become of past assaults, the more we are likely to defend ourselves and fellow radicals. As Parenti makes clear, the only reason the state does not deploy even more repressive tactics is because we will not let them. It is up to the people to stop them.

Third, we must be vigilant of the soft-line mode of social control. While there is no denying that “hard” modes of social control were and are used to repress social movements, there is increasing evidence that softer modes are being developed, modes that are harder to spot and fight. While the state has retained the ability to suppress movements violently, it now has more subtle techniques to control dissent. For example, the state (through the police) learned early on that it is easier to manage mass demonstration through negotiations (often carried out through their community policing departments) than it is through direct physical means. Rather than violently beating protestors and strikers, which tends to create martyrs and to radicalize people, the state has found ways to “regulate” the time, location, direction, and nature of marches and picket lines through the use of permits and “protest zones.”(22) It is these types of “soft” techniques that are ignored by some. The focus on the “hard” suppression of movements that dominates much of the work of writers like Parenti and Churchill tends to obscure the “softer” side of control, which in the long run is equally destructive.


1. The full citation for the book is the following: Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 1999).

2. Christian Parenti, Taking Liberties: Prison, Policing, and Surveillance in an Age of Crisis [CD-ROM] (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2002), track #1, “Capitalism: Crisis and Response.”

3. Ibid., track #1, “Capitalism: Crisis and Response.”

4. Parenti elaborates on this point in Lockdown America, where he documents that prisons are not economically profitable.

5. Parenti, Taking Liberties, track #1, “Capitalism: Crisis and Response.”

6. Ibid., track #4, “Surveillance Prior to 9-11.”

7. Ibid., track #5, “Deciphering the U.S.A. Patriot Act.”

8. Other books by Ward Churchill include The COINTELPRO Papers, Indians are Us, Fantasies of a Master Race, and FBI Secrets.

9. Ward Churchill, In a Pig’s Eye: Reflections on the Police State, Repression, and Native America. (Oakland: AK Press, 2002)

10. Ibid., disk one, track #4, “A 500 Year War.”

11. Ibid., disk one, track #4, “A 500 Year War.”

12. Ibid., disk one, track #7, “A Nation of Their Own.”

13. Ibid., disk one, track #12, “You have a Police State.”

14. Ibid., disk 2, track #8, “Repression Evolves.”

15. Ibid., disk 2, track #12, “Our Obligation.”

16. Stanley Cohen is best known within academic and mainstream circles for coining the term “moral panic” back in the late 1970s. The term describes the tendency for societies to “panic” and overreact to perceived deviant behavior, such as we are currently experiencing around “terrorism.”

17. Stanley Cohen’s book, Visions of Social Control: Crime, Punishment, and Classification (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985), describes this tendency of the state.

18. Ibid., 2.

19. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

20. Stanley Cohen, Visions of Social Control, 217.

21. Ibid., 142.

22. Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford Press, 2003).