Nearly 20 years ago, Mark Neocleous published a seminal book entitled A Critical Theory of Police Power: The Fabrication of the Social Order, which examines how law enforcement and capitalism work in tandem to control the working class and enforce a brutal social and economic order. In this conversation for the Police Accountability Report podcast, PAR host Stephen Janis speaks with Neocleous about his book, the potential it has to transform the debate over the future of law enforcement, and how our unchecked policing system amounts to a radical form of state power that is both unnecessary and antithetical to democracy. Mark Neocleous is Professor of the Critique of Political Economy at Brunel University London and the author of numerous books, including War Power, Police Power and The Universal Adversary: Security, Capital and ‘The Enemies of All Mankind’.

Studio: Adam Coley

Post-Production: Stephen Janis


Stephen Janis:    If there is one thing that the defund the police debate has taught us, it’s how hard it is to talk about policing without getting sucked into a dead end conversation. The defund the police rhetoric has revealed that law enforcement inhabits a special political spear that is not only rarefied, but almost never subject to the same sense of accountability demanded of other institutions. The entire discussion about American policing often devolves into either you are for or against it. And despite voluminous evidence that policing in this country is not effective and it’s purported primary task, which is preventing and solving crime, our country seems to return to it and spend on it regardless of its apparent dysfunction and often outright brutality. Well, my next guest might be able to shed some insight into why policing seems at once dysfunctional and beyond reproach.

His name is Mark Neocleous. And 20 years ago he wrote a groundbreaking book called A Critical Theory of Police Power. It’s a book on par with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in terms of getting beneath the surface and using history and cultural theory to explore the imperatives of a form of state power that is often misunderstood. Part of what the book it does is situate law enforcement in the pivotal role of policing class and supporting the utility of capitalism. But it also explores how cops continue to occupy more and more of our civic space in ways that are not fully understood. In a way, the book anticipates many of the conflicts we’ve seen since the series of tragic police killings whirled our country and it constructs around that a forward-thinking analysis that is essential to understand if we want to address the problematic state of American policing head on.

And that’s why here on The Police Accountability Report, we are fortunate to have professor Mark Neocleous join us for a conversation about his book to discuss the present state of policing, his theories about it, and what, if anything, we can actually do to reform it. Professor, thank you for joining me.

So, professor, first, it seems like a very obvious question, but nonetheless I think it’s worth exploring. Why do we need a theory of police power at all other than comprehending the power of the gun and the badge? Why is it important to have a theory of policing that goes beyond the obvious implications of over policing like we have in this country and breaking it down, some of the sociological instruments of power. Why is that important?

Mark Neocleous:    Okay, that’s a good question. I guess the starting point has to be that if you… My position is if you try and only think about police power through the lens of the gun and the badge, as you call it, you’re going to focus your attention very narrowly on the uniformed professionalized police force. Now, any theory of police power has to address what counts as the institutionalized professional police force. It has to think about the kinds of questions that animate the struggles around the powers that those officers possess and exercise. But if you remain solely on that terrain you’re going to have trouble explaining a lot of things, and there’s a whole range of things we could talk about. But the first thing I would say is in the most general terms you are going to need to address the ways in which policing takes place, not just through the institutionalized professional police force, but policing takes place through a whole range of other mechanisms.

If you think even just very simply about how we often use the term policing in ways that don’t refer to professionalized institutes of police forces. We do this in an everyday way, and that’s one of the reasons we do this is precisely because we do know that policing does take place through a whole plethora of institutions and forces and so forth. So the first thing is I think we need to understand policing in its most general terms and then within that situate our understanding of the institutionalized police forces. And I think if you don’t do that the danger is you’re going to end up not quite grasping some of the events that take place under the police forces. Some of the nature of the institutionalized police forces powers can only be explained if you have a far more general theory of police power.

So I could give you a whole range of examples. We could talk about, for example, discretion. We could talk about violence. We could talk about immunity. There’s a whole range of things that I think, without actually understanding the police power in its most general terms, we don’t really grasp the nature of policing.

Stephen Janis:    That’s such a great point. And one of those things that you talk about, one of the things that struck me the most as a reporter or a journalist, was you’re talking about how police fabricate order which I think is probably one of the most important parts of your book. Why don’t we start with that a little bit, talking about what you mean and why that is important to understanding policing, this idea of fabricating order?

Mark Neocleous:     Yeah, so the book, I mean, obviously the book is in one sense a book about police power. In another sense it’s a book about the concept of order and the crucial role that order plays ideologically, politically, culturally in our world. And what I was trying to do was point to that and to point to the role of policing in fabricating order, not just maintaining order, not just reproducing order, but actually producing order in the first place, which is why the book has a long historical discussion of the ways in which a certain kind of order – And my interest is in capitalist order – A certain kind of order was created through a whole plethora of police powers which helped, well, essentially fabricate a working class. So for me the issue is not just maintaining order, which is what a lot of people talk about, which is how a lot of people talk about police, where it’s purely reactive to moments of disorder.

What I was interested in the historical side of the argument was to actually point to the ways in which actually capitalist order was historically created through police. And the other side of that is if you think about something like the very phrase law and order, the phrase which is used to justify a whole range of powers. That concept of order is doing as much work as the concept of law in that notion of law and order. It’s in the same way that ideologically, culturally, we are attached to a notion of law, so we are also attached to a notion of order.

Stephen Janis:       You know it’s really interesting, because I was thinking about that and I wanted to get your reaction to this. Because as a reporter I covered something called zero tolerance in our city. We were arresting a hundred thousand people a year. And one of the things people would say to me was, I can’t get a job. I can’t go to school. I have a criminal record. To me it was almost like order was a disorder. And that’s why I spent so much time with your book because I had never thought of it through that prism. What do you think about things like zero tolerance, those types of policing where they go out and literally arrest people for everything you can think of, what kind of order or disorder does that create through the prism of your book and the way you look at it historically?

Mark Neocleous:     So it’s interesting that you use the phrase, I can’t get a job. Because one of the fundamental assumptions in our capitalist universe is the idea that the first sign of disorder is that people are not working. And you find this time and again often when senior police officers are interviewed about particular moments of disturbance or something. And one of the things they will often say is the trouble with these people, to use a phrasing, inverted commas, “The trouble with these people is that they’re not working. They don’t have jobs. They’re sitting around all day doing nothing.” And there’s a lot of stuff going on there. One is the idea that they are simply idle, they’re simply lazy. They’re not contributing to society.

And the problem with that is then compounded by the fact that they’ve got too much time on their hands so they get into all forms of criminality or, what might be even worse, they become politicized. And the solution then to the disorder is that people should be made to work. So the question then is get these people to work. Now, if you go back just a moment ago to the historical points, that was historically the fundamental raison d’être of policing, was to produce a working class out of the remnants of the peasantry kicked out, kicked into the cities to make sure that people didn’t fall back on vagabondage or vagrancy. In other words to actually fabricate workers, to create workers out of the collapse of the feudal order.

And it’s interesting I think that you still see that now so often when police officers do talk. What is the solution to disorder? The solution is work. It’s not just police officers, of course. This is a fundamental belief amongst most mainstream politicians. And of course it’s inculcated into us at a very young age. The thing about zero tolerance and the idea of police officers stopping people for all sorts of reasons, it partly stems from this notion of people not working. Certain people shouldn’t be in certain parts of the city at certain parts of the day or certain parts of the evening, and it is part of the police mandate to have the freedom to stop and ask people precisely what they’re doing at this moment in the day in this part of the city.

And that of course creates all sorts of major problems. It’s one of the reasons why there’s so many moments of police violence. Because people quite understandably object to being stopped and asked about why they’re in this particular place at this particular time, but it’s part of the police mandate. And it goes back hundreds of years. It’s like, hey, you. What are you doing there? Let me see your ID. And the zero tolerance we can connect to a point I made just a little while ago about the idea of discretion. One of the things that is fundamental to policing is the absolute discretionary powers that police officers have to stop people and search them or frisk them in the states. So the grounds for stopping people, the grounds for searching people can be a myriad.

So in the book I give the example you can be stopped by a police officer for moving too fast. If you’re running, that’s suspicious. You can be stopped by a police officer for moving too slowly, because why are you moving so slowly through the city? People move fast. So that’s suspicious. You can be stopped by a police officer for being stationary because then you’re loitering and loitering with intent. You can be stopped by a police officer for just simply kind of moving furtively. Suspiciously. And so in effect, any human being at any moment can be stopped by a police officer simply for the way they are standing or moving or simply because of their particular comportment at that moment in time. And it’s important to understand that to get to grips with how it is police officers will often operate on the street.

Stephen Janis:      And I think you did something that really had never hit me, which was when you talked about I think the vagrancy laws and how they were sort of an underlying beginning of making police power so expansive. You don’t think of vagrancy laws as being something that big a deal, but it does kind of work into what you’re saying that police have this… That’s where the omnipresence of police power starts with a law like that says… Like you said, and we had a lot of stuff like this in Baltimore where people, if they were standing on the corner and the officers say, do you live in this neighborhood, or they didn’t have an ID, those vagrancy laws, that was part of that transition to turn policing into this omnipresent power.

Mark Neocleous:      Yeah. Well, both historically and even now that’s what’s interesting about the history of police power is that vagrancy laws were historically used to ensure that people weren’t finding a way of making a living or finding forms of subsistence outside of the wage. So if you can stop people being vagrants, then what they’re going to be is workers. And that was the reason for a whole range of vagrancy laws through the centuries as capitalism was being created and then consolidated. And what’s interesting about them, I think, is that they haven’t gone away. Now you have to be careful here, different nation states have different ways of describing vagrancy laws. In the UK we still call them vagrancy laws. In other states, they often go by other names. And what’s interesting about them is, again, it points you to the absolute nature of police discretion.

A police officer can simply stop someone because they think, well, they can say I stopped them because I thought they were in breach of the vagrancy act. And the vagrancy act will allow police officers to stop people for a whole range of very vague reasons. But the other thing of course is that they’re still being stopped under a piece of legislation that points to the very point we were just making. The integral nature of work to policing. The idea that this person is a vagrant is a way of saying that this person is not actually a bonafide working citizen. So, absolutely they are fundamental to police operations.

Stephen Janis:       Now it’s interesting – And if I get anything wrong just let me know we can correct it. But one thing that explained or I thought explained the present conversation about policing, where you’re either for or against it, you situated policing in a third phase of state power kind of substituting religion and other types of order. Which I thought was fascinating because it kind of explains why policing has this absolute political spear where in this country it’s either fund the police or don’t fund them, or you’re for or against them. Can you talk a little about how policing evolved to become sort of an instrument of state power that perhaps religion and other types of feudal arrangements? Because I think that’s critical to understanding the rhetorical power of policing today.

Mark Neocleous:     Yeah. That’s an interesting question. I guess we could think about it in different ways. I guess the first thing to observe about it is that it’s an interesting time to ask it in the context of someone who’s based in the US, because obviously right now in the US there is a debate taking place, which is about police abolition, or if not abolition, then defunding the police. It’s not quite peculiarly American but it has an intensity in the States that it doesn’t have in a lot of other states to the point where in a lot of other states there is simply not really any kind of debate taking place about police abolition or even defunding the police. And I think one reason for that is what you may be alluding to which is its status.

You started the question by talking about religion. And actually there’s a sense in which for a lot of states and certainly for the state in general, in its most abstract form, the police does have the status of a kind of priesthood. It’s an unquestionable good. It’s a form of authority that should not be challenged because somehow it’s thought that to challenge it is to undermine the whole foundation of authority in human society. So in that sense the status of police is not far off being an established religion. Of course having said that, in the States right now you are having that debate. You are having a debate that’s asking those fundamental questions, as in what is this thing? And why are we funding it to the extent we’re funding it? And so forth.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. But we have to remember that in a lot of other states that debate is simply not taking place. The other thing is that policing in our societies is offered to us in ways which make us believe that a society without police is impossible. So it is integrally attached, for example, to the idea of law. And so we have this myth that the police power is something to do with law enforcement or something to do with stopping criminality or reducing crime and so forth. So it’s attached to this notion of law. It makes questioning police incredibly difficult. That you are somehow thought of as some kind of strange anarchist if you even begin to ask the question why do we have police? Why do police exist in the first place?

The other thing is there’s a whole set of other forms of mythology around police which help sustain its status. So for example there’s a myth that the police are somehow not political. And again, this plays out differently in different nations. But in the UK, for example, the myth is that the people and the police are as one. So the police is a completely unpolitical animal, it’s completely detached from politics, politicians never interfere with policing. Policing is done in the name of the people, by the people’s power, mainly police. Of course all of that’s complete nonsense, but that doesn’t stop it being believed by a lot of people.

So there’s a range of ways in which police, the police institution, has that sort of mantle of religion. Has that sense of authority that cannot and should not be challenged. And of course that plays itself out on the streets which is why you have so many violent encounters. Because police officers themselves internalize that notion that their power should not be challenged. How dare you question my decision to stop you, I’m a police officer. Let me see your ID is not a polite request. It’s a command. It’s a command that shall not be challenged. It should not be questioned.

Stephen Janis:     Well, one of the things I think was really interesting that hit me with zero tolerance was the way you talk about in your book, the way the pauper class and the criminal class, policing kind of fuses those. And I think you’ve talked about this a little bit, but that’s instrumental, that you’ve taken people who were outside the economic system, and you talked about this, but that was an important juncture. When those two classes became, or that idea became merged, in terms of having the ability to execute zero tolerance.

Mark Neocleous:       Yeah. So we have to have a discussion about the notion of crime and criminality. Obviously because that’s part of the myth of police power, but it historically has played an important role in terms of consolidating police power, and it continues to play a very similar role. The assumption is that if people who should be working for a wage are not working for a wage, what are they going to do? Well the assumption is that they’re going to turn to criminality. So the idea is that we police criminality as a way of maintaining an order of wage labor. And that’s still the case now, we mentioned something similar a few minutes ago. But you can also see it in the way that police power is ideologically justified by policing by senior police officers, politicians, the media and so forth, which is well, you have to have police because there’s this dangerous band of criminals which will completely undermine the whole of society if we didn’t have policing.

And that notion of criminality is played out in the most abstract of terms, the big crime question, but then it gets broken down into particular forms of crime that become the focus. So the idea that there are muggers out there, the idea that there are hoodlums out there, the myth of the Black rapist, for example. There’s a whole range of ways in which the general notion of crime gets narrowed down and focused onto particular groups.

Stephen Janis:      And this question is not related to your book, but I’m just curious, because whenever I would talk to police officers about the problems of American policing, the most enlightened ones would mention Sir Robert Peel and the Peelian Principles of policing. Now – If you don’t want to answer that’s fine – But seeing that you’re in the UK, what is your opinion of that whole… Because it was always over here, it was like, well, the Peelian Principles, if we just followed those, American policing could be fixed. And I know he has this special place in history. I guess you could say he’s the person that created… Is it even right to say he created modern policing? I didn’t get that sense in your book, but I’m just wondering what you think of him just because you’re in the UK, and if you don’t mind. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

Mark Neocleous:     No there. Well, it’s an interesting question. He does occupy that status in the history of UK policing and the history of American policing in terms of that kind of Anglo-American tradition. I didn’t want to say that much about it. And [inaudible] I still don’t, because I think that it can become… It’s a way of telling the history of policing in a certain kind of way, which goes, look prior to Peel, the forms of policing that took place were disorganized, unprofessional, not well institutionalized, not well respected by the people. And then along comes Sir Robert Peel and says we need to tidy this up, we need to professionalize the police force, we need to get the respect of the people, and we need to put it on a sound professional footing.

And so the history of policing gets told as two periods, one pre Peel and the other post Peel. And what we get with Peel is policing proper. That’s how we do policing. And I think that’s problematic because I think, firstly, the pre Peel period is absolutely fascinating. And it’s fascinating precisely because there are so many thinkers writing about policing that tell us a great deal about the nature of policing, and what they tell us does not become untrue simply because Peel puts the police force on a professional footing. And that’s why in the book I cite so many pre Peel thinkers because actually, in a sense, they tell it like it is. They say, look, you have to have this form of power. You have to have this form of power that’s absolute. You have to have this form of power that cannot be questioned, but you have to have this form of power that cannot be restricted by the liberal restrictions that are being placed on certain forms of state institutions following the liberal revolutions.

Mark Neocleous:       So I think there’s a wealth of material in the period prior to Peel that is worth holding onto. In other words, the period prior to Peel is not some primitive age of non-policing or shabby policing. It’s actually really important. The other thing is if you focus on Peel then you end up focusing precisely on the professionalized institutionalized police forces that then get created. And you basically then start thinking that’s what policing is. Policing takes the form of those forces. And what that does is it means you don’t pay attention to, for example, I don’t know, the work of Chadwick. Who had a lot to say about police, but he also had a lot to say about public hygiene, for example, and how public hygiene needs to be policed, and how policing has to also focus its attention on questions of, for example, contagious diseases.

And that’s interesting, and it’s important to recognize that that’s part of the history of policing because a lot of the ways in which we experience policing is precisely through those other forms of power. You only have to think about it in relation to the public health issues that we’re currently facing. Or the whole history of contagion as a political idea that then needs to be enforced in some way that you have to have a set of regulations and laws and policies to manage the whole question of contagion. So I think that Peel is obviously important, but to just tell the story of policing through the lens of Peel I think is a mistake.

Stephen Janis:     Thank you. Thank you for taking that topic on because it’s often something that I get cited a lot when I question police officers and I’m not always sure how to respond. So, you know –

Mark Neocleous:      Yeah. But that’s interesting as well because that’s the story that the police institution likes to tell about itself.

Stephen Janis:        Exactly.

Mark Neocleous:       Right? And it’s dangerous to just go, okay, well if that’s their story then we should just buy it. We should accept it.

Stephen Janis:       It sounds good in principle but I think you raised some great points there. And you talk about how important policing is to the production of wealth. And it brings up an interesting question. As long as we have capitalism – And I know this is a broad question – Are we always going to have policing? Is capitalism and policing inextricably linked to the point where, provided our economic system is always capitalistic, there’s just going to be policing no matter what. Because I’ve talked to some police abolitionists and other people. Are those two so… There’s the theme that runs throughout your book about fabricating order and about making people idle, people work, et cetera. Does that mean those two are inextricably linked to the point where one will never exist without the other?

Mark Neocleous:      Well, the short answer to that is yes. So, if you want a slightly longer answer…

Stephen Janis:        Yes, I would.

Mark Neocleous:      Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. And that’s been part of my argument or central to my argument for some time now, which is historically we can show how integral police power was to the fabrication of capitalism. That capitalism could not have been created without police laws. Without creating a laboring class through a whole range of police powers. That seems obvious, I think, now. Again, you could spend a lot of time thinking about how it pans out in different national contexts, but I think the general point is now obvious. So that begs the question then, which is your question. Are policing and capitalism integrally linked and will they always be? And the answer to that is yes.

So this then begs a more interesting question, which you touched on in relation to your conversation with abolitionists. Because the debate that’s taking place over in the States right now is of course interesting, because as soon as you say police abolition the question is, well, firstly, what do you replace it with? And in that sense, the more interesting question, which I think is one that some people are asking and others aren’t, is why do you have policing in the first place? Because if police, policing, and capitalism are so integrally connected then one implication of that is you can’t really abolish the police without abolishing capitalism.

And I don’t, I think I’m honestly outside of the struggles that are taking place over in the States right now. But I read some of the analyses and I pick up on what other people have said about it. And that seems to me that some people know that in the States, in those struggles, those campaigns, and others don’t. And so you get out of this argument a question of, well, are we talking about replacing the police, and if so, what are we replacing them with? Are we talking about simply defunding the police and moving the funds to other forms of institution or other forms of social welfare or some other idea? And I think what’s taking place in those campaigns and struggles is really interesting for those questions it’s throwing up. It will be even more interesting to see how they pan out.

Stephen Janis:    It’s interesting, because here in Baltimore we spend twice as much on policing as we do on education. So with obvious results. I don’t want to keep you too long. So, I do think that every person who is involved in the defund the police should read your book because it gives a context that is not brought up, but is there any way that you would advise someone listening who is a police or an activist who wants to forward that conversation and a way to approach it that maybe to get past this for or against idea? Something they could take from your book or from what you’ve written that would help? Because I know there are so many people in our own city who are trying to get the mayor to reduce police funding. He ran on that. Then he got elected and he increased the police budget.

It’s a very, very difficult [topic]. Is there any way that you would say to someone, hey, talk about it in this way, or understand it in this way? Because that’s what I got with your book, was when I read it I was like, wow. If we could just have the conversation, the context you’re talking about, we might do things differently. Is there anything that you take away that you might say, yeah, this is a better way to have the conversation about the money you’re putting into policing or why police exist at all?

Mark Neocleous:       So I think going back to the previous answer, I think a serious struggle against police power has to be part of a wider struggle. I think if you only struggle against this thing called the police it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be difficult because the question of what you do if you abolish the police is not going to go away. And the danger is that you simply recreate it and call it something else. And that’s not going to be a solution. Now, one of the things, going back to your very first question – I think it was your first question – About why do we need a general theory of police?

Stephen Janis:       Yeah.

Mark Neocleous:        One of the things I try and do time and again when I’m talking about police is to try and situate the very particular problems or very focused issues that people come up against when they’re questioning police power and situate them in the wider account of state power in general.

So I’ll give you an example. One of the things that campaigns against police often organize themselves against is the immunities that police officers appear to have. So a police officer commits act of violence to the point of brutalizing someone on the street, torturing someone in a police station, killing someone on the street, killing someone in a police station, killing someone in a police van, so forth. This happens so frequently now it’s more than an everyday occurrence.

And yet, so few police officers are found guilty of, for example, manslaughter or murder. And what comes out in those cases is an immunity that’s attached to police officers. An immunity for acts of violence carried out when they’re engaged in policing. And this offends people. Rightly so. And it offends people, rightly so, because it appears to be such an infringement of any sense of justice that it just stimulates yet more anger addressed towards the police. So all of that is true. But what I would say is, look, we need to situate the immunity that’s attached to police officers in the wider history and theory of the state. Now this isn’t particularly helpful in terms of those particular campaigns. I know that. I’m well aware that this is a depressing story, but I’ll have to tell you anyway.

Which is you have to situate the immunity attached to police officers in the wider history and theory of the state. Because it’s the same immunity that is attached to soldiers, for example. It’s the same immunity that is attached to security operatives. And it’s the same immunity that is attached to the diplomat or, as they were historically understood, the ambassador. And it’s connected to the immunity that’s attached to the sovereign embassy. The idea that ambassadors or diplomats working in an embassy in another country are not subject to those countries’ same laws. That they have an immunity from prosecution. And one of the things I argue in one of the chapters in a forthcoming book – You’ll forgive the plug, right? – Is I say, actually, we need to think about police officers in this context as ambassadors of the state.

That they are carrying state power. They are carrying sovereign power in the same way they are embodying or personifying the power of the sovereign in the same way that the ambassador does. Because that’s the job of the ambassador, the ambassador represents the sovereign power in a different country. And so police officers, in the same way that soldiers and security operatives have, have inherited the immunity that was once attached to the ambassador and still is attached to the ambassador, but that’s where it comes from historically. And that’s an immunity that is ultimately claimed by the sovereign power itself. That the sovereign power cannot be prosecuted for acts that you might regard as injustice, an infringement of any justice. It’s the immunity that’s attached to the head of state, the US president, when the US President signs off a death warrant for an American citizen. That we will not, you cannot prosecute me for this decision.

So, suddenly the immunity that’s possessed by a particular police officer on a particular moment on a street encounter or in a police station or in a police van suddenly has a much wider… It opens the analysis up for a much wider assessment of the nature of the state and how the state operates and how sovereignty operates in our modern world. Now what’s interesting about this immunity is that we are beginning to see inroads into it. So the most obvious example of this is the successful prosecution of Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. What’s interesting is that in the same month that Chauvin was successfully prosecuted, there was the first successful prosecution of a British police officer for the unlawful killing of a civilian citizen.

This was for the killing of an ex-professional footballer, Dalian Atkinson. A police officer had stopped Dalian Atkinson. He had had some kind of mental breakdown, some kind of psychological trauma. He was found stopped on the street. The police officer tasered him for over 30 seconds, which is much longer than the legally permitted limit. But then crucially, I think crucially, because I don’t think the tasering alone would’ve led to the successful prosecution, the police officer then kicked Dalian Atkinson in the head twice, and Atkinson died from this. The case took several years to come to court. It was finally finished in the same month that Chauvin was prosecuted, and it was decided that in the successful prosecution of this police officer, this officer did not have immunity from prosecution.

So it was an interesting month, June. In terms of making inroads into this notion of immunity. And it may well be that more and more struggles can chip away at it. But my point is what you’re chipping away at is one of the very foundations of sovereign power. So the struggle to really challenge immunity, the immunity of servants of the state such as police officers, is a huge one. That doesn’t mean we don’t try, it doesn’t mean we don’t continue the struggle, but we have to recognize that what we are challenging fundamentally is the very nature of sovereign power.

Stephen Janis:      Wow. That is brilliant and it also is scary because within each individual actor is that immense power that you’re talking about and the culture and institutional power. So just as the last question you did mention your next book. I’m going to highly recommend that anyone read this book first, but can you talk a little about your next book so that we can pitch it a little bit to our viewers and just give us a short synopsis just because…

Mark Neocleous:     Sure or you could just have me back on when you’ve read it.

Stephen Janis:            I would love to have you back on [inaudible]. You are. No, no, no. People in America need to hear the context that you bring to police power explains so many things that we struggle with, but we don’t really have the language to describe. It’s like what they talk about language and idea and the whole idea that language gives you the ability to understand the concept and different languages have different concepts. Well, you bring a language to this debate that, I think if people could understand it better, this debate could be better situated. We wouldn’t have this absurd defund, no defund. So I would love to have you on with your new book, but just so people can hear about it. Just a little pitch. Yeah. Thank you.

Mark Neocleous:      Yeah. Okay. So thanks for that, allowing me a second plug of the new book. So, okay. So the book is called The Politics of Immunity. The way I’ve just been talking about it makes it sound like it’s a book purely about the immunity of police officers, but that’s only one chapter, and it’s the final chapter. The previous chapters are, well, the whole book is about the concept of immunity and what I try to do there is connect the logic of immunity and the immunological imagination to the logic of security and the securitarian imagination. So the book does a number of things. It, for example, points to the way in which notions of security, notions of police, notions of war are naturalized in our imagination in the sense that we are encouraged to imagine our bodies as spaces of battle, as spaces of security, as spaces of police.

So if you think about how you imagine your immune system. You imagine your immune system as a security system. And this comes out of the immunological imagination, but at the same time what’s interesting is that the imagination of security right now is also an imagination rooted in the idea of immunity. So what I do in the book is to explore the ways in which, essentially, immunity and security have become folded into each other.

And all of this was being argued before COVID hit us, I should say. In other words, before we had the invention of, for example, in the UK, we had the invention last year of something called the Health Security Agency. And this Health Security Agency is designed to police the overall vaccination program, to ensure that people are vaccinated or try and get people vaccinated, to measure levels and so forth. And it’s interesting that this institution designed to police immunity goes under the name of health security. So one of the things I do in the book is that, and then the book opens out even more broadly into an analysis of how we imagine the self through a lens of immunity and security, how we imagine systems through the lens of immunity and security, and then it connects immunity to the whole notion of nerves and what it means to talk about the nervous state.

Stephen Janis:       Well, that sounds fascinating. Almost sounds like police are like the vaccine against any questioning of capitalism, which is a really scary idea, but I…

Mark Neocleous:       No, that’s not a bad way of putting it. Yeah. It’s one of the things that I explore in the book is how we lose ourselves in systems. We lose ourselves in our immune system and we lose ourselves in other systems, work systems, for example. But of course we often find ourselves lost in The System, capital T capital S. That the system appears to us to have some kind of power that we find it very difficult to challenge or escape from.

Stephen Janis:       Well, if you don’t mind me being presumptuous, your imaginative way of approaching these topics reminds me of a little bit of David Graeber. I hope you don’t find that insulting, but I think he…

Mark Neocleous:       No, for me that’s a very big compliment.

Stephen Janis:        Okay. Well, it’s well deserved, because you bring the same sort of imagination to these topics. This was an incredible interview. We would definitely like to have you back for your new book and anything we can do. And professor, thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

Mark Neocleous:     Thank you very much, Stephen.

Stephen Janis:        And thank you all for joining us on this special edition of The Police Accountability Report podcast. If you want to buy professor Neocleous’s book, it is available on Verso Books, so you can just go to their website. And as always, remember if you have evidence of police misconduct, please share it with us at or you can contact us on Twitter @eyesonpolice or on Facebook at The Police Accountability Report. And we will continue this conversation with other people who have written critically about policing. So thank you for joining us and we’ll see you soon.

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Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.