Review of Sidney L. Harring, Policing a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865–1915, second edition (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017) (Part Two) — Stuart Schrader

[This is the second in a series of three posts by Stuart Schrader reviewing Harring’s Policing a Class Society. The first post is available here.]

Marxist State Theory

Harring’s book was in dialogue with the Marxist state theory of the 1970s, as well as with radical criminology. Despite agreement on the existence of a specifically capitalist state, there were intense debates about how to explain it, which Harring addressed by focusing on the police role. Most of his reviewers were historians, and, unfortunately, as far as I have been able to discern, no self-identified Marxist state theorist formally appraised the book at the time. One reason may be that there was a strange and lamentable diremption of radical/Marxist criminology from Marxist state theory over the course of the 1970s in the United States. The explanation for the divergence requires deeper investigation, as the two had greater affinities than typically recognized.

One of the key nodes for the development of theories of the capitalist state in the United States was the Bay Area Kapitalistate group, which included Erik Olin Wright. His first book, The Politics of Punishment: A Critical Analysis of Prisons in America (1973), was based on chaplaincy work he did in San Quentin state prison. Together, several Kapitalistate local collectives co-published an eponymous journal from 1973 until 1983, but the Bay Area group was probably the most active. The Bay Area radical milieu included students and faculty at the Berkeley School of Criminology, some of whom published Crime and Social Justice (later Social Justice), which was the primary venue for Marxist criminology. A group of these radical criminologists worked with members of the North American Congress on Latin America to form the Center for Research on Criminal Justice. This outfit combined analyses of US empire/militarism and prisons/policing in its 1975 book The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove, which Harring then reviewed in Crime and Social Justice. One radical criminologist recounted to me that relations were “comradely and supportive” at the decade’s outset among these various Bay Area groups, but by the late 1970s, rifts emerged around individuals’ decision to join, not join, or switch membership in radical political parties and sectarian organizations.

Many of the topics Kapitalistate and Crime and Social Justice analyzed did overlap, but overall they operated on parallel tracks. Still, Kapitalistate published the ever-restless urbanist Manuel Castells’ bracing essay “The Wild City”, which attempted to rethink his analysis of urban collective consumption in light of the turn toward more punitive governance in the United States under Presidents Nixon and Ford (it was added to the 1977 English translation of his book The Urban Question as the new fifth section). And several articles in the journal analyzed federalism and municipal finance on one side or the military-industrial complex on the other, unfortunately missing the emerging carceral state that would ultimately unite the two.

This divide among radical theorists was not true everywhere. In France, Nicos Poulantzas, especially in his 1978 State, Power, Socialism, brought together some of the concerns of radical criminology with the Marxist state theory for which he was already well-known. Similarly, in Birmingham, Stuart Hall and his colleagues produced Policing the Crisis in 1978. As an intervention into both fields, it did not draw much of a separation between the two, identifying the 1970s as a moment when such a separation was becoming a political impediment for the Left because interlinked transformations of the state and of crime control defined the conjuncture. Criminologists affiliated with Crime and Social Justice were deeply influenced by Policing the Crisis, which helped bring the ideas of Antonio Gramsci into their thinking about state power. Scholars like Paul Gilroy and Phil Scraton continued this tradition, and it also advanced with the London-based Institute of Race Relations and its Race & Class journal.

Harring attempted to bridge the gap between state theory and criminology, reflecting the mostly unidirectional flow of influence from the former to the latter. But his analysis was, in my view, hampered by the course of development of Anglophone Marxist state theory and by arguments among American authors. As if enclosed in amber, Harring’s mobilization of Marxist state theory relied on a snapshot of its American development circa 1976, even though the book did not come out for another seven years. At this moment, the debate was marked by a contentious distinction between two caricatures, “instrumentalism” and “structuralism”, that glossed over the concrete questions of political strategy in Europe these positions were attempting to address. If I may risk further simplifying these terms, instrumentalism focused on the subjective connections that enabled capitalists to get state officials to do their bidding, and structuralism on the objective relations that did not require direct personal links, explaining how the state could be both autonomous from specific fractions of capital and crucial to capital in toto.

Policing a Class Society contained both instrumentalist and structuralist elements. Although the book does not say so, it seems Harring started out writing an avowedly instrumentalist account, relying on orthodox Marxist literature on the state. He cited Engels, Lenin, Marx, Ralph Miliband, James O’Connor, and Alan Wolfe, but not Claus Offe or Nicos Poulantzas. Policing the Crisis appeared in a footnote, but there was little evidence of serious engagement with it. The book was also a critique of mainstream pluralist political science and historical analyses, even as some instrumentalist Marxist analyses shared affinities with these liberal approaches, as Asad Haider has recently argued. Then, in 1975 and 1976, when two important revisions to instrumentalism appeared, influenced by Offe and Poulantzas’ 1973 Political Power and Social Classes, it seems Harring revamped his own framework, to what he called a “class struggle” approach. Those two articles were “Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of the Capitalist State” by David A. Gold, Clarence Y. H. Lo, and Erik Olin Wright in Monthly Review, and even more importantly “Modes of Class Struggle and the Capitalist State” by Gosta Esping-Andersen, Rodger Friedland, and Erik Olin Wright in Kapitalistate. Harring did not cite O’Connor’s own self-criticism for his instrumentalism published in Kapitalistate in 1981, nor a response to Esping-Andersen et al published in Kapitalistate in 1977 by the Washington, DC, Kapitalistate circle, which argued their approach was too formalistic and positivist. Because many radical criminologists were keen historical analysts, the formalism that marked some of these Marxist theories may have seemed like a diversion from the contingencies of archival history.

Harring did not take advantage of additional Marxist theorizations of the capitalist state that developed primarily in Europe during the late 1970s. There is a good reason: the “structuralism” of Offe and Poulantzas, the state-derivation debate in Germany, and Bob Jessop’s attempt to bring them all together through a form-analytic approach mostly had little to say about police or security. Yet neither did the US-based literature. Esping-Andersen et al pointed to the importance of analyzing federal “grants-in-aid” to grasp the structural character of the capital-state relationship. They did not, however, appreciate that the most consequential new intergovernmental granting program of the preceding decade, which introduced the unrestricted block grant, was the one dedicated to modernizing criminal-justice institutions, under the auspices of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). Further, given that the autonomy of the state was a key topic of debate, a way to join these differing approaches could be found in Poulantzas, who, as Sonja Buckel put it in 2006, showed that “the state’s ability to resort to the monopoly of violence in order to enforce consensus reveals its relative autonomy”.

Class Struggle

What did Harring mean by class struggle? He broke with the notion that the bourgeoisie directly wields the state as an instrument of its power. But he also departed from the far more widely shared, if often tacit, notion found in history, political science, and sociology that the state is neutral and able to act as an impartial arbiter among competing interests. The meaning of class struggle was ambiguous, however. Harring used it in two senses. First was the more obvious sense: the police played a central role in controlling working-class power. Surprisingly, this seems to have been the more controversial meaning upon the book’s publication. Second was the sense he derived from Marxist state theory: instrumentalism could indicate that capital always wins, and his evidence suggested that was not true. The class struggle approach, instead, focused on how there were both wins and losses for capital and labor, with negotiation, reconfiguration, and truces along the way–even though the long-run picture was one of intense repression of the working class.

Importantly, the police played a role in tamping down working-class power, but they were also affected by it. Workers mounted specific and targeted public complaints about crude partisanship, bigotry, and wanton violence by police. The “rationalization” and professionalization of policing–upgrading pay, standards, technologies, and training–was a response to such criticisms. In my view, this insight represented the closest Harring’s analysis came to some of the later work of Poulantzas. At the same time, Harring pointed out, the development of an apparatus that would come to resemble a welfare state also changed the responsibilities of police by the early years of the twentieth century. That new apparatus was the outcome of class struggle. The contours of the state changed, something both instrumentalist and pluralist approaches were ill-equipped to explain.

The class struggle approach allowed an exit from functionalism, which remains the most frequently leveled criticism of radical accounts of policing and prisons. Functionalism assumes the alignment of means and ends; instrumentalism assumes awareness of how to achieve it. A functionalist analysis starts from the end and works backward to derive the route. It assumes equilibrium and then seeks to explain how it occurs. Functionalist analysis would suggest that state managers identify a social problem and then adequately solve it by implementing a given set of practices. History doesn’t work that way because state managers rarely realize there is a problem until it’s too late. The responses they propose are rarely adequate or easy to implement, unlike what instrumentalism would imply. For Harring, the difficulty of implementation was key. The class struggle approach insisted that the police, even when breaking strikes, were constrained. A key constraint was the delicate balance of state legitimacy. Too much force, and it would be imperiled among workers. Too little, and the same would be true, but among industrialists.

Overall, policing is a domain that both repels and attracts crude instrumentalist explanations. The lower-class social origins of most cops mean that they ought not identify with billionaires and do their bidding, but, on the other hand, it seems obvious on whose behalf cops crack skulls. For Harring, I think, the class struggle approach seemed plausible because of the era he was examining. The question then arises: how useful would it be in later eras of US history, when controlling strike activity ceased to be such a central focus of municipal policing?

The robust Marxist state theory developed by the early 1980s by Hall et al and Poulantzas could offer an improvement over Harring’s approach. It would not be a stretch. Harring did not pause to theorize his important finding that Taylorization affected both police officers and the industrial workers they controlled, but the point is consonant with some of the form-analytic Marxism coming out at the time. He also hinted but did not quite recognize that the state and its branches, including the police, are terrains of social struggle themselves. The state does not only act upon dominated classes, but class struggle is endogenous to the state–which is, as Poulantzas put it in 1978, a specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes. The state is itself a social relation. The shape of policing in a given moment expresses that balance of forces, while also configuring it. Moreover, for Harring, both policing and education are apparatuses of the state that represent the “tendency” to “socialize the costs of the accumulation of capital” (254), but whereas his class struggle approach fails to theorize the difference between these apparatuses, Poulantzas, drawing on Offe, elaborates the concept of “structural selectivity” to explain the variability across state sectors in their openness to dominated classes.

In the United States, ultimately, both Marxist state theory and radical criminology had suffered defeats by the time Harring’s book first came out, the former at the hands of Weberians and Foucauldians, the latter at the hands of the “law and order” agenda of Ronald Reagan, who helped close down its most prestigious base, Berkeley’s School of Criminology. One subfield that allowed the two a shared afterlife is Critical Legal Studies.

Stuart Schrader is a Fellow in Crime and Punishment at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University and the author of a forthcoming book from University of California Press on the relationship between US counterinsurgency efforts overseas and domestic policing during the Cold War.