‘The people of England regards itself as free’, observed eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.’ Whatever might be said for British parliamentary democracy and all of its limits, any pretence that we are a democratic country collapses before the grim reality of the latest iteration of Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill.
Previous iterations were already set to restrict protest through chilling and vaguely worded powers. If anyone complained of noise from a protest that could cause unease, alarm or distress, it might trigger draconian police intervention. But that provision has been shown to be but a foretaste of Patel’s power-grab. Stop and search powers, already controversial due to the role they play in exacerbating racialised policing, will be extended. Police will be able to invoke such procedures for mere nuisances, disruption, and irrespective of whether the officer has grounds for believing a prohibited object is being carried. Obstructing this process, alongside obstructing highways, major transport works, or carrying the vaguely termed ‘locking on’ equipment necessary to certain forms of protest, can all result in a sweeping potential 51-week prison sentence.
Some parts of the legislation are pointed towards the augmentation of already existing and overreaching police powers, other aspects are likely targeted at specific protest groups such as Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter as a part of a trend for the government to legislate away their enemies. As Ian Dunt of the i observes, such laws would also have targeted the Suffragettes and anti-war protests of the past. In fact, it would essentially illegalise all forms of protest that have ever existed or will exist. It is a complete erosion of the right to dissent in this manner, unless the government approves of the dissent in question. That means that the only permitted actions will be police-approved, heavily corralled, A-to-B, token marches. Break from the authorised route, sit down in the road, blockade a building, etc. and you can find yourself in serious trouble.
The worst part of the legislation pertaining to protest, however, is the SDPO, or Serious Disruption Prevention Order, which can be given to anyone convicted of a protest related offence, any offence listed above, or whose activities are ‘likely to result in serious disruption’. Those under such an order can be made to present themselves to authorities at any time with any degree of regularity, and they can be prevented from accessing the internet for protest activities (such as promotion). Essentially, people hit by such an arbitrary order are no longer allowed basic freedom of speech or assembly.
As is often the case, it is those at the social margins who first experience a wave of new repressions. Often repressive domestic policy has its origins in imperialism, in exported repression, but it can also be trialled at home. Irrespective, before a government targets the population at large, they experiment tolerances for such measures on the oppressed, those least likely to be championed by civil society and the media. Thus disabled people are frequently the first to be targeted in the erosion of social safety nets, as Ellen Clifford has documented in her new book The War on Disabled People. And thus the ongoing privatisation of the NHS is no surprise to trans people, who face many barriers to basic medical access and vital, life-saving treatments. These new oppressive laws will equally come as no shock to many from racialised minorities in the UK, who have long faced disproportionate and unjust policing.
While the Crime Bill is going through, another vital erosion to civil rights in the UK is targeting such people. An amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill allows the home office to remove citizenship without notice, and the racist implications of it are frightening. As Frances Webber, the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations, is quoted in the Guardian observing:
This amendment sends the message that certain citizens, despite being born and brought up in the UK and having no other home, remain migrants in this country. Their citizenship, and therefore all their rights, are precarious and contingent. It builds on previous measures to strip British-born dual nationals (who are mostly from ethnic minorities) of citizenship and to do it while they are abroad, measures used mainly against British Muslims. It unapologetically flouts international human rights obligations and basic norms of fairness.Frances Webber, 2021
The Crime Bill is an attack on all of our rights, but even this sweeping legislation is careful to single out some groups for particular attacks. The Gypsies, Roma, and Traveller community are especially targeted, as it essentially criminalises their nomadic way of life. Muslims might also be concerned, having long been a target of the British state’s repressive measures, such as with the policing of education in the form of the Prevent programme. That is, even as the Tory state moves against us all, that is every person who ever wishes to exercise their capacity to speak freely, they are still playing the politics of divide and rule. That they do so reveals that the Tories believe there are divisions to exploit, in short that the left’s capacity to show solidarity to the oppressed is not robust.
All of this occurs against the backdrop of an already significant erosion of the rights of workers to organise, which this Bill builds upon. Previously, if a boss speeded up the line, the steward could call a workplace meeting, take a vote, and that section might simply walk off the job until the line was slowed down. Solidarity action, flying pickets, mass pickets, workers taking instantaneous and widespread action have all become illegal, with the Trade Union bureaucracy terrified into compliance by the threat of losing their funds. To take effective industrial action, you must break the law from the get-go and continue breaking it.
Historian and commentator Barnaby Raine, speaking to Novara Media about the recent deaths of migrants who died crossing the channel to Britain, aptly summed up what he dubbed ‘an apparently strange coexistence’ between two perspectives adopted by the Tory government. On the one hand, we find the extensive draconianism such as that commented on above. Similar measures, directed at policing borders, even helped to cause the deaths of the aforementioned migrants. On the other hand, we encounter a self-professed concern for protecting civil liberties and especially free speech from supposed erosion by a left that is curiously, despite being so powerful a threat, not in power and possesses few institutional avenues to enact its ideas.
The existence of a great panic about so-called cancel culture, a claim that the left has become authoritarian and repressive and is shutting down free speech, emanating from a political right which is taking on increasingly, aggressively, and worryingly top-down—that is, from the state—authoritarian dynamics.Barnaby Raine, 2021
Raine goes on to explain this strange coexistence:
We can understand a lot of the worries about cancel culture today as a kind of backlash politics. Where the left has made advances in struggles against racism and struggles against patriarchy and misogyny, for example, it’s not easy to respond to those advances by saying, ‘well actually I quite like racism and I think women belong at home’, but it is easy to say, ‘oh the problem is these militant, loud activists who have gone too far.’ So the way that you defend those old systems of oppression is by focussing on the militancy of their opponents and casting them as a real threat.Barnaby Raine, 2021
In short, the seeming ‘libertarianism’ of the Tory’s concerns on free speech, and the Tory’s simultaneous erosion of free speech in legislation such as the new Crime Bill, are in no contradiction whatsoever. We at Anti*Capitalist Resistance have consistently insisted that the left take on the culture wars, recognising that the moral panic against young left activists and the attack on the right to protest, or to access vital services, are inseparable. The culture war, which is an attack on the oppressed and their allies from the left to even some liberals, is not operating in a separate secondary sphere. It is not an ideological distraction from the reality of a strictly economic politics, but rather these spheres are abstractions of the same socially contested reality. Socialists who make a vulgar distinction between the cultural and the political are guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding, at best.
Neil Faulkner wrote Creeping Fascism together with Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse and Seema Syeda, a diagnosis of the politics we are faced with, the first edition of which was published in 2017. The co-authors make the case that fascism was then emerging without much visible street militancy in part because of the weakness of the left, but emerging nonetheless due to capitalist crises (ecological, financial, political, etc.) and as a buttress to capitalism. Fascism here is not some top-down tool of the capitalist state, but a response from certain reactionary social layers to the crisis, one opportunistically seized by state actors. William I Robinson’s The Global Police State, published in 2020, concurs, documenting the rise of militarised policing particularly in response to the need to control many people increasingly surplus to capital’s requirements. More recently Faulkner has reviewed newer and admirable if partially flawed attempts to get to grips with the authoritarian right.
Unfortunately, sections of the left, including many socialists, must take some blame for this situation. That is, for finding ourselves so close to disaster and in such a profound state of unpreparedness. When Faulkner and others raised the alarm on creeping fascism, they were met by derision from much of the left, often from those compromised by complicity in reactionary projects and especially, in the UK context, Lexit (a supposed left wing Brexit). Even more damning, two forms of class reductionism hid from the left the various forms of creeping draconianism that heralded the still ongoing shift from neoliberal to fascist politics taking place in various countries.
The first form are the ultras, those who can only conceive of the working class in its most revolutionary guise and decry struggles necessary to the emergence of revolutionary consciousness. They conflate campaigns for reforms with subordinating or relinquishing revolutionary aspirations to reformism. They are grossly impatient about the struggles of the oppressed, demanding the oppressed accept a false, abstracted proletariat universality that bypasses the particular dimensions of their situation; that is, skipping those stages of identity formation that allow the oppressed to look themselves in the mirror and see a human being, rather than the dehumanised caricatures imposed on them by wider society. Such ultras see little difference between fascism and liberal capitalism, being hopelessly lost in abstractions.
The second form is worse. This side of the left in fact embraces reactionary ideology, wholly or partly. They are the lexiters, defenders of nationalist borders. They are the left transphobic obsessives, seeking to strip legal rights and medical autonomy from trans people. They are the campists, social democrats or Stalinist, who might oppose repression at home while cheering it elsewhere. They are the left racists, who pretend to uphold a universal ideal of humanity, but shut down opposition to the specific repressions experienced by marginalised groups. While the ultras are culpably complacent, this side of the left is sometimes actively complicit in the state’s march towards authoritarianism and a technologically shaped, carnivalesque barbarism.
In truth what Patel proposes should not be surprising to socialists only at this dreadful eleventh hour. Socialists who are in touch with the oppressed, and with general global developments, would foresee, have foreseen, such legislation. It is only surprising to socialists who have become hopelessly detached, or actively opposed to, the struggles of those whose daily life is most relentlessly confronted with increasingly repressive state apparatuses and shrinking state provisions. These developments go back to the inception of neoliberalism, to Pinochet’s Military Junta in Chile, and even earlier in the various intertwining histories of fascism and capitalism.
It is not, however, too late. Now remains the time for socialists to get serious about facing down the threats arrayed against us and all of our humanity. The oppressed are still at the forefront, and need to be shown total solidarity in their struggles. We all have a role to play in the fight back over the next decades. We must reject state repression, just as we do corporate repression and the blending of the two. Nothing less than an anti-capitalist resistance is capable of meeting that challenge. This resistance should avoid the pitfalls of the ultras and the reactionaries, remaining revolutionary while pursuing those demands from below that develop our courage and ability to overturn a world increasingly remade in the image of the authoritarian right, the world of Patel’s gruesome police state. To do so, we must always stress the unity of the oppressed as a condition for the unity of the working class, a unity forged in struggle. Because such unity is foundational, no serious socialist can duck any part of the culture war.
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