So as I’ve mentioned a gajillion times already, I’m reading Capital. I’m nearly finished and am just now about to wrap up the final section of this tome, which is the section on “primitive accumulation,” a term used to describe the process of how the original capital used to start the cycle of accumulating wealth was obtained. It probably goes without saying, but this wasn’t a particularly pretty moment in human history (Marx says the history of primitive accumulation “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire,” and that capital enters human history “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”). This is the moment, the 1500 – 1800 mostly, when the great masses of people are stripped of any land or property they might have, and pushed into starvation and poverty, left with nothing but they’re own labor to sell for money. This is also the moment of the birth of the slave trade, the rapid expansion of colonialism, the birth of the liberal nation-state. The Italian autonomist-Marxist Silvia Federici reveals in her essay “The Great Witch Hunt” that this is also the moment of the peak of the witch hunts that spread across Europe and colonial America, resulting in the execution of between 40,000 – 100,000 people, mostly women. Federici argues that the witch trials represented the process of the disciplining of women to capitalism.
Anyway, I’m digressing… So as millions of people across Europe were being kicked off the land as common land was being closed off to become private estates, etc. Marx points out that capital couldn’t possibly “absorb” (i.e. hire) all the newly proletarianized peasants and serfs being kicked off the land — so many turned to petty crime, begging, etc. for survival. However, the newly rising capitalist class couldn’t abide this. They needed to enforce wage labor. So across Europe governments began passing laws criminalizing begging and petty crime, punishing “unlicensed” beggars, for example, by whipping, torture, etc. (Federici also points out that many of the women accused of being witches were beggars, former peasants, serfs, etc. who were removed from the land during this time.)
This led me to think though, about how this whole period is also the period of the birth of police. Prior to this period there were laws, and there were soldiers, etc, but there wasn’t a specifically domestic law enforcement body like the police. For governments to start enforcing anti-begging and anti-vagabond laws, they needed to create a new body of law enforcement to kick people off the streets, get them out of their house, and into the factories and workplaces. And really, not a lot has changed. Cops make sure that the only way you’re getting your money is by selling your labor — not begging, stealing, etc. They don’t care how the capitalists get their money, of course. They can break whatever law or treaty they want…
To be clear, this is just speculation on the history of the police. I haven’t researched or studied the history of the police. Regardless, I’m confident that it’s the case that what we know as “the police” weren’t widespread until the birth of capitalism, i.e. circa the 1500s or 1600s. (I also think it’s interesting to speculate how this could have encouraged to the need for more centralized state apparatuses, giving rise to the nation-state.)
Google’s ngram viewer shows that the word “police” started to become more common starting in the mid-18th century (and its frequency seems have some correlation with “unemployment” and “capital”).
So anyway, I started to get lost on the internet, looking up different things on the history of the police, until I came across this:
These are French illustrations from 1910 of what the artist expected police to look like in the year 2000. I don’t know anything else about this illustrations except for that. And that’s really all I wanted to share with you all. All that stuff about “primitive accumulation” was just background on how I came to find these images. They’re great though, right?
I’ll probably be writing more soon, particularly about my thoughts on reading Capital and why I think everyone who considers themselves a Marxist or a socialist to start reading it ASAP. It’s not nearly as intimidating as you may think — at least if you have David Harvey by your side.