Foucault’s Boomerang: How Tactics of Repression From Abroad Have Found Their Way Home

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Michel Foucault was a French sociologist who was largely known for his work on social norms and cultural repression — however, what ended up being one of his most crucial contributions as a thinker was his postulation upon colonization which became known as Foucault’s Boomerang. This ‘boomerang effect’, which Foucault had identified, was the process by which the mechanisms of control which Western colonizer countries developed to repress colonized countries and peoples would eventually end up finding their way back to the West, being utilized by Western governments against their own people. As Foucault puts it in his own words, “Colonization… had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power used. A whole series of colonial models were brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.”

This creates a system where colonized countries become something like pseudo-laboratories of development for tactics of repression and control, and once these tactics are fully fledged and developed they are then turned inward towards the marginalized of the colonizer’s own society. The most heinous example of this would be the concentration camp; it was first developed by Western powers in order to break the spirit of colonized peoples, only for it to end up being utilized by Hitler in Nazi Germany upon his own people. But this instance is only the most egregious of examples, and others abound. Before the MI6 sabotaged and subverted leftist movements in Britain in the 1900s, the Dehli Intelligence Bureau subverted independence movements against the British Raj; before police helicopters patrolled our towns and cities, US army helicopters buzzed through the skies of Vietnam; and even the racialization of the globe’s population — the hierarchical categorization of different sects of humanity by grouping them on supposed physical and cultural traits — can be first traced back to colonizers searching for a justification for the slave trade and the brutal subjugation of colonized peoples.

Were we to try and apply this Foucaultian analysis to the present day United States, for the uninitiated it might be hard to envision the U.S. as a colonial power — at least, certainly not in the traditional sense of territorial expansion and explicit political control over satellite nations. But, when one considers the U.S.’ dominion over the world reserve currency and global financial institutions, its global surveillance network, and its worldwide network of foreign military bases which eclipses that of any other civilization or empire in history, the outlines of a sort of informal global empire, one which exerts its hegemonic power through implicit financial domination rather than overt military rule, begins to take shape. Of course, that is not to say that the U.S. abdicates itself completely from military intervention to maintain this ‘empire’; quite the contrary, historically the U.S. has quite frequently used military force whenever a country has attempted to step out of line from this exploitative economic order, as occurred in the U.S. backed coups against the democratically elected governments of Mossadegh in Iran, Qasim in Iraq, Arbenz in Guatemala, and Patrice Lumuba in the Congo, to only name a few.

Now, in the violent repression of the protests in Portland, we begin to see a Foucaultian Boomerang unfolding before our eyes. President Trump has ordered federal officers to converge upon the ‘unrest’ in Portland; their arrival was fairly immediately followed by reports of shocking violence and protestors being targeted and abducted in unmarked vans. Currently, the legions of federal officers which occupy the streets of Portland are made up of a patchwork of different tactical units from various departments, all of which are housed under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security’s “Protecting American Communities” task force, an initiative spurred by Trump’s executive order on June 26. Among these units are the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), two special operations units which have been deployed abroad in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

TW: Grotesque violence

For the purposes of our Foucaultian analysis, this fact is notable. The Iraq war was an imperialist war fought for resources, or to be specific, oil — those involved have practically said as much. General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Military Operations in Iraq said, “Of course it’s about oil; we can’t really deny that,” when asked. Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman, wrote in his memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Case and point, after a decade of fighting, the once publicly-owned oil industries in Iraq, which reside on one of the biggest oil fields in the world, have become privatized and almost completely foreign owned by some of the largest oil companies in the West — including a sizable share owned by Haliburton, the oil company that then Vice President Dick Cheney had started in Texas.

Now, the same units which fought in this neocolonialist war are being deployed to the streets of Portland. Herein, lies the Foucaultian Boomerang of the present moment. The same forces which fought in urban battles in Mosul and Baghdad are now fighting an urban battle in an American city — but now, the skills of urban warfare and counterinsurgency which these tactical units have attuned and developed will not be used against people of color abroad, but rather against people of color protesting for racial equality right here at home. The image of men in green fatigues driving around in unmarked vans, abducting citizens in the still of the night is one that has played out a thousand times over in Baghdad; these are textbook U.S. military counter-insurgency tactics which have now boomeranged back home. Within this context, reports of ICE training their officers in ‘urban warfare’ through ‘state of the art hyper realistic’ training centers’ are incredibly concerning and should be viewed with extreme trepidation; Trump’s executive order will give these federal agencies carte blanche to replicate these strategies across the United States, and the DHS has already indicated that they intend to do as much. The buck does not stop with Portland.

It’s important to note that all of this is unfolding within the larger backdrop of an ongoing transfer of equipment and technology between the U.S. military and the police. Police forces across the United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy surplus military equipment from the U.S. military — it is a continuous process by which the excesses of a virulently bloated military budget are laundered into equally bloated police budgets across the country. The result is an ever-increasing militarization of our nation’s police forces, and the increasing adoption of policies and technologies used by the U.S. military and its allies to suppress dissent from oppressed peoples of color abroad. In this sense, it is clear that U.S. imperialism is a two way street, one in which the technologies, practices, and tactics which are developed for the maintenance of power internationally are then recycled into the increasingly-militarized domestic security apparatus we have at home. It behooves us to recognize this: there exists a constellation between the United State’s neocolonialist pursuits, it’s marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities, and it’s apparatus of internal repression, and if we wish to dismantle one, we must dismantle all three.

But if I may make one slight addendum to Foucault’s hypothesized boomerang it is this: just as the tactics Western colonizers use to subjugate their subjects redound back to the Western societies, so too do the means to resist them. The guerilla tactics pioneered in the global south to resist Western military domination found their way back to the West in the form of the IRA; Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent protest to resist colonialist British rule became central tenets of numerous successful civil rights movements for marginalized minorities across the Western world; and now, both the decentralized, leaderless model and protest tactics used by colonized peoples across the globe, from Chile to Hong Kong, to resist militarized police forces have found their way back to the seat of Western power.

And so, whilst our work is certainly cut out for us, we are not without hope. The imperialistic pursuits which cultivated the state’s current repressive apparatus have simultaneously helped foster the development of the means to resist them. We must press on, for the fate of our nation, and by consequence the fate of peoples the world over, hangs in the balance.

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