The Tory government’s Police and Crime Bill is a very nasty attack on civil liberties. But it’s not an aberration.
The French Marxist Ugo Palheta wrote recently about the trend to the “authoritarian hardening” of liberal capitalist states.
France under Emmanuel Macron is indeed a good example. Protesters have been subjected to indiscriminate police violence, new repressive laws have been passed, and ministers have been targeting what they absurdly call Islamo-leftism.
But Britain under Boris Johnson is another example.
The Covid-19 pandemic is the first global crisis provoked by capitalism’s increasingly destructive relationship with nature. Climate change will create plenty more.
The inevitable consequence will be greater attempts to plan economic and social life. This planning can take democratic forms that lead us to a socialist society, or it can be authoritarian, imposed from above to prop capitalism up.
The pandemic has seen the acceleration of this second kind of planning. States, especially in the rich imperialist centre of the system, have intervened to shut down large sectors of the economy, limit movement, and organise mass vaccinations.
They have spent and borrowed on a huge scale to prevent the lockdowns causing economic collapse. These measures have had some success, though the future depends on the contest between the vaccines and the new variants of the virus.
But these forms of planning remain capitalist. They are designed to preserve the existing system, and their effects maintain and reinforce the inequalities that have become so huge during the neoliberal era.
The starkest example is the impact of Covid-19 on poor people of colour on both sides of the Atlantic. Detailed analyses have shown how in US cities vaccination rates are higher in affluent neighbourhoods than in poor black neighbourhoods where the death rate is higher.
The pandemic has been marked by waves of mass resistance, most notably in the worldwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last summer. This gives states an incentive to increase the level of repression. In Britain ministerial regulations sought to drive protests off the streets.
Debates have been going on for some time within the British state about how to handle protest. In February 2020, Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick demanded more powers to deal with Extinction Rebellion, which she said aimed to “bring policing to its knees”.
According to the Financial Times newspaper, the BLM demonstration that last June pulled down the statue of the slaver Edward Colston marked a watershed.
It “helped to prompt the home secretary to commission HM Inspectorate of Constabulary— the official police watchdog— to conduct an inquiry into whether police were handling demonstrations sufficiently robustly.
“Supporters of UK police forces’ recent, relatively liberal attitude to protest … insisted the force would have created far more problems if they had tried to intervene in a crowd of 10,000 people to save the statue…
“The Inspectorate’s report on March 11 largely endorsed Avon and Somerset Police’s careful handling of the statue incident but at the same time shifted the emphasis of advice to police forces in England and Wales about protests.
“It found forces’ handling of protests tipped ‘too readily in favour of protesters’.”
So the Police and Crime Bill doesn’t just reflect home secretary Priti Patel’s authoritarian instincts. It comes out of a deeper shift in the state.
This is reflected in the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s defence of the Met’s thuggish handling of the vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham last month.
The British state is gearing up to mount greater repression. The disgraceful Race Commission report is another sign of this trend. Happily, the Police and Crime Bill has provoked another wave of protests, showing that people aren’t prepared to be silenced. But we shouldn’t have any illusions.