Oppression and the State: How the courts, police and prisons keep big business safe

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Thousands rallied at Melbourne’s Federation Square on 9 December
2006 to demand David Hicks be brought home.

I recently heard ABC journalist, Leigh Sales, talking about her book, Detainee 002: The case of David Hicks. To Sales, the fundamental problem was that the Military Commission process meant Hicks was denied a proper trial. Like Sales, many Australians concerned about Hicks see the legal system as fair and the treatment of David as a shocking aberration. But far from being an aberration, it is an example of what the State may do when the niceties of bourgeois law are insufficient to serve its purpose.

Guantanamo Bay or the Australian legal system in 2007, both serve ruling class interests. Tougher terror laws are a favoured tool in the current period but, in whatever guise, the State — to quote Russian Revolutionary, VI Lenin, from his 1917 work, State and Revolution — is “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.”

The iron fist. In certain periods, the class nature of the State is more obvious. During the 1949 miners’ strike, the Chifley Government used the army as strikebreakers. In the ’80s, Prime Minister Hawke mobilised the Air Force to scab on striking pilots who were mounting a challenge to the industrial straightjacket imposed by the Prices and Incomes Accord.

The large number of arrests of participants in demonstrations last year during the G20 leaders meeting in Melbourne is another example of obvious repression. These activists, most of them students, aimed to highlight the role that the G20 plays in making the world safe for profits.

Tim Davis-Frank is the Global Solidarity Officer at the University of Sydney. He issued a statement describing what happened to him earlier this year. “On March 14, I was woken at 6 am by eight armed men and women who had demanded entry to my family home…After seizing clothing and my university backpack, I was arrested and taken to Surry Hills police station.”

Davis-Frank is clear that his treatment was not “an occasion when things ‘went wrong’ in isolation.” He describes an increased level of surveillance and repression on the Sydney University campus, where dozens of students have been arrested for their political activities. “This type of ‘policing’ is taking place as media organisations are increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer powerful interests and public broadcasters. Academic and scientific communities are frequently raising the alarm about government censorship of their findings,” says Davis-Frank.

Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate is a new collection of essays edited by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison, which provides concrete evidence to back this view. It is a gripping exposé, filled with examples of NGOs fearing their funding will be cut if they are too vocal, the ABC being muzzled, public servants being intimidated and public institutions such as the CSIRO and universities silencing researchers if their work threatens profits.

In the statement about his arrest, Davis-Frank says there was lots of passion at the G20 protests, but it was “not an example of random violence or thuggish behaviour.” His aims were clear: “I went to the G20 protests to have my dissenting voice heard: the response has been extreme repression, interstate anti-terror raids, media stigmatisation, public ridicule and jail sentences. We are concerned citizens, concerned students, concerned human beings. A world without people who speak up is not a safer world.”

In March, uniformed police openly filmed antiwar activists at a rally protesting the invasion of Iraq. Although the police regularly photograph and film demonstrations, this operation was conducted openly, crank out media releases about their plans to turn the streets of Sydney into a no-go zone while APEC leaders meet later this year. In this period, the underpinning nature of the State is not difficult for those with a class-consciousness to spot!

The flexible State. The Australian State has used a variety of methods to uphold ruling class interests, depending on perceptions of the strength of the opposition. Staining the Wattle, a radical history edited by Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee, contains many fascinating essays.

“A Nordenfeldt at every Woolshed,” by Andrew Moore, outlines some of the early rebellions in the colonies. “Fear of uprising by the lower orders lay deep in the consciousness of the dominant class. Occasionally, their nightmares became real…The Aborigines’ determined resistance, the miners’ revolt at Eureka in 1854 and the campaign of guerrilla warfare conducted by Ned Kelly, all gave evidence of formidable opposition to ‘social order.’”

Moore’s piece outlines diverse tactics used by the capitalist State to survive these early challenges and those that followed. The Ballad of 1891, a battle hymn from the shearers’ strike inspires the title: “if Nordenfeldt and Gatling [machine guns] won’t bring them to their knees, we’ll find a law, the squatters said, that’s made for times like these.” The ruling class did find new laws “made for times like these.”

Moore describes how, after the strike, the bourgeoisie started to put its class interests forward “in a more sophisticated way with the establishment of industrial tribunals.” In a critique of arbitration, Belgian Marxist, Ernest Mandel, explains arbitration: it “does not take place in a vacuum; it takes place in the framework of maintaining the existing class society.” He adds that “of course, concessions to the exploited can be made by arbitrators; that depends essentially on the relationship of forces.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Australian capitalists have been willing to resort to fascist methods. During the depression, petite bourgeois elements were mobilised via the paramilitary New Guard and used to attack communists, unionists and unemployed workers.

Moore concludes: “Over the years, the Australian ruling class used a variety of tactics against potential threats. They have defended their position and privileges by the use of force; they have won over influential people from within the labour movement and fostered divisions among workers; and when they had no other choice they have made strategic concessions to working class demands.”

Jude McCulloch, a Melbourne activist and community lawyer, published an important work in 2001, titled Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Australia. She argues that specialist counter-terrorist units are of a paramilitary nature. Aimed squarely at quelling political dissent, they are organised in a secretive manner and play a role of “normalising” the use of coercive force against citizens.

McCulloch’s work buries any suggestion that sabre rattling about terrorism is new. The attack on the Twin Towers provided the impetus for an increased assault on democratic rights. But McCulloch shows that paramilitary policing in the guise of counter-terrorism has been a feature of Australian policing since 1975.

McCulloch explores the relationship between paramilitary policing and community policing. While the first is largely hidden from public view, community policing, which emphasises a “conciliatory, rather than coercive, approach to police work,” is in the media spotlight. Victorian Police Chief, Christine Nixon, leading a uniformed squad of marching gay and lesbian police employees at the head of the Pride march, is a classic example. Aboriginal Liaison Officers and special squads to assist domestic violence and rape victims are also examples of community policing in action.

Rather than seeing community policing as the model to be embraced, McCulloch is clear that paramilitary and community policing are “complementary strategies.” She argues that community policing strategies are “token, but well publicised, gestures” and sees them as “public relations strategies designed to counter the negative image and public antipathy arising from the use of coercive paramilitary tactics.” She powerfully characterises community policing as the “velvet glove” covering the “iron fist” of paramilitary policing.

A study of Police Community Involvement Programs in Victoria supports her conclusions. Three out of four operational police — including those directly involved — thought that the purpose of the program was “public relations,” and only 11% of operational police actually thought that the purpose of community liaison and involvement programs was to involve the public! Similar studies in other parts of the world have also shown that operational police clearly understand such programs to be nothing more than window dressing, and treat them as such.

In the service of the capitalist class, the State appears in many guises, ranging from outright fascism to bourgeois democracy in its most liberal form.

Late capitalism. Workers, women and Indigenous people have fought for the right to vote and enter parliament, as well as other rights — such as the right to organise and strike — within the framework of bourgeois democracy. But, argues Mandel, the classical era of parliamentarism is now over. Prior to the era of monopoly capitalism, parliament was a handy institution for “the smooth functioning of everyday affairs.” It was within this framework that “a middle line could be hammered out, a line that would express the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.”

But in the current period, capitalism is no longer atomised, and power is centralised outside of parliament. Mandel explains: “capitalist power is concentrated outside parliament and outside the institutions born of universal suffrage.” Instead, “parliament and, even more, the government of the capitalist State, no matter how democratic it may appear to be, are tied to the bourgeoisie by golden chains. These golden chains have a name — the public debt. No government could last more than a month without having to knock on the door of the banks in order to pay its current expenses.”

Parliamentary democracy, which fosters illusions that we all have an equal say in who will govern, is a very convenient way for the capitalists to maintain their domination without needing to risk dictatorial measures which may be unpopular or even provoke a backlash. But if seriously threatened by mass opposition, the ruling class will revert to authoritarian forms of rule.

Iron fist or velvet glove, the State is the institution through which class rule is maintained. Under capitalism, the minority maintains its power and privileges by exploiting the majority and persuading the majority to accept this situation.

The evolution of the State. But the State has not always existed. Its emergence is a product of the social division of labour. Engels’ work, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, takes us through the evolution of society from communal matriarchal clans to a class-divided society with a State that functioned to protect the interests of the ruling class. From this gigantic change emerged a private property system supported by two complementary institutions — the State and the family.

Engels shows how the technical basis arose for the emergence of the State. For the first time, an economic surplus came into existence above the immediate needs of the clan group. Initially, this surplus was used for communal projects such as irrigation and other infrastructure but, gradually, the surplus wealth came to be held in private hands and a possessing class emerged.

Socialist feminist Evelyn Reed, in her 1972 introduction to Engels’ work, describes the result: “The cleavage of society into contending classes with opposed interests created the need for an apparatus which could be used to regulate the antagonisms while maintaining the power and privileges of the propertied ruling class. Thus the State arose…to keep order on behalf of the wealthy exploiters. As the matriarchal clan commune was undermined, the collective democratic administration of affairs was likewise corroded. In place of the former female counsellors or ‘governesses’ and their ‘wise counsel,’ there arose the coercive power of the armed forces. Chiefs who had formerly been elected to carry out the decisions of the community became military leaders in the service of the male masters of society.”

But the State is not eternal. Today, in capitalism’s imperialist stage, it appears to tower over society, but it will survive only as long as the conditions that produced it continue to exist. Engels predicted that the coercive capitalist State with all its power would begin to “wither away” with the private property system.

What is to be done? Ernest Mandel poses this question: “if the bourgeois State remains fundamentally an instrument in the service of the ruling classes, does that mean that workers should be indifferent to the particular form this State takes — parliamentary democracy, military, dictatorship, fascist dictatorship?” He answers, “Not at all! The more freedom the workers have to organise themselves and defend their ideas, the more will the seeds of the future socialist democracy grow within capitalist society, and the more will the advent of socialism be historically facilitated. That is why the workers must defend their democratic rights against any and every attempt to curtail them.”

The struggle to defend and extend democratic rights under the current system is of critical importance, and resistance makes an enormous difference. But in campaigning for democratic rights, it is important not to promote illusions that the capitalist State can ever be anything other than an instrument of class rule that will remain as such until the working class takes power from the capitalists. Even then, the State will not immediately wither away until there is no longer scarcity and therefore no basis for social conflicts.

The campaign to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody is an excellent example. The movement has demanded that coronial inquiries be launched into particular deaths in custody, even though the coroner’s court is an institution of the capitalist State. It fought vigorously for Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley to be charged for his role in the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee — even though the case was heard in a court of the capitalist State. Sixteen years on, activists continue to demand that all the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody be implemented. The movement is insistent. It demands answers. It demands that police and prison officers be held to account. It has made a difference.

But it is only through overthrowing the whole economic system that the objectives of the movement can be met in full. In Australia, profits are swelling obscenely from a mining boom carried out on land stolen from Aboriginal nations. The mining bosses also steal the surplus value — the difference between what workers produce and what they are paid —from mine workers, both Black and white, who are being exploited ever more intensively under Australian Workplace Agreements.

As well as campaigning to defend and extend basic democratic rights, we also need to fight for reforms and raise transitional demands. Leon Trotsky developed the concept of transitional demands. These arise from everyday necessity and cry out for solutions. But these demands can never be fully realised under capitalism, and for this reason they expose the rotting system.

The movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody raises the demand for the establishment of elected, community-controlled civilian review boards. This is an example of a transitional demand. These bodies must be independent of the police and have the power to discipline, fire and recommend charging cops who harass, brutalise and murder. Indigenous and working class communities clearly need such bodies. Depending on the power of the movement, we could even partially achieve independent cop watch bodies. The call to give these bodies real powers is a fundamental part of the demand. However, it is not something that the capitalist State will ever deliver because, by its very nature, it must retain the real power for itself.

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