It’s on the streets of the US, Britain, and Hong Kong right now, argues Phil Hearse.
8 June 2020
On 1 June, in order to clear a space near the White House for a Donald Trump photo opportunity, peaceful demonstrators were attacked by a combination of Park Police and Secret Service agents.
The attack was entirely unlawful, half an hour before the curfew kicked in. Police liberally used tear-gas grenades, rubber bullets, shields, and batons, causing numerous injuries. Journalists were attacked, including a TV crew from Australia, provoking protests from their government.
This was just one moment in a nation-wide police response against demonstrators at a level of ultra violence not seen on this scale since the attacks on Civil Rights demonstrators in the 1960s.
The police violence that shocked the media is very visible, but the violence meted out to Black Americans on a daily basis is not so visible – and of course it was the fact that the murder of George Floyd was captured on video that for a brief moment pulled back the curtain on what happens repeatedly in American cities.
American social theorist William I Robinson has coined the term ‘Global Police State’, the title of his soon-to-be-published book, to describe the worldwide increase of police and military repression against radical and progressive opponents of neoliberal repression and exploitation.
By this he doesn’t mean that there is a single worldwide state with a single Gestapo-like repressive force. Rather he is talking about the massive increase in the use of police power to try to maintain right-wing rule, and the growth in the size and reach of a series of interlocking national security/police institutions, which increasingly coordinate their intelligence data and operations across national boundaries.
Defining the Global Police State
Characteristic of the global police state are the following:
1. The attempt to make the overhead costs of radical and democratic protest much higher, via the use of police-military violence and mass arrests – and imprisonment. Through these measures a climate of fear can be generated where each participant in radical actions must face the possibility of being injured or arrested, with potentially long-term disruption of their lives.
2. The attempt to designate oppositionists as ‘terrorists’. Trump has announced that he will designate the ‘Antifa’ – Anti-Fascist Action – a terrorist organisation. In fact, Antifa (a strategy of direct action against fascism, rather than a monolithic organisation) has been a tiny component of the anti-racist uprising. The threat to label them as terrorists is a cynical device to delegitimise the mass protest. Real terrorists, such as the Ku Klux Klan and other Far Right groups carrying assault rifles on anti-lockdown demonstrations, have the President’s sympathy and support.
3. The use of new types of weapons, or more lethal types of older weapons, which cause more grievous injuries. During 2019, French police, especially in Paris, repeatedly used exploding grenades and rubber bullets against the Yellow Vest anti-austerity protestors. So much so that in November that year a ‘march of the mutilated’ was held, led by dozens who had been paralysed, lost hands, been blinded, or suffered other life-changing injuries.
4. Introducing new laws severely restricting the right to publish critical material, the right to protest through demonstrations and pickets, the right to belong to trade unions, and the right to organise opposition political parties.
5. Attacks on critical media. Donald Trump repeatedly attacks what he calls ‘fake news’, which consists of mainly mainstream liberal US newspapers and TV channels. In the current Black Lives Matter uprising, police attacks on journalists have been deliberate and widespread. In Minneapolis photojournalist Linda Tirado was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet. Now Trump is widening his attack to include platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, hinting that he will look at laws to restrict what kind of political material they can legally carry. This is a very serious threat to democratic rights. Trump must envy the Chinese system of internet invigilation and control – the so-called ‘Great Firewall’ of China – in which thousands of operatives check websites and chat rooms each day for critical material to close down sites and arrest dissidents.
6. 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. The aim was to discipline the behaviour of the prisoners. Of course the guards could not watch every prisoner simultaneously, but the prisoners never knew when the eye was on them. Today anyone who has read the revelations of US whistle blower Edward Snowden knows that anyone with a mobile phone or an internet enabled computer is potentially under surveillance at any time. Information about political ‘subversives’ is widely shared between states.
7. China leads the world in facial recognition software and its use for political control. But the use of CCTV cameras plus facial recognition means that police in many countries can now know who is at a particular demonstration or other radical action in real time. Data collection on ‘subversives’ is ubiquitous and routine. Just think of those two cops with a camera on a tall pole at the London anti-racist mobilisation on 3 June. They were chased away, but they were just the ones you could see.
The racial ‘Other’
Pointing out the increasing use of repression to attempt to maintain control does not imply that, in some liberal-democratic utopia in the past, police and military repression against protest and radicalism did not exist. But police repression has worsened considerably since the mass movements that followed the global economic crisis in 2007-8 in countries all over the world.
In the United States, police-military repression has been used since the end of the American Civil War to enforce the de facto segregation and subordination of Black Americans. This involves a combination of brutal policing and the racial stereotyping of Black people, especially of Black youth. This has resulted in a prison and justice system where 40% of prisoners are Black and more than 20% Latino.
Mike Davis says in his 1987 book Prisoners of the American Dream that the American capitalist class has maintained itself in power by repression, and through 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 then everyone against Blacks following the abolition of slavery. So it remains today. Racial discrimination plus police-prison repression keeps Black people ‘in their place’.
The war against so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ plays the same role in relation to the Latinx population and has spawned a huge network of border guards and immigration enforcement officers – a total of around 40,000.
The current Black uprising and the response of Donald Trump and his allies shows two things about the ideology of fear around which many in the comfortable White middle-class suburbs, but also regrettably millions of the White working-class, can be mobilised.
First is the use of the term ‘terrorism’ in relation to the protests, conjuring images of bombing and mayhem. Second is the ideological stereotyping of the Black population. Put together it says ‘the barbarians are at the gate’ – but never mind because ‘I am your law and ordered President’.
A similar tactic of designating political opponents as terrorists is on full display in the battle for democracy in Hong Kong, has long been on display in Erdogan’s Turkey (where political support for Kurdish independence is automatically ‘terrorist’), and has been repeatedly used by Vladimir Putin against Chechnya rebels and others. We can now see the same in the UK too, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismisses British protesters as ‘subverted by thuggery’.
China has justified its mass incarceration of the Uighur population in Xian-Jiang province, where more than a million people are in concentration camps, as part of the battle against ‘terrorism’.
Terrorism, the war on drugs, illegal immigration, sedition – all these have been used worldwide to justify the para-militarisation of policing. This is so ubiquitous in the United States that it is difficult to tell whether the forces of law and order are police, National Guard, Regular Army, or Secret Service. They all have the same styles of combat uniform and the same types of riot-control equipment.
The militarisation of repression
US police departments having a huge array of military equipment stems in part from the decision after the 2003 Gulf War to sell off surplus military equipment cheaply to police departments, so that even some small towns received automatic rifles, Humvees, desert combat uniforms, and even armoured cars and helicopters. This promoted the generalisation of aggressive and ultra-violent tactics in drug raids and crowd control, including demonstrations.
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 and riot squads have turned arms production and military employment and supply into a giant factor in the world economy.
Militarised accumulation and vast state expenditure on armed forces and police helps recycle tax revenue and militates against (but does not prevent) economic crisis. Military production companies like Lockheed Marten, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems are among the most profitable in the world.
These arms companies are also deeply integrated with hi-tech companies, which profit from a share of the vast military budgets financing increasingly digitalised military platforms and warfare techniques. These have been developed particularly to try to ensure success in future military confrontations with China.
Sales of military equipment, including riot control equipment, make huge profits for companies in the United States, Russia, Britain, and France.
A third aspect of the Global Police State is its insertion into the emerging ultra-right and neo-fascist forces and ideologies. In the United States this takes particularly takes the form of gun culture and the worship and celebration of militarism.
Fascist armed groups that participated in anti-lockdown demonstrations were often dressed in military-style uniforms and carried army-style weapons. This is no longer the preserve of a few crank survivalists and Nazi mini-cults. Gun culture, Far Right authoritarianism, hyper-masculinity, and a culture of cruelty are widespread.
A culture of cruelty
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, relegating them to zones of social abandonment, and forcing them to inhabit a society increasingly indifferent to human suffering. 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. A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times — a spectral lack of compassion that hovers over the ruins of democracy.
This is what the Global Police State engenders – a society indifferent to human suffering and the fate of the marginalised and oppressed, be they Black people, poor people, or immigrants. A society aroused by strident nationalism, racism, hyper-masculinity, a culture of violence, and indifference to human suffering.
These, of course, were classic features of fascism in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan between the two world wars. As Dylan put it, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.’ Phil Hearse is a veteran revolutionary socialist activist in Mutiny and Socialist Resistance.