The Spanish government’s punitive anti-protest draft laws are, critics say, an attack on democracy. That is precisely what they are.
In a number of recent front lines of popular protest, state capacities have been reconfigured to meet the challenge. In some instances, as in Greece, this has meant periods of emergency government. In Chicago, in Quebec and now in Spain, it has meant the expansion of anti-protest laws.
In 2011, the Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, requested that the city council pass «temporary» anti-protest measures in response to the planned protests around the Nato and G8 summits. The laws included a $1m insurance mandate for public protests, heavy policing and greater obstacles to obtaining a protest permit. By early 2012, the legislation had been made permanent.
Later that same year, as the administration of Jean Charest in Quebec sought to deal with a tumultuous uprising of students against increased tuition fees, it passed a piece of emergency legislation named Bill 78. With the support of the state’s employers, it imposed severe restrictions on the ability to protest, including banning protests within 50 metres of a college and giving the right to change the route of a protest at short notice, with severe fines for those protesters who did not co-operate.
The «public safety» legislation proposed in Spain has an essentially similar basis. Demonstrating near parliament without permission will result in steep fines, while participation in «violent» protests can result in a minimum two-year jail sentence. In each case, the logic is to put a chill on protest. It is not just that it is a protest deterrent; it has a domesticating effect on such protests as do occur.
To understand why this is happening, it is necessary to grasp the relationship between neoliberal austerity and popular democracy.
In a previous era, when neoliberal austerity was first being prepared in tandem with a racist, authoritarian crackdown, Greek political sociologist Nicos Poulantzas spoke of the «redeployment of legal-police networks» as a constitutive element in a new «authoritarian statism». In this regime, formal parliamentary apparatuses would be retained even while substantive democracy was eroded. Stuart Hall, writing a few years later, remarked of Thatcherite neoliberalism that «under this regime, the market is to be free; the people are to be disciplined».
Why this authoritarianism? Why, in freeing «the market», was it necessary to discipline the people? If the focus is limited to austerity – neoliberalism in its «shock doctrine» form – then the problem can be interpreted simply as one of crisis management. The state assumes measures for enhanced popular control at just the moment when it is trying to manage an unpopular reorganisation of public services, welfare and capital-labour relations. But in fact, this is merely a conjunctural form of a wider problem.
In a simple genealogical sense, neoliberalism can be read as an adaptation of the concerns of classical liberalism to the problems posed by the age of mass democracy. At a political level, neoliberalism responded to a supposed surfeit of democracy, an excess of popular demands upon the state. This not only trapped the state in a web of special interests but ultimately produced a crisis of «ungovernability». For the state to be able to do its business, its authority had to be restored; hence the salience of «law and order».
The «primary purpose of the state,» said Thatcher, «is to maintain order.» By designating the problem in this manner, and identifying political opponents through the ideology of crime and disorder, she was able to link her successes to a simple assertion of common sense. But the proliferation of laws designed to restrain protest and strike action, the growth of a centralised and militarised policing apparatus and the boom in prison construction, all beginning during her reign, not only transformed the relationship of citizens to the state but in so doing weakened popular constituencies relative to dominant business elites.
This expansion and refinement of the technologies of containment is, by itself, rarely sufficient. It has generally been accompanied by the deployment of new ideologies of crime and legality. For protest policing under neoliberalism does not simply entail more repressive behaviour. In fact, the secular trend across European states is for a convergence around a more differentiated system of strategies toward protests.
In dealing with larger protests representing «official» bodies, police tend to prefer consensual and negotiated approaches, and tend to take a greater physical distance from the people whose activities they are policing. By contrast, smaller groups of protesters representing loose social coalitions, campaign alliances and so on, are more likely to be deemed extremist, terrorist or even – theatrical gasp – anarchist, and thus subject to militarised policing, direct surveillance and physical coercion, with the invocation of «anti-terrorist» or other repressive legislation.
Just as the definition of crime is inherently ideological, so the decision as to what constitutes an «official» protest or an «extremist» outrage is in part ideological and normative, deriving from the legal and political culture of policing in a given state and bureaucratic categories deployed by local and national forces. Necessarily, then, this is an inherently politicised form of policing. It is not merely demonstrative, showing by example what styles of protest are tolerated (ineffectual ones, largely), but practical in the sense that it drastically foreshortens democratic possibilities.
The reorganisation of states today in an authoritarian direction is part of a longer-term project to contain democracy while retaining a minimum of democratic legitimacy. That is what the anti-protest laws are about.