Beefing up the state

What role will the state play in the post-pandemic world? That question is posed by the economic measures, but also by the major powers granted in the new coronavirus laws.

Behind the ‘all in it together’ national unity line, capitalist governments world-wide are beefing up their powers to deal with the increased class struggle that is widely predicted. As IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath put it: “If the crisis is badly managed and it’s viewed as having been insufficient to help people, you could end up with social unrest”. There is no if about it.

There are some sensible measures in the new legislation but the powers to implement much of those aspects already existed. Legal compulsion is not needed to enforce social distancing measures – and the two metres recommendation isn’t in the law. However, in many workplaces workers have to fight for these and other precautions against bosses prioritising profits. Government advisors report that levels of adherence to the lockdown among the general population were higher than predicted as people respond to the call for collective action for safety.

But scrutiny of what the laws do contain has so far been limited. As well as the mistaken capitulation by the labour and trade union leadership to the false ‘national unity’ idea, attacks on journalistic freedoms are a factor. Iran has banned the distribution of all print newspapers. In Hungary, right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban has given himself greater power and implemented new restrictions on journalism. Like all the other rights under threat, the socialist and labour movement must organise to defend press freedom, the right to free expression, and all fundamental democratic rights while battling the virus.

In the US, under Donald Trump’s presidency, the Customs and Border Protection, created in the aftermath of 9/11 and maintained by Obama, has assumed the power to indefinitely monitor and detain anyone suspected of carrying the virus. In New York, warehouse strike leader Chris Smalls was sacked by Amazon who accused him of violating pandemic social distancing rules. This gives a glimpse of how coronavirus powers can be used against the working class as it tries to organise to defend rights and safety.

Similar new powers are being created in Britain. On 25 March, six days after its initial publication, the government passed into law its Coronavirus Act, unopposed by the Labour Party. This primary legislation was accompanied by secondary legislation in the form of the shorter Health Protection Regulations which were made under the 1984 health act. These were adopted with no parliamentary scrutiny a day later.

Its undue haste is matched by the legislation’s scope, longevity and level of threat to working class struggle. The ‘emergency’ powers in the Act can last for two years with the potential to extend them by a further six months. Parliament will get the chance to review the powers in the Act every six months, with a vote required to continue – unless parliament is not sitting.

The actual law on going outside during the lockdown is less restrictive than the way the government has presented it elsewhere. In Regulation Six of the secondary legislation it says that “during the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse”. It then lists what may be considered a ‘reasonable excuse’ – including shopping, work and volunteering. It places no limits on the number of times you can exercise nor stipulates where. The lack of clarity can allow the government to appear to be doing all it can for safety while also continuing to facilitate big businesses’ need for workers and customers.

There are many causes for concern within these laws. For example, under the Act only one doctor’s signature will be needed to section someone instead of two. Police can maintain warrants for longer and retain data and fingerprints for longer. Elections can be postponed. Standards of care and public services can be dropped. The phrase “necessary and proportionate” appears 48 times but the Tories protest their class aims too much. 

The Coronavirus Act gives authorities power to shut down events, gatherings and premises, to force people to leave and go into isolation facilities, and to make people stay in a place. Unlike in the Civil Contingencies Act, however, there is no exemption made for political or industrial gatherings – such as strikes.

Also within the Regulations is the new power for police constables, police community support officers and “a person designated by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this regulation” to detain and isolate “potentially” infectious people – and that they can restrict movement by the use of force. There appears to be no explanation of how the authorities will determine whether someone is potentially infected and no way of appealing against this, nor any oversight of the ministerial appointments.

Individuals, some of whom have no statutory power of arrest, can now detain someone who they consider is outside their home without “reasonable excuse”. These laws will be used against the working class when struggle challenges capitalist interests.

However, there is some concern among the defenders of capitalism that these laws go too far and threaten British capitalism’s ability to maintain the idea that the state is neutral and fair. Members of the Society of Conservative Lawyers have asked if these new laws threaten Britain’s tradition of ‘policing by consent’, ie not by force and fear which is much more expensive for one thing. They quote Sir Robert Peel, who created the first police force, writing in 1829 that: “The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives”. Policing by consent relies on the ‘social contract’ including the provision of public services, won by the working class. Is the government, the executive committee of the ruling class, preparing for that social contract to be broken in the post-lockdown situation and therefore the need for ‘physical force and compulsion’?

It is a mistake that this repressive legislation has been passed without challenge. This was another missed opportunity by Jeremy Corbyn to use his last days in the Labour leadership to oppose these laws and warn the working class of their potential and help prepare for the class battles ahead. When these laws become more widely understood, those who warned and explained their purpose will be recognised.

In Ireland, tiny right-wing forces are challenging the new measures passed by a placeholder government in the courts. The socialist left however missed an opportunity to use its elected positions to challenge its passing. In the Dail parliamentary debate People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett gave tacit support to the Bill. Socialist Party TD Mick Barry, instead of calling for a vote against or to remove the anti-democratic sections of the Bill, said: “we have included an amendment that would not allow a government to renew the legislation; if it is to be renewed, this must be done by a vote of the Dáil”. A vote now not a vote delayed, combined with the call for democratic trade union oversight of every emergency measure, could have tested the limits of Sinn Fein’s exhortations to heed democratic rights and pointed to the role of the working class in defending them.

Socialists should take every opportunity to warn the working class that these measures cannot be left in the hands of defenders of the capitalist class. That includes by the building of a mass independent party of the working class with a socialist programme. It also means trade unions organising to demand democratic oversight of all crisis measures taken by governments and the private sector. It is necessary at workplace level where bosses cannot be trusted to prioritise safety and it is necessary at every level.

This legislation will not be an absolute obstacle to working class organisation and struggle but anti-democratic measures are there to undermine workers’ effective actions against the bosses. It is necessary that a programme of working class demands to challenge these powers is discussed and fought for.

However, the limits of such measures must also be understood by the labour movement. The capitalists use the state to maintain their position in the class society we live in. They won’t stand by and allow the working class to deny them that. To end attacks on democratic rights and liberate humanity from exploitation and austerity requires a break with capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge