Policing one hundred years hence


Policing one hundred years hence

Having a large police force is a temporary feature. They have no longterm future and no lengthy history. They are a symptom of turmoil and change. Settled societies do not need an identifiable external police force. People in settled societies police themselves through everyday observation and the reinforcement of norms. In a settled society life is very similar generation after generation. Misbehavior happens, but chastisement almost always occurs without the need for someone to come in from outside wearing strange clothes (a uniform) and having superior powers of arrest.

The police and all the paraphernalia that accompanies them, from prisons to panoptical surveillance systems, are all very recent. It is not just CCTV that is new; it is also the bobby on the beat. A couple of centuries ago there were almost no police, anywhere. London’s metropolitan police force was not established until 1829. Before then just a few dozen local constables and a couple of hundred night watchmen would keep an eye on a population of a million people. The new police were required because that population was changing so rapidly. London was in turmoil and the night watchman state came to an end.

Before London grew so large so quickly the world’s largest cities were in China. There the general population carried out policing. There was mutual surveillance and mutual responsibility. Magistrates existed, but far fewer than today, villages organized their own ways of handling disputes, as they did everywhere else in the world at that time. People knew what to do because they did what had been done before. That all changed when population growth in Europe got out of control, people were forced far more rapidly than in China off the land into the cities, and eventually a police force had to be created – the key word being ‘force’. The police held a monopoly on the legal use of violence. People resist state violence. Today it is mainly in China the USA and a few other most despotic countries that the state still officially reserves the right to kill – the death penalty. However many other states reserve the right to assassinate, especially if those killings are undertaken abroad. Only a handful of states have no armed forces, but others decade by decade are joining that handful, and a lower proportion of people in the world now kill each year than the year before; non-violence is growing. It is just a few who are violent.

Before the capitalist transformation began there were executions but police forces were largely unknown. As that transformation subsides they are beginning to disappear again. For most of us the police don’t exist. We might very occasionally report a crime. Our purse is pickpocketed, a bicycle is stolen, and the police may record it as a purse is lost and a bicycle mislaid – if there is no hard evidence of theft – because they are rewarded if crime levels appear to fall. In Japan, where the slowdown in capitalism is most advanced, because no one would steal them, most people do not lock their bikes when they park them in city centres. There are now few police in Japan.

There are also very few police in the British countryside. Locals might complain about this and ask what happens if there is a crime. They are often upset to be told that they are committing the most crime in their local area. It is they who drink and drive, who speed on most journeys and break the law in doing so. Of course, most locals don’t behave like this, but for the rest to behave well requires conforming to norms, not enforcement of rules by a woman or man in a uniform. The disapproval of your peers is and always has been far more effective than chastisement by authority.

Rules work when people don’t see them as rules, but just as what you do. That is what happened before our population growth got out of control and it is what is happening everywhere where population growth has stabilized in the world, or is falling. The police are disappearing again.

Greek Police

  • Read the article in Danny’s web archive