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Mandatory Redistribution Party

Is Jonathan Creek copaganda?

Sean Morley looks at the history of policing, the propagandising effect of detective fiction, and asks whether the police force really keeps the peace or creates more violence.

Copaganda Now Then

In 1642 England did a civil war to determine what was a better system of government: a parliament of shouting men or a single family. They determined this with violence.

Against this backdrop of meticulous stabbing, the royalist Thomas Hobbes wrote a book called The Leviathan about how an unassailable all-powerful dominating force is necessary to keep civilisation from tumbling into a state of endless violence: a war of all against all.

Just like the monarchy was revived and kept alive in an immortal zombie-like state, so too was this idea of a need to be oppressed to be kept free from violence kept bubbling away until the present day.

In 1798 the first police force in the UK was founded to protect private property across London docks. Poor people had been touching rich people’s stuff, pilfering goods imported from slave colonies. The invention of the police changed the whole game. Now the owners of the ships had a recourse beyond hiring nocturnal thugs to battle nautical burglars. Now they had a property-protecting force with the legal mandate to do a fight. When they do violence it isn’t violence anymore, it’s force. It’s: the law. It’s legal. It’s justice.

By 1839, The Marine Police had expanded and merged with the London Met and the idea of a police force became the norm. Amongst the middle classes who had property to protect from a property protecting force licensed to use special measures (violence) to protect it, there emerged a whole new propaganda wing: detective fiction. The 19th century was the blossoming of detective genre fiction. Along with being compelling reading, detective fiction disseminated a key idea: the role of the police is to prevent and solve murders.

They aren’t there to stop you and your mates going into the factory and drawing a big wang, they’re there to solve how you got murdered in a way so intensely complex that it requires entire chapters of build up and exposition. Even a modern series like Jonathan Creek, a show that contains no police protagonists and at times is explicitly critical of the police, still perpetuates the foundational myths of policing: violent crime is commonplace, violent crime is complicated, violent crime requires the aid of a third party specialist.

This expectation of The Police being a force to protect The Peace was one I grew up with. I watched them keep the peace as they charged student protests on horseback. I watched them keep the peace as they committed a host of extrajudicial murders, from killing Ian Tomlinson for being in the way, to Jean Charles de Menezes for not being white. More recently, I watch them keep the peace by violently arresting women at a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard, a woman assaulted and murdered by a police officer. I watch them set dogs trained for violence on peaceful protestors fighting against a new law that makes protests illegal. To date, if you want to speedrun getting a police officer to turn up, you’ll have a lot more luck going somewhere expensive and prohibited than you will by being assaulted.

Despite the popular perception, the police do not do a particularly good job at solving crime. 92% of all crimes reported don’t lead to anything. If you were murdered, the odds are massively in favour of the killer having a wonderful life with nothing more to worry about than the immeasurable weight dragging their soul towards hell. If you ever did a clever Agatha Christie style murder, your odds of continued freedom would shoot up to near 100%.

Detective fiction is still huge. We’re surrounded by instruction manuals on how to kill other people and get away with it. So why aren’t we all doing murders?

There’s a growing body of evidence that human beings just aren’t really that violent, from ethnographers and anthropologists studying tribal people around the world: the Piaroa people of Venezuela, the Tiv people of central Nigeria, the Malagasy state of highland Madagascar, the Palawan people of the Southern Philippines, the Nivkh people of Sakhalin Island of eastern Russia. All these peoples have been observed to be egalitarian and non-violent. There are enough accounts of this flavour to prompt suggestions from anthropologists that these societies represent remnants of what was once the dominant mode of human society on earth. Not a brutal war of all against all, but small gift economies.

The violence that Hobbes was responding to was a civil war. A civil war isn’t possible in a small-scale hunter-gatherer society. It’s only possible with a nation, a state, a hierarchy - huge endeavours that maintain themselves with violence. Just as our state in the 21st century is maintained with violence. If a protest gets too big and looks like it might achieve anything, it will be violently shut down by the police. Some people in the UK do not have a home to sleep in, to me this represents some kind of injustice that ought to be investigated - but the police will dedicate more time to ensuring homeless people do not sleep in the doorway of a shop, because they work in the interest of private property and its owners. They maintain the status quo of vast and intractable inequality and they do so with ruthless batons.

They do not keep the peace. They cause violence.

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Sean hosts radical left podcast Mandatory Redistribution Party, choc full of repartee, left-lore and interviews.

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