Last Saturday, the Students For Liberty’s New York City Regional Conference took place. More than 165 students and liberty activists gathered at Columbia University to discuss the ideas of liberty and to share best practices for student organizing.
In this blog post, I would like to focus specifically on the civil liberties panel of the conference, which featured a discussion on the very pressing issue of New York’s new stop-and-frisk policy. The two representatives from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Drug Policy Alliance very successfully highlighted the illegitimacy, the failures, the discriminatory effects, and the denigrating aspect of stop-and-frisk.
This blog post, however, will attempt to offer a comprehensive perspective on the issue, a perspective that I think should be central to the thinking of all libertarians. In this post I want to show how the philosopher Michel Foucault would analyze stop-and-frisk’s mechanism, or “technique,” of power.
First, Foucault’s thinking about power does not focus on sovereign power — that is, power exerted by the government institutions. Rather, he is focused on disciplinary power. This form of power refers to a type that is local, invested violently on our bodies, and is held by everyone who surveils our everyday interactions. Indeed, Foucault fundamentally seeks to shift the discussion of power away from “the problem of domination and subjugation to that of sovereignty and obedience.”
Rather, Foucault’s aim is to look in its practices, its applications, its real effects. “Let us not, therefore, ask why people want to dominate, what they seek, what is their overall strategy. Let us ask, instead, how things work on the level of on-going subjugation.” Thus, for Foucault, the big problem of authority and power is to be found throughout the whole of society. The problem of the state remains a very real problem, but only to the extent that it creates regional networks of power. In the case of stop-and-frisk, changing the administration of the NYPD wouldn’t go a long way towards solving the problem, which is precisely that a whole network of mechanisms has been set up for certain disciplinary purposes, and that these mechanisms function and develop spontaneously. There is an “invisible hand” of power led by its own efficiencies and incentives, and so the issue is to understand precisely what is going on and turn that “upside-down”.
Furthermore, Foucault would say that disciplinary power is not necessarily in the hands of a certain class. Disciplinary power is located at the level of the individual. That is to say that even if the officers of the NYPD are the ones with the batons in their hands, stop-and-frisk has been initiated as a response to individuals’ social and political needs which aim at regulating not only in which areas and neighborhoods certain racial or social classes can move, but also how certain activities are judged. We should not be mistaken and say that the police are discriminating against minorities, but that society, on the level of individuals, remains intolerant towards certain groups.
Obviously, this by no means implies that the workings of the NYPD are democratic or that arresting minorities for trivial excuses is justified. Rather, this signifies that the source of the problem lies in the modern individual, in the “fascism in our heads.” Even if we were to put an end to stop-and-frisk, we would still have to address the fact that discrimination and fear would continue to exist and that they would probably find other mechanisms for disciplining certain groups.
This means that our analysis of power should be ascending. Before analyzing stop-and-frisk, we would have to see how power against certain groups and certain practices is exercised in the most trivial situations through the most infinitesimal means and the most unsuspected ways. On the contrary, we as libertarians often prefer to perform a descending analysis by claiming that the state is the beginning and end of all that is illiberal, bad, racist, and unjust. Instead, Foucault would say the state is there to fulfill a social need — one that would be handled in another equally unjust way, using different techniques of power, if the state was simply to disappear.
The state is truly an institution which divides, dominates, subjects, and punishes. And yet, it is the equivalent of the state in most of us which has created the need for all these reprehensible disciplinary practices. This does not provide excuses for the state or for its actors. Foucault’s intention is to show that these go hand and hand, that an unfree institution will govern an unfree population. In order to get rid of such illiberal institutions once and for all, the process has to focus heavily on the micro level. Freedom is not simply the lack of a formal government apparatus but something much deeper and much harder to grasp. And thus, a free society would be much more than a modern-day society minus the discriminatory effects of stop-and-frisk, the Drug War, and the inefficiencies of government regulation. Our project is thus something much larger, much more beautiful, and much more unpredictable. As long as if we have the fire of freedom inside of us, we can move forward without having already solved every detailed working of a free society. How could we ever dare think otherwise? Thus, the unanswerable question is not “who will build the roads,” but rather, “what kind of roads would a free society want?”