‘When you have a hammer’: state repression and the pandemic

With the government bungling its way through a second lockdown, legalising secret surveillance and undercover crimes, and banning most protests, many are concerned about increased state repression. They are right to be worried, argues Charlie Jarsve, but we need to contextualise this in Britain’s role as an imperialist state if we are to build any solidarity against state violence and repressive measures.

The coronavirus pandemic has foregrounded questions of governance and repression like never before. The many different aspects of the crisis have tested the capacity of states across the world and demonstrated the array of different strategies which capitalist states have at their disposal to maintain ‘order’ and ensure the reproduction of capitalist social relations. 

Within Europe, Britain has been marked out by the extent to which emergency measures have been carried out through the means of repression in the form of fines, and the extent to which restrictions have aimed to limit social interactions whilst keeping business moving, even if it means jeopardizing public health. It is not a surprise that in this context, where the government seems to lurch from one repressive stance to another in the form of chaotic public briefings, leaks, and policy U-turns, that public confidence in the government has slumped drastically. In addition, the repressive measures adopted by the British government are directly opposed to what a good public health strategy looks like, where trust and social cohesion are essential for the collaboration necessary to tackle the pandemic. Instead we have a government barely able to conceal the naked class interest of their strategy, encouraging us to report our neighbours to the police, and seemingly doing everything they can to vindicate the ‘covid truthers’ and those who believe that the pandemic is nothing more than a pretext for a massive assault on civil liberties. Given that this approach seems so counterproductive and does such damage to the government’s legitimacy, why does the British ruling class seem so committed to a strategy of repression and coercion?

Repression and state power

To answer this question we need to consider how capitalist states function. When thinking about how governments rule it’s useful to distinguish between ‘repression’ and ‘ideology’ – that is, do they predominantly govern through ‘forcing’ people to do things, or through ‘persuading’ them? By ideology is meant not just what people consciously think, but how they make sense of the world around them and their place within it – the way people may think of themselves as belonging to a particular family, or local area, or their understanding of what it means to be a ‘good person’. On one extreme it may be said that all government under capitalism operates through repression, since if we don’t pay our taxes, steal or otherwise break the law, we will be arrested, prosecuted, or fined. However, for the most part people don’t just obey the law because they know that enforcement is the alternative. There are a whole host of ideological factors which convince people in capitalist society that not stealing, or paying their taxes, is the ‘right’ thing to do. Overwhelmingly, therefore, ideology is the dominant way in which people are governed in capitalist society.

But when we consider repression, it’s worth not only considering the extraordinary and shocking instances of things that we’ve seen recently from this government, for instance in the decriminalisation of criminal activities for MI5 agents in the recent ‘Spy Cops’ Bill, or guidance prohibiting anti-capitalist resources in schools. It also includes the permanent repression which migrants, for instance, receive. Priti Patel’s recent proposals to use wave machines to capsize migrant boats or to process asylum seekers on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic are only the most spectacular and headline-grabbing instances of a border regime which doesn’t just operate at the border, keeping migrants ‘out’, but regulates whether migrants can legally work, restricts their access to benefits, and generally makes all sorts of aspects of their lives conditional on byzantine practices of state administration. Additionally, it’s vital to consider the repression practiced by our government across the world, from Libya, to Iraq, to Iran in the form of imperialist wars and sanctions.

The reason it is important to consider these more permanent and more naked instances of repression is not just ethical (because we have to think about the most impacted or the most vulnerable), but because they reveal fundamental realities about the nature of state power. Engels (quoted by Lenin in State and Revolution) writes that state power ‘consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds, of which gentile [clan] society knew nothing’. This is not to say that the state can be reduced to this exercise of repression, but it does mean that repressive bodies make up the ‘core’ of state power. This is no less true, even though we convince ourselves otherwise, in an advanced liberal democracy such as Britain than in the monarchies of 19th century Europe or in Tsarist Russia.

Looking around the world, however, it seems natural to assume that there is actually a large difference between the way different capitalist states govern, between ‘liberal democracies’ and ‘authoritarian’ regimes. This is not entirely untrue, since there is a massive material difference between those societies where the people enjoy freedoms of political association, especially in terms of the political ‘space’ which this gives us as socialists to organise in trades unions and to form political groups. However, we shouldn’t allow these differences, which mainly relate to how states moderate internal ideological conflicts, to distract us from the profound similarities between capitalist states across the world. Whilst there may exist large differences in the way in which different capitalist states manage issues of political consent, and these may be reflected in the variety of different political and parliamentary institutions which exist in different capitalist nations, the institutions of state repression, whether in Russia, or North Korea, or Britain are remarkably similar. Across the world, the repressive institutions of the state; the army, the police (both civil and secret), and, to an extended degree, the civil service and the courts, operate with remarkably similar structures and ideologies. After all, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This fact should allow us to sharpen our appreciation of just how fragile political freedoms and rights are in even the most seemingly ‘advanced’ capitalist democracies.

As Lenin pointed out in 1917: ‘It is quite easy (as history proves) to revert from a parliamentary bourgeois republic to a monarchy [or a dictatorship], for [in a parliamentary democracy] all the machinery of oppression — the army, the police, and the bureaucracy — is left intact.’ This explains why capitalist states employ repression – it is baked into the structure of state power itself, and in the last instance, it is the ultimate means of enforcement.

This also acts as a prompt to reframe the way we think about repression, that is, not to think about repression as a particular ‘strategy’ which state actors employ, but rather as a consequence of the power and influence that the repressive parts of the state have in the overall structure of state management. With the development of imperialist competition between nations, the repressive parts of the state receive tremendous impetus, and the power and influence which they exercise within the management of capitalist society develops correspondingly. We can see this concretely in contemporary Britain, not just with the increasing militarisation of the border regime, but also in the expansion of repressive processes such as the Hostile Environment for migrants and the Prevent counter-terrorism agenda, which directly relate to Britain’s role in the War on Terror and the expansion of state surveillance and repression in the context of Britain’s imperialist foreign policy. This also reveals that it is not a coincidence that we have a Home Secretary who personally supports the reintroduction of capital punishment and who was sacked from Theresa May’s cabinet for attempting to siphon off British Aid money to Israel. The connections between domestic repression and imperialism are deeply rooted, and have a whole array of ideological and social consequences.

Repression and ideology

This being said, it is not possible to govern by repression alone. The state in capitalist society represents a complex mechanism for reproducing the ruling class’s ability to rule (what Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called ‘hegemony’). The state maintains the hegemony of the ruling class through the balancing of many different parts or ‘apparatuses’ against one another. Some of these apparatuses operate primarily by repression (for instance the police, or the courts) and some operate primarily through ideology (for instance the school system, or the press).

Whilst these different apparatuses all have their own internal ‘logic’ and way of functioning, they work together to reproduce ruling class hegemony through a combination of ideology and repression. To give one example, it is a fundamental principle of liberal democracies that the courts must be ‘independent’ of government. A Marxist analysis demonstrates that the courts enforce a law which maintains the rule of capital just as surely as governments govern in a way that never seriously threatens the interest of capital. However, the ‘independence of the courts’ and the independence of other parts of the state from government interference (the police, or more extendedly the media) all serve the ideological function of reproducing the idea that the state itself is a neutral organ; that if a politician breaks the law they will be dealt with by the police or brought before the courts.

This ‘separation’ and independence of different parts of the state is not merely an illusion, since the state also works as a mechanism for resolving conflicts within the ruling class by allowing different ruling class interests representation and power in different state institutions, whilst unifying these interests in the overall project of state management. The needs of rentier capital, for instance, are often opposed to the needs of the owners of small businesses and high street shops who would benefit from cheaper property rents, or from manufacturing capital, which would benefit from state investment in workforce training. However, despite this antagonism of interests, the state acts as a mechanism to keep the variety of different sections of capital within the fold of the overall project of state management, offering even those sections of capital which ‘lose out’ in the negotiation of capitalist interests enough to keep them loyal to the wider interests of the ruling class. Therefore, whilst the state is composed of a whole host of different institutions and functions, at the end of the day these work together in concert, and facilitate a complex and constant negotiation of different ruling class interests which, without the power of the state, would threaten to consume one another and destroy the ruling class’s ability to govern.

The other effect of this separation of powers which operates in the capitalist state is that to most citizens the state appears ‘open’; every citizen is invited to imagine that these seemingly neutral institutions will be responsive to them, that they could call on the police to protect their property or enlist the help of the courts in enforcing their rights. This is essential for the ruling class’ ability to govern, since the state must allow the ruling class to build connections with the broad mass of the population. The state cannot act to isolate the ruling class from the rest of society, since, like an army besieged inside a fortress, they would eventually be defeated regardless of how strong their fortifications were. Instead, the state must facilitate the co-option of a broader part of the population behind the general class interests of the bourgeoisie. This is achieved through various different kinds of ideological and material mechanisms, principally in the projection of a ‘national interest’ which appears to transcend class conflict, and popular support for the avoidance of a ‘disturbance of the peace’ and the maintenance of ‘order’.

Protesters opposing the enforcement of border control within the NHS. Keywords: Hostile Environment policing Britain

However, the maintenance of ‘order’ means the maintenance of capitalist order, and a disturbance of the peace is anything which threatens to disrupt the basic conditions of capitalist accumulation. To govern successfully therefore state actors must constantly pre-empt the possibility of existential threats to this order, employing repression where necessary to safeguard the interests of capital not just today, but for the foreseeable future. 

Desperate measures

So what should we make of the fact that we have a government which now seems to be destroying the distinction between these different state institutions? Legalising crimes by state agents and making it near impossible to prosecute the armed forces for war crimes? Surely this is the clearest example of the breaking up of this ‘separation of powers’? We need to situate this phenomenon in two ways. Firstly, we need to recognise that we have a government which, in all sorts of other ways, is losing legitimacy. Even in mainstream terms the government’s handling of the pandemic is utterly incompetent, riddled with corruption scandals and with a death toll of around 60,000 and climbing. In this regard the employment of repression is both a product of the government reaching for the means left at its disposal for maintaining order and anticipating possible resistance which may emerge from the social crises of the pandemic, both by granting itself greater repressive powers and, in turn, trying to win support for these powers among a significant minority of the population. Winning support for repression means displacing blame for the social crisis onto scapegoats, whether that be migrants, Black Lives Matter protestors, University lecturers promoting ‘critical race theory’, or, more generally, just ‘other people’.

But secondly, we also have to situate the British government’s recent repressive power-grabs in the context of the much longer term tendency of escalating repression in British society, often euphemistically referred to as an ‘erosion of civil liberties’. As we have seen, the potential for repression exists within the state as long as the repressive institutions of state power remain intact, and escalating repression has been the tendency of the British state now for several decades. In 1997 Tony Blair boasted that Britain had the most restrictive trade union laws in the Western World, and passed Public Order acts as well as bringing in Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), presiding over a massive expansion in state power. Since the 2008 crash, austerity has seen a massive increase in the power of the repressive parts of the state, as welfare cuts have created a benefit system less focused on providing financial support to those in need, and more focused on disciplining claimants through sanctions and requiring their regular attendance at the Job Centres. In 2013 the Government made massive cuts to legal aid. This represents a major blow to the ideological power of imagining that the law (and more generally the state) works in the interests of all, since it demonstrates clearly that access to justice is reserved for those who can pay. More recently still, Prevent and the Hostile Environment have facilitated a drastic expansion of the surveillance and repressive functions of the state, and worked to develop ‘repressive ideology’ in the population at large by forcing people to become state informants, with teachers, doctors and landlords encouraged to monitor the residency status of potential ‘illegal’ migrants and report signs of ‘radicalisation’.

Here we can clearly see that this rising tendency of repression correlates strongly with both the War on Terror, and the decline of the organised labour movement. As we are seeing at the moment, a crisis of legitimacy won’t necessarily be harmful for a government where there is no realistic opposition, and the only power capable of mounting that opposition historically has been the organised working class. 

Repression and resistance

This isn’t to suggest that there will be less repression when there is a powerful challenge to capitalist interests. In fact, the opposite is true. As we saw during the miners strike in the 1980s the state will use enormous repression ‘as a last resort’ in periods of high class struggle. The Battle of Orgreave is one of the most famous examples of direct repression, but the state also carried out police infiltration of the National Union of Mineworkers and Margaret Thatcher attempted to starve the miners back to work by cutting benefits. Nonetheless, when large-scale resistance is on the cards the ruling class must also be careful to ensure that repression is accompanied by far more intense ideological legitimation to avoid the results backfiring. This is why Thatcher was also forced to treat the miners as an antidemocratic ‘enemy within’, attempting to rally support for her class warfare by convincing large sections of the population that the striking miners represented an existential threat to their very way of life. 

However, organised resistance moderates the state’s use of repression in two ways. Most obviously organised campaigns can confront repression directly; as in the case of workers organising to resist surveillance in the workplace or protesting against repressive practices in society more generally, such as the British state’s policy of internment without trial in the occupied North of Ireland. But additionally, by winning higher wages or a more ‘generous’ welfare system, campaigns can make repression less effective. Being sacked from your job is less harmful if welfare allows you to keep your head above water, and benefit sanctions are less damaging where the overall level of support is higher. In this way, organised movements fighting for palliatives to life under capitalism force the ruling class to govern more through ideological as opposed to repressive means, because they increase the power and influence of those parts of the state which don’t predominantly operate through repression and make repression itself a less effective means of governing.

As we see with forms of repression such as immigration controls, repression itself can produce its own forms of ideological legitimation. For instance, by classifying migrants as ‘illegal’ the state can justify to broader sections of the population the use of repressive practices against them. Usually, however, this alone is not enough to provide the ideological legitimation for repression, and when the state employs repressive tactics it is always based on a gamble that it will not provoke significant resistance. Early on in the pandemic we saw concerted efforts to focus blame for the spread of the virus on the general public, with media figures asking whether the government was going to use the Army to stop ‘panic buying’ and the government blaming ‘young people’ and ethnic minorities for viral transmission. In this way people’s fears about the effects of Covid-19 have been used to legitimate the government response, with even those opposed to lockdown measures conceptualising the issue as a choice between ‘tackling the virus’ or ‘resisting repression’.

Bloody Sunday cover-up. Keywords: Bloody Sunday inquiry truth campaign justice
A mural in Derry depicting the events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of civil rights protesters. Photo: Flickr / Nina Stössinger

Within Britain, therefore, the long-term development of repressive state infrastructure, fuelled by imperialist foreign policy, has produced a state which relies significantly on repression. This is not necessarily a conscious choice of those in government, and as we see from splits within the Conservative party over issues of civil liberties relating to lockdown, it is not a stance with unanimous support amongst the ruling class. However, given the nature of the capitalist state, and the way in which different state apparatuses operate relatively independently of an overall ‘strategy’, it is possible for the repressive institutions and apparatuses within the state to ‘get out of hand’. We should not assume that the ruling class always knows how to achieve the perfect balance between the carrot and the stick to serve their own interests. This can present weaknesses within the ruling class and opportunities for organised resistance.

Recognising that the main ideological legitimation for much of the recent extensions of state repression is the pandemic can help us to develop strategies for countering it. The government’s disastrous handling of Covid-19 makes their legitimation of repressive measures volatile at best, and as the example of students tearing down fences at the University of Manchester shows, provides fertile ground for organising resistance. To confront the repression employed under cover of the effort to ‘fight the virus’ we need to put forward an alternative which argues for a serious public health approach based on mutual trust and collaboration, and creates the ideological space to oppose repressive ‘public health’ measures focused on criminalisation and punishment. More generally, whilst the government can employ open repression in society more broadly, banning protests and demonstrations, it is worth bearing in mind that utilising the same tactics in workplaces is far more difficult, since it can threaten workplace productivity and therefore capitalist interests. Taking account of everything written above it should be obvious how important solidarity, and especially anti-imperialist solidarity, is in fighting state repression. This means that in order to build strong campaigns against repression we must also concentrate on resistance to immigration controls and build broader mass campaigns against British intervention in foreign wars.

Capitalist society is rife with contradictions. Even though capitalism relies on repression even in the most ‘democratic’ nations, the capitalist market, dependent as it is on the free exchange of commodities between legally equal buyers and sellers, constantly reproduces democratic aspirations and ideologies within the population. Even in the most repressive capitalist societies resistance is possible, but it takes organisation and solidarity. This year’s Summer of protest against racist police violence demonstrates the first signs of what can happen when the state’s repressive gamble backfires. Whilst we cannot guess exactly what the catalyst may be for a movement capable of taking on British state repression, we have a duty to build the conditions for such a movement to emerge and to help people see through the ideological legitimations for state repression. Despite the clear dangers ahead, this government’s commitment to repressive control may yet prove its undoing.


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