The trailing of plans for draconian new police powers, ostensibly required to pursue the “fight against terrorism”, brings into sharp focus important questions: what is the nature of this state and how should we oppose the rapid slide towards full-scale authoritarian rule? In addition to proposals for a permanent state of emergency to allow for the detention of suspects without trial, New Labour now wants to give police powers to stop and question anyone at any time, to check their identity and their movements. Refusal to co-operate would become an arrestable offence. If anyone can explain the difference between these plans and a police state, they are welcome to have a go. Even senior police officers are apparently reluctant to become involved in this level of control over local populations. Whether these plans come to fruition or not, the trend towards outright dictatorial rule is absolutely clear, as we spelled out in Reid gives judges marching orders (May 25). Self-evidently, terrorists do not wander about the streets with timers and bombs waiting to be stopped by police. Stop and search, therefore, has nothing to do with tracking down terror suspects and everything to do with intimidating the population as a whole. Hostile reaction to the new powers will then become the excuse for isolating minority communities even further, which ties in with the race card being played by ministers like Margaret Hodge (now the darling of the far-right BNP).
The attack on human rights and civil liberties are desperate acts by a reactionary government that is clinging to power by its fingertips. Blair was essentially forced to quit early by opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the cash-for-honours inquiry and the failure of a number of policies, especially in education and health. We should note that the state that is dispensing with due process and the rule of law is the same state that runs the country as a commercial business. Beginning with Thatcher and continuing with Blair, governments have changed the face of the state beyond recognition. While the state is capitalist by nature, structure and institutions, for a long period one of its roles was to mediate between conflicting, class interests. The state could be used to reform aspects of capitalism to the benefit of the working class, for example, so long as it did not challenge the fundamentals. The changes to the state under the globalisation process means that corporate interests are made synonymous with ordinary people’s. Whereas the welfare state once provided social housing, decent pensions, equal access to education and subsidised transport, the market state does none of these things. The modern capitalist state expresses the dog-eat-dog society that corporate power has manufactured.
The evolution of the state should be seen as the completion of a process that began with the English Revolution of the 17th century, one that was taken on by dint of mass struggle to the winning of the vote for men in the 19th century and the formation of the Labour Party and votes for women in the 20th century. Now the democratic side has been torn away and, paradoxically, we seem to have returned to an early period when money was everything and representation was limited to the rich and powerful. An inescapable conclusion is that further democratic evolution of the state, negating the power of the political and economic elites, is impossible without actual revolutionary change. Mobilising around this strategy is the best way to prevent New Labour and whoever comes next from destroying the democratic rights that represent the struggles and achievements of earlier generations of men and women. Come to our Turn the World Upside Down event on June9 to discuss how we can build the momentum for democratic alternatives to the capitalist state.
Paul Feldman, communications editor