The Police and the Army: A Question

I’ve been having some trouble explaining this, which always means I don’t understand it well enough.
History tells us these institutions are not at all the same, particularly when entering a revolutionary period. The army will inevitably be shaken by whatever social crises have precipitated the revolutionary upsurge. In the worst case, only the most courageous soldiers will break away to join the masses. In other cases, whole units will set down their rifles and “come over.” Sometimes they will “come over” with weapons in hand, in formation, banners flying, bands playing, led by their own officers (usually at gunpoint). The success or failure of an insurrection is determined above all by to what degree it is supported by the army (which, of course, is determined by a number of factors that are beyond the scope of my question).
So far as I can tell, there has never been a case of a cop doing anything except either throwing support to the ruling class, or, at best, running and hiding. Certainly history has never shown us units doing so. By the time society has entered into a revolutionary crisis, the police are hated, loathed, despised by the masses. Every time. And they return these feelings with interest.
And yet, if we ignore social and historical context and simply line up factors in a purely formal way, they’re so similar: Both drawn largely from the toiling classes, both used as instruments of repression by the state, both turned against their own people as soon as there are signs of social unrest.
So, comrades (I’m looking at you, Don Barry) , what are the social and historical factors that make them so different? We know they are different; we’ve both read about it and many of us have had personal experience of the difference; it’s easy to talk to soldiers, we have nothing to say to cops. Why?

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28 thoughts on “The Police and the Army: A Question”

  1. I believe it is in the nature of their social role. While both exist to protect society, the direction of the “enemy” they face is different.

    The army, in its role and internal mythology, looks to external enemies and we are the people they protect. Whatever we may think of war or US policy, we (and they) understand intuitively that they, in their social role, are protecting us. They don’t judge internal social behavior, it is their job to protect it. There are no social identities dividing us and so we are free to interact as people.

    The police, in its role and internal mythology, look inside society for their enemies. We are the people they face. While their social role is ostensibly protecting us, they look at us with suspicion because their enemies are among the general population. After a while, I believe they come to regard all of us with a presumption of guilt and we respond accordingly. Regardless of any actual oppression or police violence we may have personally experienced, we share a common distrust of a group of people who regard us as their enemy and whose job it is to harass us.

    This also makes them the tool of choice for any elected official who chooses to oppress the citizenry, whether for their own power or on behalf of a “social interest.” It creates the animosity that can be exploited and it has created the fear and adversarialism which causes them to shoot first, assess second (and then rationalize, “circle the wagons,” and cover up third). (They face an enemy and they are at war.)

    As social tension escalates, the army will tend to align with the internal population as they prepare for conflict, the police will tend to isolate themselves and face the internal population with animosity. In a social revolution, men and women in the army are free to judge the merits of the revolution as citizens; the police will regard it as social disruption (“disturbing the peace”) and act accordingly.

    The army can be ordered against the citizens, but they understand that to be a betrayal of their social role; the police will see it as the fulfillment of theirs.

  2. Maybe you should make the effort to talk to cops.

    My suspicion is that because police forces don’t change sides as visibly as units of the army do, many leftists fail to notice that some members of the police do change sides.

  3. “In case of actual danger, the social democracy banks not on the “Iron Front” but on the Prussian police. It is reckoning without its host! The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among social-democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remains.” — Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Question for the German Proletariat” (1932)

    These lessons also apply to the social composition of the army, and certainly to the great divide of the officer class from the common soldier. But don’t apply it as a mechanical rule: there is a reason why universal conscription is undertaken with certain misgivings by a government, even one enjoying at the time mass support: it broadens working class influence in the enlisted layer. One shouldn’t develop too many illusions in an military which instead is more professionally constituted, even among the enlisted layer, and is increasingly used also in certain police-type actions across the globe and even domestically. They aren’t the police, but neither are they shock troops of the working class.

    In 1973, eight days before the Pinochet coup in Chile, mass demonstrations erupted defending the Allende government against those clearly plotting to overthrow it. One million (in a population of less than ten million at the time!) marched past the presidential palace, La Moneda, in Santiago. One of the demands raised was “open the armories” — arm the people to defend the government.

    And Allende refused.

    Even as the military took power on September 11, 1973, Allende could only give the anodyne instructions, “The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves.”

    The question posed above all is that of political leadership. A mass political movement armed with the correct leadership can win influence in the army, but the most important avenue is winning a mass base in the working class.

    Allende, the “Marxist”, did not provide that leadership, and did not trust the working class. No other party in Chile filled the vacuum and independently organized the working class as a fighting force. And the military took power on a far-right-wing program and crushed working class politics for decades.

  4. Good discussion. Also heard from Fred M. who also made the point that Don did about the army being, by tradition, conscripted, which provides a significant difference. Today, there is “economic conscription.” While this can also happen among the police, it is far, far less likely.

    I would add that, on reflection, the psychology of someone willing to join the police force at this point in history, with everything going on, is almost certainly that of a bully. There can be exceptions, but don[‘t bet on them. This is even more likely with, for example, prison guards, and even more true with ICE agents.

  5. There’s also the aspect of permanence. Most cops become cops because that’s what they want to do. That’s the career they hope to have until they retire.

    While there are career soldiers, they’re by far in the minority. Most are in for just a few years, to get the money or skills they’re going to use in their real career in the civilian world.

    The long-term mindset of the two groups is very different.

  6. The military is organized around winning. They believe they can beat foreign armies. What they can do against a hostile foreign population is occupy, setup curfews, and maintain order on a temporary basis. They can fully intimidate civilians.

    In the worst case when foreign civilians are not intimidated, the rule of thumb is they will be intimidated anyway after 10% of them are dead. Nations don’t usually admit they’re doing that now because it makes them look bad. *Algeria was a special case. 10% of them died during the resistance to the French, and they did not give up.)

    Armies won’t usually treat their own civilians like they would foreigners, particularly when there are not big ethnic conflicts. But they aren’t afraid of civilians. (Or maybe nowadays with car bombs and truck bombs they are. But not until recently.)

    Police have a different doctrine. They are supposed to maintain order with minimum force. Normally they should never need to put a hand on a gun. Traditionally they were supposed to submit a written report for every incident where they unsnapped the holster, and a bigger more complicated written report any time they drew the gun. It was supposed to not happen.

    Minimum force. People are intimidated by police because they know they cannot win a fight. If you win a fight with police then you are a criminal and they will be after you forever. If you kill a policeman you will die. They don’t usually actually need to use a lot of force. And so there aren’t very many of them. There aren’t nearly enough police to stand up to a whole lot of “rioters”. They are supposed to keep it from getting to that point.

    When there’s a protest in DC — even if it’s only 20,000 protesters — the police call for backup for 5 states around .I’ve seen cops from North Carolina and West Virginia moonlighting in DC for those, because DC doesn’t have nearly enough people to do the job.

    So if the social forces that the police depend on break down, they are going to stay out of sight. If they come out to help the other team they will not wear their uniforms, because they don’t want to be that symbol.

  7. I don’t think cops are very loyal to cops around the country, while soldiers *are* very loyal to soldiers around the country. One town’s cops are sympathetic to another town’s cops – but they aren’t family.

  8. Too bad we can’t do the “Like” thing. As I like every thing that has been said. Good discussion. I can’t think of anything that has been missed. Well maybe symbolism.

    If you are going to riot, wave the American flag. Do not wave any other kind of flag as it will come back to hurt you. Even if your goal is to overthrow capitalism, wave the American flag, as you are representing the freedoms of the American people. If nothing else, it confuses the heck out of those that would fight you. ;>)

  9. Still pondering. The more I think about it, the more I think Robert has a good point. For most enlisted personnel, the army isn’t a career, it’s something they’re doing for a while. In many cases, trading a few years of their lives for either benefits they’ve been promised that will, they think, allow them to have a future, or at least a temporary escape from their conditions. A cop is a cop—it’s a profession, and maintaining the status quo, and the repression of dissent, and the enforcement of human misery, is at the heart of that profession. Because the soldier who finds himself doing these things can say, “Well, I’ll be out after this tour,” there isn’t the necessity of making that hard decision: Is this who I am? And, if necessary, trying to white-knuckle it.

    Still thinking about it.

  10. There is a split that we can see with enlisted personnel. Quite often urban enlistees go for the skills that they can use when they get out. But people from small rural towns are more likely to plan to retire from the military – they don’t see the career opportunities back at home. They also are more likely to take a much more dangerous career military path, and die more often.

  11. Many people become prison guards because that’s the best-paying job in the county—either they take the job or leave their families. If you’re going to blame individuals for capitalism, blame the rich ones.

  12. Blame doesn’t matter. The motivations of an individual aren’t terribly important; they have zero effect on the social role played by those individuals, and virtually no effect on how this role affects them over time (except insofar as any cop who started with altruistic motivation pretty quickly loses either the motivation or the job).

  13. The psychological profiles of the people who chose those professions are generally quite different. As are their motivations for serving. (In addition, there are two distinct types of soldier.) Most police officers are authoritarians. They seek to control others and impose their will. Most soldiers tend to value self-sacrifice and working as a unit for the greater good. They are generally about the well-being of the group, be it their unit, their branch of service, or America. The two different “groups” of soldiers differ mainly in how they approach risk and their level of narcissism. Soldiers who join and flourish in times of peace tend to be more risk averse (minimizing losses) and more into people pleasing than the those who join and excel during conflict, who tend to be more adventurous (maximizing gain) and exhibit a higher level of of narcissism (ie. seeking glory). While there may be some crossover, and some ex-soldiers do become police officers, in general, the personality types between the two groups are not similar, nor are their reasons for joining.

  14. “I understand why many socialists write off all cops.” Well, I guess because they exist to be agents of repression against the working class might be one reason. I mean, since the instant one signs on to the force one is signing on to be an enemy of the masses might be part of it, I think. That the relationship between the state and the police department mirrors the relationship between the capitalist and the working class is no reason to forget exactly what the role of the police force is. Could there be decent individuals among cops? Maybe. The more the crisis deepens the less likely it seems, but it remains possible. However, we can be sure that, if such individuals exist, they will no longer be on the force at the time of revolutionary upsurge of the masses. They will either have left, or been “dealt with” by their own people.

  15. Soldiers are against Them.
    Cops are against Us.
    That’s the tags.
    Terribly wrong, as all the tags are.

  16. How do military coups fit in here? I’ll define a military coup as being an overthrow of a government originating primarily from leadership positions within the military and with the active support of a sizable percentage of the military. This distinguishes them from a popular revolution originating with the people in which the military joins in.

    Is it that they are outside of the question as they don’t happen in a revolutionary period?
    They seem to happen pretty frequently and to be often right wing in nature.

  17. Steve Halter- Militaries are stratified by the same classes as any other part of society, and coups can arise from any class. Coups that are initiated by enlisted personnel or junior officers tend to be more aligned with the interest of the working class. Coups lead by high command are almost always right wing coups initiated to take back power by the elites.

    That is one reason the system of corporate patronage of government officials that has a stranglehold on the US is so corrosive. Eisenhower recognized the danger of the Military Industrial Complex from close association. It seems that every government since his has just accepted that plutocrats would drive foreign and domestic policy to maximize profits for the war machine, and that the high command would benefit from and be beholden to their interests. Cheney might have been one of the more blatant war profiteers to hold high office in recent years, but every administration has been packed with his ilk, most especially military command. They not only owe their sense of importance to endless war, they can count on obscene financial rewards flowing their way before and after retirement.

  18. I think I see Will’s point. (If I’ve missed your point Will, my apologies!)

    Society may reach a point where we don’t need armies, but (for those of us who aren’t extreme libertarian or anarchists) it is likely to need a police function.

    “Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. “

    From a Socialist perspective, solving the animosity/adversarial perspective (the “corruption” of class consciousness?) between people and (the social function of) police seems important, essential even.

  19. A military coup will often be attempted as a means of forestalling revolution. There was a great deal of talk about doing that before the February revolution of 1917, though it never got beyond the talking stage, probably because the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie were both so very, very weak. In my opinion, Venezuela is close to a revolutionary crisis, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see an attempt at a military coup there, probably with CIA backing.

  20. One thing I speculate about is the effect of how often they are doing their primary function. Police are out there enforcing the law most days they are working. Soldiers are only fighting or potentially fighting when they are deployed in a combat zone. Most of the time they are training, doing support work, garrisoning places not under active threat, etc.

    Of course, in revolutionary times, soldiers will likely be deployed in potential combat zones much more frequently. And likely in areas they never considered possible combat zones before.

  21. larswyrdson & Steve: Thanks, that makes sense.

    If the US can be viewed as having always had some form of Plutocracy and that Plutocracy has been strengthening (extending?) its grasp it seems to follow to make sense that there hasn’t been an attempted high level military coup in the US as it and its masters have essentially been in control for quite some time.

    The police can be seen as the most direct internal form of control from this plutocracy. It is worth noting that “police” refers to a whole bunch of loosely affiliated organizations within the US. Some of these will be worse that others just as at an individual level there are police who are better or worse. At an aggregated institutional level, it would seem to select for those who are inclined to aid the aims of the plutocracy.

    An interesting study (were there people in a position to do such) would be to compare the make up of general categories like homicide investigator vs. vice vs. drug control vs. … and see characteristics might vary across groups.

  22. In re: decent individuals on the force: A family member attempted to join the police force of his town a few years ago. He has all the physical, mental and moral qualities I would consider ideal in a policeman (let us set aside for a moment whether wanting to be a policeman indicates moral deficiency of some kind).

    He was washed out of police training for “psychological reasons.” It was not said in so many words, but his father’s conclusion, and mine, was that he was insufficiently willing to back the actions of his (future) fellow officers over his own ideas of right and wrong if the two should ever come into conflict.

  23. Ideally a solider is supposed to defend the values of their nation. This gives them much more leeway to rationalize a rebellious course of action (something that can clearly be seen in every civil war in history). Police are by definition the enforcers of a very specific code of laws and this causes more cognitive dissonance in the face of rebellion (which is by definition a violation of law) hence they tend to side with the status quo.

  24. Police stereotypically see all the people they meet in 3 categories – other police, victims and criminals.

    Why would you join the side of victims or criminals?

  25. Another element is that during situations where an army ends up supporting a revolution – I’m thinking the 1918-1919 period as a key example – it is often after a prolonged period in which the army or sub unit thereof has taken VERY heavy casualties (in the post-World War I era, losses often in excess of 100% of their original strength) in service to the state, and has lost confidence in the government as a result, with further service in pointless wars or for a failing state seen as suicidal, at least for ordinary soldiers (and often at that period, even if they started out as volunteers, conscription has been imposed). In contrast, police forces, even in periods of major conflict, rarely suffer the same level of losses as front line soldiers. The police, if engaged in active conflict against revolutionaries, will have likely taken enough casualties to make them view the striking workers or revolutionaries as “the enemy” and fear retaliation if the state loses; unlike soldiers fighting in a highly destructive war, they will have been unlikely to have taken enough losses to have lost confidence in the state itself, as has sometimes been the case in certain periods of history.

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