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Regrettable Necessities - A Short Attempt At a Long View

By Associated Secretaries of Public Safety, 11 December 2013

When in March 2010 police and management connived in the eviction of an occupation at the University of Sussex, people were surprised at the willingness of University senior managers to maintain the ‘smooth functioning’ of their institutions by violent means. What these senior managers referred to in their press releases as ‘regrettable but necessary’ was, according to sympathetic observers, a shocking setback for ‘freedom of protest’, a dissuasive to the free exercise of political judgment, for which ‘the University’ was meant to provide a receptive and open environment.


Two years later, after the violent evictions of occupations in Birmingham, UCL, SOAS, and now the University of London, deliberate violence against student protestors is considerably more familiar. We are more ‘familiar’ with violence against students in roughly the same way that we are more familiar with the idea that the ‘economy’ is ‘suffering’; that it is necessary to retrench on public expenditure; and that legal protections for ‘marginal’ communities (a category now commodious enough to include the organised working class) are sadly unaffordable.


The first purpose of escalating police violence is to reconcile the population which is exposed to it to a declining quality of life. It is necessary to reconcile the population to declining standards of life quite quickly, because the decline itself is slow and (at least from the perspective of a limited human life) potentially endless.


One idea that we are now familiar with, and which we ought to reject, is the idea that ‘the crisis’ threatens to make capitalism collapse. Total economic collapse originating in (for example) the financial sector is, in fact, relatively easy to avoid, because the state is always capable of dominating single sectors of national economies, and also because the most powerful states have at least de facto control over the creation of the commodity (money) whose allocation is the financial sector’s primary responsibility. The representatives of capital will find it much harder to solve the ‘crisis’ of global capitalism than to avoid a ‘catastrophic’ or ‘apocalyptic’ financial meltdown, since a solution to the crisis of global capitalism will involve altering the value and distribution of past labour, which is ‘embodied’ not in one particular species but in the totality of commodities, and which therefore cannot be altered by decree without initiating a universal conflict between all existing social interests. The crisis of global capitalism cannot be solved all at once because it cannot be ‘fixed’ by means of a technocratic accord son l’honneur between two fractions of the capitalist class meeting at the Ivy for lunch; and also, more simply, because the capitalist state cannot produce or destroy the totality of commodities at will.


This process can be disputed over endlessly in its details, but its primary implication is clear. We live at the beginning of enormous changes. The changes will be unremittingly, ceaselessly violent, and will be enacted primarily at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable (this applies equally to nation states, social groups, and to individuals). The ‘apocalypse’ often imagined to be the destiny of the global financial system is already an enduring reality for millions of people, all of whom are victims of the step by step transition of capitalist institutions towards a situation where labour can profitably be exploited, and where the proceeds of that exploitation can be profitably reinvested. This apocalypse is gradual and may go on for many decades.


Police violence has always been especially necessary in long periods of capitalist transition. It functions to adjust the expectations of a class of people whose desires and hopes and spontaneously motivated intentions have been formed outside of the regrettable but necessary world towards which senior managers, valetudinarian shareholders, and parliamentary politicians strain with all of their great age, bulk, and influence. It possesses an indirect economic influence in something like the way that a slave driver’s whip possesses a direct economic influence.


Because intensified police violence has an indirect economic influence during period of capitalist transition, reports of broken ribs, smashed jaws, or cut heads at protests are not only testaments to the inexplicable ‘reactionary’ decline of the civil liberties ‘for which our ancestors fought’ or even to the hostility of the ruling classes towards demands for radical change. They are also indices of expectation management, in two distinct ways. They are the expression of indirect coercion through which the newly reduced conditions of social existence can be forced upon a population which is accustomed to (and which desires to defend) better ‘standards’ of living; but they are the indices of expectation management in another sense, too. From the perspective of the state, images of students being beaten are not the least bit regrettable. On the contrary, they have a specific, necessary function. The population needs to be accustomed to this kind of direct physical discipline, which is not only the means of transition (the means by which the population will be acclimatised to a situation defined by reduced access to material goods and ‘services’), but also a preview of the transition’s aim and desideratum, namely, a society in which stable national economic growth is assured through the permanent and violent disciplining of that portion of the population which possesses only an oblique relation to the circuits of national capital accumulation. The capitalist society towards which the UK (but also countries across the world) is transitioning is one in which violent incarceration and repression is the familiar destiny of a permanently expanding demography. The ‘erosion’ of civil liberties is continuous with this basic economic necessity and cannot be intelligibly separated from it even for the purpose of analysis.


The state has good reason to exercise violence even in situations where it is not evidently ‘needful’, because, however much momentary outrage exemplary state violence may produce, the same violence often repeated will always produce familiarity among the people who are liable to be subjected to it. Students who are beaten by police in occupations or during street demonstrations are not being punished for their utopianism (or for ‘desiring a better society’): they are being made into symbols for the society to come, which will only come into being – which can only survive – if the state can produce a culture of acquiescence to the legalised physical brutality required to keep redundant populations in line. The representatives of the state know that this culture has to be produced quickly, because students, the decomposed working class, and other marginals need to be habituated to the new state of affairs before they learn to oppose it. The reason for the urgent escalation of police violence is therefore (paradoxically) the growing recognition that the crisis is long-term; that the violence required to ‘impose’ austerity is just as essential to the new economy as austerity itself; and that a population still relatively weak in the face of a class assault needs to be taught to look back with familiarity at a world essentially akin to the one it is peremptorily told to expect.


Capitalism as an inadequate, damaging, and catastrophically unjust technology for the allocation and control over human labour does not only require ‘austerity’ to be violently ‘imposed’. Increased police violence is essential to the ‘stage’ of capitalism towards which we are presently transitioning. The apparently exorbitant routines of punishment meted out to students on even the smallest demonstration are part of a theatre of familiarisation which, from the perspective of the state and capital, is indispensably necessary. The theatre of familiarisation in which the cops play their parts anticipates a composition of society in which the value represented by past labour (in real estate, factory equipment, pension funds, bank deposits, intellectual property, etc) is preserved as a result of the step by step transformation of a much larger part of society into ‘surplus population’, i.e., a logistical problem, to be ‘dealt with’ by means of physical punishment and incarceration. If this project were to be really accomplished, there would be no ‘shocking’ confrontations between students and cops, because the social role of the ‘student’ as it is presently defined would have been phased out of existence.


Violence is not the means by which austerity is imposed: austerity imposes violence. The correct slogan is already familiar in practice if not yet in theory. There can be no capitalism without cop violence. In the long transition towards a world in which the crisis really is ‘solved’, not by a revolution in the mode of reproduction, but by intensification of police brutality on the one hand, and by jadedly familiar acceptance of its regrettable necessity, on the other – in this exhalation of decades, the slogan becomes more true every single day.