New Books Network

Recent calls for the defunding or abolition of police raise important questions about the legitimacy of state violence and the functions that police are...

Recent calls for the defunding or abolition of police raise important questions about the legitimacy of state violence and the functions that police are supposed to serve. Criticism of the militarization of police, concerns about the rise of the private security industry, and the long-standing belief that policing should be controlled by municipal governments suggest that police should be civilians who defend the public interest, and that they should be accountable to the communities that they serve.

In Violence Work: State Violence and the Limits of Police (Duke University Press, 2018), Micol Seigel exposes the mythical nature of the civilian/military, public/private, and local/national/international boundaries that supposedly delimit the legitimate sphere of policing in a liberal democratic society. Focusing on the employees of the Office of Public Safety, a branch of the State Department that provided technical assistance to police forces in developing countries from 1962 until it was closed amid controversy over its role in aiding despotic governments in 1974, Seigel follows their careers as these violence workers put their knowledge of counter-insurgency to use in US police forces, pursued opportunities working for private security firms protecting the oil industry in places like Alaska and Saudi Arabia, and worked alongside military officers in aid missions to Cold War hotspots in the Global South. As she follows the careers of the policemen, she demonstrates that civilian policing has been militarized from the beginning, that capitalist production relies on state violence to discipline workers and dispossess groups who stand in the way of resource extraction, and that violence workers are rarely accountable to the people they supposedly serve.

Violence Work is critical reading for anyone who is interested in rethinking the functions that police should perform in a democratic society. It also weakens the legitimacy of state-sanctioned violence by calling commonly-held ideological distinctions into question.