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By Gary T. Marx
Professor Emeritus M.I.T.
A view held by many social critics is that police are invariably agents of those in power and will do whatever is necessary to perpetuate the regime. This is thought to be particularly true of traditional authoritarian and totalitarian governments believed to be lacking popular legitimacy, or at least offering procedural means by which that could be determined. In such societies the police, along with the military, use their monopoly on the means of violence and direct control over the means of mass communication to protect the status quo.1
The police role in protecting the state and in engaging in abuses is of course not restricted to non-democratic governments. The original French conception of a "high police" (referring to position in the hierarchy, rather than to stoned) was for an absorbent police who would saturate the society in the interests of protecting the state. (Brodeur 1983) Activities such as the FBIís COINTELPRO, Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair and the investigation of CISPES continue to be part of our political landscape.
However a distinction can be made between the police role in supporting laws of the state when these are developed through democratic procedures and embody universalistic values, such as those associated with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights or the protection of democracy and the police role in acting to perpetuate the rule of those in power beyond democratic procedures (e.g., Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, CISPES). In the former dissent is not automatically labeled as crime.
In the West over several centuries police power has been limited by constitutions, law and policy and oversight from executive, legislative, and judicial agencies, interest groups and the mass media. The development of permanent police bureaucracies with significant autonomy (whether formally mandated or de facto) and the rule of law formally limits what can be asked of police and offers some insulation from political pressures. The police role has also greatly broadened to offering services to citizens through maintaining order, control of street crime (and to a lesser degree white collar crime) and carrying out administrative functions such as licensing and traffic management. Relative to the past, when they could operate with impunity and perceived pragmatism, police in the West have also softened their approach to political challenges, staying broadly within the confines of non-violence. (Della Porta and Reiter 1998).
Yet whatever the continuing commonalties with respect to the political role of the police across societies, the repressive role of police in the Soviet dominated countries, is archtypical in literature and social science. Indeed we describe such states as "police states." 2
But as a character in a David Mamet play observes, "things change." The relatively peaceful transition in Poland documented in an important new book by Maria Los and Andrzej Zybertowicz Privatizing the Police State is essential reading for anyone interested in the police role. The book requires questioning the automatic equating of police with the established order and calls for a more nuanced view. Police are not automatically puppets of those in, or with, power. Police also have their own interests and resources. Given differentiation within and between police agencies, their resources may be used independently and in complex and contradictory ways and these may change over time.
In discussing commentators on the Black Muslims, Malcolm X observed, "those that know, donít say and those that say, donít know." Until the appearance of this well argued and documented book with its provocative thesis about the central role of the secret police in political and economic affairs, the same might have been said of many commentators on Polandís transition from a communist to a privatized state. The study suggests that under certain conditions police may undermine rather than protect the state.
For ideological and logistical reasons this view has rarely been acknowledged, let alone studied by social scientists.
The social scientist seeking to understand the iceberg of complex, impassioned social events such as the recent changes in Poland must go beyond the methodological purists who hold that only that which can be quantified and stated in propositional form is worthy of study, as well as the oversimplified and distorting lens which views police only, and always, as agents of a monolithic power structure. Police also serve there own interests. Given their national and international resources, increased blurring of lines between public and private police, the development of international police related agencies such as Inter-Pol and Euro-Pol and various international control regimes, they seem increasingly able to act independently.3 Their role in blocking or encouraging social change and their dependence on, or independence from, different elites should be approached as issues for empirical inquiry.
With intelligence, detailed scholarship, originality, honesty and humility Los and Zybertowicz bring clarity and light to murky shadows. Their book must be read by anyone seeking to understand recent changes in Poland and indeed in any new democracy, as well as those interested in the political role of police.
At an earlier time both Los and Zybertowicz had direct experience with the Polish secret police through a kind of involuntary participant observation. This was not, as would be the case later, as interviewers, but through black-listing, expulsion, internment and involvement in the Solidarity movement. This no doubt heightened their interest in the topic. But it has certainly not detracted from their objectivity. It may even have strengthened it in giving them an experiential appreciation of the importance of openness, truth, fairness and due process. The quality of their scholarship and the care taken with their claims may even have been enhanced because they did not want their experience as victims to cast doubt on their academic claims.
Maria Los received her Phd. in sociology from the University of Warsaw and taught there until 1977. She is currently Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. Her long-standing interest in hidden social processes is also reflected in her many previous studies of the second economy and economic crime in communist countries. Her powers of observation are enhanced by her emigrant status. She frequently returns to Poland for research.
Professor Andrzej Zybertowicz, Director of the Institute of Sociology at Nicholas Copernicus University, one of Europeís oldest universities, is the author of a major study in Polish on his countryís secret police. This book is a culmination of his intellectual and personal journey through the last two tumultuous decades of Polish history. It reflects a tenacious, if ever tentative belief (or perhaps better hope) that the powers of the intellect and the rule of law can improve social conditions. He has the courage to address issues in his native land which are generally ignored by academics and the mass media.
The book asks how the changes in Poland involving democratization, privatization and marketization were effected by, and effected, the party/police-state framework within which they occurred. While democracy and Soviet style secret police are inimical, the same can not be said of economic factors and secret police. The book notes the easy congruence between the police apparatus and local and global capitalism. Los and Zybertowicz argue that the privatization of the police state can not be understood without examining the machinations of the various police and security agencies.4
Rather than being history remembered only in how-not-to-do-it text books, elements of the police state are alive and well in Poland. The book calls attention to the major role covert action and actors played not only in creating and sustaining the communist regime, but to their much less well known role in undermining it. The transformation of Polish society was not simply a reflection of social movement activity from below, nor of the power vacuum created by the collapse of Soviet support. Instead it involved a series of covertly negotiated revolutions instituted from on high, initially with the apparent support of the KGB.
In work examining the police response to the 1960s protest movements (Marx 1979) I noted a number of ideal-typical ways that police might inhibit, as well as facilitate social movements. These were set up as clear dichotomies with the assumption being that for the same movement, one or the other might be seen, but certainly not both. Yet in Poland the police role was much more varied, complex and changing. In a manipulative and bet-hedging fashion police offered both opposition and support to those challenging the Soviet supported regime.
Through careful strategies the opposition was both attacked and nourished. Using familiar tactics of repression, manipulation, infiltration, division, vilification, and finally co-option, the Solidarity movement and other sources of opposition were shaped and pushed in the direction of a path compatible with the interests of the communist elite who perceived that their ship was sinking. With their extraordinary experience, resources and knowledge, the massive state security apparatus played a central role in the relatively bloodless collapse of communism. But the story hardly stops there.
Like the deep foundation of an ancient building, a police state apparatus, so entrenched in civil society that the border between the public and private is often blurred, rarely disappears. Apart from the symbolic removal of some leading figures, much of it remains in place, --old agents with new uniforms and activities. Where the contaminated tether of secret police connections saturates a society, the song may be ended, but the melody lingers on, even as new songs appear.
This book argues that the security agenciesí covert actions are just beneath the visible transformation processes of marketization and privatization. Los and Zybertowicz note the central role played by agencies of state security in managing the command economy, a factor surprisingly absent from social scientistís models. They also note the central role these agencies played in subordinating parts of the privatization process to the interests of many of the systemís former political elite. This insulated the elite from accountability for misdeeds committed under communism and permitted directing lines of capital flow and accumulation. It also created massive opportunities for fraud and corruption and a new wealthy class. In a process anticipated by Max Weber, the former communist nomenklatura, with the involvement and protection of the security agencies, trade political for economic resources and then later are able to use their economic resources to regain political power.
This book usefully situates its story within the broader transformations involving postindustrial, postnational and postmodern transformations, showing how former secret service operatives and structures were uniquely positioned to become intermediaries between the new Polish and the global economy. In doing this they offer fresh insights into the globalization of organized crime, the marketing of spying, cross border social control, and changes in the nature of capital. The perhaps necessity, and certainly the irony, in protecting a fledgling democracy through the use of secret police tactics is not lost upon the authors. They also note how the bridging and protective actions of the secret police reduced resistance to change on the part of those formally in power and their networks.
This is not only a story of immoral opportunism, more charitably it can also be seen as one of amoral survivalism, likely reflecting a sensibility honed out of centuries of experience with repressive rulers, whether external or internal. A non-ideological cynicism and need to cover all possible bases, coexists just beneath the surface with public obeisance to an all encompassing ideology. When the handwriting on the wall changes, the flexible ideologue shifts beliefs. The constant awareness of threat and easy shifting of impression management gears appears to be more characteristic of Europe in general, and Eastern Europe in particular, than North America.
In apparently uncovering the veiled truths of secret police and intelligence agents, we must forever be on guard. Has the observer fallen into a carefully fabricated web of lies? Do documents really mean what they appear to? What of orders that were never written down, of "no file" or destroyed documents? What of verbal communications that were understood and not literally stated? What of interviewees who lie? Is observed behavior merely a means to some other hidden end? Was a secret meant to be discovered as part of a strategy? The never-ending caution and skepticism of the scientist apply with particular force here. Yet things sometimes are what they appear to be.
Los and Zybertowicz thoughtfully and creatively probe beneath the veneer of reality constructed by those who were (and some who remain) masters of deception.
This study is a model of what scholarship on secrecy enshrouded "dirty data" (Marx 1984) topics should be. Itsí empirical findings suggest a loosely directional perspective. They walk a thin line between rigid over-deterministic conspiracy theories and the intellectual anarchy of the view that history is fully open-ended and reflects nothing more than random events. To note a broad direction need not imply, "a comprehensive conspiratorial mechanism that co-ordinates and permeates all relevant actions," nor is it to deny a degree of simple convergence on the part of loosely related groups with some common interests.
One can almost feel the wheels of the authorís minds turning as they fit various pieces of evidence into their argument and then reflexively stand back and wonder if they have been taken in and if there is a better interpretation. Fortunately in the end, as Sir Thomas More counseled, they doubt their doubts and leave us with a compelling book, strengthening the groundwork for a neglected area of inquiry.
Their perspective has ample room for other causes. They acknowledge the cross currents, variation, dynamic emergence and elements of indeterminacy found in the myriad events we for convenience abstractly lump together as the fall of communism. However they also make clear that any comprehensive understanding must give significant attention to covert police activities. They offer a sensitizing perspective which tells us one place to look, offer useful concepts such as the post-totalitarian police state, and the privatized state, and guide us in ordering and interpreting facts.
The study makes clear the fruitful possibilities for comparative research on the role of the secret services in other democratic transitions such as in Spain, Portugal, South Africa, parts of Latin America and in the Axis countries after WWII. Studying the role of the military and secret police in a changing China would also be of great interest. Can justice be served while democratic stability is maintained? Can fire effectively be fought by means other than fire? Can the inherently risky and dangerous tactics of covert coercion, manipulation, surveillance and deception be adequately reigned in by the rule of law and official oversight? Must those who sanction the use of fire invariably be burned? The study also alerts us to the importance of studying how the end of the Cold War has effected security agencies in the traditional democracies, as they too confront post-industrialism and globalization and the blurring of conventional lines between the public and the private and the national and the international.
Given the persuasiveness of their general argument it is an interesting sociology of knowledge question as to why this view does not have greater currency. Beyond scholarly concepts rooted in 19th century views, one explanation is yet another conspiracy, this time one of silence and of averting the eyes. From a standpoint of societal legitimacy, it may be believed that there are certain things that it is best to forget or not to know (this goes beyond the formidable self-protective powers of the security agencies and their heirs). A rapidly changing society such as Poland, may need myths --if not of divine creation, at least of heroic anti-communist creation in resistance to the hated ancien regime. A message that the old apparatchiks helped to create the new regime and may simply be wearing new hats can hardly be welcomed.
Social scientists have rarely researched such themes because to do so requires reversing their preferred sequence of starting with a favored theory and seeking places to test it, or starting with a sophisticated method and looking for topics that meet its requirements such as a representative sample or a control group. In contrast in this book the authors start with an intellectual and social puzzle and ask what methods are best for approaching it. While rigor and quantification are admirable and theory essential, these should never come at a cost of excluding major areas of inquiry. As this study admirably demonstrates, we must capture our methods not be captured by them. We must study what is significant not what best fits conventional methodologies or ideologies. It is good to see Polish sociology go beyond its classical concerns with theory and method and enlarge its tent to include studies of dirty data. What is sacrificed in purity is surely gained in knowledge and wisdom.
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Brodeur, J.P. 1983. "High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks About the Policing of Political Activities," Social Problems 30: 507-20.
Deflem, M., forthcoming, "Bureaucracy and Social Control: Historical Foundations of International Policing." Law and Society Review.
Della Porta, D. and H. Reiter, 1998. Policing Protest. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press.
Marx, G.T., 1979 "External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements: Some Patterns, Explanations, Outcomes, and Complications" in M. Zald and J. McCarthy, The Dynamics of Social Movements Resource Mobilization, Social Control and Tactics. Cambridge, Ma.: Winthrop Publishers.
-----------1984 "Notes on the Discovery, Collection and Assessment of Hidden and Dirty Data" in J. Schneider andJ. Kitsuse, Studies in the Sociology of the Social Problem. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.
Silver, A. 1967. "The Demand for Order in Civil Society: A review of Some Themes in the History of Urban Crime, Police and Riot" in The Police (ed.) D.J. Bordua, New York: John Wiley and Son.
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