The wave of riots and protests following the murder of George Floyd in the United States has brought into focus the massive, and seemingly ever expanding sums spent by governments on policing, at the cost of other services such as housing, health care and welfare. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of personal protective equipment has driven some US nurses to attempt to prevent contagion by wearing garbage bags. Yet police tasked with repressing protests possess all the high tech weaponry and equipment of an occupying army.
Major US cities spend an obscene amount on the police. The New York City Police Department budget is the biggest in the country at US$5 billion, more than the combined budgets of the departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development. The 2020-21 Los Angeles budget allocated US$3.14 billion to the police out of a total of $10.5 billion. This compares to just $6 million for emergency management and $30 million for economic development. Chicago’s 2020 budget allocated $1.78 billion to the police from a total of $11.65 billion, an increase of $121.5 million from 2019. The city’s Office of Police Accountability, by contrast, received just $13.9 million.
In the US, the line between the police and the military has blurred. At the height of the riots in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in early June, a Predator drone – commonly used for targeted assassinations by the US military – was dispatched to circle the skies above the city. Between 1990 and 2017, police forces across the US were granted $5.4 billion worth of surplus military equipment – including armoured vehicles, grenade launchers, rifles and ammunition.
In Australia, it’s a similar story. The Victoria Police budget, for example, nearly doubled in the past decade – from A$1.9 billion in 2009-10 to $3.6 billion in 2019-20. In real terms (i.e. adjusted for inflation), this amounts to a $1.26 billion, or 54 percent increase. Spending on policing per capita increased by $143, or 33 percent, in real terms. In New South Wales over the same period, the police budget rose from $2.5 billion to $3.8 billion, an increase of 23 percent in real terms.
As in the US, Australian police forces have no shortage of advanced equipment and weaponry to help them crush dissent. Victoria Police’s propensity for the deployment of industrial quantities of capsicum spray is well known. This, however, is just a small fraction of its ever expanding arsenal. In 2018, Victoria’s Operational Response Unit (the riot squad) briefed the media on its array of new, “non-lethal” weapons. As reported in the Age, these included a “175 shot pepper ball semi-automatic rifle that fires capsicum rounds”, a “40-millimetre launcher that fires a hard squash ball like projectile that can hit an offender to a range of 50 metres and lands with the impact of a ‘very hard punch’”, and a “capsicum canister – a crowd control weapon ... that detonates to release a cloud of capsicum”.
As we know from the US, such “non-lethal” weapons can, when police use them on protesters in the streets, be quite lethal. Being hit in the chest by a rubber bullet from 50 metres away may be like a very hard punch, being hit in the face from only metres away, as has happened to several US protesters in the past two weeks, can kill.
Is all the extra spending on police made necessary by lawlessness on the streets? If you listen to political leaders or the corporate media, you might think so. But the constant law and order fearmongering by politicians, and the prominence given to dramatic stories about crime in the news, don’t reflect reality. In the US, crime rates have been declining for decades. Figures from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics show a 71 percent drop in violent crime and a 69 percent drop in property crime between 1993 and 2018.
In Australia, the rate of homicide has also declined dramatically, from 2.2 per 100,000 people in 1990, to 0.8 per 100,000 people in 2017. Rates of other types of crime have fluctuated, but the overall trend is likewise down. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between 2008-09 and 2018-19, the percentage of people who reported being victims of physical assault fell from 3.1 percent to 2.4 percent, robbery from 0.6 percent to 0.4 percent, break-ins from 3.3 percent to 2.4 percent and malicious property damage from 11.1 percent to 4.6 percent.
So why do governments everywhere continue to pour money into police and prisons, while consistently demanding cost cutting and “efficiencies” in areas such as housing, health care and education? Why do police patrol the streets in ever greater numbers, decked out like robocops with the most advanced of armour and weaponry, while teachers, nurses, social workers and others whose labour is absolutely essential to the basic functioning of society are forced to get by with fewer and fewer resources and vastly inadequate pay?
The law and order hysteria is only part of the story. It’s true that promoting a culture of fear about supposedly rampant crime helps capitalist politicians draw people’s attention away from the real issue facing their lives, but they can get away with it only because they’re backed all down the line by society’s richest and most powerful people.
Promoting ever increasing investment in policing is one thing the capitalist ruling class can always agree on. When was the last time you heard a major capitalist like Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer or Rupert Murdoch, or an organisation like the Business Council of Australia, speak up about over-policing or the need to cut back on bloated police budgets? Proposals to cut police budgets are a step too far even for the neoliberal extremists of the Institute of Public Affairs, otherwise known for the implacable opposition to government spending. In a 2019 research paper, they noted the rapid increase in funding for prisons, but called merely for the redistribution of these funds back to the police.
Collectively, the capitalist class depends on a certain level of government investment in things like health care, education, public housing and other basic services to ensure an adequate supply of productive workers to exploit. On an individual level, though, very few capitalists would recognise that they have a stake in such things. Individually, their wealth enables them to get along without having to rely on government services. They have private health insurance, they send their children to private schools, they rarely rely on public transport to get to work, and, of course, they’re very unlikely ever to require access to public housing or social welfare.
The police, in contrast, are indispensable to them. They know that, when push comes to shove, the “thin blue line” could be the last thing standing between them and any genuine challenge to their wealth, property and power. On a small scale, you see this in every protest or strike. When people march on the streets demanding an end to racism, the police are there to make sure the disruption is kept to a minimum. When environmentalists block construction of new coal mines or fracking operations, the police are the ones who drag them away. When striking workers form pickets to stop their bosses bringing in scab labour, it’s the police who, often violently, break them up.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing in the 1920s about how the capitalist class maintains its power over society, identified a role for both coercion and consent. The police are the most visible aspect of the coercive side. Both on a day to day basis, and in the context of unrest, the role of the police is to ensure, via a more or less explicit threat of violence, that the basic order and functioning of capitalism are maintained – that people keep doing what their teachers or bosses tell them to do, not speaking too loudly about injustice and oppression, not making a fuss, just getting on with the job of being a “productive” member of society – that is, producing profits for a boss.
The capitalists’ efforts to win our consent for their rule are less open and direct. Part of it is ideological – the education system that teaches us that capitalist society is natural and eternal and that any attempt at radical change will end in disaster, and the daily dose of propaganda served up by the corporate media. Perhaps the more important and more invisible part, though, is institutional. Within capitalist democracies like Australia’s, there exist numerous government and non-government organisations that, consciously or unconsciously, play a role in helping to maintain order and keep the system running smoothly. These include government-funded services along with various NGOs and charities tasked with providing a modicum of assistance to those on the margins of society. And they also include the trade unions and reformist political parties like Labor, which play a role in winning wide layers of workers and the poor to some degree of faith in the system.
In most Western countries, however, the neoliberal period from the 1970s onwards has resulted in a steady erosion of capitalism’s institutional support structures. During the post-World War Two boom of the 1950s and 1960s, governments on both the left and the right invested increasing amounts in public services of various kinds. This was done partly in recognition of the benefits for capitalism of having a healthier, more educated, better housed population, and partly as a response to the threat of working-class resistance. As well as contributing to economic growth, this also fostered a higher level of “consent” for capitalism than had existed during the Depression era prior to the war. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the baby boomer generation, who came of age during these years, and who most benefited from increased access to education, improved social welfare, health care and so on, have markedly more conservative views than the generations that followed.
In response to the economic crisis that hit the US, Australia and many other Western countries in the early 1970s, the ruling class abruptly changed course. Over the past few decades, whether it has been Labor or the Liberals, the Democrats or the Republicans in power, we’ve seen wave after wave of cuts to the services that workers depend on. The leaders of the trade unions, in Australia and many other countries, have been willing accomplices, and union membership has plummeted. Wages have stagnated, and working conditions have been constantly under attack, while the wealth of those at the top of society has soared to unimaginable heights. More and more people have grown disillusioned with politics, feeling that there’s little prospect of change through the “proper channels” of parliamentary democracy and therefore, no point in engaging.
With capitalism’s institutional support structures fraying and faith in the system declining, the rich and their political servants have increasingly relied on coercion, rather than consent, to maintain order. This is clearest in the areas that have been hardest hit by neoliberalism. In the US, these are the working-class neighbourhoods in major cities, where Black and Latino communities are concentrated. In Australia, it’s in the outer suburban and rural areas where many migrants and Indigenous people live. More and more, policing has been used as a substitute for providing communities with the resources they need to live a decent life. Instead of trying to maintain capitalist order by giving people more of a stake in the system, governments have decided simply to enforce that order with the direct and naked violence of the state.
The seemingly endless boosts to police budgets and the expansion of police powers during the neoliberal era can be seen as a tacit recognition and acceptance by politicians and their capitalist backers that the system they preside over offers little to workers and the poor. They barely even pretend to care any more. So long as the daily grind of exploitation that underlies their immense wealth and power goes on undisturbed, and so long as they can continue living in a relatively self-contained world of luxury, indulgence and leisure, they’ll be happy to see our communities crumble and our lives become even more of a struggle just to get by. If we step out of line, they know their friends in the police will be there to ensure that “justice” is served.
The wave of riots and protests that swept the world in recent weeks has given our rulers cause to sit up and take notice. Direct action on the streets has achieved more in two weeks than decades of efforts at reforming the system through the “proper channels”. But it will take much more than this to push back against a capitalist ruling class determined to push on with their destructive system whatever the cost.
They’re on the defensive for now. But they’re already preparing the ground for a counterattack. They have no intention of offering anything in the way of reforms that might improve working people’s lives. The massive stimulus packages rolled out by governments around the world have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest few. And neither in Australia nor most other Western countries is there any sign of a major shift towards government investment in basic services like housing, health care or social welfare as part of recovery efforts. The global capitalist elite, and the politicians who serve them, are bent on returning to “business as usual” as quickly as they can get away with. As part of this, we can expect them to push back hard against any attempt to defund or otherwise seriously curtail the powers of the police.