In medieval Spain, when the Crown awarded lordship of some town to a noble, there was usually some negotiation about which rights and privileges went with the grant, with the Crown retaining certain powers, frequently the exercise of justice. After all, lordship of a town conferred not just prestige and manpower and soldiery, or some kind of representational power, but made said lord the recipient of customs and taxes, among other “rentas” occasioned by commerce and residence within the community.

Most often, the Crown retained control of justice in the community, not so much to promote more even-handed judgment and punishment, though that was apparently one of the outcomes the towns and cities themselves wanted. Rather, the Crown wanted to retain the income stream generated from fees and fines, which, when privatized, generally became more onerous to the convicted persons within the community, and thus the community itself, not to mention failing to arrive in the Crown’s coffers.

Although there is much to malign in the Enlightenment, largely because of the effects of human difficulty in seeing or imagining our limitations and our egoistic tendency to rationalize human injustice, it seems to me that one of the intents (and effects?) of the Enlightenment, was to emphasize the Common Weal as materialized in government and codified law, over the arrogant and abusive exercise of tyrannical Private Interest in carrying out necessary activities of government, such that justice, say, wasn’t driven largely to benefit some individual’s personal profit.

Certainly, the present anti- (or dis-) Enlightenment privatization of our American government makes very clear that the Enlightenment impulse to make government more impersonal, so to speak, was a good one, doubtless based on bitter experience.

Let’s see, in the Aughts, there were the judges in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania who ran a juvie-for-profit ring — for 12 years — even buying a fishing boat which they named “Reel Justice” with some of the $2.6+ million in kickbacks. One of them claimed to have only done justice in sentencing 10-year-olds to prison and teenagers to 3 months of hard labor for a spoof of the assistant principal, except for that little tax fraud problem, making some “mistakes relating to not filing accurate tax returns.”

Further, the real point of the mass incarceration of American citizens, largely of color, has been made manifestly clear and documented in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Our overly self-righteous “they wouldn’t be in trouble if they hadn’t done something wrong” holds no water, not in these cases, and even if you’re not “of color” (as if white weren’t a color?), consider this:

Indeed, we have criminalized so much of our day-to-day life that, according to one estimate, Americans commit something in the realm of nine hundred million crimes a day, so that state prosecutors have little choice but to pick the person and then find the crime — and not the other way around. . . . This is the definition of prosecutorial discretion, of leveraging the legal code to harass, intimidate, and silence critics of the state.

Surely the innocence of technology, its supposedly messianic promise of liberation, comes into question in the face of detailed infinite self-promoted surveillance… rising demand for the materials to manufacture devices funding and sustaining genocide in Africa… policing in the key of warmaking against our own citizens as if civil life were a computer game or a cartoon… warmongering by exporting terror and destruction somehow justified by its minimal risk to ourselves… materiel as a major export that we then have to face when directed at us (ISIL) and which is being turned to the destruction of the artifacts that are all that remain to us of ancient human history in the near East…

From the same Salon article:

When combined with the billions that have been spent in recent years on the Best Surveillance State Money Can Buy, these are ominous trends. When each one of us owns multiple devices that detail, track, log, and store our actions, finding the crime to hang around someone’s neck can be as simple as finding enough new places to look. Who doesn’t have secrets? Who is perfect all the time? These devices are always with us, and due to the draconic nature of Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws, we often have little choice but to allow them to surveil us as they please, even after it’s become readily clear that the microphone-slash-camera-slash-GPS tracking device-slash-bank account in our pocket has been infiltrated by the state’s spies and spooks.

Academic work being done in social informatics by brilliant scholars like Safiya U. Noble, Miriam Sweeney, Sarah Roberts, Ergin Bulut and others makes very clear that the larger dynamics — and injustices — of society don’t go away in cyberspace, and certainly not in the very material bodies that produce cyberspace — as if cyberspace were some kind of creative blank page, a page which we all imagine to be somehow not material, at least not like paper and ink, or like the very bodies that produce it under incredibly oppressive work conditions or are driven to suicide or into addiction by it.

One down side — often exploited — of that (apparent) disembodiment was captured very early on by Peter Steiner in his famous cartoon, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”


And the injustices in Ferguson, MO, that resulted in the death of Mike Brown last summer are not in the least separate from the dynamics I’m outlining here. [Note 30 March 2015: It occurs to me to wonder when exactly this hideous conversion of public services into municipal profiteering would have come to public attention to this degree without the confrontation-execution of Mike Brown (see below on police and the “guilty”). … And what might be the basis of promotions and raises for the city manager (thinking of course of the student-recruiting scandal at the UIUC Law School a few years ago)?]

This is one of the things that the Justice Department’s report seems to make clear, though it doesn’t necessarily go into the inseparable issues of surveillance, technology, intrasocietal warmongering, as integrally connected to the same old same old of racism that Noble, for one, has definitively shown to be inherent in Google, a face of information and communication technology that we take to be benign.

But while modernity-as-modernism with its emphasis on purity etc, so brilliantly analyzed for science by Bruno Latour, has always eluded us, the kinds of “getting medieval on yo’ ass” we can see in this personalizing and privatizing of justice — now when our worldview has no higher (spiritual or religious) standard to which such individuals are expected to hew (if they ever did) — seems to be a kind of neo-“feudalism” without any of the medieval downward-flowing responsibilities of our wannabe aristocrats lording it over the citizenry, particularly the citizenry not integrated into higher income brackets and whiter ethnicities.

The next year, when Chief Jackson reported to Mr. Shaw that court revenue for February 2011 was more than $179,000, the highest monthly total in four years, Mr. Shaw responded in an email, “Wonderful!” the Justice Department report said.

Welcome to the neo-liberal state, in which “small government” means “fat pockets” being filled with resources that should be dedicated to our common life (“Reel Justice”?), which is what privatizing actually means for the ways that we as a community have created the instruments of (more) even-handedly serving the interests of the community as a whole, the common weal of the commonwealth. Not that we’ve ever managed that perfectly, but this pseudo-capitalist, conservative, neo-liberal self-righteously sociopathic approach is certainly failing. Not just in the miscarriage of justice like we see in Ferguson and too many other places, but in every public endeavor that we as a community have built over the last, oh, 150 years or so: education, research, knowledge organization and dissemination, physical infrastructure, public health, emergency services, social mobility, the care of all of us for all of us — that’s what community is.

Note: I have used contested terms like “medieval” and “feudal” in relatively loose ways, hence putting them in scare quotes.

Note 24 March 2015, 8:00 pm: This evening, the University of Memphis held its first “Critical Conversations” panel with the topic of “Brown (Ferguson, MO), Garner and Martin: Police and Social Justice: A Critical Conversations Event.” The Chief of the Memphis Police Department said the reaction to Ferguson was “based on a lie” and warned that police are trained to respond with deadly force when they’re “in fear of their lives” — as though the rest of us aren’t “in fear of our lives” — and essentially closing ranks against the people the police are meant to protect.

Much that was good was said by all of the panelists, particularly those who brought up the larger social issues. Yet only one person on that panel or in the room raised the issue of extracting profit from the sweat and blood and lives of the African-American poor of Ferguson as one of the driving forces of the whole fiasco in that town. Those connections are what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow make clear, to which Prof. Daphene McFerren did in fact allude, though without developing the entailments.


The final exhortation to just say “yes, sir” to a cop stopping you for no particularly good reason and then trusting to the courts seems ironic at best in the light of the findings of the DOJ report, that the courts of Ferguson were viewed as a money-making project, a source of revenue for the town, which had apparently built up a pretty surplus by excessively charging its citizens with “discretionary” offenses, as Prof. Steve Mulroy pointed out (nor did he expatiate on the endless debt to the city accrued due to the predatory fines charged by the municipality). Some of the ludicrous conversations I’ve had with cops has made it very clear that they’re trained to pull you over on trivialities in the hopes of figuring out some higher-ticket charge. One young trooper pulled me over in the wee hours of a long drive, demanding to know if I had been drinking. When I stated that I had only had a cup of coffee, he launched into a song and dance about how caffeine is just as bad as alcohol. Well, for one thing, it’s not illegal, and, for another, I had a cup of decaf. WTF? If law enforcement departments are so understaffed, why are they using any insignificant irregularity to stop as many people as possible?

Oh, and just to be clear, not only is a grand jury secret, it is also not adversarial, which was mentioned but not explained. That means that only the prosecutor chooses jurors, and presents witnesses and evidence, which means in its turn that only one side of the story gets told to an audience selected by the teller of that tale. What a grand jury does is determine if there is enough evidence to warrant charging someone with a crime. While no one doubts the probity and integrity of the former prosecutors on the University of Memphis panel (Profs. Daphene McFerren and Mary Tucker), one also suspects that their level of same may not be shared by every prosecutor.

The police don’t catch “the guilty” as one of the panelists said (I believe the representative of the police department) — they catch suspects who’ve been charged with a crime; nobody’s declared guilty without a trial by a jury of their peers, without both sides of the story being told. The presumption in the United States used to be that you’re innocent until proven guilty, and that everyone is entitled to due process — as Pastor Earle Fischer pointed out. It sure doesn’t always seem that way now.

Note 26 March 2015: Bingo:

9 April 2015: The “Things You Say When You Think You’re Untouchable” Department:

The “Huh, I Wonder Why They Do That” Department: