A Brief Note On #Elxn42 And Moving Toward A New Left

This much is clear: with the NDP’s federal collapse last night, the neoliberal Third Way experiment can clearly be declared a failure. But now what? Now, to build ─ not rebuild on a broken foundation.

But also this: pillory me as a post-structuralist if you must, but I’m not here for the construction of any next Left that doesn’t weigh the fight against social oppression equally with that of economic oppression. The suture for a new Left in Canada must be oppression, period. Class analysis, arguably, can be taken in exciting new directions if it is a collaborator in the fight against other oppressions and not the centre to which other battles are stitched for the ride to liberation.[1] One obvious conclusion here is efforts must be made that this type of transformative Left not be led by the archetypal able-bodied cisgender heterosexual white male. It is time to adjust ourselves accordingly. It is time to do better.


[1] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed.(London/New York: Verso, 2001).

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Ontario’s Common Sense Revolution at 20: A Look Back

Today marks 20 years since the Progressive Conservative Party foisted its so-called “Common Sense Revolution” on Ontario.

Former PC Ontario leader Tim Hudak took to Twitter this morning to extol the virtues of this full-throated neoliberal experiment, declaring it “the most effective, courageous gov[ernment]” in his lifetime.

Some remember those days differently. Here are a few highlights of the “Common Sense Revolution” (1995-99) and the subsequent “Blue Print” era (1999-2003).

Many Ontarians are still dealing with the aftermath of heartless program cuts initiated by the PC regime and the general neoliberal political culture that continues today at the provincial, federal and municipal (in Toronto) levels of government.

This is not a day to celebrate.

Marilyn’s Vitamins – October Monday (from Politics on the Dancefloor, 1998)

Lyrics:

An illegal strike but they’re still gonna fight
And who gives a fuck what the papers say
One October Monday

And a bastard in a 500 dollar suit
Is calling you a special interest group
One October Monday

Lies poured in at the final hour
The whole thing’s still just a matter of power
And the goddamn bill was still the same
Even though the minister’s face might have changed

So no matter how vilified
They’re out standing on the picket line
Tell me which is a more unlawful act
The abuse of power or trying to take it back

So many without a choice
Counting the days till they’re unemployed
But the jobs at the bottom don’t have to be lost
If everyone on the ladder took a tiny loss

And I’d rather have rape crisis centers
Than 10,000 dollar Tory dinners
A system set up that only caters to some
And the broken ladder’s blamed on the bottom rung

Reflections on McChesney: Problematics of Media Self-Regulation

FULL DISCLOSURE: I worked as a mainstream news reporter between 2003 and 2012.

News media goes where many cannot or will not. It infiltrates the halls of power, the courtrooms, protest sites, war zones and scenes of tragedy. It is, unquestionably, the source of much of the information used to inform and shape society. Its role is crucial. However, I contend that codes of professional journalism ethics, which purport to produce a balanced, non-biased mirroring of the facts, fail both as an adequate industry regulator and as a check on the powerful.  To explore this, I will first attempt to locate contemporary news media in its proper context. I will then examine and analyze structural biases inherent in professional newsgathering, which render the concept of self-regulation ineffective and violent for marginalized people. Finally, I will offer both reformist and alternative paths forward to address the problematics of self-regulation and make news media more accountable to the public it is supposed to serve.

Context

Robert McChesney tells us “democratic theory posits society needs journalism” to serve as a watchdog of the powerful and those who chase power, to separate truth from lies and to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues.[1] The idea of neutrality in news media, meanwhile, is a relatively recent phenomenon, having replaced overtly partisan journalism in the 20th Century.[2] As press power consolidated into the hands of fewer chains by the Progressive Era (roughly the early 1900s to the end of the First World War) and advertising drove up the profit margins of newspapers, much of the socialist and populist press folded because it could not/would not pursue ad dollars.[3] So-called “yellow journalism”, or stories focused on sex, scandal, crime and celebrity that frequently involved fabrication became a low-cost way for newspapers to drive circulation numbers and, subsequently, advertising (dollars).[4] By the 1910s, media, suffering a crisis of trust, was being roundly criticized for a one-track capitalistic focus.[5] Professionalism emerged as an attempt by the industry to regulate itself and dampen the critical onslaught.[6] “The argument went that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy by the owners to make editorial decisions, and these decisions were based on their professional judgment, not the politics of the owners and the advertisers or their commercial interests. As trained professionals, journalists would learn to sublimate their own values as well. Readers could trust what they read and not worry about who owned or worked on the newspaper,” McChesney notes.[7] It is very difficult to suggest that this change within the news industry did anything else except shield it from more external regulation.

Problematics of News Media “Self-Regulation”

However, there are serious problems with the proposition that professional journalism is an objective, neutral recitation of the facts as they occur. Scholars, specifically, The Media Monopoly author Ben Bagdikian, have identified three structural biases in professional journalism ethics codes, McChesney tells us. Firstly, with the aim of exorcizing criticism of the story idea process, “professional journalism regards anything done by official sources — for example, government officials and prominent public figures — as the basis for legitimate news.”[8] Secondly, professional journalism tends to avoid contextualization of the news it covers.[9] And finally, there is a clear pro-business bent to professional journalism, which serves the aims of its corporate masters and advertisers.[10]

A reliance on official sources may be a cheap and cheerful way to gather news[11] but simply getting in close proximity to the powerful lends itself to the potential to merely reproduce officially sanctioned narratives as ‘more true’ than opinions offered elsewhere — specifically, those offered by individuals standing in opposition to the powerful. “Those in political office (and to a lesser extent, business) wield considerable power to set the news agenda by what they speak about and, just as important, what they keep quiet about,” McChesney notes.[12] And, available evidence points to news media’s active complicity in this process of dominant narrative reproduction. A 2001 study by Ina Howard revealed the majority of sources utilized by the nightly newscasts of American networks ABC, CBS and NBC were “white, male and Republican” ─ Republican being the party of the President at the time.[13]  Coercion is also employed to encourage the reproduction of official narratives: journalists who chase stories that no official sources are discussing are sometimes tarred as “unprofessional” and “attempting to introduce bias into the news.”[14] Faced with a reporter undaunted by the accusations of unprofessionalism, official sources may resort to cutting off the journalist[15] — or even the media outlet that employs the journalist.

Tangentially related to the reliance on official sources, contextualization was a casualty of professional journalism because partisan journalism attempted to locate news within a larger ideological framework in order to provide some understanding of it.[16] This does not work for professional journalism because it forces the reporter into a “definite position,”[17] and ostensibly damages her/his supposed neutrality. “To assure that news selection does not appear ideologically driven, reporters and editors grab a news hook to justify a news story.  If something happens, it is news.” This has implications for public discussions about societal ills, McChesney adds. “This means that social issues such as racism and environmental degradation vanish from the headlines unless an event, such as a protest demonstration or the release of an official report, can justify coverage — or unless official sources choose to make it a story.”[18]

Additionally, the pro-corporate bias of professional journalism, while “more subtle”, [19] is real and pervades the whole nature of the craft. Via this bias, professional media plays a significant role in the dissemination of neoliberal values generally and, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the deployment of the security apparatus that assists in safeguarding the neoliberal and capitalist agenda, specifically. “The affairs of government are therefore more closely scrutinized than are the affairs of big business,” McChesney tells us. “And, of government activities, those that serve the poor (such as welfare) get much more critical attention than those that serve primarily the interests of the wealthy (such as tax dodges or the role of the CIA and other institutions of national security), which are more or less off-limits.”[20] The environment this creates is that which makes it more difficult for government to “regulate in the public interest” and emboldens those who seek to advance the interests of corporations.[21]

Analysis

The over-reliance on official narratives is the praxis of power politics in the public realm. It is not objectivity. It is the violent amplification and further elevation of structural power and works to politically crush the marginalized. It regulates nothing except the perpetuation of traditional power. Examples are myriad. It is seen in the publishing by reporters of law enforcement sources detailing the non-relevant police interactions of a Black man shot dead by a white officer. It manifests in the character assassination of sexual assault survivors by columnists quoting out of context official statistics and then twisting them to suit their agenda. It displays itself in the drowning out of the voices of those standing in opposition to neoliberal principles under a cascade of speeches at news conferences repeating disprovable ideology about corporate tax reduction, service cuts and so-called labour market flexibility.

The reporter’s fear of being cut off is admittedly legitimate. But it is not the end of newsgathering. New, perhaps untested, methods for pursuing stories will need to be attempted. This may mean that different, less structurally powerful voices become magnified in the journalist’s work. This reportage is not necessarily ‘professional’, ‘objective’ newsgathering. Instead, it provides space to voices traditionally suppressed. It is equity of opportunity and, arguably, socially just.

The lack of context in professional news reportage, meanwhile, is a knowledge killer. It plays into the hands of those who would claim that the death and disappearance of approximately 1,200 First Nations women in Canada is a series of unconnected, individual incidents and not a sociological phenomenon. It tells the public nothing about why the news is happening, if it happened before and its implications. It extracts and abstracts significant events from the very aether that often makes them significant.

The pro-corporate bias of professional news, bluntly put, is an implement of status quo capitalism and works to exacerbate social inequality. The markedly unquestioned publishing of reports deriding government spending, public salaries and social programs serves to undermine public confidence in the public realm and diminish citizen interactions with state resources ─ except those which hammer opponents of the racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist hegemony such as police and other security agencies. Add to this the staggering failure by professional media to question the structural foundations of the so-called free market and the state’s relationship with it and the pro-corporate bias reveals itself writ large.

Toward A Better Media

Change is not impossible. Professional journalism can be reformed and media can serve the public. McChesney states journalists have never been “professionals” in the same way doctors and lawyers are, since journalists are employees who don’t own their own businesses and that journalism lacks a “unified scientific code.”[22] McChesney appears to be arguing that because of these issues, journalism cannot or should not be regulated by a college. This line of reasoning fails. Ownership of the means of production is not a pre-requisite for professional regulation in the fields of social work, nursing, respiratory therapy, occupational therapy and teaching. Colleges of Journalism would admittedly be another layer of self-regulation; however, participation would be mandatory — not voluntary like in the case of press councils such as the Ontario Press Council. There would be hearings with consequences for bad, damaging journalism. If a particular College wished not to be inundated with complaints about official source-driven coverage that provides no context and pushes a pro-capital agenda, it could work to implement a unified code of ethics that requires a different approach to the news.

An alternative approach would be to seize a portion of profit from professional journalism agencies and redistribute it to independents. Those independent, non-professional agencies would be required by public, elected committees to provide context, amplify the voices of the structurally marginalized, create news teams that actually reflect the diversity of the subject matter being interrogated and publish coverage that does not smuggle a pro-corporate bias. The state already has the taxation and redistribution powers to implement such an approach. This idea is no more revolutionary than allowing corporate “professional” media agencies to shield themselves behind free press sections of national constitutions while reproducing the worldviews of the ruling elites and gradually converging into a handful (or smaller number) of news economy leviathans.

Conclusions

Professional journalism ethics standards are an abject failure, both as an industry regulator and as a check on the powerful. The inherent biases built into professional journalism intensify structural inequalities and power imbalances. But, change is possible and, indeed, necessary. The boosting and normalization of voices critical of and marginalized by structural power may serve as important barrages in the many battles for social and economic liberation. These are battles in pursuit of truth. They are battles for justice. And the waging of those battles is the role of news media.


[1] Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 57.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 68.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 72-73.

[11] Ibid., 69.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 70.

[14] Ibid., 69.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 72.

[20] Ibid., 73.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 67-68.

Reflections on David Harvey: Neoliberalism and The State

For three decades, neoliberalism has dominated the political and economic landscape. Following David Harvey, I contend that neoliberalism depends on the manufacturing of consent to a neoliberal agenda and the use of coercion to enforce that agenda. I further argue that neoliberalism is a corrupted form of democracy which easily lends itself to a rule by powerful elites and reproduces social and economic inequalities. To explore these contentions, I will first place neoliberalism in context. I will then delve into the manufacturing of a consent agenda for neoliberalism and probe how coercion has been used to strong-arm that agenda. Finally, I will analyze neoliberalism’s anti-democratic patterns. This examination is primarily focused on trends in North America with specific references to the neoliberal experiment in Canada.

Locating Neoliberalism
Before the interrogation at the core of this analysis begins, it is helpful to properly locate neoliberalism as a governing paradigm. Neoliberalism is generally seen as having risen in an age in which post-Second World War employment, production and social patterns were declining. Neoliberalism’s characteristics include government with the aims of industry deregulation, a promotion of the primacy of the individual, “strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”[1] Another important aspect of neoliberalism is the degree of control that governments must have over the population to ensure the free flow and “integrity”[2] of capital and money. “(Neoliberal governments) must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets,” David Harvey tells us in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. The institutionalization of neoliberalism can be closely associated with the ascendency of politicians such as the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher, the United States’ Ronald Reagan, Canada’s Brian Mulroney and, as Harvey claims, China’s Deng Xiaoping[3] in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s.

Consent
The rise of neoliberalism did not occur overnight ─ in fact, it was a long-term project ─ and was not without effort by capital, social institutions and forces within the academy, Harvey explains.[4] “The ‘long march’ of neoliberal ideas through these institutions that (Austrian political philosopher Friedrich von) Hayek had envisaged back in 1947, the organization of think-tanks (with corporate backing and funding), the capture of certain segments of the media, and the conversion of many intellectuals to neoliberal ways of thinking, created a climate of opinion in support of neoliberalism as the exclusive guarantor of freedom.”[5] This is arguably crucial, given the incremental steps consent takes and its ability to overcome any visceral rejection of rapid structural change in society ─ the kind of quick change revolution can bring. Also critical here is the tension between social justice and the struggle for individual liberties that neoliberalism has a tendency to exploit. Neoliberalism’s opposition to the perception of a government acting as a check to capital’s liberty may have ridden into town at just the right time as activists (civil rights, reproductive, sexuality and others)[6] were fighting very real battles against oppressive state actions. Well-funded attempts to conflate these social struggles with capital’s perceived plight speak directly to the manufacturing of consent and the implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

Coercion
But, where consent fails, coercion may do. It is entirely feasible to claim that late neoliberalism has become increasingly authoritarian. However, individual choice, the guiding force of hyper-liberalism and the extreme measures gone to in order to foster an environment where such individualism (which typically manifests as consumer choice) is the dominant narrative has an element of what Harvey calls “chaos”[7] to it. In response, neoliberalism has in many cases mutated into neoconservativism, which seeks to bring a highly moralized order to that perceived chaos via the state’s coercion apparatuses, most namely the military[8] but also the police and surveillance/intelligence agencies. All of this has been fuelled by the creation of myths that the nation is under attack by threats internal but also ─ and especially ─ external.[9] “Neoconservatism is therefore entirely consistent with the neoliberal agenda of elite governance, mistrust of democracy, and the maintenance of market freedoms. But it veers away from the principles of pure neoliberalism and has reshaped neoliberal practices in two fundamental respects: first, in its concern for order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests, and second, in its concern for an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers,” Harvey notes.[10]

Analysis
But to what end is this consent and coercion used? Who are the beneficiaries of this complex creation of myths and fact-ish ideology reproduced in a volume of tsunami proportions? Who wins with the creation and exploitation of fears, based on threats real and perceived, domestic and international? I argue that one manifestation of neoliberalism is the intensification of the concentration of power in the hands of those traditionally allied with capital — specifically, the government Executive and the judiciary. Neoliberals are inherently “suspicious of democracy” and that they “tend to favour governance by experts and elites,” Harvey tells us.[11] The consolidation of power arguably serves two important functions: (1) to reclaim, and then intensify, ruling class interests all while legitimized and emboldened by the ability to enforce the status quo via the military/police and (2) to marginalize the legislature, where public, vigorous debate can be engaged in and witnessed. The context here, of course, is that this is occurring during an era in which security, both internal and external, is a dominant driver of government policy. As Harvey notes, “the neoliberal preference” is to “appeal to judicial and executive rather than parliamentary powers.”[12]

The Executive and judiciary are excellent zones for power to be centralized by the ruling elite. Secretive, authoritarian Executive governance can be conducted behind closed doors in cabinet meetings and through the invocation of time allocation and closure motions during majority governments, for example. The legal system, meanwhile, can be counted on to reinforce the interests of “private property and the profit rate over rights of equality and social justice” due to what Harvey calls “the typical class allegiance of the judiciary.”[13] This takes place despite a formal commitment to the equality of access to justice in the advanced capitalist core of nations ─ which in practice, often actually translates into costly court cases that limit justice to those who can afford it.[14]

Conclusions
Neoliberalism rests upon a foundation of manufactured consent and coercion. Its key focus is to reproduce power and class relations that intensify so-called “free market” relationships and commodify human interactions as mere consumer choices. Neoliberalism is inherently anti-democratic and thrives in environments in which threats, perceived or real ─ foreign or domestic ─ are promoted to manage the chaos hawkish neoliberals see as endemic to a society in which the value of liberty is extolled. Ultimately, neoliberalism shows no signs of abating. Proponents have offered no alternatives, which may indicate that the current structures are working satisfactorily for those who benefit from them. Opponents, to this point, have also been unsuccessful in presenting an alternative to this dominant governing paradigm that has captured the population enough to build a counter-hegemony and alternative paradigm. At this point, it is unclear how long the neoliberal experiment will last but given that it not only survived but has become intensified in the wake of the recent economic crisis, it appears solidly structural with a great deal of power, resources and will backing it.


[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 82.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid., 176.

[13] Ibid., 177.

[14] Ibid., 78.

UPDATED: Post-Democratic Trend Lines in Etobicoke

 

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 2016

– Rob Ford was elected Ward 2 Councillor in the 2014 municipal election.
– Rob Ford, 46, died March 22, 2016.
– Mike Ford was elected a TDSB Trustee in 2014. He was elected to Rob Ford’s former Ward 2 council seat in a 2016 byelection.
– Doug Ford plans to release a book in 2016 (co-written with Rob about the family’s base of political support. He also plans to again seek elected office.


ORIGINAL POST, SEPTEMBER 16, 2014

Since news broke of the decision by Toronto mayor candidate Rob Ford to sto-ballot-box-facebookep away from the mayor’s race and be replaced by his brother Doug the term “feudal” has been thrown around a lot.

The argument quite often associated with the use of this term generally appears to be that the Ford family is treating Etobicoke as if control of the borough is to be inherited and that elections are merely a formality.

I understand the need to put what has happened at odds with what should be happening in a healthy democracy ─ I’m even tempted to use the term feudal myself. But, I argue, the nature of what the Ford family is attempting in Etobicoke does not smack of what is prior to democracy but what comes after the democratic institutions we know and many of us cherish.

In other words, I argue that the Ford family is acting inherently post-democratic in Etobicoke and that current democratic structures are permitting this.

The origins of the term post-democracy are often attributed to political scientist Colin Crouch. The idea is essentially that a small clique of elites control decisions within democratic structures. Tendencies seen in post-democracy include few common goals, a common agenda, the conflation of the public and private sectors and privatization.

This is arguably what the Ford family is attempting in Etobicoke, and more broadly in Toronto governance.

The Ford agenda can be characterized by the pitting of neighbourhoods against each other (no common agenda), that Rob and Doug are seemingly interchangeable (a common agenda), alleged missteps involving lobbying on behalf of private sector firms (the conflation of the public and private sectors) and the use of private capital to fund major public projects (privatization).

By running Doug for mayor, Rob for Ward 2 councillor and Mike Ford for school trustee, the Fords, a wealthy business family from Etobicoke, are using democratic institutions to achieve what could easily be described as a post-democratic aristocracy if the election sees all three elevated to office. The Fords are up against challengers for every seat but the trend lines are there. A healthy democracy won’t permit one family to treat elections as a hoop through which to jump.

Rob Ford’s Political Body

Toronto’s Rob Ford lives a political life. Both his bare existence and his public personae have taken on a politicization since he entered municipal governance. Plainly said, his weight and other biological issues have become just as political as his public life as “mayor” of the City of Toronto.

The Ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle, had two words for life: zoe (to live) and bios (life as an action).[1] This zoe-bios distinction is taken up and developed by Giorgio Agamben, who explains that zoe was seen as excluded from action in the city, or polis, (bios).[2] Agamben argues that via modern biopolitics, a concept he borrows from Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, bios has contaminated zoe.  It is from this foundation that I begin.

  •  In this post, I explore the politicizing of Rob Ford’s body and his own use of biopolitics as an undercurrent of governance at city hall.

Ford has steadfastly maintained that he believes there are things in his life that are private: in other words, outside bios and firmly planted in zoe.

The issue with this, of course, is that Ford has sometimes created a zone of indistinction between bios and zoe himself, such as when he has been filmed while ostensibly intoxicated and talking about his politics.

But also consider the politicization by external actors of Ford’s zoe:

The four examples above, I argue, are the clear contamination of zoe with bios; the politicization of Rob Ford’s bare life.

This is not to say that Rob Ford has not engaged in the same sort of biopolitics. He has been caught using racist slurs, refusing to participate and even working against joyous city events such as the raising of the Pride flag and making disgraceful sexual comments about a female colleague.

These examples show that Ford politicizes others’ zoe, be it based on their ethnicity, their sexuality or sex, in an attempt to politically disarm them.

What is apparent here is that Toronto politics is merely a microcosm of the larger paradigm that sees a blurring of distinction between zoe and bios. We see it in every “political” interaction at all levels of human society but it simply becomes more obvious with our elected representatives, who live public lives. Rob Ford’s nature arguably locates him as a high-profile example.

Toronto politics  is not simply about building transit and making sure the roads don’t have potholes. It, like life generally, is a highly biopolitical existence in which life (to live) is politicized. And from this point, there is no return to the classical zoe/bios dichotomy, Agamben tells us.[3] “And we are not only, in Foucault’s words, animals whose life as living beings is at issue in their politics, but also ─ inversely ─ citizens whose very politics is at issue in their natural body.”[4]


[1] Aristotle, Politics. Translated by C.D.C Reeve, (Indianapolis:Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 285.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, eds. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 2.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

The Militarization of Police: But Why?

Since the beginning of the year, several stories in high-profile mainstream media publications have examined the increasing militarization of police forces in North America.

  • In March, The Economist wrote a feature on the phenomenon noting that the use of tactical units, which are often armed with military-style weaponry such as so-called flash-bag grenades and tear gas, has spiked in the United States. Some cities are now using tactical units for routine patrol. The Economist suggested that civil forfeiture laws, under which no criminal conviction is required for people to lose large assets, are actually making it profitable to seize alleged proceeds of crime.
  • In June, The New York Times reported that during the Obama years, police forces in the United States have received “thousands of machine guns” along with”armoured cars and aircraft.” The Times asked whether the events of September 11, 2001 have blurred the lines between soldier and police officer.
  • And on August 15, the Toronto Star published an in-depth look at the militarization of law enforcement both in Canada and in the United States, noting Toronto’s notorious G20 Summit as a domestic example. The story also pulls from a report by the American Civil Liberties Association that claims 62% of tactical deployments were for drug searches and thus, “inappropriate.”

There has been much written about the who, the what, the where and the how of police militarization but little delving into the why. In this post, I explore three possible, and arguably intersecting reasons for the why: (a) Following Giorgio Agamben, that security and the overstepping of the law by governments in order to save the constitution is a long-held practice and is now a paradigm of North American governance. (b) That the state continues to show itself as terrified of marginalized groups and is using violence to coerce co-operation or at least peace from those groups when they express anger. And, (c) That neoliberalism, or the trend of governments toward market solutions and the retreat by the state from social programs is necessarily resulting in the increased use of the state’s security apparatus to quell opposition to such a trend.

This analysis assumes the police are an enforcement arm of the state. 

While Agamben freely admits there is no singular definition of the state of exception, he argues that it constitutes “the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension.”[1] This, he claims, is a modern paradigm of governance. In other words, the state of exception is the situation in which the law is suspended to uphold the constitution of a particular society and that situation has become normalized and institutionalized as a driving pattern of governance. “In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of a state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system”, he tells us.[2] That is, the constitution can be suspended in order to save it. This state of exception has been taking root since the First World War, gained traction through National Socialism and has achieved its largest deployment today.[3] The state must have the tools necessary and at its disposal to continue to govern in a continuous state of exception, and thus, the militarization of the police, which function as its enforcement arm most often in times of crisis and suspension of liberties. The police are often the only coercion agency of the state funded at the local, state/provincial and federal levels of government, allowing multiple states of exception to exist — but also for a co-ordinated police effort during a singular state of exception to be possible. A good example of this cross-jurisdictional state of exception is the use of local[4], provincial[5] and federal[6] police officers during the Toronto G20 summit in 2010, during which the civil liberties of protesters were widely suspended and the largest mass arrest of Canadians occurred.[7]

The state of exception is also clearly being used to perpetuate and reproduce historic racism. But, the state of exception as a paradigm of government cannot be used to explain the cracking down on historically marginalized groups, such as Black North Americans and First Nations people. There is a deeper history there and I see it as being about the devaluing of human life via a structural racism that is woven into the fabric of North American governance. Black Americans and First Nations people have been subject to hyper-exploitation and attempts at genocide to the extent that the experiences of the oppressors — that is, overwhelmingly North Americans of European decent — have, I believe, formed an unfinished project of marginalization that continues to the present day. In situations such as these, and others, the state’s actions are not broadly based and sweeping but target specific groups because of antiquated notions about superiority or merely a depraved indifference to the lives and well-being of those who have endured despite attempts to kill them politically and biologically. The militarization of the police is necessary here for the state insofar as those who have fought and continue to fight against oppression do so while concurrently challenging the racist state’s fundamental legitimacy. As W. E. B. Du Bois puts it in Black Reconstruction in America: “[I]f the poor, unlettered toilers are given no political power, and are kept by exploitation in poverty, they will remain submerged unless rescued by revolution; and a philosophy will prevail, teaching that the submergence of the mass is inevitable and is on the whole best, not only for them, but for the ruling classes.”[8]. The state’s coercive response, as seen in situations such as demonstrations in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Mike Brown by a police officer in August 2014 and at the Elsipogtog First Nation in October 2013, are both attempts to assert a racist sovereignty and a superiority of the established ruling classes against the respective marginalized groups. Pam Palmater summed up the enforcement by the state of a sovereignty poisoned by racism in a post about the clash between Mi’kmaw activists and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Elsipogtog in a post only days afterward: “This heavy-handed deployment of heavily armed RCMP cops against women and children shows Canada’s complete disregard for our fundamental human rights and freedoms, and their ongoing disdain for Indigenous peoples. One RCMP officer’s comments summarized government position perfectly: ‘Crown land belongs to government, not to fucking natives.'”[9]

Finally, the nature of neoliberalism may be inherently coercive. As I have written here about neoliberalism in Ontario, some scholarly authorities see neoliberalism revealing increased authoritarianism. Concurrent with the neoliberal period generally and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 specifically has been an intensified securitization inside states, York University professor Greg Albo tells us. “In Canada this combination of economic and geopolitical interests has produced an internal realignment of the state, with military and security structures absorbing new funds and resources,” he notes.[10] If the police, again the department most often called to put down opposition to neoliberalism’s goals, are to be successful, they need the tools used to quell chaos. Such tools have been developed and deployed by the West during its ongoing wars on terrorism since 9/11 and logically, the fruits of those labours are spilling down to policing departments as such wars — take Afghanistan and Iraq for examples — wind down and focus shifts to domestic disturbances.

Whatever the “why”, and this analysis does not purport to be the final word, the militarization of the police is an ongoing phenomenon. Here, I have attempted to explore the state of exception, structural racism and neoliberalism as three possibilities for why the police in North America have become increasingly militarized. Any society that permits the expansion of the state’s coercion will inevitably have to deal with the counter pressure of civil rights activists. What is crucial to consider is the difference between a real crisis for the state and one that is a fictitious crisis in which civil and social rights are trumped so that the constitution may remain in place. What is left then, if the constitution survives such a battering by the state itself?


[1] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Trans. Kevin Attell, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 86-87.

[4] Graham Slaughter, “45-day jail sentence for Toronto police officer who beat G20 protester,” Toronto Star, December 9, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2013/12/09/45day_jail_sentence_for_toronto_police_officer_who_beat_g20_protester.html (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[5] Adrian Morrow and Daniel Leblanc, “Toronto police, OPP called the shots on G20 response, report says,” The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/toronto-police-opp-called-the-shots-on-g20-response-report-says/article4178745/ (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[6] Josh Visser, “RCMP abandoned policy when it participated in G20 ‘kettling,’ report says,” National Post, May 14, 2012, http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/14/rcmp-abandoned-policy-when-it-participated-in-g20-kettling-report-says/ (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[7] Canadian Civil Liberties Association, What Happened During the G20?, http://ccla.org/our-work/focus-areas/g8-and-g20/two-months-after-the-g20/ (accessed August 24, 2014).

[8] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, https://archive.org/details/blackreconstruc00dubo, 206 (accessed August 24, 2014).

[9] Pam Palmater, Feathers verus Guns: The Throne Speech and Canada’s War with the Mi’kmaw Nation at Elsipogtog, http://indigenousnationhood.blogspot.ca/2013/10/throne-speech-in-action-canada-is-at.html (accessed August 24, 2014).

[10] Greg Albo, “Fewer Illusions: Canadian Foreign Policy since 2001,” Empire’s Ally: Canada and the Afghanistan War, eds. G. Albo and J. Klassen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 253.