Law Enforcement, Feudalism, and Anarchy

You might have noticed that police use of force, police handling of suspects, and police in general have been in the news lately. As usual when dealing with such issues, the population is polarized, and the valid points on either side are being lost in the flurry of recrimination, grievance-mongering, defensiveness, and sociopolitical posturing.

To put it another way, claiming that Eric Garner was “complicit” in what happened to him is as nuts as claiming that Darren Wilson is a latter-day night rider, but people are doing both anyway.

The problem here is thus: the two main poles here are both coalescing around concepts that are both valid and necessary for the running of society. Whether or not they actually believe in those concepts is, quite honestly, immaterial except for figuring out who should implement any changes. Those two concepts can be summed up as “justice” and “law and order,” and, as usual, there are some problems with both groups.

To begin with the one I lean towards, the “law and order” group tends to overlook actual instances of abuse of authority, downplays the ones that occur, and appears to refuse to admit that the governments within the borders of the US of A oftentimes use the justice system as a revenue stream. The reason they do so is that they see law enforcement and the courts as what is holding society together in the face of overwhelming criminality by would-be barbarian hordes, who are only held in check by the force of the Law. Said hordes, by the way, are generally perceived as such due to behavior. Witness the similar reactions to the breakup of OWS protests and the response to the Ferguson protests and riots by members of this group.

The “justice” crowd, however, tends to overlook actual instances of criminal behavior, upplays instances of abuse of authority, and appears to refuse to believe that not all cops are determined to brutalize and abuse the citizens of the land. The reason they do so is that they see law enforcement and the courts as agents of an oppressive system determined to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, and, as result, see those who attract police attention as victims. For proof of this, witness the reactions of this group to the breakup of OWS and the response to the Ferguson protests and riots.

Both groups are right.

Both groups are wrong.

This is the part where I talk about feudalism and anarchy.

One of those things everyone knows is that feudalism was an oppressive system designed to keep landowners and the Church in power while suppressing the rights of the people and such.

As usual with things everyone knows, this is, at best, only half-true. The reason is that the conditions prevailing before feudalism, after the fall of the Roman Empire, were, to say the least, anarchic. Bands of marauders roamed the land, pillaging wherever they could. Life was poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Commerce died. Cities depopulated themselves due to lack of ability to sell their goods or buy food. This, by the way, is the period that might actually be called the “Dark Ages.” When villages tried to resist, they ran into the fact that they were untrained and, often, outnumbered, by their ravagers.

Feudalism changed that. Probably initially set up by a combination of foresighted marauders who realized they could get a lot more over the long run if they milked the cows rather than slaughtered them, idealistic ex-soldiers, and priests desperate to protect their flocks and position, it was essentially a method of protection payments. The lords and knights would protect their people in return for food and labor. Professional soldiers had a much better chance of resisting bandit raids and clearing the forests than quarter-trained at best farmers, and, while the landowners had a pretty good deal going for the time, their lives were not exactly cushy. Training for war is hard work, especially in pre-gunpowder days, and the risks run in fighting were high. Serious wounds were a death sentence that might be reprieved, and sickness ran rampant when the armies marched to war. Meantime, the people were at least slightly relieved of the threat of banditry and raiders, and could devote more efforts to things that would make their lives better as opposed to just staying alive.

Of course, as time went on, the lords and knights would tend to forget their responsibilities and remember only their privileges, especially as the lawlessness ceased to be civilization-ending and shifted towards the nuisance level. Which resulted in new lawlessness, this time by the ones who were supposedly there to keep law and order.

What does all this have to do with anything?

Simple. The fact is, there are people who would cheerfully wreck society in order to get what they wanted, which sometimes is stuff, sometimes power, and sometimes just a civilization-sized bonfire to roast marshmallows. And then there are the people who wouldn’t go that far, but still have the same mindset. The purpose of law enforcement is to prevent the domestic versions of these people from doing so, and the purpose of the courts to deal out proper punishment.

The problem, of course, is that doing so requires giving people power, and power goes to people’s heads, and attracts those who would watch the world burn. Which leads to official banditry, which leads to mistrust by the people, and the inevitable response if things go too far–see the Jacquerie and the Peasants’ Revolt.

Short version: You will not have justice without law and order. You will not have law and order without justice.

Bear this in mind when you talk of these matters.

By the way, I’ll be talking about law enforcement in America for at least a few more posts. This is kind of a big deal.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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