Social Control, Repression, and
the Role of the State:
Review by Luis Fernandez
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.