Towards a Police State?

16 March 2021

The political class represents a mortal threat to liberal democracy, argues Neil Faulkner.

The police attack on the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common just days before a parliamentary debate on the Police, Sentencing, and Courts Bill has made democratic rights a central political question.

But reactions on the Left have not been as clearheaded as they might be. Writing in Tribune Grace Blakeley says:

But this progress towards overt authoritarianism on behalf of the Tories is not novel – and it is important that the Left recognises this. Capitalism has always reproduced itself through violence, and specifically force utilised in defence of property and power.

Now, of course, this is true as a broad generalisation; but there are problems with it in the concrete circumstances of the present conjuncture. What it does, in effect, is to say, this is normal, this is ‘business as usual’, this is nothing out of the ordinary; at most, we are seeing a quantitative shift towards greater repression, not a qualitative shift towards a new political order.

But, as all good Marxists know, quantity can turn into quality. The danger with broad generalisation is that it leads to the error of ‘over-abstraction’. Let me explain.

All bourgeois states employ a mix of propaganda and police, consent and coercion, fraud and force. So, even in the very liberal parliamentary democracy, we had in Britain in the 1960s, striking workers, anti-war protestors, and Irish civil-rights campaigners were met with violent police repression. On the other hand, even in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Joseph Goebbels’ control of all news media – print, radio, cinema – was considered an essential feature of the dictatorship. But we do not take the view that there was no significant difference between 1960s Britain and 1930s Germany. On the contrary, we make a clear distinction between liberal parliamentary democracy and a fascist state.

Fascism then and now

Worth pursuing this comparison a little further. The Nazis did not overthrow the bourgeois state: they took it over. The primary instrument of repression, war, and genocide between 1933 and 1945 was the existing bourgeois state. It was streamlined by purges, intimidation, indoctrination, and so on – a process called Gleichschaltung – but this was evolution, not revolution.

It is because it has this essential character that fascism can ‘creep’. It often involves violent shocks – Mussolini’s ‘march on Rome’ in 1922, Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933, Franco’s coup in 1936 – but these are part of a process by which the state is taken over and transformed into an instrument of dictatorship and repression.

But a critical difference between the interwar period and the present is this. An immensely strong working-class movement was created by the global revolutionary upsurge of 1917-1923. This movement of millions, including armed self-defence militias, had to be physically smashed before a pro-corporate dictatorship could be established. That was the role of mass fascist paramilitaries like the Blackshirts (in Italy), the Brownshirts (in Germany), and the Blueshirts (in Spain).

No such working-class movement exists today. Forty years of defeat and retreat under neoliberalism have eroded the power of organised labour to the point where fascist paramilitaries are relatively unimportant. They are present, and they can grow. We have seen them in action in the United States – against Black Lives Matter and during the storming of Congress last year. But they are not the main threat: it is the existing state apparatus.

And here’s why the threat is real and rising. Here’s why it is not just ‘business as usual’.

We are now in the grip of the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism. The dual metabolic rupture (global warming and deadly disease) combined with unprecedented inequality, poverty, and social distress has triggered an international firecracker of revolts from below. The whole rotten system is threatened by uprisings of the oppressed that could swell into a global conflagration. This is why the ruling class needs fascism.

There are always two aspects to fascism. First, it is an ideological offensive that aims to create a mass movement around the reactionary garbage of nation, race, and family; one that channels social rage into attacks on the marginalised, the oppressed, the alien ‘other’. Second, it is a violent police crackdown against dissent, protest, and all forms of progressive struggle; ultimately, it is the liquidation of any organised resistance to the rule of capital and the state.

So I have to disagree with Grace Blakeley’s emphasis. I think she is minimising the danger. I think she made the same mistake when she supported Brexit – the flagship of the nationalist-racist Tory Right – imagining that it could somehow be reconfigured into ‘Lexit’ (Left Exit). It couldn’t and hasn’t been. And I think she now underestimates the seriousness of the Johnson’s regime’s authoritarian turn. One error, I fear, leads to another.

The Tory attack on democracy and protest

Starmer’s Labour was set to abstain on the Tory bill. The great majority of the political class was about to rubber-stamp a dramatic lurch towards a police state. Let us just remind ourselves of the following:

  • Nurse Karen Reissman was given a £10,000 fixed-penalty fine by Manchester police for organising a small, safe, open-air, fully-masked, socially-distanced protest against NHS pay cuts.
  • Home Secretary Priti Patel has written to the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services with a view to making current pandemic rules a permanent feature of British policing so as not to interfere ‘with the rights of others to go about their daily business’.
  • John Woodcock has been hired by the Tories to investigate ‘extremism’, including campaigns like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter.
  • The police have been maintaining a National Domestic Extremism Database for many years.
  • The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act allows undercover police and spies to break laws, including around rape and torture, if deemed ‘in the national interest’. (Starmer’s Labour supported this.)
  • Brexit has been used as an excuse to question the Human Rights Act.
  • The Tories are planning a bill to make photo IDs mandatory for participation in elections, when around one in four British voters, disproportionately poor and/or BAME, hold neither a driving licence nor a passport – a transparent exercise in voter suppression.

Now we have the new bill, which will allow police to impose conditions on protests to avoid ‘serious disruption’ and increases prison sentences for protestors, with up to six months for non-violent direct action (e.g. Extinction Rebellion protests) or ten years for criminal damage (e.g. BLM action against racist statues).

We cannot rely on the political class or the union leaders to defend us against what is now unfolding. The model for the restrictions the Tories plan to impose on protest is provided by their highly successful anti-union laws, which the union leaders consistently refuse to challenge, with the result that effective industrial action has become close to impossible.

We cannot rely on the political class or the union leaders to defend us against what is now unfolding.

The Tory plan is this. They will allow some police-approved token protests to take place: this will be the window-dressing on state fascism. They will not allow any protests that are effective – i.e. ‘disruptive’ – and they will certainly not allow any form of protest that turns into resistance. I will come back to this critical distinction: between protest and resistance. But first a comment on Starmer’s U-turn on the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill.

What has shifted Labour into opposition is the intervention of Sisters Uncut. I want to pay tribute to them. The Blairites behind the original #ReclaimTheseStreets vigils collapsed in the face of a police ban backed by the courts. In effect, instead of allowing women to decide when, where, and how to remember a victim of male violence and misogyny, they handed the decision to an increasingly repressive, militarised, authoritarian, Tory-run state.

It cannot be stressed enough that this is because Sisters Uncut refused to be silenced: it was, in other words, direct action by a few that has turned the Tory bill into a political crisis.

This could have been a serious defeat, not just for women, but for all working and oppressed people, whose right to protest, whose democratic freedoms, are in peril. Each time the Tories and the police get away with banning a protest, they gain in confidence, and our side becomes more cowed and timid. So we all owe a huge ‘thank you’ to Sisters Uncut for openly defying the state ban.

The stupidity and brutality of the police in then attacking the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common has caused a political crisis over the bill (with evidence emerging that it may have been ordered by Home Secretary Priti Patel herself, who appears to have been in direct contact with Met Chief Cressida Dick on the night). So instead of Labour nodding it through, a massive argument has erupted. It cannot be stressed enough that this is because Sisters Uncut refused to be silenced: it was, in other words, direct action by a few that has turned the Tory bill into a political crisis.

Central to the battle ahead must be some sort of pro-democracy movement that will unite all the campaigns and struggles and generate mass resistance on the streets to Tory-police repression.

We must build on this. Not only must we defend the right to protest: we must also advance the right to strike, blockade, occupy, sabotage, and in other ways stop the normal functioning of corporate capitalism’s machine of ecological and social devastation. We must advance our right – that of the overwhelming majority of ordinary people – to turn protest into resistance in a struggle to transform the world.

Central to the battle ahead must be some sort of pro-democracy movement that will unite all the campaigns and struggles and generate mass resistance on the streets to Tory-police repression. The road to fascism is open. We must block it.

Neil Faulkner is a joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.

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