Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protestors continue to face police brutality. Now is an excellent time to think about the meaning of the institution of the police, and especially its relation to the political. In Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière describes these categories, based on a close reading of Plato’s Republic, as well as numerous other classical and contemporary texts. The difficulty of developing a theory of the political and of democracy cannot be overestimated. Rancière’s work is exemplary in this regard. The following is a basic description he gives of the logic of the police, and of their function, compared to those of the political.

The police enforce “patterns and procedures of ruling that are predicated on a given distribution of qualifications, places, and competencies” (53). This (re)enforcement is anti-political, because true politics negates the status quo. It is the exposure of a rift in society, a dispute within a hierarchy; and in this dispute there appears a re-distribution of social space. Democracy is a form government based on rule by the people, by anyone, regardless of qualification. And because there is no ultimate qualification, power is just temporary, “borrowed” from the people. In order to effectuate a change in power, political conflict is absolutely necessary; political conflict is thus the sine qua non of democratic government. Therefore if the police prevent political action in a democracy, then, paradoxically, they both reinforce and undermine the government, since while they are protecting the current governmental regime, they are also undermining democracy itself, the foundation of that government. The police are there to stifle democratic impulses.

“Police interventions in public spaces consist primarily. . .in breaking up demonstrations. . . .[Their] slogan is: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’. . .[They] assert that the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’, of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens. . . .It consists in re-figuring space. . .It is the instituting of a dispute over the distribution of the sensible” (37). If we are to experience a democratic moment – the anarchic reframing of the sensible – then “power must become political;” that is, it must be challenged, disputed, loosened. And “for that to happen the logic of the police has to be thwarted by the logic of politics” (53).

Look at the photos from #OWS. The aesthetic features are virtually the same as any other protest, worldwide. Police line the streets, watching protestors march, waiting for them to cross the line, literally and figuratively. What police accomplish by giving protestors a specific space in which to protest is the “purification of politics [which] is actually its eviction.” It is a portioning of the sensible into categories which follow a mandated, authorized logic. This logic is what politics itself is meant to disrupt; “the political” is a superfluous “extra” part of social life that shows itself in acts of defiance against an official order.

Democracy in particular is a paradoxical form of government: those who govern have no particular qualification to govern; their qualification is the absence of qualification. They are “unqualified” precisely because in a democracy there is no one particular thing that qualifies someone to govern – whether age, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, intelligence/knowledge, or wealth. The obvious difficulty with this is that modern, actual governments want stability, rather than democracy. They have trouble thinking like the #OWS protestors and their supporters. They have trouble understanding how workers councils and general assemblies work. They have trouble understanding the sense of what all those luminaries who inspired revolutions had to say about running a democratic government. But it’s understandable that governments today don’t think these alternative forms of government are possible. They are stuck, like the rest of us, with huge, militarized nation-states and multinational capitalism. And this is simply unsustainable, at least if we want to avoid dictatorship. That is why what’s happening at #OWS (and around the world) is so important. People don’t really want reform. They want massive change. A revolution. The protestors in this photo put it best:

And so looking at the way the protests are going, one has to ask, why are the police resorting to violence? Perhaps this is because the democratic impulse is too strong. It is humiliating, in a way, to be with the police, watching democracy unfold in the streets and standing on the sidelines, allowing it to roll by; the police are in the absurd position in which their job is to watch the negation of their function. They are there to watch others reject the very purpose of the police, to watch protestors thwart the smooth functioning of the status quo. They are being told to obey orders that threaten their very existence. Sometimes this absurd inactivity becomes too much. Sometimes the contradictions become unbearable, and one’s purpose must be defended, even if it means resorting to violence and making illegal arrests en masse.

But in the same way, it is also humiliating to be a protestor, corralled by the police, watching as the police negate the reason for your protest, watching them reduce the meaning of this Event to a predictable, managed aspect of an illegitimate governmental arrangement, one which you’re attempting to change. I imagine the contradictions mount in the minds of many protestors who turn to violence. Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of this. If we believe in a true politics, if we want to be faithful to the idea of universality, then should we not reject the authority of the police outright? Should violence not be a legitimate form of demonstration, if that violence is directed against the police of the ruling regime?

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