Examining the militarization and repression of contemporary capitalism in the US, William I. Robinson argues that this attempts to address both economic and social contradictions.
11 June 2020
The uprising sparked by the police murder in the US state of Minnesota of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, brought the global police state out in full force against hundreds of thousands of anti-racist protesters across the country. Fearful of losing control, the ruling groups left no holds barred in unleashing the state’s repressive apparatus against peaceful protesters who filled the streets in hundreds of cities, large and small, even in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.
These past few days I have witnessed from my city of residence, Los Angeles, the use by militarized police and national guard units of tear gas, stun grenades, taser guns, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons against protesters. Curfews have been imposed in dozens of cities, armored vehicles patrol streets, and in at least one city, Atlanta, the armed forces deployed a column of tanks. The toll as of June 3 is 14 dead, hundreds wounded, and over 9,000 arrested, many for merely breaking curfew. On June 1, from an underground bunker in the White House Trump declared that he would deploy ‘thousands and thousands’ of troops to US cities. ‘You have to dominate,’ he said in a teleconference with governors. ‘You have to arrest thousands and put them in jail for ten years.’
Racist police, however foul and criminal, are but an extension of the capitalist state. They exist to defend property from the propertyless, to enforce the power of capital and the rich over the poor and dispossessed majority who in the United States come disproportionately from racially oppressed communities. Behind the eruption of righteous rage over the murder of George Floyd is mass unemployment, escalating inequality, the marginality of tens of millions of people thrown into the ranks of surplus humanity, intensified levels of exploitation, spreading hunger, immiseration, insecurity, and death, all spewed up by a global capitalism that accepts no restraint on its predation.
I warn in my new book, The Global Police State, about the dangers of a global police state and 21st century fascism in response to the crisis of capitalism and rebellion from below. Global capitalism is arguably now in the worst crisis in its history. Fascist forces that unite predatory transnational capital with reactionary and repressive power in the state (including the state’s armed bodies) and a fascist mobilization in civil society are on the rise worldwide. Trump, himself a transnational capitalist, a racist, and a fascist, is taking advantage of the protests over the murder of George Floyd to bring this project to a new level, inciting from the White House itself the fascist mobilization in US civil society and threatening a qualitative escalation of the police state.
The new US brownshirts – a reference to the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing during the years leading up to the fascist takeover – are organized in the white nationalist militia, the Nazi and Klan groups, anti-immigrant organization, the Boogaloos (who openly declare that their goal is to spark a civil war), the Patriot and anti-lockdown movements, among an expanding litany of far-right and Alt-Right groups. They are heavily armed and mobilizing for confrontation in near-perfect consort with the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, which long since has captured that party and turned it into one of utter reaction.
As capitalist hegemony breaks down, the ruling groups in the United States and around the world are intensifying their class warfare from above by extending the global police state to contain mass discontent from below. The more we understand how this global police state is rooted in the multifaceted crisis of global capitalism the more effectively we can beat it back.
The notion of a global police state refers to three interrelated developments. First, it refers to militarized accumulation, or accumulation by repression, as a means of accumulating capital in the face of stagnation. Second, it refers to the systems of mass social control and repression to contain the oppressed. And third, it refers to the increasing move towards political systems that can be characterized as twenty-first century fascism and even as totalitarian. My new book synthesizes a decade of research on these three dimensions of the global police state.
The Crisis of Global Capitalism
The crisis of global capitalism is as much structural as it is political. Politically, capitalist states face spiraling crises of legitimacy after decades of hardship and social decay wrought by neoliberalism, aggravated now by these states’ inability to manage the health emergency and the economic collapse. The level of global social polarization and inequality is unprecedented. The richest one percent of humanity control more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 per cent must make do with just 4.5 percent of this wealth. Structurally, the system faces a crisis of what is known as overaccumulation.
As inequalities escalate, the system churns out more and more wealth that the mass of working people cannot actually consume. As a result, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. Overaccumulation refers to a situation in which enormous amounts of capital (profits) are accumulated, yet this capital cannot be reinvested profitably and becomes stagnant.
Savage global inequalities are politically explosive and to the extent that the system is simply unable to reverse them it turns to ever more violent forms of containment to manage immiserated populations. But global police state is also a strategy for accumulation. In the face of chronic stagnation, 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, as a means of making profit and continuing to accumulate capital in the face of stagnation.
As my book lays out, these twin dimensions of global police state come together in the so-called wars on drugs and terrorism, the undeclared wars on immigrants, refugees and gangs (and poor, dark-skinned, and working-class youth more generally), the construction of border walls, immigrant detention centers, prison-industrial complexes, systems of mass surveillance, and the spread of private security guard and mercenary companies. These are all forms of social control and at the same time have become major sources of profit making that will become more important to the system as economic depression sets in. As the COVID-19 pandemic aggravates the structural crisis and results in more inequality and authoritarianism, militarized accumulation may take over as a prime driver of the global economy.
Yet well before the coronavirus contagion, the agents of this emerging global police state had been developing new modalities of state-organized violence, warfare, and social control made possible by applications of digitalization and fourth industrial revolution technologies. These include artificial intelligence powered autonomous weaponry such as unmanned attack and transportation vehicles, robot soldiers, a new generation of superdrones and flybots, hypersonic weapons, microwave guns that immobilize, cyber-attack and info-warfare, biometric identification, state data mining, and global electronic surveillance that allows for the tracking and control of every movement.
State data mining and global electronic surveillance are now expanding the theater of conflict from active war zones to militarized cities and rural localities around the world. These combine with a restructuring of space that allow for new forms of spatial containment and control of the marginalized. As showcased in the current uprising in the United States, the result is permanent low-intensity warfare against communities in rebellion, especially racially oppressed, ethnically persecuted, and other vulnerable communities.
Militarized Accumulation and Accumulation by Repression
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 privatized domain of transnational capital. As I show in my book, criminalization of surplus humanity activates state-sanctioned repression that opens up new profit-making opportunities for transnational capitalists. Permanent war involves endless cycles of destruction and reconstruction, each phase in the cycle fueling new rounds and accumulation and also resulting in the ongoing enclosure of resources that become available to the transnational capitalist class.
The Pentagon budget increased 91 percent in real terms between 1998 and 2011, while worldwide, total state military outlays grew by 50 percent from 2006 to 2015, from $1.4 trillion to $2.03 trillion, although this figure does not take account for secret budgets, contingency operations, and ‘homeland security’ spending. The global market in homeland security reached $431 billion in 2018 and was expected to climb to $606 billion by 2024. In the decade from 2001 to 2011 military industry profits nearly quadrupled. In total, the United States spent a mind-boggling nearly $6 trillion from 2001 to 2018 on its Middle Eastern wars alone.
Led by the United States as the predominant world power, military expansion in different countries has taken place through parallel, and often conflictive, processes, yet all show the same relationship between state militarization and global capital accumulation. In 2015, for instance, the Chinese government announced that it was setting out to develop its own military-industrial complex modeled after the United States, in which private capital would assume the leading role.
Private military contractors, police, and security firms have proliferated around the world, and often become fused with state forces. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, private military contractors outnumbered US combat troops in both countries. Private military companies employ some 15 million people around the world and private security firms another 20 million. These forces are deploying to guard corporate property, provide personal security for transnational capitalist class executives and their families, collect data, conduct police, paramilitary, counterinsurgency and surveillance operations, carry out mass crowd control and repression of protesters, manage prisons, run private detention and interrogation facilities, and participate in outright warfare.
As all of global society becomes a highly surveilled and controlled and wildly profitable battlespace, we must not forget that the technologies of the global police state are driven as much, or more, by the campaign to open up new outlets for accumulation as they are by strategic or political considerations. The rise of the digital economy and the blurring of the boundaries between military and civilian sectors fuse several fractions of capital – especially finance, military-industrial, and tech companies – around a combined process of financial speculation and militarized accumulation.
The militarization of cities, politics and culture in such countries as the United States and Israel, the spread of neo-fascist movements in North America, Europe, and India, the rise of authoritarian regimes in Turkey, the Philippines, and Honduras, are inseparable from these countries’ entanglement in webs of global wars and the militarized global accumulation, or global war economy. In these cases, twenty-first century fascism appears to be a preemptive strike at working and popular classes and at the spread of mass resistance through the expansion of global police state.
Beautiful Struggle and Fascist Threat
As the crisis of global capitalism has intensified since 2008 there has been a rapid political polarization in global society between an insurgent left and insurgent far-right and neofascist forces that have gained support in many countries around the world. Both forces appeal to the same social base of those millions who have been devastated by neo-liberal austerity, impoverishment, precarious employment, and relegation to the ranks of surplus labor. As popular discontent has spread, far-right and neo-fascist mobilization play a critical role in the effort by dominant groups to channel this content away from a critique of global capitalism and towards support for the transnational capitalist class agenda dressed in populist rhetoric.
If far right and neo-fascist forces are mobilizing so too are popular sectors and working classes. Here in the United States workers undertook a wave of strikes and protests as the coronavirus spread to demand their safety, while tenants called for rent strikes, immigrant justice activists surrounded detention centers and demanded the release of prisoners, auto workers went out on wildcat strikes to force factories to shut down until they could be operated safely, homeless people took over homes, health care workers on the front lines demanded the supplies they needed to do their jobs and stay safe. The crisis has the potential to awake millions from political apathy. There is a radicalization taking place among workers, a new sense of solidarity. Battle lines are being drawn. More social upheavals are coming.
The more the global economy comes to depend on militarization and conflict, the greater the drive to war and the higher the stakes for humanity. There is a built-in war drive to the current course of capitalist globalization. Historically wars have pulled the capitalist system out of crisis while they have also served to deflect attention from political tensions and problems of legitimacy. Whether or not a global police state driven by the twin imperatives of social control and militarized accumulation becomes entrenched is contingent on the outcome of the struggles raging around the world among social and class forces and their competing political projects.
This is why the uprising in the United States is so important. It is the first full-scale pushback against global police state in the richest and most powerful country in the world. It hits at the jugular vein of the machinery of war and repression. This beautiful struggle gives us both a glimpse of how states and ruling groups will try to ratchet up the global police state, but also how the popular majority of humanity is prepared to fight back.
William I Robinson is Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His books include A Theory of Global Capitalism and Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity.