The debate on the left sparked by Emma Norton’s recent comment piece in Red Flag about establishing safe access zones around abortion clinics exposed a worrying trend among some of Norton’s critics. 

Norton argued that the left must oppose moves by governments to criminalise anti-choice bigots and, instead, our focus should be “exercising our own right to protest and fighting to overturn sexist abortion laws around Australia”. 

Without going into the specifics of the bill, what’s worrying is how quick many leftists were to justify resorting to the state to settle our disputes and deal with our enemies on the right.

One such example is from Aussie Anarchist Meme Squat (AAMS), which responded, “As anarchists, we do what we do because fascists and bigots are allowed to organise openly without any intervention from the state … We protect communities from groups like these, because the state won’t”. 

Without intending to tar all of Norton’s critics with the Meme Squat brush, the attitude to the state and the far right expressed in this quote represents a common misunderstanding of the relationship between these two forces.

There’s a logic inherent in the state that tends towards the expansion and strengthening of its repressive apparatus. Over the last 30 years, that trend has accelerated. Implementing brutal neoliberal economic policies, such as cuts to welfare and the undermining of working class living conditions, has gone hand in glove with attacks on our right to organise, protest and strike. 

The “war on terror” has also provided a vehicle to undermine the rights of individuals via the expansion of surveillance, the militarisation of police and so on. 

An example of these two factors coming together was in the immediate aftermath of the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015. President François Hollande announced a six-month state of emergency, which gave police more powers. 

One of their first targets was climate activists who had converged on Paris for that year’s climate summit. Under the state of emergency, they were placed under house arrest. Today, the state of emergency lives on under president Emmanuel Macron. What was supposed to be a state of exception has become permanent.

The left should oppose this logic of constant expansion of the state’s repressive apparatus – which includes branches of the police and the prisons. It’s a logic that goes unquestioned by both sides of mainstream politics. 

In that light, Norton’s speculation about whether the safe access zones could be used against striking workers is beside the point. The NSW MPs did not manufacture this bill to find a sneaky way of repressing strikes. The bill is what it says it is. But that’s the problem: the left taking up the criminalisation of the far right’s behaviour as our demand, rather than seeking to build mass movements – “performative rallies” according to AAMS – that can push back against the far right.

While the more extreme elements of the far right are sometimes caught and punished by the state, overall the logic of increasing state repression has converged neatly with the interests of the far right. Liz Fekete, in Europe’s Fault Lines, enumerates how the “battlefield of crime and punishment” provides opportunities for the far right to grow and organise.  

One avenue is through the outsourcing of policing to private security firms affiliated to far right groups that commonly provide “security” for asylum seeker welcome centres in Europe. 

Tougher sentencing laws also fit with the far right’s agenda. The toughest sentence of all – the reintroduction of the death penalty – is a universal demand of Europe’s far right.

The European far right is closely intertwined with the repressive state. Top police officials in Hungary, France and Greece have appeared on far right electoral lists. In 2012, more than half of Greek police officers voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. In France just before the 2017 presidential election, a poll indicated that 65 percent of gendarmerie intended to vote for the fascist Marine Le Pen. 

When far right groups win power, even at a local level, the first laws and regulations they pass are almost always repressive and censorious.

This is not a defence of the pro-lifers’ “right to protest”, and if any of these bigots end up charged under NSW’s new safe access zone laws, I wouldn’t be running some defence campaign. However, it’s important that the left maintains hostility to state repression.