The All-Seeing (Private) Eye: When it comes to protecting private property the trick lies in learning how to undermine the legal protections guaranteed to those attempting to modify property relations, while taking full advantage of the protections guaranteed to property owners. The ideal mechanism for giving effect to these contradictory objectives is the private detective agency.
THE POLITICAL SCANDAL swirling around the private detective agency Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd (TCIL) lays bare capitalism’s rawest nerves.
The core function of the modern state is the facilitation of private wealth-creation. The so-called “rule of law” is critical to this function. In the absence of a reliable legal system the protection of private property reduces swiftly to the application of brute force – a most unreliable servant and an even worse master.
Making the rule of law one of capitalism’s central talismans, however, means extending the law’s equal protection to the system’s enemies as well as its friends. When it comes to protecting private property, therefore, the trick lies in learning how to undermine the legal protections guaranteed to those attempting to modify property relations, while taking full advantage of the protections guaranteed to property owners.
The private detective agency is the ideal mechanism for giving effect to these contradictory objectives. It is no accident that the first and most famous of these, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, was founded in the United States in 1855. The big industrial capitalists of the era were only just becoming aware of their need to be protected from their own employees, who were, similarly, just becoming aware of the need to protect themselves in trade unions.
Allan Pinkerton, a Scotsman, offered his services to these captains of industry. His spies would provide them with intelligence about who their employees were listening to and what was being planned. If worse came to worst and a strike broke out, Pinkerton also offered to organise strike-breakers and provide them with armed protection.
As the Pinkerton agency grew in size and strength it found itself providing intelligence and muscle not just to private industry, but also to the federal government of the United States. In 1860 the “Pinks” as they were called, foiled a plot to assassinate the President-Elect Abraham Lincoln and were immediately hired as his bodyguards for the duration of the Civil War.
For the next 50 years, the Pinkertons would occupy that shadowy territory between the lawful and the unlawful. Their principal value lay in their ability to do what was necessary in such a fashion that their actions could not be attributed directly to either big business or the state. In carrying out their employers’ dirty-work, however, the Pinkertons were forced to descend deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld. It was in no one’s interests to ask too closely how the trade union organiser fell into the ravine, or who was responsible for beating the muck-raking journalist senseless.
As the federal government expanded, the work formerly contracted out to the Pinkertons was taken in-house. The “Pinks” were replaced by the “G-men” of the FBI, the Secret Service and the CIA. The need for “the work”, however, never ceased. Keeping left-wing dissidents and activists under surveillance; intercepting and reading their mail; sowing suspicion and discord in their organisations – such services were always in high demand.
As the rapidly emerging picture of TCIL’s activities in New Zealand makes clear, when the official organs of law enforcement and national security find themselves lacking the human and material resources (not to mention the legal authority) required to carry out “the work”, being able to contract the private sector to assist the public sector in fulfilling its core function of keeping the country safe for private wealth-creators is extraordinarily helpful.
Like the Pinkertons of old, TCIL has parlayed its ability to move with confidence in the shadowy territory between what is lawful and unlawful; ethical and the unethical; into a highly lucrative business. There has always been, and will always be, a lot of money to be made out of letting capitalism’s friends know, in some detail, what their enemies are up to.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 June 2018.