Ferguson and the Founding of Sovereign Violence

The following is a post by one of our members, Mike Roller – a modified version of the talk he will present at the upcoming Public Anthropology Conference. Mike Roller is working on his PhD in Historical Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Maryland. His research concerns race, capital, class politics and the political economy of emerging late modernity as it is understood through the archaeology conducted in a coal mining company town in Northeast Pennsylvania. Two blogs he maintains on the subject can be found here and here.

In a recent post, Jeremy Trombley suggested that Upward Anthropology might help us understand the ruthless violence in Ferguson, specifically the overwhelming response of the militarized police to community protest. (link to Jeremy’s posts) The entire sequence of events, from the execution-style killing, the disrespectful treatment of the body and the aggressive anti-riot tactics that served to criminalize the entire neighborhood are eruptions of a long history of racialized relations. A comparison made with another recent law enforcement interaction in which a confrontation between federal agents and white gun-wielding anti-government militias resulted in the withdrawal of federal forces is a telling example of how concrete and undeniable a factor race plays in such events. The tragedy of the event notwithstanding, we should be moved by the simple fact that the community responded to the killing with disbelief and anger and resisted the subsequent suppression despite daunting odds. I suspect at least part of the motivation to stand up against this injustice was directed to the world outside of Ferguson, asking us “How can something like this happen in America today?” Their challenge to us is clear: “We are showing you what has happened, now we all must decide what must be done about it.”

As Jeremy suggests, Upward Anthropology prompts us to turn our gaze upward, to disarticulate the logic that makes oppressive power seem natural. In the case of racial violence, this means apprehending a system that manages to be coercive before it even lifts a pistol or dons a helmet. As an archaeologist conducting research on the 1897 Lattimer Massacre, an instance of racialized violence in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania in which 19 Eastern European miners of in-between white racial status were gunned down by a company-sponsored posse, I am interested in the role critical history can play in this endeavor. Events such as the violent militarized police response in Ferguson are raw materializations of historical processes, the unleashing of sovereignty stored up within the batteries of an ambient power system. To answer the question of “How can this happen in America today?” requires disarticulating the founding events of American power, governmental and sovereign. In the process we will re-cognize the America today in which Ferguson is possible, and begin to envision the America of tomorrow in which it is not. As I perceive it, race is at the center and the periphery of this issue but not in the middle. The strategy to effectively focus upwardly on power is to put aside the question of race and racism at first, but then come back to it again and again, tactically working our way up through the system until we have woven it back in at each moment.

State power over the life and death of subjects is classified under sovereignty: the authority to declare life or death, to suspend the rule of law or to act outside of it. When the state kills, for example in the case of capital punishment, it exercises its sovereign power to commit extra-legal homicide. Classically, the nature of sovereignty is cloaked in the sublime power of a mythologized founding event as a symbolic charter: the winning of a war, the signing of a treaty or covenant or the discovery of a territory. This is more than merely a historical game. More abstractly, sovereignty positions itself through a lawmaking act of violence distinguishing an “us” from a “them”, defining the boundaries of the social world from the excluded, the killable bare life (Agamben 1998). Sovereignty is tactically produced through the very mechanism of its self-justification (Butler 2004:82). Violence, then, is always already “necessarily and intimately bound up with” the lawmaking act of sovereignty (Benjamin 1978: 295).

The sovereignty of the United States was founded on a double genocide, both symbolic and real. Firstly, in the real effort to exterminate indigenous peoples from within national territory. In the first decades of the 20th century, once the government felt this mission had been sufficiently executed, could the image of American Indians be symbolically appropriated to adorn the nation’s currency: a move that seemed to affirm aboriginal assent to their domination. Kerry Lessard’s earlier post on Native American misrepresentations spoke to the violence of image appropriation.

Sovereignty can also be lent, sold and appropriated; a process Judith Butler (2004) describes as creating “petty sovereigns” or unelected deciders. In the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania in the years during and after the Civil War, coal operators were confronted with rising labor unrest connected to execrable working conditions. This came largely from recently immigrated Irish coal miners, their memory fresh of the colonial conditions of their occupied homeland. Coal barons quickly positioned the unrest as treason owing to the importance of coal to the Northern war effort. In 1866, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill allowing coal operators to maintain their own militarized police force to break strikes and discipline labor, the infamous Coal & Iron Police. For $1 each, coal operators could commission a force of their choosing endowed with the sovereign rights and powers of the State to enforce industrial discipline. In the early 20th century the federal government supplemented this force with the Pennsylvania State Police, known for their brutal targeting of recent immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, racialized in-betweens who labeled the constabulary “the American Cossacks” after the storied enforcers of Russian imperialism.

Uncoincidentally, in post-Bellum America, the perpetrators of Native American genocide and the Coal & Iron Police arose out of the ranks of a bloated military infrastructure owing to the near half a decade of warfare. Civil War veterans filled the ranks of both “westward clearing” military units and the Coal & Iron police, securing the stability of the nation’s industrial base, labor and land.

In 1978 Foucault suggested that within the 18th century, the power of the state became “vitalized” mainly through governmentality or the rational management and regulation of populations. The production of knowledge through demographic statistics, physiology, racial science, mass psychology and ethnology transformed the sources of legitimization and the roles and practices of the exercise of government on all scales. Governmentality operates as a mentality: a diffuse arrangement of power that unsettles populations and materials, directing populations to produce and reproduce themselves in ways that satisfy certain policy goals. But this does not mean that governmentality operates without its own forms of violence. Returning to the case of Native American genocide, by the late 19th century it was recast in the context of a kind of diabolical beneficence through assimilation practices such as deindianization, forced relocation, and the boarding school system. In another example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, federal, state and municipal authorities joined with capital to redevelop cities based upon industrial standards of efficiency, cleanliness and profitability. Targeting “blight”, the processes of urban renewal often operated to the disadvantage of urban minorities, namely African Americans, as neighborhoods were isolated, people discpalced, communities amputated by highways or abruptly condemned. The displacements of Urban Renewal in St. Louis, coupled with deindustrialization, is a major factor contributing to social issues in Ferguson today.

Judith Butler (2004) observed that America responded to the tragedy of 9/11 by unleashing a “return to sovereign power”. She cites phenomenon such as the policy of indefinite detention used by military prisons as the exercise of a sovereign executive power without constraints. Theoretically, the chronological replacement of sovereignty by governmentality is an overdetermination. In fact, Foucault recognized that sovereignty and governmentality coexisted but he did not specify how. He only suggests that sovereignty can reemerge in a state of emergency in a reanimated anachronistic form. Butler suggests that in the past, sovereignty operated as a focusing force for States, moored to tradition and law. Today, it emerges unmoored from this focus, erupting instead from “within the field of governmentality” itself. The danger here is that sovereignty draws its justifications from a realm of knowledge purportedly outside of history and law, but as a matter of fact leading directly out of the bureaucracy that provides for the security, health and order of society. This form of power produces “petty sovereigns”, unelected bureaucrats each endowed with the power of the state, “mobilized by aims and tactics of power they do not inaugurate or fully control… ‘rogue’ power par excellence.” (2004:56)

In the context of what we know now, can we retrospectively find a founding event for today’s sovereignty articulated as it is, within the field of governmentality? What configurations can we draw upon to “blast open the continuum of history”, drawing closer the constellation of Ferguson, Guantanamo and the nation’s mythic past? Such a founding event would have to be something simultaneously unmemorable and momentous, a racist fairy tale America tells itself, however concealed in bureaucratic language. Here are a few possibilities:

*The most immediate is, of course, 9/11. We might remember the delicate months of fragile despair and community in the immediate aftermath of the event. Butler suggests that at this moment the country could have chosen to join a global community. Instead the country chose insularity, nationalism and the suspension of constitutional rights, remodeling itself into a paranoid security state. I mantain that this choice was not made offhandedly but was informed by a predisposing history. In any case, we can be certain that the residents of Ferguson would attest to violence far deeper in memory. We must excavate further.

*How does the narrative of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans following the Civil War reflect developments of governmentality and sovereignty? Symbolic implications aside, a reading of structures such as the prison-industrial complex as forms of enslaved labor point to the porosity, if not the outright failure, of the mythic event. W.E.B. Dubois already pointed to a new narrative of the event in his 1935 Marxist analysis of the era of Reconstruction, insightfully resisting American exceptionalist interpretations. Dubois instead frames emancipation within the global trajectory of the collapse of the feudal systems throughout the world. Within Marxist history, the trajectory of European peasantry out of feudal systems went from bad-to-bad as emancipated families were “freed” to sell their bodily energies into industrial labor. For the unbound, Marx used the term vogelfrei, literally “birdfree”, containing a double meaning. Better translated as “those whose bodies cannot be buried but rather are left to be picked by the birds”, the vogelfrei were outlaws, unbound to live at society’s edges (de Boever 2009). The emancipated were freed, yes, unburdened, yes, but also left to vulnerability and precarity, bound into the promise of “forty acres and a mule”. In the context of American industrial history, it is clear that the “leveled” playing field of proletarianized labor does not abolish racial structures for class but in many ways signals the beginning of new American racial construction. For the remaining 150 years, as African Americans migrated or were imported as strikebreakers into the industrial north, racialization was exasperated into black/white binaries. As the feudal system of Southern enslavement was dismantled, racism grew to take on the form of a mentality throughout the country, reinforced by materiality, policy and discourse.

*Even further back we can point to the establishment of the national census in 1790. Demographics provide governmentality with its defining epistemologies. The significance of census data are its absorbent, modular and practical qualities. its capacity for retrospective manipulability. Its significance to power, therefore, lies as much in the trowel-edge of its collection as in the reinterpretation of its implications which open up the capacities to invade the territory of history. In this application, it provides a medium through which to manipulate the future. For the analysis at hand, the real significance of the census begins in the early part of the 20th century when the government sought to engineer immigration restriction in lieu of the perceived threats, political, biological, moral and economic, from the not-quite-white new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In what amounts to the bureaucratic founding event for American whiteness, theDillingham commission was established in 1907 to determine the makeup of the nation’s population for the purpose of protecting its racial character. They tactically chose to use to use the 1890 census for this occasion, a moment that preceded the greatest in-migration from Southern and Eastern Europe. In this tabulation they simply erased the existence of Native Americans and African Americans from the total population demographics so as not to skew the mathematics from their intended discovery. With the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1924 and 1927, a governmental apparatus was put into place to preserve a “professionally fudged” formula for American racial origins conjured from census data.

The danger of a sovereignty articulated within the field of governmentality is one of justification. Sovereignty in itself is legitimated tautologically. Ironically, it is this very aporia that lends it vulnerability: kings and dictators are killed and deposed. Moored to the governmental legitimations of security, population health and economy, sovereignty is inherited encased within the bureaucratic mentalities and practices passed on with each administrative position. Also in this way, the goal of government and the needs of the people become blended such that all who act through the forces of necessity are legitimated to act as petty sovereigns. In this way, sovereign power materializes its racial privilege and comes to see itself outside of history. In this way too, the national border is redrawn throughout the inside of every neighborhood and small town and every regional police force becomes one of the hands of the Empire.

Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Butler, Judith (2004) Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter (1978) Critique of Violence. In Reflections. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

De Boever, Arne (2009) Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty, Governmentality, Economy. Law Critique. 20: 20:259–270.


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