Politics & Law

Governing through war

Jonathan Simon

When I talk to people about how the “war on crime” transformed American politics and law since the late 1960s (the subject of the book Governing through Crime) one of the most interesting questions I get is whether the problem is more with making “crime” such a privileged target of national anxiety and identity, or whether the problem isn’t with the “war on” metaphor itself, whether it attaches to cancer, poverty, terrorism, or crime. My short answer is that “crime” is the problem, and the “war” metaphor is a historically durable feature of at least US national governance. President Obama’s first “Oval Office” address last night (June 15) (read the transcript), brought the question back to the fore. While he never uttered the “w” word, he all but declared war on the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and on America’s dependence on oil more generally. Sounding downright Churchillian, the President told Americans:

But make no mistake: We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.

Tonight I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward: what we’re doing to clean up the oil, what we’re doing to help our neighbors in the Gulf, and what we’re doing to make sure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.

The war, as a metaphor for powerful and just governmental action of all sorts, perhaps dates from the Crusades and has been reproduced in Protestant culture by a whole series of revival and social improvement movements in the 19th century. I believe (on pure speculation) that its installation as the preferred metaphor for US Presidents seeking a national mandate for action dates to World War II and FDR’s rhetorical mastery in unifying a potentially very divided nation behind the real war against Fascism. The Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies extended war into a generalized mode of struggle on every front. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, liberally declared war on poverty, crime, cancer, and drugs. President Obama explicitly invoked World War II and implicitly invoked the Cold War through mentioning the Moon landing project (which was at bottom a Cold War military operation).

But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.

While other societies seem much less attracted to this metaphor, its appeal in the US is twofold. First, our national government is extraordinarily weak constitutionally speaking and easily diverted from sustained efforts at social change. Combined with an individualist ideology that yields little presumptive share to the common good, it is understandable that Presidents have found it essential to invoke war metaphor if they want to project national power beyond its current brokered arrangements. Second, most of our wars, and all of them in the 20th century, have been fought primarily on other shores. With inflated spending and normally troublesome young men shipped overseas to kill others, war-time has often been “good-times” in America.

War as a metaphor brings some nasty features including intolerance, excess, tunnel vision, and a general aggrandizement of power and authority. However these are just the flip sides of its virtues. In my view it was the crime part of the equation that caused all the problems. A “war on crime” was especially destructive because it encouraged Americans to push all kinds of social problems into the constricting metaphor of crime with its focus on individual bad conduct, its heavy legacy of racial domination and demonization, and it empowered some of the (at the time, in the 1960s through the 1980s) most repressive and residually racist institutions in American government including local prosecution, police and prisons.

In contrast, a “war on oil” or “carbon” or “infrastructure failure” or whatever, exactly, President Obama has in mind — is likely to unleash very different (if inevitably unpredictable) dynamics. The focus on large corporations (like BP), highly technical risks (like deep water drilling or climate change), and America’s own consumption patterns, is likely to encourage a very different kind of “idealized citizen subject” than the “crime victim” projected by the war on crime. The call to reinvent regulation, produce new technologies, and change how we live, is likely to empower sectors of government at the national and state level that are relatively new and unshadowed by troubling legacies of failure and scapegoating.

Could we govern without fear? Love can work for a lifetime among individuals, and among communities for a summer or two, but I’m afraid at 50 I find myself with Hobbes on the reliability of fear. Not necessarily fear of the sovereign, but more precisely a sovereignty constituted out of fear.

This article was originally published on Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime blog.

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