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Capitalism Has Always Been Authoritarian

Capitalism is often presented as synonymous with freedom, but when the ruling class meets resistance it responds with violence – and exposes the coercion that sustains a deeply unequal system.

For a long time, we are told, capitalism has been making the world safer. Ignoring the violent conflicts Western states frequently raise abroad, liberals have maintained that peace between previously militaristic nations—most notably in Europe—has been achieved through their social, economic, and political integration.

But those on the Left, too, have increasingly focused on the role of capitalist ideology, as opposed to the use of force, in securing the legitimacy of the status quo. We analysed how the construction and indoctrination of good neoliberal subjects—whether through the media, the education system, or the workplace—ensured that the average citizen complied with the exercise of state and corporate power.

Ideology is, of course, a deeply significant factor in explaining why people continue to submit to their own exploitation and oppression, as it can render the exercise of power less visible. You might not know why you want to buy a new car on credit, or instinctively distrust any and all forms of protest, or silently agree to the assertion that the government ‘can only spend as much as it earns.’

The subtle but continuous ways in which these messages are enforced make it seem as if they stem from a primitive part of one’s own psyche. As a result, any challenge to these ideas comes to appear as a challenge to your own ideas of what is right and logical.

But our focus on the role of ideology has generated something of a lacuna in our understanding of the ways in which material power—whether the direct use of force or other forms of economic power—is deployed to shore up the status quo.

The Left’s failure to grasp the ways in which the reproduction of capitalist social relations rests on the repeated use of force has led us to greet the recent authoritarian turn of the Conservative Party with some surprise. We had grown accustomed to seeing our enemies as technocratic liberals, not heavy-handed authoritarians.

But despite their protestations to the contrary, the Conservative Party never stopped being ‘the nasty party’. Ideology is powerful not just for the ways it makes us accept the ideas of the ruling class as our own, but in the ways in which it convinces us that that same ruling class is largely using peaceful methods to achieve its aims. Our society never stopped being governed by force, and once resistance breaks through again in earnest that becomes clear.

In fact, one reason the authoritarianism of the system has been easy to ignore is that its abuses largely took place out of sight, inflicted on those least able to resist. The dark underbelly of globalisation has been the increasingly violent tactics used by states to control and suppress the movement of people across their borders – for instance, the Global Detention Project estimates that the UK was holding 23,970 people in immigration detention centres in 2020.

In the United States, this regime of violent control over surplus populations takes an extreme and somewhat historically novel form. Black men and women are, as is now well-known, incarcerated in the US in numbers unparalleled throughout the world, and many more are killed by the police before they even reach prison.

The shift towards austerity also legitimised the use of economic violence against disabled people, and other groups deemed ‘unproductive’ by the ruling class. In the UK, the government has repeatedly been accused of gross violations of the rights of disabled people. It would not be an exaggeration to describe some of these cases—such as Phillipa Day, who killed herself after her personal independence payments were stopped—as social murder.

The exercise of violence has been rendered even more invisible by the fact that states are outsourcing these tasks to private companies. G4S runs many of the UK’s immigration detention centres, and footage released in 2017 showed its guards ‘mocking, abusing, and assaulting detainees’. G4S has since made the strategic decision to shift its focus from immigration centres to prisons.

Many of the cruellest and most humiliating aspects of the UK’s social security regime are also run by outsourcing companies like Atos. Disabled people are forced to ‘prove’ that they are really disabled in order to qualify for support, a process so unfit for purpose that people with terminal cancer and other long-term disabilities were initially declared ‘fit for work’. Atos and other outsourcing companies, meanwhile, have raked in millions from running these services.

The state was able to get away with many of these abuses because, for a long time, the opposition seemed to be on board with them too. The failure to challenge arguments for austerity by successive Labour leaders after the Financial Crisis meant that the widespread abuses of the rights of disabled people and migrants came to be seen as an acceptable price to pay for ‘improving’ the public finances.

After a relatively more progressive interlude under Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer did not simply revert to business as usual – he has set out to prove that the Labour Party would be even more loyal to the coercive arm of the state than the Conservatives. He failed to oppose the government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (known as the Spy Cops bill) and the Overseas Operations Bill. In Tribune, Shami Chakrabarti described these pieces of legislation as some of the most ‘dangerous’ attacks on human rights she had seen.

The most recent piece of legislation in this vein—Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—seeks to impose tougher sentences on those who vandalise statues than those who commit rape. In effect, it is a further step towards criminalising dissent by an authoritarian Conservative Party increasingly comfortable with the overt use of force.

It is a relatively good sign that Labour intends to oppose this today, but utterly remarkable that things had progressed to such a degree in the party’s slide into accepting Tory authoritarianism that it had initially planned to abstain. These are not incidental issues – attacks on civil liberties and political freedoms will come to define this government, and be used to repress social movements for years to come. Opposition to this agenda is the bare minimum we should expect.

But this progress towards overt authoritarianism on behalf of the Tories is not novel – and it is important that the Left recognises this. Capitalism has always reproduced itself through violence, and specifically force utilised in defence of property and power. These trends are obvious in many parts of the Global South, at capitalism’s periphery, where exploitation is harshest – but they are also increasingly visible at its core.

Authoritarian capitalism is not new, but the use of force does is becoming more overt, which is why it is all the more important that the Left exposes and resists the appalling treatment of the most marginalised. What is legitimated at capitalism’s fringes will soon progress to its core. Or, as the late Tony Benn once said, ‘the way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.’