Alfred McCoy History Books - Policing America's Empire

Alfred McCoy describes the unethical practices of the great state of exception, America, in his book Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State (2009). Alfred W. McCoy’s focuses on military and police records in the Philippines. McCoy shows how the exercise of American Power from imperial rule a century hence continues its reflection back onto the homeland and on new territories of empire. The imperial influence in the Philippines set the ground rules for surveillance measures that continue today.

In August of 1898, the United States became an imperial power by crashing into the Philippines to crush a Filipino nationalized army and government that had liberated itself from an entrenched Spanish colonial regime. After three years of conflict, the U.S. began the development of a security apparatus that would ensure colonial power and also produce a blueprint for American state power. The Philippine Constabulary (PC) was created to manage the politically dangerous space of the Philippines. The PC became the first U.S. federal agency with complete covert capacity. McCoy asserts that the security techniques tried out in the colonies were taken back home for the formation of a new internal security apparatus. 

In this way, Alfred McCoy shows that in the progress toward imperial domination, what is created is a strong state security structure, intrusive surveillance, and a president inclined to use both. Certainly, the U.S. may have desired the development of such an apparatus since it had seen three of its presidents assassinated in the previous 40 years: Lincoln in 1863, Garfield in 1881, and Mckinley in 1901. That the U.S. became an empire at this point of history is often downplayed, but with the killing of roughly 600,000 Filipinos, the empire was born, complete with behavior as a state of exception wherein the state wields violence unchecked to pursue its purposes.

To demonstrate the timely nature of this book, Alfred McCoy begins by making a comparison of the parallels between the Philippines and Iraq. To begin, the U.S. invasions were secondary theaters in larger global conflicts, namely the Spanish American War and the ever ephemeral War on Terror. The wars were started because of attacks on Americans, water torture was employed in both and, perhaps most importantly, civil liberties in the colony and at home were curtailed as a result.

One of Alfred McCoy’s most important points is that once the use of a police state is put in effect, it goes through a morphology of becoming stronger and more methodical, and it becomes increasingly more impossible for the nation to exist without it. The police state in the Philippines was in existence before U.S. arrival. The Spanish police state was robust but employed physical force where the U.S. would employ surveillance. 

McCoy notes that the U.S. constabulary operated on Foucault’s idea that political control comes through the exercise of terror (an idea with Machiavellian roots). But using terror is often counterproductive. For one, repression encouraged rather than restrained the rise of national consciousness in the Philippines. Secondly, McCoy shows that legal prohibitions are the necessary prerequisite for the creation of a vice economy. In the Philippines, banning opium created organized drug rings just as the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 or the 18th Amendment to the constitution created organized crime in the United States. Once laws are on the books making a given trade illegal, instead of taxation, the state uses extralegal police control. In effect, prohibiting something creates criminal activity and the need for policing.

McCoy stresses that the Philippines became the staging ground for America to learn how to set up a modern surveillance state. He says that the empire makes the metropole more self-conscious and calculating in the application of its power. This, he says, is always a function of applying the latest technologies toward a policing and surveillance end. In the Philippines, extensive files documenting the people and their affiliations were mirrored with the McCarthy era’s listing of communist dealings in the states. Such filing and surveillance were made possible through the use of the typewriter, telegraph, and new systematic methods of cataloging with fingerprinting at the center of their efforts. In the 21st century, this now looks like a Panopticon of face recognition software categorizing the movement of civilians through public space.

A colonial space like the Philippines became a testing ground because no laws existed there for the government to break. In such a case, system becomes the motto and in essence, the government becomes law. McCoy notes that one of the legacies of empire in the U.S. is a recurring tension between an 18th-century constitution and a 20th century capacity for mass surveillance. One might recall George W. Bush’s eyebrow-raising remark, “Stop throwing the constitution in my face.” In the Philippines, it was possible to carry out surveillance and make arrests without the application of due process. With complete impunity, constabulary father Ralph Van Deman categorized unprecedented information including active guerillas, civilian supporters, finances, firearms, ideology, propaganda, communications, movement, and terrain. Programs like the Patriot Act that control the population in draconian ways were being tested and carried out 100 years ago in the Philippines. The Philippines continued to serve as a laboratory for the perfection of American power for 60 years after its independence in 1946. The most harrowing thought is the very real possibility that U.S. officials used colonial knowledge to create a certain model of Philippine society to facilitate and justify the pacification of Filipinos.

McCoy examines how the Philippines only deteriorated further once state control was turned over to the hands of the Filipinos. An explanation is that after a century of policing, the only known answer to the problems of the country was in policing the realm harder. McCoy notes that with the U.S. gone, there are no checks from political concessions remaining. The vice economy reigned supreme as well. Juetung gambling controlled Philippine politics. With gambling grossing over a billion U.S. dollars per annum, and the drug trade four times that figure, corruption easily became the rule. The elections in the Philippine democracy became a shambolic parody of real democracy. In the 1980s, Leaders like Corazon Aquino and Joseph Estrada used policing to repress the Filipinos. Under their rule, the police used torture and the assassination of labor leaders and suspected guerrillas as a commonplace tactic. 

Policing America’s Empire reveals how the U.S. used the Philippines for a testing ground of state power through surveillance and continues to use their presence in foreign colonial zones to carry out similar work. The work of perfecting surveillance is not done merely to quell uncivil states but is done for its own end, to hone to perfection the art of surveillance. The U.S. continually refines its surveillance tools to heighten power of control on both national and international fronts. McCoy’s work recognizes a cultural meme of militaristic control that now has over a century’s worth of history. He suggests that we may not fully understand the result of heightened surveillance in Iraq for another century.

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