Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Capitalism: The Surveillance State

The Surveillance State

The state under capitalism is a coercive state. The state exists to protect the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by the capitalist class to the exclusion of the rest of society. The state exists to conserve for the ruling class the private ownership to the means of life from external threat from foreign capitalists and their countries.

The State also prevents workers producing what they and their families need and to stop them taking what they want from shop and other outlets. All this oppression unleashed by the State in order to support the profit motive of the capitalist class and its anti-social obsession to accumulate capital.

The government, the executive of the bourgeoisie, has at its disposal physical force, violence, imprisonment and death. It controls the machinery of government including the armed forces and the police. The police enforce law on a day-to-day basis but the state also has at its disposal a secret police force to spy on and infiltrate those the state believes to be politically dangerous and subversive. In the UK these state organisations are MI5, MI6, GCHQ, Special Branch and other sub-groups - who spy on the activities of foreign government and internal agitators, whether peaceful or violent.

Many people associate secret police with authoritarian states and dictatorships. Elizabeth the First had her secret police to spy on would be traitors. Those who were believed to be a threat to the Tudor state were imprisoned and had confessions wrung out of them. Many an innocent prisoner went to the scaffold.

Napoleon and all dictators have a long history of using spies to infiltrate and suppress the opposition. As developed by Napoleon for dictatorial control over the French Empire, the administration was interwoven with a national police structure led by Joseph Fouché for purposes of political surveillance and repression.

Lenin, following Napoleon, also had a secret police force, known as The Cheka. This organization was the Bolshevik security force or secret police. It was formed by Vladimir Lenin in a December 1917 decree and charged with identifying and dealing with potential counter-revolutionaries. Cheka agents operated on their own accord, carrying out arrests, detention and executions. This laid the basis for the KGB, used Putin’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Russian authorities are increasingly using facial recognition technology to track opposition protesters to their homes and arrest them - a powerful new Kremlin tool to crush opposition and dissent (WASHINGTON POST April 17 2021).

Then there was the Stasi. Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi employed a total of 274,000 people in an effort to root out the "class enemy". In 1989, the Stasi employed 91,015 people full-time, including 2,000 fully employed unofficial collaborators, 13,073 soldiers and 2,232 officers of GDR army, along with 173,081 unofficial informants inside GDR and 1,553 informants in West Germany (Wikipedia). It was estimated that at the end of the regime there were 500,000 informants in East Germany. A lot of good it did them.

The Orwellian Surveillance State

Modern states are hell bent to develop and use modern surveillance techniques. They want to embrace the dystopian future of Orwell's 1984 where a totalitarian state looks at all human action through the ever watching Big Brother. None more so that the authoritarian regime in Singapore. There, the authorities are piloting a trial of robots to police 'undesirable' behaviour such as smoking or breaching social-distancing rules. They were used to patrol a housing estate and shopping centre (GUARDIAN October 5 2021).

What of Chinese capitalism? As with all dictatorships, China has its secret police force for surveillance and the crushing of political dissent. How they would like to develop the telescreen in 1984 eavesdropping on people's conservation in order to detect dissent, questioning and rebellion.

Since 2019, it is estimated that 200 million monitoring CCTV cameras of the "Skynet" system have been put to use in mainland China, four times the number of surveillance cameras employed in the United States. By 2020, the number of surveillance cameras in mainland China is expected to reach 626 million. China wants to control the working class and prevent any dissent against the capitalist regime. It is a tall order. Capitalism does not give them that luxury. Capitalism calls the shots. Governments are controlled by the profit system not the other way round. That is their Achilles heel.

Dictators and authoritarian states do not last forever. Secret Services, like the KGB, did not prevent the collapse of the political system. Napoleons' reign lasted fifteen years. Mussolini lasted twenty years in power, Hitler's Thousand Year Reich managed only twelve years, and the Soviet Union lasted 69 years from 1922 to 1991. The East German secret police, the Stasi, despite the wide-spread control over the country was still unable to prevent the collapse of the regime; an event not anticipated neither by the CIA nor MI6. The track record of survival for dictatorships with their spies and surveillance is not very long, although their regimes often end in death, destruction and bloodshed.

The UK and the Surveillance State

British capitalism has a long history of spying on what the government and its agents believe to be an internal threat. Louis XVI's ex-ministers and police officers exercised an important influence on William Pitt and his ministers, an influence that encouraged the introduction of a French-style secret police within Britain against those agitating for suffrage, Jacobin sympathisers and those involved in the London Corresponding Society (LCS) who wanted the democratic reform of Parliament (see Elizabeth Sparrow, 'Secret Service under Pitt's Administrations', 1792-1806, HISTORY, Vol.83, No. 270, April 1998). Pitt's Gagging Acts: the 1795 Seditious Meetings Act and the Treason Act along with the use of paid spies and informants may have broken the LCS but did not stop the working class getting the vote: a vote that could be used in a revolutionary way to establish socialism.

Special Branch was established in March 1883 to combat the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Its remit was increased to cover all areas of "subversion" and "political extremism". The Secret Service Bureau was founded in 1909 with MI5 and MI6 being formed during the First World War. With the Russian coup led by the Bolsheviks, the secret service was used to spy on "Communists" supporting state capitalism in Russia. Then this was extended to the Trotskyists, anarchists, CND, and other groups whose "subversion" was considered a threat to the state.

Of course, in recent years the police have increasingly spied on non-violent groups like environmental protestors and those seeking to address global warming. They have used undercover officers some of whom have deceived women protestors into long-term intimate relationships. In a landmark judgement in September 2021, the judges in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that the Metropolitan police had violated the environmental protestor's human rights including inflicting degrading treatment several women. For The Metropolitan Police it will be just water under the bridge. After all they shot and killed Jean Charles da Silva e de Menezes in July 2005 at Stockwell station with impunity believing he was a terrorist. State violence in British capitalism is very cavalier.

Government legislation which activates spies is so wide it encompasses groups who do not believe they warrant being spied upon. The UK government currently defines extremism as, "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs". This net would bring into it someone who saw current usage of "democracy" as wholly deficient since it did not include the means of production and distribution. The definition of extremism is abstract enough to include socialists who want to replace capitalism with socialism (See Professor Chris Allen, Extremism in the UK: new definitions threaten human and civil rights, THE CONVERSATION March 29, 2021).

In October 2018 THE GUARDIAN published a data base of political surveillance and infiltration over a 37 year period. Undercover officers spied on 22 leftwing groups, 10 environmental groups, nine anti-racist campaigns and nine anarchist groups, according to the database. They also spied on campaigns against apartheid, the arms trade, nuclear weapons and the monarchy, as well as trade unions. Among those spied on were 16 campaigns run by families or their supporters seeking justice over alleged police misconduct. According to the database, police spied on 12 animal rights groups and eight organisations related to the Irish conflict.

The Surveillance State and Socialism

Can the state become so powerful through surveillance and undermining dissent that socialism is impossible? Can the will of a socialist majority be permanently thwarted by surveillance and infiltration? It is an easy mistake to give our political enemies so much political power that they can arrest a growing socialist movement.

In Britain, Parliament has a complete and secure grip upon the forces of the state, including the secret service, and government interventions in the strikes, demonstrations and pressure groups of recent years have shown on whose side they act. These are a forceful illustration of how necessary it is for the workers to obtain control of Parliament before attempting to replace the profit system with common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society. They further show that the only way to obtain control of the machinery of government is by a socialist majority sending socialist delegates to Parliament to form a majority there.

An open and democratic political party, with no leadership and controlled by its membership, is difficult to undermine and infiltrate. We survived the political discomfort of both the First and Second World Wars. Socialists have nothing to hide. We exist "to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist". We are a consequence of the class struggle over which the capitalist state and its agents cannot prevent or destroy.

What about socialism, the state and surveillance. There will be no coercive state in socialism. The state is a class instrument used to prevent production and distribution for direct social use and direct access to what people need to lead worthwhile lives. There will be no politicians, government officials, police, armed forces and police spies in socialism. It will be "an administration of things not people". The surveillance state is only associated with capitalism.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |