Cops against cuts?

Submitted by Matthew on 16 February, 2011 - 10:31

A small Twitter storm recently erupted over potential demonstrations by the police against job cuts, and whether the left anti-cuts movement should join in.

There seems to be some confusion going on, and some outright naivety. People can refer to police strikes of 1918-19, and state that revolutionaries need to win over cops (probably true). But this is not a revolutionary situation, or even close. It’s not a case of police beginning to join in with a serious class struggle, who need to be won over to our cause to stop them from shooting us. It’s not even a serious attempt at self-organisation into union-like structures by police.

We might want to win some of them over, of course, but what does that mean? Being a copper is in direct conflict with being a socialist. The police form part of the armed wing of the state. Their reason for existence is to keep public order. We’re going to need to pretty much destroy public order to even begin to challenge capitalism (the bosses aren’t just going to hand over the means of production with a “with compliments” slip, yeah?). This much should be abundantly obvious to anyone who took part in the student protests last year. Winning over individual police is a case of persuading them not to be police any more.

Marching alongside them in their attempt to stop job cuts is hardly going to achieve this. Joining in such a demo explicitly suggests you don’t want a cut in police numbers. Kind of hard to have individual arguments with coppers about not being coppers when they’re marching for their right to be coppers.

Some are making the argument that all cuts should be fought (who says the police even think this, and don’t want to sacrifice libraries, universities and healthcare to the crucial task of preventing anarchy?!) and, worse, that police cuts should be specifically opposed because crime hits working-class communities hardest.

Now, I’m not an anarchist (hi comrades!), and I don’t actually know anyone, anarchist or not, who calls for the immediate abolition of the police. It’s clear they play a (very) limited protective role. But to jump from recognising this to supporting the maintenance of police numbers is extremely dodgy ground. Why not call for more police and have done with it?

It’s also worth excavating what this says about your attitude to what crime is, and where it comes from.

The Howard League for Penal Reform reports that 78% of all people sentenced to custody were convicted of non-violent crime. The vast majority of crime is acquisitive — stealing stuff to make money, often in order to fund a drug addiction. Or, in the case of many women, crimes like shoplifting to support families — 54% of women in prison in 2000 cited their lack of money as a reason, 38% the need to support children and 33% having no job.

Of course it’s shitty to be robbed, particularly when you haven’t got much yourself. But it doesn’t mean sliding into rhetoric that occludes the underlying structural reasons for much crime — poverty, lack of opportunity, drugs, shit low-paid work, you name it — from a socialist analysis.

Worse, our chums at the Third Estate [a left-wing blog] go on to complain about anti-social behaviour: “The day to day business of the police isn’t kettling protesters but protecting working class communities from anti-social scumbags.”

Some of what these “scumbags” (ouch) do is pretty scary. I live on a pretty quiet estate, but I’m still intimidated by the kids hanging round the bus stop at 9pm and occasionally smashing bits of it. It’s much worse elsewhere.

But this kind of statement fits uncomfortably in a debate about the police. Firstly, it misdirects the police’s primary function (sure they do more day-to-day on ASB than on political protest, but hey, it’s not the revolution yet, and watch priorities switch when it is…). But worse is what it implies, again, about what anti-social behaviour is and how to deal with it.

Do we really want to maintain (or increase) police numbers as an antidote to low-level anti-social “crime”, with its myriad of underlying structural reasons? Sure, it can be annoying and frequently genuinely upsetting and life-affecting, but the solution isn’t calling for the big, shiny black jackboot of the law to stamp down on it. And then presumably send those involved to prison, or give them ASBOs or something. Well, not if you’re a socialist anyway.

Even if the kids involved are just “scumbags” (watch people get upset when you call the cops that…), without having any truck with any arguments about the social production of crime, would you want the police — the baton-wielding, state-upholding, frequently-deadly police — to “crack down” on them, in this society, with all its cards stacked against these kids even before they see the inside of a court room?

We’re not talking individual offences here; the Third Estate tweets suggest the real structural problem is one of scummy working-class people versus nice working-class people (Alarm Clock Britain maybe?), as arbitrated by the police.

Never mind how the police routinely harass and intimidate people themselves, producing their own chunk of fear in working-class communities. And I’m not even going to get into police priorities and procedures affecting crime stats, and showing just who gets pinched for what depends so strongly on class.

Go read some Stuart Hall. Just stop hiding pretty unpleasant anti-working class sentiments behind the rhetoric of concern for the very same people. And don’t march to protect the police.


Submitted by Sofie Buckland on Fri, 22/07/2011 - 12:12

...doesn't run those two sentences together, so it's a bit clearer, perhaps. It's here

Submitted by Mark on Mon, 25/07/2011 - 16:23

Sure if someone nicks my car, I'll probably end up phoning the police. Proving what?

If we just look at the amount of money people get at the end of the month then there is no possibility of distinguishing an airline pilot (well paid worker) from the senior managers at local councils, in the health service etc (who are probably on similar money but are likely to cross picket lines, fight the class struggle for the ruling class etc).
So what a worker does, while they are at work, is not of no consequence. In the case of the police they are used by the ruling class against the working class - not only on our protest marches and during strikes, but routinely - brutally, often randomly - on the estates and streets.
The police understand their social role, and its consequences, even if you don't want to Theo. I remember quite distinctly a BBC documentary about new recruits at their Hendon training college: they were asked if they had friends outside the force; most of them nodded; they were asked to look about them and told, "These are your [only] friends now".
The fact you can write: "We can all tell angry stories about how crap the cops treated us," without attempting to draw political conclusions from the fact we have all had a hard time at the hands of the police, is very strange indeed. If they are as brutal as you (rightly) suggest, why do believe they are potential allies?
Everything the workers' movement does of much consequence will be met by police activity of one sort or another.

"Being a copper is in direct conflict with being a socialist" is very far from being meaningless. We don't want decent young people to join a force that requires them to be routinely unpleasant and (perhaps) violent towards workers, youth and the poor. We know that they will either be spat out or, if they stay for any length of time, become corrupted.
In the normal course of events being a policeman/woman is not compatible with membership of our group (and neither is being a senior manager, for that matter). It puts you on the wrong side of the class struggle - meaning you are organised to fight the class struggle against the working class, practically, day-to-day. And why would we want a member like that?
It also means that police unions, for example, should not be thought of as part of the labour movement; that we should not normally support the demands of such unions. And that doesn't just mean we would oppose POA motions for bring back the death penalty, but we would also oppose demands from police unions for better wages (something that we - of course - routinely support for real workers). Why? Because we don't want to improve the morale of the people who will line up against us!
Do you really want to support a police campaign against police cuts? or for better police equipment? Or for more powers? Because that's what they want!
Now none of this means that in special circumstances we might not change tack (but with our objective still in mind - to disorganise and weaken the bourgeois state and its ability to attack us). Fratenise with the police; build cells inside an army etc. The Sandinistas supported a pay claim of the vile Nicaraguan police force in 1979 - not because they had changed their view of the police as torturers and thugs - but because they wnated to split the state, or paralyse part of it.

Of course if you think Lenin was wrong and the bourgeois state can be taken over and used for the workers by the workers, then 'workers in uniform' is a necessary consequence... but that's just silly.

How many socialist cops do you think there are, by the way?

Submitted by Mark on Mon, 25/07/2011 - 20:56

OK, I'll try to tell you where I draw the line. But of course I'll define it by political criteria, rather than job title.
In return you should tell me if you think a line exists - and, if it does, where *you* would draw it.

For my part, in the context of our discussion, it is necessary to exclude at least two groups from the catagory of "real workers". First, managers - real mangers, rather than people simply with name-badges that declare them to be managers - ie.. people with substantial control over the labour process; in control of those below them, with substantial powers to report on workers, or hire and fire.
Lots of workplaces have a fine-graded pyramid structure and it might be difficult, in the abstract, to work out where proper managers take over. In fact the class struggle makes it plain. Beyond a certain grade people generally cross picket lines - below, they don't. (i.e. people really know which side their bread is buttered).

Next - people who are a direct part of one of the repressive functions of the state, are out. I.e. benefits workers, firefighters, DoE staff etc are workers; police, army, prison officers, immigration officials who are directly responsible for throwing people out of the country are capitalist cops, capitalist troops, etc (as Trotsky put it).

The order is important too: police, army, prison officers. To do with direct, day-to-day use in repression, degree of responsibility. Again the struggle makes it clear. Police are the last, often, to break in times of big struggle. Conscript armies are weaker than professional. And in some countries police are nearer to being 'normal' workers than in the UK (i.e. the norm is shorter stints, less professionalised than UK).
No one is pretending that the gradations are of no consequence. No one wants to wander round denouncing all police as fascists. However, on the other hand, we want to warn the labour movement about the function of the state and the danger it poses to our movement.

It is true that I've only had one long discussion with a serving policeman, recently. It scared hell out of me. Although he was being very reasonable, he had a very nasty, deeply-held, authoritarian streak. The conditions of his life in the police force reinforced a basic reactionary outlook. In another circumstance he'd have cheerfully kicked my teeth in.

Submitted by Mark on Tue, 26/07/2011 - 11:56

Hi Theo. Much of what you write is fine. If you're able to argue with police, OK (although as a political project, now, for us, it makes no sense).
Nevertheless the main issue is still in play, I think. (And that's despite the fact that given the reality of the G8 protests you acted as if you had our theory, rather than the 'workers in uniform' notion, which you rightly seem to think proved to be disorienting).

Sure, no doubt many young men join the army because they prefer the idea of water-skiing in Malta to being on the dole in Sunderland. However, at the point they join, they also have to threaten children in Basra with a gun. And, as you write, even if they find it unpleasant, refusal is very difficult in normal times.
If people stay for any length of time as a copper, they become shaped by the job. They have to behave brutally (and not just on picket lines), routinely. Their job implies aggression, rudeness, high-handed distain. The prison warders might be pleasant to you - you're on the outside!

It is interesting that way you seem to have buried the key issue in your last post. I think the problem is the way you are using some words. You're not drawing out the politics, differences.
What do I mean? Take the question of solidarity between rank and file police. It is not the same as the solidarity that workers in struggle experience. Sure the police ranks 'stick together' - but the parallel with workers you want to make is superficial because the purpose and effect of police solidarity is different, because their social roles are different! Their 'sticking together' has a different social meaning and content.

I understand that the class divisions within the British army are even more pronounced than within the police (where it is a bit easier to work your way up through the ranks to the top). Nevertheless, despite the class divisions in police, (and generally unlike bosses/workers), the top cops are often more 'enlightened' than the rank and file (e.g on the question of race, on the question of the rule of law etc). The top police in a force like the Met are proper thinking bourgeois in offices; the rank and file are at the sharp end, on the street.

Support the right of police to organise, to strike? Fine, up to a point. But that's different to supporting police strikes. Depends what they are striking for. We should not support more police, better paid police etc. Will that demoralise the police - yes! let's hope so! The sort of demands we might support include those that disorganise the rigid hierarchy in the police, army.

And basic demands of the left run in flat contradiction to the sort of things rank and file police might well want. E.g. abolish special police units like the TSG; abolish Special Branch; abolish the secret state (MI5, MI6 etc); disarm the police (take their guns, CG gas, tazers from them); direct election of boards with operational and budgetary control over police forces; making sacking police guilty of racism or corruption much easier... That flat contradiction must tell you something about the nature of the police...

Submitted by Mark on Thu, 28/07/2011 - 18:03

OK, you write, "Clearly, the police force is riven through with corruption, bigotry, masonic lodges and sociopathic elements." But you wouldn't write that about, say, Sainsbury's staff, or Firefighters (many of whom are ex-police). These facets are systemic, institutionalised; another flag to tells us policing is not a normal job.
On the other hand, I don't deny that plenty of police might be decent people on a certain level, have joined because they want to help society deal with thieves, murderers etc. And infact that's one of the elements that, in the end, will help us split or neutralise the force and allow the working class to come to power.
You're right that if a revolutionary party wants to advocate an effective policy - and especially a mass party, one operating in a tense political climate - it must pay attention to the views of rank and file among the state forces. But then the question remains: in order to do what? Our argument is that the 'workers in uniform' idea, treating the police, army etc as part of the working class (albeit a special, perhaps peculiar part) is confusing, and is a concession to reformism (explictly so in the case of the old Militant Tendency, as it was included in a programme which advocated peaceful revolution through parliament).

Yes, I agree about senior police, so I wrote 'enlightened' not enlightened.

Theo, you write:
'"Support the right of police to organise, to strike? Fine, up to a point." That's a bit non-committal for me. Do you support the right of lower-ranks to an independent union with the right to strike or not? You seem hesitant because you're afraid of what their union might fight for.'

Well, yes, I am worried about what they might fight for. I can't think of any recent workers' strikes we didn't back (reactionary strikes are very rare). But most actions, in normal times, by a police union, would be problematic at best.
I'm also aware that unlike, say, the straightforward 'fight cuts in the NHS' a demand to back the organisation of police is to be raised concretely when we consider the outcome will be positive, rather than likely to create problems for our class (i.e. we'd be careful not to raise the demand, or we'd oppose it, if we thought the immediate consequence would be a reactionary campaign for greater police powers.) So, if I seem hesitant, not gung-ho: you're right!

The POA question actually reveals several differences between the AWL and much of the left. I don't deny the POA is, or can be, militant. And, unlike many other militants (Islamists, the EDL, the IRA) which - programatically - we have little or nothing in common with, the POA seems different. It loudly demands the repeal of the anti-union laws, for example (louder, in fact, than many other unions).
But again the question to ask is: what social force are we seeing? militant about what? for what ends?
The POA demands the right to strike, the right to organise, the right to fight for its members rights. But (like the police) we shouldn't want well-equipped, well-paid prison officers, better able to do their jobs. Why? Because the job they do stinks.
The fact is that the majority of people currently in jail should not be there. The prison population and the use of prisons should be radically curtailed, not expanded. The regime in prisons should be radically liberalised. 'Jails' might exist under socialism, but with utterly different social aims: education, care for mental health and rehabilitation. Not warehousing a layer of illiterate, poor, ill or vulnerable young men.

Submitted by Matthew on Fri, 29/07/2011 - 14:33

I think the attitude of the Socialist Party towards "workers in uniform" is driven at least in part by their influence in certain unions.

Brian Caton, until recently head of the POA, was a SP member, having joined after being elected I think. In the civil service union PCS, it leads to statements about immigration officers along the lines of "it's a tough job but someone's got to do it" and criticising an anti-deportation campaign in Scotland which held a picket outside a Borders Agency building for "intimidating our members".

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.