America’s Privatized Repression

Corey Robin has an important post on America’s privatized repression. He starts by describing how, after watching a panel on Occupy Wall Street in which she appeared, the freelancer who got arrested while she was covering the Brooklyn Bridge arrests lost her relationship with the NYT.

Two Fridays ago, I attended an excellent panel discussion on Occupy Wall Street sponsored by Jacobin magazine. It featured Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean—representing a more state-centered, socialist-style left—and Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard, representing a more anarchist-inflected left.

Lennard is a freelance writer who’s been covering the OWS story for the New York Times. After a video of the panel was brought to the Times‘s attention, the paper reviewed it as well as Lennard’s reporting and decided to take her off the OWS beat.  Despite the fact, according to a spokeswoman for the Times, that “we have reviewed the past stories to which she contributed and have not found any reasons for concern over that reporting.”

Even more troubling, Lennard may not be hired by the Times again at all. Says the spokeswoman: “This freelancer, Natasha Lennard, has not been involved in our coverage of Occupy Wall Street in recent days, and we have no plans to use her for future coverage.”

Robin goes on to note that this kind of repression–and not outright government repression–is really the core of social control in this country.

Such political motivated firings fit into a much broader pattern in American history that— in my first book Fear: The History of a Political IdeaI call “Fear, American Style.” While people on the left and the right often focus on state repression—coercion and intimidation that comes from and is wielded by the government (politically driven prosecution and punishment, police violence, and the like)—the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state.  More specifically, in the workplace.

Think about McCarthyism. We all remember the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, the Rosenbergs, HUAC, and so on. All of these incidents involve the state. But guess how many people ever went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Less than 200 people. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. Guess how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance for their beliefs?  One to two out of every five. And while we don’t have exact statistics on how many of those workers were fired, it was somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand.

There’s a reason so much of American repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer is not.

Now Robin lays out this argument in the context of frustrations that anarchists and libertarians don’t get this.

In the last few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields–and it’s considerable—it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.

It’s an important point, particularly as you distinguish between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The former, because it emphasizes the oppression of government power, will tend to increase oppression in this country as it ultimately helps the Koch brothers accrue more power. Which is undoubtedly why big corporations have funded it. Whereas the latter–to the extent that it focuses on banksters–points to the real source of power in this country.

But Robin’s point is important for another reason.

Private repression–as opposed to force, the actual physical violence Robin describes at the end–depends on integration into the system. Not only does it depend on the plausibility that someone can get a job in this economy–which, for some people, is not plausible. But it increasingly depends on integration in some dominant areas of the economy, banking with Bank of America, for example, as opposed to a local bank that has itself been screwed by the government’s determination to help the big banks at the expense of the local banks.

Because the concentrated centers of power in this country have gotten so removed from any accountability to the people they’re looting, it increases the possibility that people can opt out of the system that is key to enforcing their compliance.

10 replies
  1. pdaly says:

    Maybe this op-ed, from a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, published 10/24/2011 in the NYT fits in this discussion somewhere.

    The author is advocating do-it-yourself law school training, arguing that by removing the “barriers to entry” (law school and bar exams) more people can call themselves lawyers and this will magically allow poor people to afford “lawyers.”

    However, I think this quote seems to be a significant motivating reason for the author:

    At the same time, if corporations — and not just law firms, now structured as partnerships — could provide legal representation, their technological sophistication and economies of scale could offer much more affordable services than established law firms do. These firms, in turn, would have to reduce prices to compete.

    I think the ability to bar an unethical lawyer from practicing for is helpful for the rule of law (even if State Bar reviews are an underused tool in the modern legal profession), so eliminating State Bars would be a step in the wrong direction, for the People at least.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    EW, should that last sentence say, “cannot” opt out of the system that enforces their compliance?

  3. prostratedragon says:

    @pdaly: To your point I’d add, just off the top of my head, that the investment banking industry was organized as partnerships until the 1980s or 1990s, when the change to public company corporate structure by all the leading firms (I think Goldman was the last to do this) seems to have unleashed the hounds of unbounded risk-taking that we are dealing with now.

    I would question whether it were a good idea at all to encourage a similar move by lawyers, especially coupled with a drive to increase the access of the lawyers to the unprotected public the undercounselled public to lawyers.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    You raise an important point. Political involvement outside of work, protected by the First Amendment, is seriously frowned upon for anything outside of cramming a larger United Way contribution down your colleagues’ throats. Charitable work is OK, though organizations such as Planned Parenthood are on the fringe of acceptability in some communities, beyond the pale in others. Helping with food drives is fine so long as one does not address why so many people are hungry or out of work. Contributing time to the ACLU and similar organizations is right out.

    A nuance worth addressing is that these informal standards apply not just to work for Fortune 500 companies. They affect the workplace at state and local governments. Small employers have even more leverage, even more unaudited ability to fire at leisure.

    This ties in well with the increasing use of credit reports and Internet search results as filters for not hiring or firing people, as it does with the government’s refusal to enforce existing laws against age, race, sex and workplace discrimination. I’m still waiting to hear how many women managers Walmart employs and whether they are paid the same as their male counterparts. It is one of the companies made famous for pulling out of overseas markets because host governments refuse to give them an exemption from labor and unionization laws.

  5. WilliamOckham says:

    the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state. More specifically, in the workplace.

    I think the key to understanding this problem is hiding in plain sight in that sentence. In today’s America, civil society has withered to the point that it barely exists outside of a non-unionized workplace.

  6. Ken Muldrew says:


    Political involvement outside of work, protected by the First Amendment, is seriously frowned upon for anything outside of cramming a larger United Way contribution down your colleagues’ throats.

    From de Toqueville’s country of voluntary associations to the elitist overworld of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee on the Present Danger, the PNAC, and all the other anti-democratic, partly covert, but extraordinarily influential organizations in between. It’s not the democracy that it once was.

  7. guest says:

    “Contributing time to the ACLU and similar organizations is right out.

    A nuance worth addressing is that these informal standards apply not just to work for Fortune 500 companies. They affect the workplace at state and local governments.”

    Tell me about it. I work for the Feds and started contributing from my paycheck to ACLU thru the Combined Federal Campaign around the time Bush stole his first election (once a year they try to get federal employees to sign up for payroll contributions to approved charities). That didn’t last long before ACLU and a few other “liberal” charities were kicked out of the CFC. After that I refuse to have anything to do with CFC.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @WilliamOckham: Agree, though there is a tradition within academia to call the economic sphere civil society too. It’s reasons like this why I find it so problematic.

  9. klynn says:


    It is problematic. My kids have been asking me, “Where is the society civil? Does a civil society exist?”

    My oldest stated, “OWS is a movement of trying to, for once, establish a civil society, instead of dropping the phrase ‘civil society’ as though it is the foundational character of society. OWS is trying to move from myth to truth.”

    What I embrace about OWS is the standing up to self censorship. This standing up against self censorship is what scares the PTB because they have worked so hard on creating the “psych-ops of fear” in order to create broad self censorship and a power-powerless dynamic. The use of police brutality and surprise middle-of-the-night-raids and arrests is simply the effort to reconstruct self censorship and the power-powerless dynamic through an effort to re-instill fear.

    Fortunately, once empowerment takes hold, citizens look with strength into the eyes of their abusers and stand their ground.

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