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The police: between fantasy and instinct

"The police are workers in violence, it is in this explicit capacity that society delegates them, and it is in this capacity that they have chosen this profession, which one does not choose by chance." In this intervention, Frédéric Lordon argues that violence is intrinsic to the social position of police.

Frédéric Lordon21 April 2023

The police: between fantasy and instinct

**This article was originally published by Révolution Permanente on 29 January 2023.

Frédéric Lordon returned to the issue of the police during a debate with Paul Rocher,[1] organised by La Fabrique last November. Lordon is known for his clear-cut position on the subject: according to him, it is impossible to imagine a society without police, provided that a concept of the police is developed that is not reduced to its historical form under capitalism. This time, Lordon approaches the problem from a different angle. He focuses on the way in which the policing institution activates, mobilises and directs the instincts of its officials. That this ‘regime of instincts’ produces the worst here is dramatically illustrated by the recent image of a 26-year-old man violently beaten while on the ground during the Paris demonstration of 19 January, losing a testicle as a result.

Perhaps I will disappoint you, as I am not going to take up the question of ‘life without the police’. But since the question here is ‘what to do with the police?’, I would reply all the same that we should continue to consider this. As far as I’m concerned, starting from a quote that I found striking, and without any bad pun since it’s a CRS riot police man speaking (the comment was reported on a great programme in France Culture’s LSD [= La Série Documentaire] series): ‘I’m lucky, lucky, you can’t imagine how thankful I am every day when I go to work, I say thank you, thank you, thank you’. The focus of my intervention this evening is the following question: where does this exultation come from, what is the motive of this thanks to Heaven? Or rather the motives, because I think there are two: one presentable and the other unpresentable. The presentable motive is fantasy; the unpresentable one is instinct.

The fantasy part, speaking very generally, comprises those imaginary constructions that human beings form very early on, in those beginnings of life when they have only the weapons of the imagination to support their existence, and which over time acquire enrichments, secondarisations, made up of the more elaborate social contents that they encounter along the way. For example: ‘I rescue you’ is, par excellence, a statement of fantasy – in this case the original fantasy, the primary fantasy. The secondarised fantasy will be: ‘I rescue widows and orphans’, ‘I protect the weak’, and then ‘I save the institutions’, ‘I defend the republic’ – you recognise here all the commonplaces of police sociodicy, that is to say, the discourse of justification that the police hold about themselves, and that we so often find in the vocational accounts that police officers give of their individual commitment. By definition, fantasy, as a psychic elaboration of existential support, is designed to present the subject in a glorious light. 

Fantasy must be taken seriously. These are powerfully mobilising imaginations. So, we take it seriously, but we don’t accept it at face value either. For, fantasy is an elaboration of instinctual drive, and this has its own – less presentable – logic. In the earliest instinctual expressions, in fact, there is the relationship of hatred primitively bound up with the outside, with the ‘non-self’. So that this idea doesn’t strike you as totally artificial, and, given the lack of time to develop it properly, I can only resort to an argument from authority: it is Freud who says [and I quote] that ‘the object is born in hatred’. A relationship of hatred for the outside which Melanie Klein says is manifested by a paranoid original position and aggressive-destructive motions.

There is no human being who can claim to be totally unaffected by this, who can ensure that his or her psyche has not kept a deeply buried trace of it. Obviously, not all individuals are paranoid or overwhelmed with pleasure at the idea of punching their fellow human beings. The question is therefore: what are the complementary determinations, in this case linked to social and institutional positions themselves defined in a global social order, what are the determinations likely to reactivate this original paranoid-aggressive background, or better: to draw on it, to make it a resource that can be mobilised in the service of certain institutional and political ends? In other words: under what social and institutional conditions are certain instinctual motions thwarted or, on the contrary, given free rein? Or again: in what institutional regime of authorisation are instincts expressed?

In a text that is little read, probably because it is in a more relaxed register, appearing in a preface in dialogue form, Bourdieu, at a surprising distance from his usual theoretical register, evokes the instinctual transactions between certain institutions and their servants, an implicit bargain that exchanges the accomplishment of the function for the satisfaction of the instinct. Anyone who doubts that this angle of the instinctual-institutional transaction is really interesting in talking about the police should read the exchanges exhumed by StreetPress from WhatsApp groups bringing together thousands of police officers. You are plunged into a terrifying cesspool of instincts where, unsurprisingly, racism and anti-Semitism are unleashed, but in a less expected sauce of absolutely proliferating sexual obsessions, macho of course. Here we are in the depths of the psychic life of the police. 

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Ulrike Meinhof had her own way of expressing this truth, and above all its effects. In Jean-Gabriel Périot’s film Une jeunesse allemande, she says this: ‘A guy in uniform is a pig’. I mentioned a striking quote earlier, and this one is not bad either. As it stands, the formula is a bit rigid. After all: a postman, a Polytechnique student on 14 July, a forest warden, a fireman – all pigs? Of course, Meinhof is thinking mainly of the military and the cops, especially in the very particular context that we know. However, we can disregard this context of the time, the polemical charge and Meinhof’s intentions, in order to keep the statement and identify the problem that is analytically wrapped up in it. I suggest that the central question could be reformulated as follows: what is a uniform? To this question, my answer is the following: a uniform is society. In the same way as a medal, a cup, or a trophy, a uniform is society made into a thing, it is society materialised, society present and presented in the materiality of a thing. A uniform is a material crystallisation of the power of the multitude, and the sign of a delegation of this power. The power available to the wearer of the uniform is therefore infinitely more than that of the singular individual who wears the uniform. Moreover, everything is done so that when faced with an individual wearing a uniform, we no longer see the individual: we only see the uniform. It’s designed so that when confronted with the uniform, you tell yourself, or rather feel, confusedly but certainly, that you are confronted with society as a whole, and therefore with the power of society as a whole – and draw the (logical) conclusion that you have no chance. 

From the opposite side, how could the uniform wearer not have the symmetrical experience, just as confused but just as certain, that he has the whole of society behind him, and thus the power of the whole of society in his hands, and draw the (equally logical) conclusion that he has everything going for him. But, in a relationship where he holds all the cards and the other has none, in such an unbalanced confrontation of powers, how could the temptation to abuse power not be permanent? It is inscribed in the situation itself. So, in effect, the wearer of the uniform, sure of his power, and all the more sure that it is not his own but that of the society to which he is delegated, the wearer of the uniform is a potential abuser – a potential pig. 

In the psychic benefits of the police position, there is therefore, first and foremost, this relationship of crushing asymmetry installed from the outset between the police officer and ordinary individuals. The socio-psychic position of the policeman is the winning position for sure – or rather, almost for sure – in any case a position of unparalleled moral comfort. I am well aware that police officers are sometimes afraid, exposed to risk, injured or even killed, and may put their lives on the line in genuine acts of heroism. I do not believe, however, that these facts are statistically significant to the point of calling into question the average, or actually ultra-majority definition that I have just given. 

The police are workers in violence, it is in this explicit capacity that society delegates them, and it is in this capacity that they have chosen this profession, which one does not choose by chance. The least we can do is accept the fundamental fact: violence, indeed. 

The death of an individual, including a police officer, is always unacceptable. But it is clear that we are not talking about the same professional unacceptability as in the case of a construction accident. The police have been given weapons – we know how they use them today – and these weapons are supposedly equipped to tackle (I quote) ‘Crime and Violence’. And it is true: it cannot be excluded that sometimes Crime is criminal and Violence violent.

Here the difference with the military is blatant. The military are also workers of violence, but no one would think for a moment of protesting in principle at their being fired on. One of the most notable characteristics of police authorisation is therefore this claim to overwhelming asymmetry, the claim to be able to exercise all kinds of violence without being subjected to any, i.e. the exercise of the instinct without a balancing counterpart. It’s enough to see four armed cops manhandling a poor teenager on a scooter to have an idea of how they see their ‘normal’ conditions of intervention: four armed adults against a 14-year-old kid, that’s fine. 

However, the fact that the individual policeman can have at the end of his individual power all the power of the collective that mandates him is a fact inherent to the police function itself, and you would find this in principle in any form of police, including those you talk about, to which you don’t want to give the name of police – I think that this is the only point of disagreement I have with your book Que fait la police? Et commente s’en passer, which I otherwise agree with almost entirely. It’s a conceptual point, but contrary to what one might think, it’s not at all a matter of scholastic quibbling. 

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You reserve the category of police for the police of capitalist states. I believe that there is a concept of the police that is more general than the capitalist police forces, which are only particular historical embodiments. Here, I’m doing with the police what I’ve already done with the state, and with the same aim, that is to say, combating the illusion that one could live without the state or without the police in general, in the conceptual sense of these terms, it being understood that living in another form of state and with another form of police than that of capital is in my eyes not only highly desirable but quite possible. 

But for this kind of discussion to take place, we need to have a concept of the police (or the state), and not just an indicative definition that simply denounces the police that we have now. Under this ‘definition’, indeed: who wouldn’t subscribe to the idea of doing away with the police? 

But is every kind of police exhausted in the capitalist form? No, if we define the police in the following way: by police we mean a function of intervention in internal conflicts, by delegation and mobilisation of the power of the collective. That is a concept.

The problem, not theoretical, but practical and political, is that in this concept – which presupposes nothing in terms of form – we generically recognise the problem of the Meinhof-potential: the potential of becoming a pig. And for the very reasons that I referred to just now: the reasons linked to the delegation to individuals of the power of the collective. 

Here, then, are the general institutional issues with the police: to contain the instinctual background that the police function, by itself, inevitably reactivates, even remobilises. This is the question that Sandra Lucbert and I call a regime of authorisation, or a regime of instinctuality. 

What then is the capitalist police’s regime of instinctuality? Of course, this police force can be analysed above all in the structural coordinates of the capitalist order, namely the fact that the disputes in which the police are supposed to intervene are not only interpersonal disputes – as the police sociodicy tells us – but principally structural disputes, situated at the central locus of conflict in capitalist society, the conflict between capital and labour (mentioning incidentally the special acuity that these structural disputes acquire in situations of organic crisis). 

But structures are not active in themselves – that was Althusser’s big mistake. They only act by activating motives in individual actors: in this case the motives of the paranoid-aggressive instinct. Activate the instinct, then, and govern it as well, that is to say: 1) set orientations for it but 2) regulate it in intensity according to these orientations.


The indications of capitalist governmentality of the police are very clear here. They are provided by a hierarchy of human dignity, which is implicit but totally unacceptable in a society calling itself democratic, though a totally necessary fact in an essentially unequal social order like capitalism. The hierarchy of human dignity is the correlate of the hierarchy of tasks in the capitalist division of labour. The hierarchy of dignity ranks individuals along a gradient of humanity: at the top are the 100 per cent human, at the bottom those whose humanity is still in dispute – the contemptible. The hierarchy of tasks ranks these along a symbolic gradient of the noble and the ignoble. The mapping of the first onto the second follows very simply: the ignoble tasks to the contemptible, who have been reserved for these.

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The police know the concrete site of structural dispute where their intervention is required: the contemptible, the protesting proletariat. They know it all the better, in cases like France or the USA, because a long past has deeply installed complementary schemes, in fact the most powerful ones, of indignity and contempt: the past of colonialism and slavery. What follows is a regime of authorisation: those individuals whose humanity is uncertain are treated at the limit of what is humanly acceptable.

One is struck by the denial of humanity that emerges from sociological or anthropological studies of the police – I am thinking, for example, of Didier Fassin’s study of the Brigade Anti-Criminalité in relation to young people in the housing estates: ‘They are shit’, ‘They live in shit’, ‘They live like shit’, etc. These comments were made more than ten years ago, but from the way things have gone in the meantime you can imagine where we are today – at least in the WhatsApp groups unearthed by StreetPress. Here, the capitalist hierarchy of the division of labour joins forces with the inherited colonial hierarchy (which can no doubt itself be seen as a capitalist hierarchy, but in another form), a conjunction that designates those at the bottom as the attractor of instinctuality: the place of minimal humanity is logically that of maximum authorisation – a gradient of humanity, a gradient of authorisation. 

From those that capitalism sees as contemptible, whether formerly colonised or otherwise (we saw what happened with the gilets jaunes), the regime of authorisation spreads to all who declare themselves in solidarity: trade unionists, activists, urban youth (who are entitled to their own special treatment, but influenced by a different kind of affect, essentially resentment towards the social privilege of students). 

But abstract structural effects, such as this gradient of authorisation, are achieved through very concrete channels: the channels of the police institution, with its procedures and tolerations, its implicit or explicit licences, its controls or lack of controls, its open indulgences and its simulacra of sanctions, etc. It is the institution and its leaders who concretely liberate the potential of instinct within the general conditions of the hegemonic order as it has determined the contemptible. When, during ‘act 4’ of the gilets jaunes, the order came down: ‘Go ahead and hit, it will make them think next time’, the police instinct measured its new latitude very precisely: as a policeman involved in the maintenance of order that day put it, ‘it’s a free-for-all’, a formula I would have probably been tempted to create myself if I hadn’t found it ready-made as an almost ideal illustration of a comment on violence and enjoyment in the police. 

In Calais, i.e. towards the most contemptible of all, where the literally sadistic practices of the police are the object of express indifference on the part of the institution, the police instinct has free rein. Three weeks ago, for example, when former police prefect Didier Lallement happily evoked the possibility of having to open fire on the demonstrators, he was not, as he pretended, anticipating a regrettable risk, but pre-empting a further extension of the domain of instinct. (Lallement is, incidentally, an exemplary character in every respect of a psychopolitics of state violence, who gave us the opportunity to see what happens when you put a hyper-violent person at the head of an essentially violent institution.)

I think we need to bear these elements in mind in order to understand that if the police do not feel in any way subjectively mobilised in favour of the interests of capital, they are nonetheless objectively at its service, a discrepancy maintained by the conjunction of the following factors:


  • the hierarchy of the division of capitalist labour;
  • the hierarchy of dignities which is its correlate, but which has become autonomous and is never seen as related to the previous one;
  • the regime of differential authorisations open to the violent state instinct which follows from this;
  • the concrete liberation of these authorisations by the institutional arrangement of the police.

This together makes for a regime of instinctuality – in this case, that of the capitalist police. 

And perhaps these elements help us see a little more clearly the requirements of another form of public order, that is to say, an intervention: 

  • mandated and endowed with power by the collective;
  • in the element of conflict, by definition, therefore possibly of violence;
  • but without these very general conditions leading to instinctual outbursts by professionals of violence. 

I think you have understood my position: living without police, under the conceptual definition I have given of it, is something I do not believe in for a moment. But I do believe in remaking the institutions of a regime of instinctuality so as to finally free us from the paranoid-violent scourge of the capitalist police – which means, first of all, to make things perfectly clear, breaking with the capitalist order and its hierarchies. That I do believe in, and not just a little. 

Translated by David Fernbach

[1] Paul Rocher is the author of Que fait la police? Et commente s’en passer, published by La Fabrique in September 2022.

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