Police States, Theirs and Ours

By Stephen Gowans

Anyone who’s shocked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US state is spying on its citizens shouldn’t be. Liberal democracies have routinely spied on their own citizens, long before Google, Microsoft, Verizon and the iPhone made the job easier. And they’ve done so while denouncing official enemies like the Soviet Union and East Germany—and today Cuba and North Korea—as police states. Indeed, what’s changed isn’t the fact of state surveillance, but its scope and reach.

Writing about Canada, political scientist Reg Whitaker and historians Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby note that “the police showed quite remarkable energy and zeal in spying on large numbers of citizens. (An official) commission (of inquiry) discovered in 1977 that the RCMP security service maintained a name index with 1,300,000 entries, representing 800,000 files on individuals” [1] at a time the country had a population of only 24 million!

Interestingly, Whitaker et al don’t call the RCMP’s security service a “secret police,” or Canada a “police state,” though a secret police force that maintained dossiers on three percent of its country’s population might be termed such by someone not so concerned about stepping lightly around the myth that liberal democracies are bastions of political freedom. (They are bastions of political freedom, but of a certain type: that which leaves private ownership of the economy firmly in place and the owners firmly in charge.)

Among the Canadians that Canada’s police state spied on was Tommy Douglas, a leader of the mildly left-leaning New Democratic Party, who served as the premier of one of Canada’s provinces. Douglas, grandfather of TV spook Kiefer Sutherland, and who is credited with pioneering Canada’s state-run health insurance program, died almost 30 years ago. All the same, the Canadian government refuses to make public its file on the prairie preacher turned social democrat politician. Disclosure, the Canadian police state insists, may reveal the names of informants, some of whom may still be alive, while deterring others from working with the political police, for fear their names may come to light in the future as informants. [2] Stasi informers who spied on their neighbors, workmates and acquaintances are reviled, but enmity isn’t heaped upon your neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances who are informers for Western police states. At least Stasi informers were defending a more egalitarian and humane society than the one it replaced and that has taken its place. Western secret police informers defend states that preside over growing inequality, intolerably high unemployment, a war on unions and wages, and which pursue predatory wars on foreign countries that refuse to allow the rape of their natural resources, labor and markets by the Western states’ ruling classes.

Canada’s NSA equivalent, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), has, like its better known counterpart south of the border, been scooping up “billions of bits of information transmitted around the world in cyberspace or on airwaves.” [3] Canada, along with the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is part of a signals intelligence community, called the Five Eyes, which spies on the other partners’ citizens and then shares the data with them to circumvent laws prohibiting domestic spying. These laws allow the major English-speaking capitalist democracies to back up their rhetoric about political freedom, while the cozy sharing arrangement among their electronic surveillance agencies frees them from the inconvenience of actually having to live up to it. And like the NSA, CSEC collects ‘meta-data,’ information on the date, duration, location and recipients of phone calls, e-mails, and text messages transmitted in Canada. Today, rather than having files on only 800,000 of its citizens, the Canadian police state has the raw material to assemble files on the vast majority of them.

Whitaker et al call state surveillance of citizens in liberal democracies political policing, which seems far more legitimate (legitimizing) than the name used to describe (discredit) the same behaviour in communist countries. When Cuban or North Korean officials place their citizens under surveillance, they’re accused of totalitarianism and police state repression, though it seems very unlikely, in light of the Snowden and other revelations, that either state can match the scope of snooping that liberal democracies can use to police their own citizens’ political behaviour.

The term “political policing” in lieu of “police state repression” sanitizes the practice when it happens in liberal capitalist states, and is sanitized again when it is acknowledged that “policing politics….has been done and continues to be done” in every liberal democracy, but that it “is inherently anomalous in liberal democracies.” [4] This, of course, is an oxymoron. Spying on citizens and disrupting the activities of those who challenge the established order can’t be inherently anomalous in liberal democracies if it is done in every one of them. It must, instead, be an invariable trait of liberal democracies.

But then, so too is political policing an invariable trait of every other kind of state. Whether it’s North Korea or Cuba spying on its own citizens, or the United States, Britain and Canada doing the same, in all cases, political policing serves a conservative function of defending the established order against those who would challenge it. “[T]he political police,” argue Whitker et al, “are always on the side of the political/economic status quo…. [5]

The difference is that political policing in liberal democracies is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.” [6] Political policing in East Germany, the Soviet Union, or today in Cuba and North Korea, is likewise an active conservatism, though not on behalf of capital, but against it, and on behalf of capital’s enemies.

It’s naive, then, for anyone in a liberal democracy who poses a serious threat to the established order to believe the state is going to let them be, free to exercise political freedoms that exist largely as a rhetorical contrivance. Challenging the established order is like going to war, and anyone who goes to war and is shocked to discover that the enemy fights back is seriously deluded about war, the state, and the nature of the enemy. All states are police states, including those most attached to rhetoric about political freedom.

In contrast, people who present no serious challenge to the state are typically indifferent to the state panopticon. They reason correctly that since they have nothing to hide, and that they identify with the state and have no inclination to challenge the class that dominates it, that the political police won’t trouble them.

Alternatively, there are people who, while they are not against the state, are in favour of reforms which would restrain the class that dominates the state from pursuing its interests to the fullest. From the perspective of the political police, these people must sometimes be subjected to surveillance to discover whether their quest for reforms is in reality a veiled challenge to the established order, and if not, to provide early warning if it metamorphoses into one. It is these people who are typically the most agitated by political policing, for inasmuch as they conscientiously keep their opposition within legal bounds and are not actively hostile to the state, they believe their privacy should be inviolable. In their view, their activities are “legitimate” (within bounds that do not seriously challenge the established order) and therefore are not fair game for surveillance. Hence, those who seriously threaten the established order know the state will spy on them, and accept surveillance as a reality of war; the apolitical are indifferent, because they know the state has no reason to disrupt their activities; while the reformers are agitated, because they’ve discovered the state isn’t neutral and may indeed disrupt activities they believed to be legitimate and legal.

British Labour MP Chris Mullen’s thought experiment, the novel A Very British Coup, explores the question of whether the British state would allow a leftist government to pursue far-reaching socialist reforms even if the government played by the formal rules. His conclusion: no. The political police, working with the United States, would orchestrate the government’s overthrow. It has typically been the case that left-wing movements that have come to power in liberal democracies either quickly abandon their agenda or actively pursue it and are replaced, as a consequence, by a military dictatorship or fascist coup. Under threat, capital shares none of the reverence for liberal democracy that moderate socialists so ardently display and believe in, to their detriment. Even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose challenge to the established order within his own country was partial at best, was briefly toppled in a coup, and remained menaced throughout his tenure as president by the efforts of the United States and owners of the country’s private productive assets to disrupt his government—a government that scrupulously operated within the boundaries of liberal democracy.

Likewise, it’s naive to think that the state in communist countries will not spy on, and try to disrupt, the activities of those who seriously threaten the established socialist order, and who seek to bring about a return to a society of exploitation, or subordination to foreign tyranny, or both. To object to this practice would be to elevate abstract ideas about political freedom above freedom from exploitation, oppression, hunger, and insecurity; to make the freedom to politically organize for the creation of conditions of exploitation senior to freedom from exploitation. Objecting to the Cuban state spying on citizens who want to return to the days of Batista and US domination is like objecting to the machine-gunning of an advancing Waffen SS column. It may not be pretty, but is necessary to defend something better than the alternative.

To sum up, police state measures—the stock in trade of all states, whether of exploiters or the previously exploited—are neither intrinsically objectionable nor inherently desirable, any more than nuclear technology is. So long as societies are divided by class, there will be states, and so long as there are states, there will be political police. Political policing, like nuclear technology, can be used for good or ill, to protect or destroy, to advance or hold back. We should be for it when it’s used for good and to advance; against it when it’s not. And we should be clear too that as much as the states they revile, liberal democracies are police states, and will always be, so long as the parasitism of capitalist society produces a determined opposition to the parasites.

1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012. p. 9.
2. Colin Freeze, “CSIS fights to keep Tommy Douglas spying file under wraps,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 10, 2010.
3. Michelle Shephard, “Web snooping vital, spy agency boss says”, The Toronto Star, October 23, 2005.
4. Whitaker et al, p. 10.
5. Whitaker et al, p. 11.
6. Whitaker et al, p. 12.

10 thoughts on “Police States, Theirs and Ours

  1. I can only vouch for the original TV version, and I have a feeling it was this that was re-shown. Sorry for the late response, i do not seem to be getting these comment threads, for some reason. Regards, Pete.

  2. Great piece and thank you for the insights. The lack of class based analysis found around the Internet on the Snowden revelations is not surprising but it’s still depressing. When I read remarks like “I feel like I’m in the USSR or North Korea!” I want to reply, “You should be so lucky.”

  3. While I sympathize, to a degree, with the romantic idea that we can achieve a classless society overnight, history and logic shows quite plainly that it just ain’t gonna happen. Get the arguments from both sides. Read Marx, and especially Lenin, to get the other side’s argument. Years ago I largely considered myself an anarchist, but I could never quite make myself believe that Marxist-Leninists (like Che, for example), who risked everything for the cause somehow had an insidious secret agenda to become the “new ruling class.” It just didn’t make sense. Please read all sides of the debate and try to keep an open mind.

  4. Pete, I understand that “A Very British Coup” as a TV show was redone recently. Any comments? I imagine the original adaptation done in the 80’s is the better one. Although, I am certain it doesn’t quite do justice to the novel. Sounds like a very interesting read. I’ll have to get a copy to read before I watch the show.

  5. “It was, instead, a consideration of class societies, of which I include societies which have overthrown an exploiting class, but which remain vulnerable to counter-revolution and must guard against the return of the previous exploiters to a position of dominance.” A socialist revolution, a radical transformation of society instigated by the working class cannot produce anything else than a classless society because abolishing alienated surplus value production (which is the only way in which subordinate labour, the working class as class can cease to exist) will make an end to all class antagonisms. Capital, the exploiting class of capitalists but also the guiding principle of capital accumulation as such, has to disappear for the socialist revolution to succeed. From this follows that no state will have a purpose in such process because there won’t be any class left to police. The former exploiters will disappear as an antagonistic force because the other side of the coin, labour / the working class, will have transcended itself. If this doesn’t happen, the state will stay in place as a police force for a ‘new’ exploting class (exactly what happened in the former ‘socialist’ people’s republics.) So yes, I deliberately misread your statements because I don’t agree with the premise that the working class will have to take control of the process of policing exploitation (the purpose a / the state serves) for socialism to become reality. In contrary, every such step will, in my opinion, produce an absolute mockery of the emancipatory drive that socialism stands for (read for example one of Kropotkin’s letters to Lenin: http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/kropotlenindec20.html ).

  6. Had I argued that a classless society has a need for the repressive apparatus of the state you might have had a reason to disagree. But I didn’t, and your objection is therefore misplaced. You may recall that I wrote: “So long as societies are divided by class, there will be states, and so long as there are states, there will be political police.” The corollary is that societies that are not divided by class, i.e., classless societies, will not need a state (that is, the repressive apparatus of the state), and therefore will not need a political police. But my discussion in no way addressed classless societies. It was, instead, a consideration of class societies, of which I include societies which have overthrown an exploiting class, but which remain vulnerable to counter-revolution and must guard against the return of the previous exploiters to a position of dominance. Granting the previous exploiters political freedom to organize their return would be to elevate abstract ideas about political freedom above freedom from exploitation, oppression, hunger, and insecurity; to make the freedom to politically organize for the creation of conditions of exploitation senior to freedom from exploitation. It would, moreover, guarantee that the creation of a classless society would remain an unachievable dream, for the determined opposition of the expropriated capitalist class and it allies would be allowed to flourish rather than overcome. Allow me, then, to add to my previous observation. “So long as societies are divided by class, there will be states, and so long as there are states, there will be political police.” Without a political police in a socialist society to repress class opposition to a classless society, a classless society will never come about.

  7. The working class’ revolution will be protected by its own revolutionary dynamic: abolishing labour as a power relation, as a subordinating principle, and radically democratizing society, starting with production / consumption by adopting quality / human need as the orienting principle of the economy. Such a classless society doesn’t need a state. I think every emancipatory movement should stay true to its principles and can be held accountable on that basis. So no, I don’t agree: the /a socialist project can’t encompass a police state if its to succeed and be an active force for the better of humankind !

  8. An excellent article. The comparisons with former East European countries show that they were actually quite amateurish, in contrast to the highly developed and long established systems in the so-called ‘free’ West. I always admired the programme ‘A very British Coup’, and thought then, and now, that this would be the exact outcome of a true Left-Wing victory in the UK.
    Regards from England. Pete.

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