As I watched a film marking the Pinochet coup – 40 years since Chile’s 9/11 - I found myself thinking about how a person would go about dealing with that sort of abrupt, catastrophic increase in state repression. Would it be possible to scramble together street protests or strikes, or would the level of state violence be such that you’d just have to either go underground or flee? If you were not known to the authorities you’d probably just keep your head down, stay off the streets, and hope for the best.
But of course in Chile the attack was not just the physical attack on individuals – arrest, prison, torture, ‘disappearing’ – but the economic shock treatment that came afterwards, and which was inflicted on the whole society. This meant privatisation, deregulation, the introduction of competition and individualism into industrial relations, pensions, health, education. Crucial to the more long term process was the destruction of collectivism, of social solidarity, and the insertion of a ‘me-first’ mentality as atomised consumers compete with each other for resources, jobs, benefits, housing. Eventually repression is internalised. We begin to police ourselves. Does any of this sound eerily familiar?
Chile went from being a democracy with trade unions where a Marxist could be elected president, to a military dictatorship overnight. But turns to increased state repression do not have to be sudden and dramatic. In many ways the UK today is morphing gradually, incrementally, into a more repressive society. This is the ‘darker side’ of economic neoliberalism. There is a direct link between the level of state control & repression & the type of economic structure we have. In post-coup Chile the society became a massive economic laboratory experimenting with the nostrums of the free market. Neoliberalism, as it bulldozes the middle class & immiserates workers & the poor, of necessity will close down those areas of civil society where resistance could begin – trade unions & the organs of political protest. And it will do so piecemeal, in the name of protecting us and improving our lives.
Under neoliberalism banks and big corporations rule, and the state is strengthened to keep order so that these companies can continue to make profits. Anything that gets in the way of this has to be removed. A shift to the free market does not mean the state is done away with, it means that only the more repressive functions of the state remain. Those aspects of state ownership which redistributed money and resources to ordinary people – what used to be called the ‘social wage’ – are sold off to billionaires, hedge fund managers and those corporations already poised to buy up schools, security services and the NHS.
UK governments over the next five years, whether Tory, Lib Dem or Labour, will be seeking to further restructure the economy along these lines without provoking unmanageable social unrest. The move from managing consent to managing coercion will mean the closing down of democratic spaces. Slowly, the unthinkable will become thinkable. It is already happening. The first targets are not yet the beleaguered middle class, but the more peripheral groups: the disabled, the poor, people in social housing, claimants, Travellers, immigrants, asylum seekers…
We who disagree with this social model need a political response. But in electoral terms, this has yet to be constructed. Labour has already sunk into the neoliberal mire and can’t help us. So the long-delayed strikes that are coming, from teachers, firefighters, civil servants and perhaps most importantly, postal workers, are important, as is the demonstration at Tory conference on 29th September. Large, militant and disruptive strikes and protests would draw a line in the sand. They would be a restatement of social solidarity, shifting the centre of gravity from passive, vapid, atomised consumerism to mass action. They would be a badly-needed reminder of our own collective strength.
Otherwise, we may wake up one day to find that a tolerant, social democratic society can change to a highly repressive one with no space for protest or resistance without the necessity for a violent military coup. Chile 1973 was a combative society with a strong left and powerful unions. The US government, the CIA and the Chilean ruling class understood that an ‘iron fist’ was necessary to smash this, and Pinochet was prepared to be their man. But for any ruling class massive physical force is a huge gamble, fraught with risk. Far better, if possible, to enforce gradual, constitutional changes, dealing with one group after another until you have eliminated all the forces that might resist you.
In many ways, the gorillas are already amongst us…