David Whitehouse on the disturbingly intimate relationship of policing and schooling

In part of a larger talk on “The Origin of Police” at the Annual Socialism Conference in June 2012, David Whitehouse spent some time pointing out the disturbing connections between policing and schooling:

First of all, we need to put policing in the context of a bigger ruling-class project of managing and shaping the working class. I said at the beginning that the emergence of workers’ revolt coincided with a breakdown of old methods of constant personal supervision of the workforce. The state stepped in to provide supervision. The cops were part of that effort, but in the North, the state also expanded its programs of poor relief and public schooling.

Police work was integrated with the system of poor relief, as constables worked on registration of the poor and their placement in workhouses. That’s even before the police were professionalized—the constables were sorting out the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.” If people were unemployed and unable to work, constables would direct them toward charity from churches or the city itself. But if folks were able to work, they were judged to be “idlers” and sent off to the horrors of the workhouse.

The system for poor relief made a crucial contribution to the creation of the market for wage labor. The key function of the relief system was to make unemployment so unpleasant and humiliating that people were willing to take ordinary jobs at very low wages just to avoid unemployment. By punishing the poorest people, capitalism creates a low baseline for the wage scale and pulls the whole scale downward.

The police no longer play such a direct role in selecting people for relief, but they do deliver a good deal of the punishment. As we know, lots of police work has to do with making life unpleasant for unemployed people on the street.

The rise of modern policing also coincides with the rise of public education. Public schools accustom children to the discipline of the capitalist workplace, including the submission to strict rules about the proper time to do things. The school reform movement of the 1830s and 40s also aimed to shape the students’ moral character. The effect of this was supposed to be that students would willingly submit to authority, that they would be able to work hard, exercise self­-control, and delay gratification.

In fact, the concepts of good citizenship that came out of school reform movement were perfectly aligned with the concepts of criminology that were being invented to categorize people on the street. The police were to focus not just on crime but on criminal types—a method of profiling backed up by supposedly scientific credentials. The “juvenile delinquent,” for example, is a concept that is common to schooling and policing—and has helped to link the two activities in practice.

This ideology of good citizenship was supposed to have a big effect inside the heads of students, encouraging them to think that the problems in society come from the actions of “bad guys.” A key objective of schooling, according to reformer Horace Mann, should be to implant a certain kind of conscience in the students—so that they discipline their own behavior and begin to police themselves. In Mann’s words, the objective was for children to “think of duty rather than of the policeman.”

Needless to say, an analytic scheme for dividing society between good guys and bad guys is perfect for identifying scapegoats, especially racial ones. Such a moralistic scheme was (and is) also a direct competitor to a class-conscious worldview, which identifies society’s basic antagonism as the conflict between exploiters and exploited. Police activity thus goes beyond simple repression—it “teaches” an ideology of good and bad citizenship that dovetails with the lessons of the classroom and the workhouse.

The overall point here is that the invention of the police was part of a broader expansion of state activity to gain control over the day-to-day behavior of the working class. Schooling, poor relief and police work all aimed to shape workers to become useful to—and loyal to—the capitalist class.

In other words, the ruling class’s overtly violence police forces need not do a lot to retain control over a population of people who are already policing themselves and each other. Policing children’s minds is what school was designed to do from the very beginning.