System Crash: An Activist Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution.
On 1 June 2020, to clear a space near the White House for a Trump photo opportunity, peaceful demonstrators were attacked by a combination of Park Police and Secret Service agents. The attack was unlawful, half an hour before the curfew kicked in. Police used tear-gas grenades, rubber bullets, shields, and batons, causing numerous injuries. Journalists were assailed too, including a TV crew from Australia, provoking protests from their government.
This was just one moment in a nation-wide US police offensive against demonstrators at a level of ultra-violence not seen since the attacks on Civil Rights demonstrators in the 1960s.
The violence that shocked the media in June 2020 was very visible: the whole world was watching because Trump had summoned the cameras. The violence meted out to Black Americans on a daily basis is not so visible – and it was the fact that the murder of George Floyd was captured on video that for a brief moment pulled back the curtain and triggered a global mass movement against violent police racism.
The uprising following the murder of George Floyd was prefigured by the August 2014 revolt in Ferguson, a Black suburb of St Louis, when an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a white policeman. Protests and riots erupted. Millions worldwide then watched news bulletins with incredulity as the Ferguson Police Department went into action wearing military-style uniforms, using an armoured car, carrying an arsenal of lethal weapons, attempting to enforce a curfew and disperse the crowds.
American social theorist William I Robinson has coined the term ‘Global Police State’ to describe the worldwide increase of police and military repression against radical and progressive opponents of neoliberal exploitation and oppression.
He does not mean that there is a single worldwide state with a unified Gestapo-like repressive force. He is talking about the massive increase in the use of police power to maintain right-wing rule, and the growth in the size and reach of a series of interlocking national security/police institutions, which increasingly co-ordinate data-gathering and operations across national boundaries.
Characteristics of the Global Police State include:
- The attempt to make the ‘overhead costs’ of radical and democratic protest much higher, through the use of police-military violence, mass arrests, and imprisonment.
- The attempt to designate oppositionists as ‘terrorists’. Trump announced that he would designate ‘Antifa’ – Anti-Fascist Action – a terrorist organisation. In fact, Antifa was a tiny component of the Black Lives Matter anti-racist uprising, and the threat to label them as terrorists was a cynical device to de-legitimise the mass protests. Real terrorists, like the Ku Klux Klan and other far-right groups, have Trump’s sympathy and support.
- The use of new types of weapons, or more lethal types of older weapons, that cause more grievous injuries.
- Introducing new laws severely restricting the right to publish critical material, the right to protest through demonstrations, pickets, and occupations, the right to belong to trade unions, and the right to organise opposition political parties.
- Attacks on critical media. Trump repeatedly attacked what he called ‘fake news’ – by which he usually meant mainstream liberal newspapers and TV channels. In the recent BLM uprising, police attacks on journalists were deliberate and widespread. In Minneapolis, photo-journalist Linda Tirado was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet. Trump afterwards widened the attack to include platforms like Facebook and Twitter, hinting that he would look at laws to restrict the kind of political material they could carry. This was a very serious threat to democratic rights.
- The use of new methods of online data harvesting and surveillance to create what Michel Foucault called a ‘Panopticon’ state. The Panopticon was a prison designed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, where the guards from a central point could see into every cell, so that every prisoner was potentially under surveillance. Today, anyone with a mobile phone or an internet-enabled computer is potentially under surveillance at any time. And information about political ‘subversives’ is widely shared between states.
- Criminalising whole sections of society through designating them ‘illegal immigrants’ – part of the process of controlling the precarious and the surplus, and thereby enabling higher levels of exploitation and oppression.
China leads the world in facial recognition software and its use for political control. With the use of CCTV cameras plus facial recognition, police in many countries can know who is at a particular demonstration or other radical action in real time. Data collection on ‘subversives’ is ubiquitous and routine.
Pointing out the increasing use of repression to maintain social control is not to imply that in some past liberal-democratic utopia it did not exist. It is to say that there has been a qualitative shift from consent to coercion, towards the militarisation of social control on a global scale, especially since the 2008 financial crash and the onset of sustained neoliberal crisis.
Prisoners of the American Dream
In the United States, police-military repression has been used since the end of the American Civil War to enforce the segregation and subordination of the Black population. This has involved a combination of violent policing and the racial stereotyping of Black people, especially Black youth. The result is a prison system where 40% of prisoners are Black and more than 20% Latino.
In his 1987 book Prisoners of the American Dream, Mike Davis says that the American capitalist class has maintained itself in power by repression, and by its continued ability to divide the working class on the basis of ‘race’ and ethnicity. Historically, this was English against Irish, English and Irish against Germans, and all Whites against all Blacks. Today, the dominant forms of US racism are anti-Black, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, and anti-migrant.
Racial discrimination plus police-prison repression keeps working-class Black Americans ‘in their place’. The war against so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ plays the same role in relation to the Latino population, and this has spawned a huge network of border guards and immigration enforcement officers – a total of around 40,000.
The response of Donald Trump and his allies to the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising shows two things about the ideology of fear around which many people in comfortable white middle-class suburbs, but also, regrettably, millions of white working-class people, can be mobilised. First is the use of the term ‘terrorism’ in relation to the protests, conjuring up images of bombing, shooting, and mayhem. Second is the ideological stereotyping of the Black population. Put together, it says ‘the barbarians are at the gate, but don’t worry, I’m your law-and-order President’.
A similar labelling of political opponents as ‘terrorists’ is on full display in the battle for democracy in Hong Kong. It has long been a government tactic in Erdogan’s Turkey (where political support for Kurdish independence is automatically ‘terrorist’), and has been used repeatedly by Vladimir Putin against Chechen rebels and others. China has also justified its mass incarceration of the Uighur population in Xian-Jiang province, where more than a million people are held in concentration camps, as being part of the war against terrorism.
Terrorism, the war on drugs, illegal immigration, sedition: all these have been used worldwide to justify the paramilitarisation of policing. This is so ubiquitous in the United States that it is often difficult to tell whether the forces of law and order are police, National Guard, or Army.
US police departments having a huge array of hardware stems in part from the decision after the 2003 Gulf War to sell off surplus military equipment to them cheaply, so that even some small towns received automatic rifles, Humvees, desert combat uniforms, and sometimes armoured cars and helicopters. This, combined with the macho gun-culture prevalent in the States, encourages aggressive and ultra-violent police behaviour during protests, drug raids, and even routine patrolling.
The idea of the Global Police State encompasses two other key developments. First is what William I Robinson calls ‘militarised accumulation’. The needs of expanded armed forces, border guards, intelligence agencies, and riot squads has made arms production and military employment and supply a giant factor in the world economy. Vast state expenditure on the armed forces, the police, the prisons, and the borders involves a recycling of tax revenues and government debt into corporate contracts.
Military production companies like Lockheed Marten, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems are among the most profitable in the world. These in turn are deeply integrated with hi-tech companies, which also take a share of the vast military budgets, financing increasingly digitalised military platforms and warfare techniques. These have been developed in particular in anticipation of future conflict with China.
A further dimension of the Global Police State is its intersection with growing far-right and neo-fascist forces. In the United States this includes gun culture and a celebration of militarism. The fascist armed groups that participated in anti-lockdown demonstrations in mid 2020 were often dressed in military-style uniforms and carried army-style weapons, with no attempt by the police to intervene. This is no longer the preserve of a few crank survivalists and Nazis mini-cults. As Henry A Giroux points out:
For the last 40 years, the United States has pursued a ruthless form of neoliberalism that has stripped economic activity from ethical considerations and social costs. One consequence has been the emergence of a culture of cruelty in which the financial elite produce inhuman policies that treat the most vulnerable with contempt… Under the Trump administration, the repressive state and market apparatuses that produced a culture of cruelty in the 19th century have returned with a vengeance, producing new levels of harsh aggression and extreme violence in US society.
After the Crash: post-crisis repression
In the world after the 2008 financial crash, global austerity provoked a huge outpouring of protest which was violently repressed in states across the world. The riot police became a fixture of nightly TV news bulletins. Right-wing governments used water cannon, rubber bullets, tear gas, and – on occasion – more lethal methods to suppress protestors. And in many countries laws were changed to make it more difficult to hold legal protests.
For radical critics of the system this is no surprise. Since the publication of the English version of his Prison Notebooks in 1976, the ideas of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and particularly his notion of ‘hegemony’, have swept the radical Left. Simply put, this says that the capitalist class stays in power by a combination of state repression and ideological dominance. The consent, open or tacit, of a majority of people most of the time is achieved through ruling-class domination of the press, TV, the education system, churches, and, today, online media.
In fact, until the 2000 Millennium, the idea of ruling-class cultural and political hegemony held more sway in left-wing explanations of capitalism’s durability than the repression of police, courts, and prisons. After all, in most advanced capitalist countries, and sporadically in others, protest was tolerated.
After the 2008 crisis the balance changed, with an avalanche of police and military violence. This is unsurprising. During the post-war boom, in advanced capitalist countries after 1950, workers’ income and consumption increased significantly. But as economic crises multiplied and incomes stagnated after 1975, social peace eroded and conflict between the state and employers on one side, and workers and other oppressed people on the other, intensified.
Episodically in this period, repression was used in heavy doses against major struggles. Police violence during 1984-5 British miners’ strike was a key factor in its defeat, coupled with anti-union laws that have progressively made it more and more difficult to hold legal strikes in Britain. And police-military violence was used at massive levels in the United States in the 1960s, first against Civil Rights protests in the South, then against Black rebellions and riots in the North.
But with the fight-back against austerity after the 2008 economic crisis, repression became more generalised and sustained. The French Yellow Vest movement in 2018-19 was met with levels of violence that led to dozens being blinded, losing hands, and in a few cases becoming paralysed. The French CRS riot police also mobilised armoured cars and a full spectrum of semi-military equipment.
In America, huge resources are put into intelligence agencies and surveillance. Prison sentences are harsh and 2.3 million people are locked up in American prisons, many serving absurdly long sentences. And the increasing militarisation of the American state, with vast numbers employed in the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force, and the trillions spent on weaponry, have led to a new version of the Cold War ‘permanent arms economy’. The United States, moreover, is internationalising the role of its police forces, particularly the FBI, linking them with the repressive agencies of allied states, pushing towards an integrated Global Police State.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has knocked all economies off their axes, military spending in the US in particular has been a key factor in boosting and stabilising capitalist economies. Seemingly disconnected phenomena, like repression of ‘illegal’ immigrants, the development of weaponry to be used in outer space, and the militarisation of domestic police forces, are in fact linked to a turn by the increasingly internationalised capitalist class towards repression and violence, not just to create domestic and international order, but as part of the basis for further capital accumulation.
The Spanish state: collapsing democracy
What has happened in Spain is symbolic because, following the collapse of the fascist regime after Franco’s death in 1976, the country was regarded as one of the most democratic and open in the world. Nothing could be censored and no demonstration banned, as the country moved towards elections in 1978.
After the economic crisis of 2008, nowhere was the anti-austerity movement deeper than in Spain, leading to a huge mass movement of predominantly young people – the Indignados, meaning, roughly, the ‘Outraged’.
Spanish youth had much to be outraged about. Spain has had one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, reaching a Eurozone record of 21.3%. The total number of unemployed people stood at 4,910,200 at the end of March 2011, when the youth unemployment rate was 43.5%, the highest in the European Union.
The protests kicked off in September 2010 when the main trade unions called a general strike against government plans for a sweeping overhaul of labour laws – designed to make it easier to fire workers and removing legal protection on pay and conditions.
In May 2011, a massive anti-austerity movement erupted, usually taking the form of the open-air occupations of major plazas or in front of town halls. As the protests became larger in the run-up to the general election, the electoral commission tried to ban the protests. In June, police attacks on demonstrators multiplied. Ruth Simsa comments:
From 2011 onwards, repression of activists has been observed with a rise in financial penalties, the misuse of existing laws, and police violence. The interior ministry increased public spending on anti-riot equipment. While Spain was called to order several times for police torture before the rise of social activism by the European Union, police brutality now rose. Amnesty International has documented incidents of police violence against protesters, including the use of clubs and rubber bullets.
The government reacted with new laws on public security and ‘terrorism’, and a reform of the criminal code, ratified in July 2015, to impose restrictions on civil-society activists and reduce the rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. This included repressive measures of breathtaking anti-democratic content, including fines of up to €600,000 for unauthorised demonstrations. The new laws forbade the photographing or filming of police officers in situations where doing so could ‘put them in danger’. This could result in a fine of up to €30,000. Showing a ‘lack of respect’ to those in uniform, meanwhile, could mean a fine of €600.
The turn to repression was on full show in October 2017, when the government in Madrid sent thousands of riot police from the Guardia Civil to Catalonia to try to disrupt the independence referendum called by the province’s nationalist leaders for that day. More than 800 people were injured in the resulting clashes. Shocking scenes of police manhandling and beating old and young alike sullied Spain’s reputation worldwide. Two years later, in October 2019, Spanish courts handed out sentences of up to 13 years to the leaders of the Catalan independence movement.
The police repression of youth, worker protests, and the Catalan independence movement had an important political consequence. While the Indignados had provided the basis for the emergence of the Podemos! left-wing political party, the subsequent upsurge of state violence and attack on liberal-democratic norms was the context for the rise of Vox, a sinister fascist organisation that garnered substantial electoral support.
Erdoğan’s Turkey: full-spectrum repression and creeping fascism
Turkey is an example of the full repertoire of political and police-military mobilisation to ensure the reactionary Right stays in power. Reactionary hegemony in Turkey depends on combining two things: first, the huge mass base of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP); and second, the step-by-step purge of the courts, the prison system, and the police, putting AKP loyalists in charge – and then using these self-same repressive apparatuses to crush opposition inside and outside the state.
Erdoğan trod the road used by many fascist and far-right leaders: that of winning power electorally in 2003, then attempting in successive waves to purge the state apparatus of opponents – the process the Nazis called gleichschaltung. Now Turkey, once considered a country with an increasingly ‘modern’ and democratic political system, has lurched into personal dictatorship and creeping fascism.
For the first 10 years of AKP government, huge amounts of foreign investment fuelled an economic boom. Things started to go wrong after the economic crash of 2008. Living standards stalled. At the same time there was a growing number of armed clashes with PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) guerrillas, and increasing tensions within the Islamist movement itself.
The storm broke when the 2013 Gezi Park movement shook the regime to its foundations. The occupation of the park in Istanbul to prevent its transformation into a giant shopping mall led to a massive pro-democracy movement that spread to dozens of urban centres, involving at various times up to 3.5 million people. This movement was violently repressed, with more than 20 deaths and hundreds of severe injuries among demonstrators.
Hard on the heels of the Gezi Park movement, PKK supporters in the Kurdish south-east of the country began to declare their towns to be autonomous self-governing entities, which led to massive armed repression, the destruction of whole towns and villages, the death of around 5,000 people, and the imprisonment of many more. Thousands of Kurds from the region remain in jail.
After three years of growing turmoil, opponents of Erdoğan in the (traditionally secular-nationalist) army and air force launched a military coup. This was easily defeated. Erdoğan proclaimed ‘God has sent us this coup’, and set about using the event as a pretext for the destruction of democracy.
More than 130,000 public employees were fired, including thousands of teachers and hundreds of police officers and judges. All opposition newspapers and TV channels have been shut down. Tens of thousands – a fifth of Turkey’s 246,000-strong prison population – have been charged with ‘terrorism’ offences. Torture in jail is widespread.
While the left-wing and pro-Kurdish HDP party is banned, with all its leaders and tens of thousands of its members jailed, the moderate CHP party is able to participate in elections, and even won the mayoral election in Istanbul in 2018. It is unlikely, however, to be allowed to win any election that puts Erdoğan out of power.
Four ‘wars’ that bind military and police repression
There are four ‘wars’ or proto-wars that merge military and police repression. Each is led by the United States. The first is the vast war (or wars) in preparation – which may of course never take place – against China and/or Russia. This is dealt with below.
The others are the interlocking ‘wars’ against drugs, ‘illegal’ immigration, and ‘terrorism’. These are used to legitimise the military interventions of the US and its allies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, through which the United States establishes a military presence abroad and gets foreign states to march in lockstep with its objectives.
While conventional wars were continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the participation of US military personnel in anti-drugs operations in Latin America became a daily event. The war on drugs, originally stoked up by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has had dramatic domestic effects in the US. As Alfred McCoy points out:
During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, dusted off Rockefeller’s anti-drug campaign for intensified domestic enforcement, calling for a ‘national crusade’ against drugs and winning draconian federal penalties for personal drug use and small-scale dealing. For the previous 50 years, the US prison population remained remarkably stable at just 110 prisoners per 100,000 people. The new drugs war, however, almost doubled those prisoners, from 370,000 in 1981 to 713,000 in 1989. Driven by Reagan-era drug laws and parallel state legislation, prison inmates soared to 2.3 million by 2008, raising the country’s incarceration rate to an extraordinary 751 prisoners per 100,000 population. And 51% of those in federal penitentiaries were there for drug offenses.
McCoy points out that because of laws disenfranchising those convicted of a felony, nearly six million voters, most of them Black, are unable to cast their ballot. At the same time, rural areas with large prisons have an automatic constituency for the Republican Party among the guards and other prison workers.
The ‘war on drugs’ is blatant hypocrisy. Supplying its millions of affluent and respectable cocaine users, as well as millions of more miserable crack and heroin users lower down the social scale, the drug ‘industry’ provides hundreds of millions of dollars of ‘hot’ money laundered through US banks each year. Prohibition and the war on drugs knit together foreign military and political intervention with a major weapon of domestic and social control – one that justifies harsh policing of minority ethnic communities and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Black people and Latinos.
The war on ‘illegal’ immigration combines attempts to control ‘surplus’ populations outside the core capitalist countries with the exploitation of cheap labour inside them. Immigrants on the periphery of Europe and on the Mexican border form a huge reserve pool of potentially very cheap labour. ‘Illegal’ immigrants can be made to take the worst, most insecure, lowest-paid jobs, and will be reluctant to organise (in unions) for fear of losing their jobs and/or being deported.
Border guards and immigration police are part of a vast interlocking network of security apparatuses, linked together through computerised surveillance systems, whose primary role is to control migrant labour. As William I Robinson and Xuan Santos explain:
… under capitalist globalisation a new global immigrant labour supply system has come to replace earlier direct colonial and racial caste controls over labour worldwide… The rise of new systems of transnational labour mobility and recruitment have made it possible for dominant groups around the world to reorganise labour markets and recruit transient labour forces that are disenfranchised and easy to control.
Then there is the ongoing ‘war against terror’. This provides further opportunity for large-scale US military intervention around the world, for operations to clear the ground for capital accumulation, and for all manner of highly profitable investment by the military-industrial-security complex.
Each day, for example, US soldiers participate in an average of 80 anti-terrorist operations in Africa, mainly against the Islamists of Al-Shabaab in East Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa. You read that right: 80 operations a day in Africa alone. This brings us back to the central dynamic: the militarised repression and militarised accumulation of the Global Police State – whose flagship is the ‘war on terror’.
The permanent arms economy
Since the First Gulf War in 1991, there has not been a single day that the world has been free from war. The promise of a ‘peace dividend’ following the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War has proved to be wishful thinking.
This is not just a matter of foreign interventions by the United States: it involves dozens of states. In the First Gulf War, seven countries joined the coalition to reverse Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. More than 20 states have been involved in military action in Africa. A dozen countries were involved in the Second Gulf War (2003), and the insurgency that followed. An astonishing 61 countries sent military forces to participate in the US-led ‘Enduring Freedom’ operation – in reality ‘Endless War’ – in Afghanistan, beginning in 2001. And Russia has been involved in military operations in Chechnya, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
All told, the armies of more than 100 countries have been involved in external or internal wars since 1990. In fact, the fall of Communism facilitated an explosion of worldwide militarism on a scale not seen since the two world wars and the human catastrophes of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. One measure of the devastation is a 65% increase in the number of people worldwide displaced by violence in the last decade to a total of 70 million.
Liberal analysts tend to see war as ‘external’ to the economy and politics of the countries involved. They are wrong. Stepped-up militarism and war-fighting are a deliberate strategy with huge implications for the ‘domestic’ economy and political system. Militarism and war go hand-in-hand with appeals to nationalism, with reactionary politics more generally, with a strengthening of the Right and Far Right. Militarisation always impacts negatively on democracy. War and creeping fascism are twins.
The new militarism has given rise to a new ‘permanent arms economy’, just as the Cold War did in the 1950s. As William I Robinson explains:
By the 21st century, the transnational capitalist class turned to several mechanisms in order to sustain global accumulation in the face of over-accumulation, above all, financial speculation in the global casino, along with the plunder of public finances, debt-driven growth and state-organised militarised accumulation…
The crisis is pushing us toward a veritable global police state. The global economy is becoming ever more dependent on the development and deployment of systems of warfare, social control and repression, apart from political considerations, simply as a means of making profit and continuing to accumulate capital in the face of stagnation. The so-called wars on drugs and terrorism; the undeclared wars on immigrants, refugees, gangs, and poor, dark-skinned and working-class youth more generally; the construction of border walls, immigrant jails, prison-industrial complexes, systems of mass surveillance, and the spread of private security guard and mercenary companies, have all become major sources of profit-making.
The events of September 11, 2001, marked the start of an era of a permanent global war in which logistics, warfare, intelligence, repression, surveillance, and even military personnel are more and more the privatised domain of transnational capital. Criminalisation of surplus humanity activates state-sanctioned repression that opens up new profit-making opportunities for the transnational capitalist class. Permanent war involves endless cycles of destruction and reconstruction, each phase in the cycle fuelling new rounds of accumulation, and also results in the ongoing enclosure of resources that become available to the capitalist class…
The scale of the militarised economy is stupendous. Worldwide it is close to two trillion dollars annually (that is two followed by twelve zeros). US expenditure is officially $748bn, but some analysts claim it is nearer one trillion.
The United States, as well as being the world’s leading consumer of military equipment and supplies, is also the main producer and exporter. The income and profits of its top defence companies are fabulous. Lockheed Martin’s latest annual figures show an income of $45 billion, and the top ten defence contractors between them earned around $150 billion. This is the second most profitable sector of the US economy, next to the fabulously wealthy Apple and Microsoft. High-tech companies in the US earned about $400 billion all told.
But this is a misleading picture, in two ways. First, the US military is a major consumer of the hardware and software of the high-tech companies. Exact figures are hard to pin down, because the supply of IT products is often indirect, being supplies to major defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman.
Second, the list of suppliers to the US military is vast and goes way beyond the tanks, planes, missiles, and small-arms provided by defence contractors. The US military is a massive consumer of oil, food, transport, medical equipment, housing, clothing, construction equipment, telecommunications equipment, and so on. There are more than 800 US military bases worldwide, and 440 of them are in the United States itself. These have huge purchasing power in local communities. A US Army private earns an estimated $38,000 a year when allowances for housing and food and drink are factored in. Pay goes up substantially with years of service, and pay for officers is much higher.
The overall picture here is of a militarised sector that is a crucial part of the economy, employing millions of people, and re-cycling the economic surplus. It is a crucial factor in mitigating over-accumulation and attempting to stabilise the economy. Militarisation and the military are crucial factors in the political structure and economy of numerous countries worldwide, from Western Europe to the Middle East and East Asia.
US militarisation post-9/11 centred on trying to establish US leadership in a self-proclaimed ‘war on terror’. This led to disastrous and endlessly expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to US ‘anti-terrorist’ operations in many other countries, especially in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
While the ‘war on terror’ posture has been maintained, it has been coupled with the characterisation of China and Russia as enemy states. This highlights an uncomfortable contradiction inside the transnational capitalist class. While there is a growing integration of production between the United States and China – symbolised by the manufacture of most of Apple’s products by the Chinese giant Foxconn – competition between the world’s two largest capitalist countries nonetheless persists and intensifies. The Trump administration’s campaign against the tech giant Huawei and its fake accusations of ‘security risks’ with the 5G mobile network was an example.
The fundamental strategic posture of the US military is preparation for possible war with China, with a subsidiary posture of possible wars with Russia, Iran, and the wretched victims of the ‘war on terror’ like Afghanistan and Iraq. This provides the ideological and political justification for a military structure of unprecedented size and complexity – the greatest concentration of ‘means of destruction’ in the history of humanity.
The key US military doctrine has shifted from the ‘AirLand Battle’of the 1980s, aimed at Russia, to ‘AirSea Battle’ and ‘Multi-Domain Dominance’ in the last two decades, which envisages a massive and lethal assault on China, with a projected 20,000 dead per day.
Multi-Domain Dominance is an attempt to survey and control vast geographic areas, using cyber, electronic, and satellite platforms, which US defence wonks hope can be synthesised into an artificial-intelligence ‘defence algorithm’, capable of viewing a giant battlefield and selecting appropriate targets and tactics.
That requires an enormous array of new and highly expensive weaponry. In the early 1980s Mary Kaldor coined the phrase ‘baroque arsenal’ to refer to the huge potential overkill possessed by the US military under Reagan. Today’s super-expensive actual and in-the-pipeline weapons might be referred to as ‘super baroque’. Under Trump, at least until the coronavirus hit, all four services were getting exactly what they wanted, with price no object.
Hawk Carlisle, on the National Defence website, gives a glimpse of the information technology requirements involved:
Potential adversaries are making significant improvements in cyber warfare in order to minimise traditional US dominance in all the other domains. The United States must become the best in cyber just as it has mastered all the other domains. This will require significant advancements by the US defence industrial base and the US military in new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous and semi-autonomous systems, quantum computing and big data, to name a few. Also, just as it understands and works to gain and maintain space, air, land, and naval superiority, it must also understand and work to gain and maintain superiority across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
Surveillance Capitalism: the global Panopticon
People looking for a particular product online may suddenly find advertisements for similar products on their email feed or Facebook page. That is because their internet usage is being tracked by a series of programmes, the most ubiquitous of which is called DoubleClick, owned by Google.
DoubleClick, which is hard to get rid of, builds an enormous database about users that alerts advertisers. This personal data is enormously valuable for Google, but an enormous invasion of personal privacy.
Supermarkets know everything about their customers’ personal preferences by recording all debit card and online purchases, as do Amazon, Netflix, and other online retailers and entertainment providers. Every online movie a viewer has ever watched is recorded, for example, and what they watch gives away a lot about likely future consumer choices.
Marketing is a crucial feature of surveillance capitalism, and it is feeding an obsessive, neurotic, alienated kind of mass consumption, referenced in such colloquial phrases as ‘retail therapy’. But that is not all: online behaviour also reveals political attitudes, and in a growing number of countries state spying on citizens though monitoring of their online (and mobile phone) activity is reaching epidemic levels.
Twenty or thirty years ago, trade unionists, socialist activists, peace campaigners, and dissidents of all sorts used to worry that their telephone calls were listened to and their mail opened by police and intelligence services. This did indeed take place on a large scale, and still does. But political surveillance is now mainly digitalised, and that has enabled a massive shift in both the quality and quantity of data collected.
A crucial part of contemporary surveillance is to intimidate people into not joining ‘subversive’ or critical activities, because of the likelihood that it will become known – at least to intelligence services and then potentially to employers or other authority figures.
The modern ‘Panopticon’ comprises a huge network of surveillance, with the United States (and its junior partner Britain), China, and Russia at its core. While Chinese electronic and internet surveillance is massive, especially of its own population, even China’s massive efforts are dwarfed by the vast surveillance capabilities of the United States.
This was revealed by WikiLeaks’ Edward Snowden, a former contractor for America’s CIA spy agency, in 2013. He showed that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) harvested vast amounts of data about the telephone conversations of millions of Americans, directly hacked into the databases of online and social media companies like Yahoo!, Google, and Facebook, and tracked the phone conversations of foreign political leaders, including allegedly ‘friendly’ ones like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
The United States is plugged into a global system of surveillance with its Anglophone allies – the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – through the so-called ‘Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance’. It has also forged similar links with European states and companies.
Through all these programmes the internet has been turned into a vast surveillance network, instantly available and usable by police and intelligence networks. It is not just the sites people visit; it is the built-in cameras of their lap-tops that can be used any time to watch them.
Now surveillance has morphed into real time, following individuals through their smart phones. China, which has thousands of desk-based agents monitoring its own citizens, leads the world in this technology. It is using the Covid pandemic to roll out tracking apps that will tell the authorities where people are, where they have been, who they have been meeting. The dictatorship also has 200 million CCTV cameras in place, and makes extensive use of facial-recognition software.
Surveillance and data are crucial and interlinked in three dimensions in modern capitalism – marketing, political and police surveillance, and military operations.
The US military’s Multi-Domain Dominance strategy, paralleled by other leading military states like China and Russia, depends on vast amounts of data and ‘battlespace’ surveillance. The choice of the Lockheed’s F-35 as the main combat aircraft for US forces, as opposed to apparently near-identical competitors like the F-22 Raptor, is not due to its superior capacity in dogfights with Russian and Chinese planes. It is because the F-35 is really a flying super-computer with the ability to survey and track vast areas, and to deliver powerful missiles against multiple targets.
In the next chapter, we explore how the architecture of the capitalist internet has given rise not only to new forms of surveillance, but also interacted with the increasingly proletarianised and atomised reactionary middle strata of some societies to produce a unique new social base for fascism. Moreover, online fascism makes direct use of internet surveillance – as when the far-right political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica misappropriated data to help reactionary causes in 2016’s UK Brexit referendum and US presidential election, but also earlier in the 2014 US midterm elections, and elsewhere, in Australia, India, Kenya, Malta, and Mexico.
After the virus
How will coronavirus and lockdown impact on the global slide towards militarisation and police-state repression? That will depend on the struggles that are bound to develop as neoliberal regimes impose new austerity and crackdown and the world economy collapses into depression and mass unemployment. Around the world, ruling classes are preparing for escalating class warfare.
Numerous states have passed laws giving extensive anti-democratic authority to those in power. In Hungary it is now a criminal offence to spread ‘misinformation’ about coronavirus, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can rule by decree for an indefinite period. In Britain and other countries, new powers to detain people on suspicion of ‘terrorism’ have been passed. It remains to be seen whether these powers will be used any time soon: the important thing is that they are there. Past experience shows these kinds of laws, passed for a temporary emergency, often become permanent.
The crisis is making intrusive policing normal. The military are seen on the streets as a matter of course in many countries, and police have unlimited powers to ask people why they are out of their homes. These powers are justified by the claim that they are necessary to enforce lockdowns, but they are likely to be retained in ‘the new abnormal’ following the pandemic.
The role of the military is being swivelled towards domestic tasks in countries that do not have a history of such interference in civil affairs. For the moment this has usually been to augment medical responses, by carrying out tests, delivering supplies, and dealing with corpses, but it has also involved troops in countries like Britain, France, Germany, and Italy patrolling streets and beaches and checking motorists.
The virus is also being used to impose intrusive new surveillance techniques that will enable the state to track the population.
What comes of these trends will depend on the struggle from below over the next decade. What is clear is that, in the context of neoliberal capitalism’s deep, worsening, and perhaps terminal crisis, the increasingly militarised state – the Global Police State – represents a mortal threat to democracy. It is the embodiment of a creeping fascism that threatens us all.
Anti*Capitalist Resistance will soon be publishing this new book on the world crisis and the popular resistance in print format. Because of the urgency of the political situation, however, we will be publishing the book chapters as a series of long-read online articles over the next month or so. This is the fifth chapter.