Transcribed from the 1 October 2020 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
The global propaganda machine normalizes and even glorifies war, social violence, domination, contempt for the most vulnerable.
Chuck Mertz: When we consider the problems with policing, we think of the officers in body armor or those without any insignias on their uniforms so we cannot determine what agency they’re affiliated with, which eliminates any possibility of holding the officer accountable for their actions, actions that include attacking peaceful protesters.
But there’s something far more frightening happening, and it’s happening all around the world. Here to explain, returning to This is Hell!, sociologist, scholar-activist, writer, and theorist on global capitalism William I. Robinson is author of The Global Police State.
Welcome back to This is Hell!, William.
William I. Robinson: So great to be back on, thank you.
CM: Right before we went on air, a listener contacted us on social media, writing, “I can’t wait to hear William Robinson on the global police state. When I traveled through South America, it occurred to me that when police have military weapons, there is an active and everyday state of war on the general population.”
Do you find that to be a fair assessment? Are militarized police at war on the citizenry?
WR: Absolutely. All around the world. Militarized police, armies, paramilitaries are at war, and that of course is the military and coercive dimension of the global police state. The listener talking about South America is a great jumping-off point for me to read a quote for us to begin this discussion of the global police state.
Your listeners will know that there was a coup d’état last November in Bolivia, in the very heart of South America. How has Bolivia been inserted into the global economy more recently? Through lithium production. A couple months ago, Elon Musk, this sociopathic billionaire, wrote on Twitter talking about the government stimulus package, saying it was not in the best interests of the people. Someone responded saying, “You know what isn’t in the best interest of the people? The US government organizing a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you can obtain the lithium there.” And Musk wrote back, and this is the exact quote: “We will coup whoever we want. Deal with it.”
Here we have a perfect illustration of the global police state, bringing it all together. We have transnational capital in the form of this sociopathic transnational capitalist. We have him calling on US and Bolivian militarized state power—police, paramilitary, and military forces—and we have a fascist mobilization in civil society in Bolivia, just like we have in the United States. Let’s remember, when we talk about this: Musk himself, during the pandemic, has increased his wealth by three hundred percent. He’s worth nearly a hundred billion dollars now. That tells us another story of the global police state: the increasing centrality of tech capital to the global economy—digital information technology (dominated and controlled by Musk and Amazon and Google and so forth) is absolutely central to deepening and extending the global police state.
CM: What is the media’s role in the global police state? Can the global police state happen without a complicit media?
WR: No, absolutely not. When we talk about media, we’re talking about corporate media: big business. The rulers of the global corporate media are part of the transnational capitalist class that cross-invested and integrated with global finance capital, with the military-industrial complex, and with tech capital. They’re deeply invested in the global police state. It’s the role of global corporate media—and Hollywood, by the way—to legitimate the global police state, to legitimate global capitalism, its savage inequalities and its perverse anti-human logic. Without that legitimation, and without controlling the flow of information and images, the global police state is not possible.
Transnational corporate media is not news, of course. At best you can call it infotainment. But it’s really propaganda—global capitalist propaganda. But this informatic-ideological dimension is just one component of the global police state—and it’s also central to the new twenty-first century fascism that we need desperately, urgently, to confront and beat back at this time.
CM: I’m glad you mentioned the new twenty-first century fascism. What errors do we make when we only look towards twentieth century fascism as the definition of what fascism is?
WR: That’s a big mistake. I’ve been writing about the dangers of twenty-first century fascism since 2006-7, and especially since the crisis of 2008, because that crisis both generated a popular revolt from below (which is still ongoing and deepening) and also accelerated the organization of fascist forces around the world.
But there are plenty of parallels. One parallel between twentieth and twenty-first century fascism, is that both variants are a particular far-right coercive response to the crisis of capitalism. I want to get into this later on, because the starting point for talking about the global police state is the crisis of global capitalism. Fascism is a particular far-right response which seeks to rescue capitalism from its organic crisis, to violently and coercively restore capitalist profitability and suppress any challenge to the system during times of crisis.
The other thing that’s similar between twentieth and twenty-first century fascism—then I want to get into the differences—is that the ideology and the politics are the same. The content is slightly different, but there is a discursive repertoire of fascism—it’s crystal clear with Trump: xenophobia; mystifying ideologies that involve race and cultural supremacy (whether in the United States or, say, in India); the idealization of the mythical past; a racist mobilization; extreme chauvinistic nationalism, a concept of national regeneration; millennialism (that a new dawn is going to arise, a far-right fascist utopia); of course extreme militarization and militarism; and a masculinist culture.
What we see in twenty-first century fascism—and this is where the role of the mass corporate media makes it a bit distinct from the twentieth century—is how the global propaganda machine normalizes and even glorifies war, social violence, domination, contempt for the most vulnerable.
In both twentieth and twenty-first century fascism, there has to be an organized mass social base (in Nazi Germany, that mass social base was so-called Aryans), and everyone who is not part of this social base, the in-group that fascism seeks to recruit and mobilize, is subject to violent exclusion, othering, and in some cases such as Nazi Germany, genocide. What is the social base for fascism right now, for twenty-first century fascism in the United States or elsewhere? It is sectors of the working class who were privileged in the twentieth century (in the United States this is disproportionately white and disproportionately male), who experienced stability, upward mobility, good jobs, socioeconomic security.
We are living, at this point, in the most brutal, most powerful dictatorship the planet has ever seen: the dictatorship of the transnational capitalist class.
Capitalist globalization really takes off in the late twentieth century, and it destabilizes and undermines the stability and security of these more privileged sectors of the working class in the United States. This is the social base that fascism now seeks to mobilize. These downwardly mobile, destabilized, largely white members of the working class can respond by fighting against the system, by joining forces with everyone else from below to challenge the system—or they can be mobilized by fascist discourse, and by forces and organizations from above (here Trump is a key spokesperson), to identify scapegoats for their crisis. This is the key role of fascist mobilization: it promises to restore stability and security, to relieve mass social anxiety. Of course it can’t come through with this promise.
I’ll conclude with this: that’s the key difference between twentieth and twenty-first century fascism. Twentieth century fascism did offer some material benefit to its social base in the sense that the availability of jobs was expanded in Nazi Germany; social welfare systems were put in place, even as those who were part of the fascist base had to have iron discipline and couldn’t question anything. But there was some material wage. Currently, given capitalist globalization, extreme levels of inequality, and total corporate domination, there’s no material payoff, so it’s entirely a psychological wage which fascism in the United States (or, for that matter, in India and elsewhere) offers to this would-be mass base.
That’s one reason why Trump foamed at the mouth for three years about Build the Wall, Build the Wall. The wall is not relevant to controlling migration or to anything else. But it’s symbolic, and it’s the essential role of diverting mass social anxiety towards an external enemy which is really central to this fascist mobilization.
CM: You were saying that global capitalism is facing a crisis. But how can global capitalism be facing a crisis right now with the stock market so high?
WR: I’ll place this in context in just a minute—but the stock market doesn’t indicate the health of the global economy or the health of the vast majority of humanity. It simply indicates how the rulers, the capitalist class who have accumulated so much wealth, are playing around and speculating with their wealth. There’s no relation between the real economy, the production of goods and services that people need and that people want, and the conduct and behavior of the stock market.
But let’s talk about the crisis of global capitalism. It predates the pandemic. The pandemic did not force the crisis, it only aggravated it many times over. Among the many dimensions, there are two we need to highlight. One is the structural dimension, which is chronic stagnation in the global economy. Stagnation has been building up for the last twenty years. It’s more technically called a crisis of over-accumulation. The other big dimension here is the political dimension, one of state legitimacy and capitalist hegemony.
These two dimensions, the structural dimension of stagnation and the political dimension of the crisis of legitimacy, have to be linked to the incredible, unprecedented escalation of global inequalities in the last few decades. I’m sure listeners are familiar with the data that one percent of humanity controls over fifty percent of the world’s wealth. But the more significant figure there is that twenty percent of humanity controls ninety-five percent of the world’s wealth. That means eighty percent of humanity has just five percent of the world’s wealth. Under these conditions, that eighty percent faces death, destruction—an inability to simply survive day to day.
Now comes the pandemic, and capitalist states are unable to cope with the crisis. They are exposed as instruments of wealth and corruption. This pushes states to intensify the global police state. This concept is essential to understanding where we’re at in October 2020.
I mean three things by global police state. The first is the extension, deepening, and building up of systems of transnational social control, repression, and warfare. This is the political need that ruling groups have for the global police state to crush any resistance—any actual resistance taking place or any potential resistance by ‘surplus’ humanity and by the global working class.
The second thing I mean by global police state is that building up systems of global repression, social control, militarism, and warfare becomes a strategy for accumulating capital and making profits in the face of the chronic stagnation in the global economy. The global police state involves a convergence of global capitalism’s need for social control and its economic need to perpetuate profit-making in the face of stagnation.
Finally, what I mean by global police state is the increasing rise of these political systems of twenty-first century fascism. We have to take these three elements together, and see how they’re intertwined in new ways that signal a new and extremely dangerous phase in global capitalism, with the severe crisis as its backdrop, as the world descends into a repressive totality.
That’s what I mean by global police state. If we get a grip on this concept, then we’re in a better position to beat it back.
CM: When we think of fascism, often we think of state fascism, such as George Orwell’s 1984. You quote Everything Is Known, a book by Liza Elliott, in which she writes, “George Orwell got it wrong. Big Brother did not come from a totalitarian state, but from a totalitarian non-state.”
What has greater capacity to be a threat to freedom, the state or corporations? Government or big business? Or is that kind of framing a mistake by separating the two as distinct entities opposite one another?
WR: It’s a mistake, because the state is not just the state. The state is the capitalist state. The role of the capitalist state is to shore up, defend, and advance capitalism. There is an organic, intimate relationship between the capitalist state and the capitalist class that runs the capitalist economy. We are living, at this point, in the most brutal, most powerful dictatorship the planet has ever seen: the dictatorship of transnational capital, of the transnational capitalist class. Anyone who follows politics in the United States even the most minimally sees this plain and clear, and this is in every country in the world. It’s Wall Street that dictates what Washington is going to do. It’s the military-industrial complex and Silicon Valley that dictate what Washington is going to do.
We have to analytically separate the state from capital, from the transnational capitalist class, but in the actual practice of how global society functions, the state is an instrument of transnational capital advancing its interests. So when the state represses, when the state imposes the global police state—whether it’s Portland or India or Bolivia, wherever it is—it is doing so in the overall interest of assuring the hegemony and domination of capital.
Even as the global police state is necessary to repress revolts from below in the face of this unbelievable inequality, it is also increasingly necessary as a way of accumulating capital and making profits.
I’ll add one other point here: fascism is, in the first instance, capital, and in the second instance, it’s what the state does to defend capital in a fascist way. A fascist project involves a three-way triangulation. On the one hand there is transnational corporate power, rightwing capitalist power. Second, this fuses with reactionary and repressive political power in the state—Trumpism in the United States, Modi in India, and so forth. The third wing of a fascist project is a fascist mobilization in civil society. That’s what we’re seeing now, that third wing really kicking in, with these far-right fascist forces taking to the streets in Portland, getting ready for an armed insurrection if Trump loses, or if Trump calls on them. That’s what makes this moment so dangerous.
We see the same thing in India. We see the repressive state in the Modi administration and the ruling party, and we see that the policies and practices of that state are shoring up the most transnationally powerful wing of the Indian capitalist class—a thug class, a vicious class—and then we see the fascist mobilization in civil society led by the RSS, a fascist organization that goes back to the 1920s, and was inspired by Mussolini. We see everything in India that we also see in the United States: the fascist mobilization involves scapegoats. In India it’s Muslims and lower castes. Here, of course, it’s immigrants, Black people, and increasingly anyone who opposes Trump.
CM: When you talk about a “police state” you mean, as you write, “considerably more than what we typically associate with a police state: police and military repression, authoritarian government, the suppression of civil liberties and human rights,” and you develop the concept of global police state “to identify more broadly the emerging character of the global economy and society as a repressive totality whose logic is as much economic and cultural as it is political.”
So in the protests that we are seeing here in the United States and around the world—how much do you think these protests are about policing and how much do you think they are about the global police state, whether the protesters realize that or not?
WR: It’s both. This is a challenge from below, the most significant challenge in a very long time, so the most immediately oppressive aspects of the global police state need to bear down and beat back that challenge. But there wouldn’t even be a global police state—this apparatus wouldn’t exist, and those protests wouldn’t exist—if we did not link this most visible repressive dimension to the larger structural issues of global capitalism.
We all one hundred percent support and are out in the streets with this antiracist uprising. But linking police violence and state repression to global capitalism is what we need to do so we can expand our resistance. I’ve developed the concept of militarized accumulation, or accumulation by repression. Even as the global police state is necessary to repress revolts from below in the face of this unbelievable inequality, it is also increasingly necessary as a way of accumulating capital and making profits.
I spent six years researching this, and there’s a wealth of shocking empirical data I came up with. I’d like to mention some of it because it is so revealing. September 11, 2001, of course, was a turning point in the global police state. It ushered in a much more sweeping militarization of the global economy and society. It brought us to a global war economy, which is now deepening. In this regard, the global war economy, the global police state, is immensely profitable for transnational corporate capital. The Pentagon budget increased from 1998 to 2011 by 98%. Worldwide, up to 2015, military spending by states increased by 50%, representing 3% of the gross world product. But that does not include state secret projects, police, intelligence, or homeland security budgets. Those are billions and billions of dollars more. If we add that in, my estimate is five to six percent of the whole global economy is just this militarized spending.
That also does not include private corporate spending on repression, social control, and warfare simply to make profits—and increasingly not just warfare but all forms of repression and social control are privatized. To give a few examples: in 2018, private military forces—that’s mercenary forces—employed fifteen million people worldwide and were operative on every single continent in the world, being hired by corporations to repress populations, to open up new resources for corporate plunder. Private police now number twenty million people. That’s more than public police forces in half the countries around the world.
The biometrics industry, which is so central to the global police state in monitoring and surveilling us and controlling our movements (and therefore controlling us), is currently worth $35 billion—and is going to go up to the hundreds of billions in the next few years. G4S is the world’s largest private security firm, with 660,000 employees worldwide. It is the third largest corporation in the world, after Foxconn and Walmart.
There has been a rapid increase worldwide in private prisons, and of course the prison population is skyrocketing worldwide because the popular classes from below are being criminalized and locked up. There are two hundred private prisons currently around the world, on every continent. It’s the fastest-growing sector of the prison system worldwide.
The European Union initiated a so-called border security program earlier this century, which really took off after the Arab Spring. This was not because the refugees fleeing into Europe represented any threat to Europe, but simply because it was a new way of accumulating capital and making profit. European Union spending on this border security program increased an unbelievable 3,688% between 2005 and 2016—and this is not state spending. This all went into private, transnational corporate coffers.
Also, there is now—amazingly, frighteningly—a multi-billion dollar (it’s going to go into the hundreds of billions) global riot control systems market. That’s what the capitalists call it. Let me read this shocking quote. This is Lloyd’s of London, a big financial insurance firm, from a report they issued last year: “Instances of political violence contagion are becoming more frequent and headed towards political violence pandemics. Superstrains of political violence include anti-imperialist and independence movements, social movements, those movements calling for the removal of an occupying force, mass pro-reform protests against national governments, armed insurrections inspired by Marxism and Islamism, and so forth.”
Of course that superstrain of political violence includes us right now on the street fighting against racism. But the report goes on to say that the global riot control systems market is going to dramatically increase in the coming years. That means that transnational corporate capital wants people protesting in the street, because then you can repress them and make incredible profits. It wants wars, wants coups in Bolivia, simply as a way of making profits.
This just gives you a tiny idea. We haven’t even gotten into the role of Silicon Valley or the role of Hollywood as a way of making profits by doing the ideological and cultural work of the global police state. I could go on and on. But it gives you an idea of the global police state as not just repression against the popular classes, the working classes, the oppressed groups. It is also big, big business becoming more and more central to the global economy and society.
This technology is in the hands of the transnational capitalist class and ruling elites, and they are developing it not to liberate humanity but (first of all) to make massive profits and (secondly) to control us and reproduce their own domination.
CM: You quote a book by a couple authors who we’ve had on the show before, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and how they argue that we have the technology right now to have a workers’ paradise, a left utopian future. We have the technology in place right now—it’s just not being used for that. What should that reveal to us when technology isn’t being used to have a utopian future and instead is being turned on us for a global police state that’s running a global war economy?
WR: Absolutely, that is an incredible contradiction. You just said it very well. The technologies of the fourth industrial revolution—all driven by a much deeper digitalization of the whole global economy, of everything human beings do—open up a world of potential. We can eliminate suffering, we can create more leisure than work. There is so much. Humanity can truly liberate itself.
That’s the potential of these technologies, but these technologies are in the hands of the transnational capitalist class and ruling elites, and they are developing this technology not to liberate humanity but (first of all) to make massive profits and (secondly) to control us and reproduce their own domination. That is the contradiction. To resolve that contradiction, you don’t change the technology. You change the archaic, backward, repressive social relations of global capitalism in which this technology is currently inserted.
Here’s an anecdote. Just yesterday I found a report from Goldman Sachs. It’s shocking, but it illustrates exactly what I am talking about. Goldman Sachs is saying that gene therapy now has the potential to eliminate all of these diseases—it mentioned specifically hepatitis-C, and it mentioned a company that developed a gene therapy treatment for hepatitis-C. I don’t have the papers in front of me and don’t have the name of the company. But the company made like fifteen billion dollars in profits when it started treating patients just a few years ago. But it completely cures the disease, so its profits went down from fifteen billion to three billion after that because everyone’s being cured. So Goldman Sachs, which is one of the most powerful financial conglomerates and investor groups on the entire planet, wrote in this report that this gene therapy is going to undermine their ability to make profits. They said we can’t come up with these cures—we have to only come up with medicine which simply ameliorates symptoms, because that’s what is profitable. A complete cure is not profitable.
Here we see that gene therapy could resolve so many problems, of cancer and who knows what else, and it will be blocked if it means that profit levels and capital accumulation will go down, as people will simply be cured and will no longer be paying the medical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the banks and so forth, for their medical treatment. That really shows us this disgusting contradiction between how new technologies could liberate us and how on the contrary, in the hands of these ruling groups, they are turned against us.
CM: You write, “It is in the nature of our species to work together to assure our collective existence. But the capitalist system that throws up a global police state turns such cooperation into a process of destruction for masses of humanity as we are made to compete with one another to survive.” You also add, “If we are to recover our humanity, we must, contra capital, re-embed ourselves in relations of reciprocity and mutual well-being.”
William, I get a small town weekly newspaper from northern Michigan, and every week the paper boasts of the good things locals do for one another, and prides itself on how the area comes together in times of crisis. They’ll report on the number of meals neighbors provided to those in need, the amount of food donated to food banks, all that kind of stuff, where they’re really expressing their collective nature. Despite all of that, they are a devoted Trump voter base, and their letters to the “Your Opinion” column of the paper often reflect a distaste for anything suggesting community or a collective.
Why do those acts of reciprocity and mutual well-being not lead to an understanding of the importance of collective work and action? Why help others while at the same time proselytizing against anything collective?
WR: Great question. That leads also into a discussion of the role of racism in undermining this collective cooperation, and intensifying competition. What is going on, especially through the pandemic, is there’s a new sense of solidarity: we’re seeing worldwide how there was a bursting of solidarity and cooperation from below in the early months of the pandemic. We all know the slogan, “Only the people will save the people,” meaning we will cooperate from below and that’s what’s going to save us.
We see this in natural disasters, whether it’s an earthquake in Mexico city or a hurricane in the South. The capitalist state may or may not bring some relief, but it’s really the people from below who “suddenly” start cooperating in the immediate need to survive and identify with one another. But it’s at times when there’s this cooperation and collective identity bubbling up from below when the ruling groups have to intensify competition and division. Racism and racist ideology become even more important to ruling groups at these moments. It pits white workers against Black workers against Latino immigrants and so forth.
White workers get a little bit of short term benefit—the psychological wages of white supremacy: they’re not subject to racism themselves—and they compete with Black workers. The ruling groups have to deepen racism and other forms of division, pitting people in competition with one another, at times of crisis such as now when people otherwise would be coming together. When they come together, of course, it can possibly lead to systemic critique.
We also have to see that global capitalist ideology is extreme individualism. The ideology and the culture of consumerism and individualism works against our solidarity with one another, and our cooperation with one another. If I may just briefly link this, remember I pointed out the role of Hollywood. The entertainment industry and the corporate media has been weaponized. Hollywood’s role is the ideology and culture of the global police state. Not the direct repression, but how it gets legitimated. Hollywood firms themselves profit tremendously from war and social control.
This shocked me when I found this out: US military and intelligence agencies have influenced over eight hundred major movies in the last few years, and one thousand TV shows. So Hollywood becomes a potent propaganda machinery for war and repression, and also for competition and busting up the sense of solidarity and collective identity from below. This is at least part of the story: ruling groups from above divide through racism and other mechanisms, through and alongside the culture and ideological apparatus of capitalism.
CM: Is the forever war really going to last forever? Because the forever war is necessary in order to sustain global capitalism, the global police state, and the global war economy. The reason I ask is: what happens when the antiwar movement does not recognize or understand that we are in the midst of a global war economy?
WR: This is not going to be forever, because it can’t. It will only lead to collapse of global civilization.
We have this disturbing disjuncture among social movements that are bursting up all over the world. Not just in the United States, in every corner of the world, people are getting organized, people are resisting in the streets. But we have an extremely, historically weak left. Trade unions are historically weak at this time because of everything that’s happened over the last few decades to destroy them. We really need to link mass social movements, including the antiracist movement in the streets right now, with organized working class action and a socialist left. We have to have that triangulation to face the triangulation of fascism that I mentioned earlier.
We desperately need a united front against fascism. We have fascist elements among the ruling elites and they’re gaining ground very quickly. Then we have the neoliberal business-as-usual people, that’s Biden and Harris, and they’re not helping at all. But the third group among these ruling elites are reformist elites who might sign onto a program of reform. They won’t sign on to revolution, but they want to reform capitalism in order to save it from itself, from its own crisis—save it from being overthrown.
That means that in this antifascist united front, we can form broad class and political alliances with other sectors that are not necessarily revolutionary or from below. But we want to never subordinate the popular agenda from below to these cross-class alliances in political coalitions against fascism.
CM: William, I cannot thank you enough for being on our show.
WR: Thank you so much for having me on.