The British State: a warning

In the first of two excerpts from ‘The British State: A Warning’, Chris Nineham examines how neoliberalism has shaped our state institutions 




In a state more and more outsourced to commercial interests and less and less prepared to provide basic welfare, surveillance and monitoring have partially replaced state provision. Surveillance has, in fact, become central to the state’s relationship with citizens, and the security services are at the heart of it. While commercially-based information gathering is built into an increasingly data-based economy, Edward Snowden’s Wikileaks revelations exposed the extraordinary extent to which the British security services are working with online corporations to monitor our lives. Between 2008 and 2010, the leaks showed that with the help of the US National Security Agency, Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ intercepted and stored webcam images – including sexually explicit material – of millions of internet users who were not suspected of any wrongdoing. In one 6-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts.[1]

Spending on public order more than tripled between 1979 and 2010.[2] It has fallen back a little since then, though this slack has probably been more than made up for by the burgeoning private security business. Once again, London has been the testing ground for new strategies of policing the poor. After the 2011 riots, the Metropolitan Police imported the ‘total policing’ model pioneered by William Bratton, a former New York Police Commissioner, following the policy of zero tolerance and ‘escalating force’.[3] This strategy and others adopted elsewhere are based on ‘pre-emptive policing’, in which police target groups according to whether they are ‘likely’ to commit a crime or engage in disorder. These policies involve the use of covert policing methods, running agents, using ‘secret evidence’ and other dubious and arguably illegal methods. As one investigation into current policing methods suggests, we are faced with a ‘hybrid criminal justice system’ based on a mix of policing methods that ‘blur the lines between the police and the military, civil law and martial law’ in line with ‘a hybrid crime/ war framework’.[4]

Encouraged by the insulation from the majority of the population provided by soaring inequality, neoliberal ideas have taken hold with the force of religion. Any challenge to the dogma of globalisation is tellingly dismissed as ‘populism’. The state broadcaster, the BBC, has become evangelical in its defence of EU membership and systematically contemptuous of Corbyn and his supporters. Researchers have found that during 2015, BBC evening news bulletins gave nearly twice as much unchallenged airtime to voices critical of Corbyn than to those that supported him and that the Labour leadership and its supporters were persistently referred to in ways that suggested hostility, intransigence and extreme positions.[5] The BBC appears to have become an organising centre for the project of destabilising the Corbyn leadership. A leading QC claims he has evidence that BBC producers have been routinely trying to undermine Corbyn by portraying him as too old and stupid to deal with the complexities of the job.[6]

For some commentators, the state’s identification with the neoliberal order suggests that neoliberalism is an all-encompassing regime in which market rationality has come to dominate the population completely.[7] The logic of this kind of analysis is that neoliberalism is so embedded in society that it can’t be dislodged. In their widely acclaimed recent study of neoliberalism, for example, Dardot and Laval argue that its ‘tour de force’ has been the successful production of ‘the neo-liberal subject’, the citizen who has completely internalised market rationality. They suggest that Thatcher has succeeded in her aim of ‘changing the heart and soul’ of the population.[8] 

There is no question that a state so tied up with business interests, practices and attitudes presents more obstacles than ever to progressive change. But it is important to distinguish between the stubborn adherence to neoliberal principle amongst the elites and the state of mind of the wider population.[9] The corporatised state has, in fact, generated widespread discontent. Partly this is because it has become virtually incapable of carrying out what Marx identified as one of its basic roles of keeping society functioning. But the series of mass movements and rebellions, from the Iraq War protests, anti-austerity marches, the near-miss Scottish independence vote, the vote to leave the EU in 2016 and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, have all expressed a deeper anxiety still. It is clear that millions of ordinary people feel they have lost whatever limited control they had over society and that the state is completely oblivious and even hostile to their interests and concerns. The Corbyn phenomenon has channelled discontent through the parliamentary system but in a peculiarly insurgent way that reflects Corbyn’s long record of extra-parliamentary campaigning. It is seen as an existential threat by the Labour Party Right and, as reported by the Financial Times, big business is more afraid of a Corbyn government than it is of Brexit. As FT columnist Merryn Somerset Webb said of the policy of quantitative easing (QE) which rescued the banks: ‘You hear the result of QE in the UK every time the shadow chancellor John McDonnell opens his mouth demanding a socialist reset – and he appears to have the support of about 40% of the population.’[10] 

The Brexit fiasco has been so spectacular and damaging because Brexit is an expression of a general crisis of the British state. As we have seen, the referendum detonated growing tensions in the Tory Party. What made matters much worse was that it also channelled the deep popular discontent with the Westminster elites and the whole experience of neoliberalism and foreign wars. The result was an extraordinary situation in which a Tory government had to try to implement a policy that was directly opposed to the strategy of big finance and the dominant corporations. The usual escape route in times of difficulty, bringing in a Labour government, was closed off by the fact of Corbyn’s leadership, another reaction against the neoliberal establishment. 

The ruling class is deeply divided and seems unable to take society forward. The dominant economic project remains the financialised globalisation that has created the problems in the first place. In its decline, the ruling class appears to have forgotten many of the lessons that it learnt since it began to accommodate democracy in the second half of the nineteenth century. It appears less and less interested in making concessions, responding to popular concerns or maintaining the appearance of neutrality. The Blairites’ enthusiastic embrace of the free market in the 1990s weakened Labour’s traditional ability to channel discontent relatively safely through the institutions. It has led to the development of a new Left in a series of mass movements against war and austerity that has powered Corbyn’s insurgent leadership of Labour. In the process, it has created the biggest chance for fundamental change in generations.

[3] Liz Fekete (2013) ‘Total Policing: Reflections from the Frontline’, Race and Class, Vol 54(3), p.72. 

[4] McCulloch  J. and Pickering S. (2009) ‘Pre-Crime and counter The British State 120 terrorism: Imagining future crime in the “war on terror’’’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol 49 no 5. Quoted in Liz Fekete (2013), p.72.

[7] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2017) The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, Verso, London, Loc 252. 

[8] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2017) Loc 281. 

[9] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2017) Loc 316.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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