Curing the country of Prevent
The list of ‘extremist’ organisations subject to intervention under the Prevent strategy is laughable - but the consequences could be grave, warns Paul Demarty.
I must begin with a correction. A few months ago I noted, in an article about a wave of Extinction Rebellion actions, that current militancy was not necessarily predictive of future radicalism, and I offered the example of Greenpeace, whose militant roots were “hardly obvious” from their current state as a well meaning NGO.1
This, evidently, was to give too much credit to the police. For we now know that the national counter-terrorism unit, which provides training materials for teachers and other public-sector workers to spot the warning signs of violent fanaticism under the so-called Prevent strategy, decided to circulate some training materials that lumped Greenpeace in with XR as ‘ones to watch’. Some scandal attached immediately to this decision, which had in the end the unfortunate result that well-meaning eco-charities backed by dangerous radicals like Joanna Lumley had their logos listed alongside cuddly outfits like Combat 18. Presumably some schoolteacher - a profession whose political centre of gravity is a little closer to Greenpeace than C18 - was horrified enough to circulate it to the liberal media.2
Also included, needless to say, are a bevy of small far-left organisations, be they anarchist or Trotskyist, and even the Morning Star’s irreproachably social-pacifist Communist Party of Britain. Many front groups for the same - for instance, the Socialist Workers Party’s near-defunct Unite Against Fascism makes the grade, suggesting that Knacker of the Yard may be a little behind the times (though the more-recent SWP hobby horse, Stand Up To Racism, also shows up).
The fact that there has been some scandal is worth noting. The most obvious sign of all that is the hopelessly confused and contradictory series of statements from the counter-terrorism unit as to the status of this leaked document, many of which directly contradict the text of the document itself. That sort of fumbling rearguard action testifies to the fact that, on the face of it, this is some pretty embarrassing overreach on the cops’ part.
What they have done here is to breach a very important ideological cordon sanitaire, without following the proper protocols. So much of the apologetic structure of the capitalist world, after all, is founded on its reputation for having overthrown Nazi tyranny - in Britain, we speak solemnly about our finest hour and all that. The corollary of that is, first of all, that all schoolchildren have the evil of the Nazis belaboured to the point of parody, and so comparisons between some random protest movement and the Nazis tend towards the outrageously insulting.
By the same token, however, if it can be made to stick - bucketing some miscreant together with Hitler and chums is an excellent move in political combat: an instant checkmate. It cannot be overused, or it will lose its power; but it cannot remain unused, otherwise what is the point? Such is the fraught reality of the Nazi comparison in official society. It is reserved for subsuming communist politics along with Nazism into the general rubric of ‘totalitarianism’; vilifying whoever it is America wants to bomb this week; and, latterly, smearing those who sympathise with the Palestinian national cause.
Now, from the practical point of view of the policeman, this is a no-brainer. We do not have in this country, as they do to some extent in the USA, armed rightwing militias; so the problem posed by National Action, say, is substantially the same as that posed by XR. Either one might get a demonstration together - that demonstration may be rowdy, may involve forms of direct action against property. In short, it demands a police presence in force to control. Of course, UK Uncut is on this list (in spite of its relative antiquity by the standards of ephemeral protest movements). It was kettled like the rest of us in 2010-11; it too ensured that horses had to be fed and truncheons polished.
The error of the police is to allow this ‘natural’ ontology of political groups to leak into its public communications. The rest of us are nurtured in part on the secular hagiographies of non-violent protestors - your Martin Luther King archetype. We prefer the courageous preacher-man to the cops setting dogs on him, on the whole. When it comes to present practical politics, of course, that is hardly guaranteed - St Greta, still causing trouble, may be rejected in favour of the memory of St Gandhi, safely in his grave. The point is that, as things stand, there is an apologetic job to be done here by the defenders of ‘law and order’, not their opponents. We are presumptively in favour of the Rebel Alliance, and disinclined to admiration for the imperial stormtroopers. It is this job which is not done - or even attempted - by the hapless cops.
Our amusement at their stupidity is, unfortunately, more than outweighed by our suspicion that they are riding on a rising tide. As we noted a couple of weeks ago, capitalism is in decline, and relies ever more on the state to manage its contradictions. It should be news to nobody at all that some of these contradictions are particularly troublesome at the present date, and readily discernible is a historic shift from the ‘party of liberty’ - which was broadly in the ascendant in the decade or two succeeding the collapse of Stalinism - to the ‘party of order’.
In Britain, as the new decade creaks into gear, we have a particular situation. The bureaucratic liberalism that reigned under New Labour - which was, in fact, the standstill to which the municipal ‘loony left’ and the Thatcher government fought each other in the 1980s - remains the governing principle of many lower layers of the state, and the majority of the professional classes. Yet we have a government whose mandate is in part founded upon the political defeat of this ideology - first of all in the Brexit vote of 2016 and then in the crushing Tory victory of last month.
Boris Johnson and his cronies do not often feel it possible to openly demur from the liberal multicultural consensus. They rather deal in dog-whistles that can rile up their base, while maintaining plausible deniability up to a point (for example, defending the right of women to wear the niqab, while ‘in passing’ mocking their appearance). If present trends continue, though, they soon will depart from that consensus. And then the apparatus of enforcement that presently ensures there is bureaucratic liberalism in government departments, local councils and corporate HR policies will begin to shift to punish the new enemies of the people: Marxists, socialists, vaguely liberal lefts, eco-warriors, anti-war types, and who knows who else.
It should be stressed that the apparatus is inherited. The Prevent strategy, after all, is not new: it is one of the many pieces of ‘anti-terrorist’ policy the British state has accumulated in its recent history. First in line were efforts to counter the on-line ideological influence of groups such as al Qa’ida. Then came “non-violent” Islamic extremism. In other words Muslim conservatives who refuse to accept the values of democracy or respect other religions. In 2011 the Prevent was “refocused” to include the “extreme right wing”. The pro-Nazi organisation National Action was banned in 2016 under the terrorism act.
The management of far-right ideology has, of course, long been part of the remit of schoolteachers. The left, meanwhile, has long been insouciant about the increasing power of the state to regulate public discourse, so long as the targets are racist or otherwise purveyors of hate speech, about which something must be done.
This is exemplified by Niamh Sweeney, one of the respondents in a Guardian survey of teachers about this advice:
I would report someone for extremism, because extremism is the opposition to rule of law, liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of faiths and beliefs. It would be a safeguarding concern. But involvement in climate activism - absolutely not. I want my students to be radical thinkers.3
Radical thinkers, but not extremists! If ever there was a distinction to drive a coach and horses through, that was it. To stick to XR for a moment, we might recall to mind the case of one of its erstwhile leaders, Roger Hallam, who got in trouble for ill-considered remarks about the Nazi holocaust. One of his other eye-catching injunctions was that “democracy is irrelevant in immoral societies”, which is presumably at least congruent with the “opposition to rule of law, liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of faiths and beliefs” that, for Sweeney, is a “safeguarding issue”. Would she shop a student on the pessimist, misanthrope, Roger Hallam wing of XR to the police? If not, why does her usual rule of thumb not apply? If so, would she shop a teenager who (say) merely parroted the misanthropy of her favourite black metal records?
The truth is that teachers have little enough freedom of action in these matters anyway. It is a quite thoroughly proletarianised profession, at least compared to some others; policies are set by management in relation to the most risk-averse interpretation of the perceived wider environment. There was a moment when teachers seemed likely to boycott the standardised assessment tests imposed on 11-year-olds in this idiotic country, and that, surely, is the germ of the answer: collective action in defiance of a contemptible obligation.
To make that a reality, however, the left must get its head straight on many matters, and it must first of all dispense with its implicit acceptance of the ‘safeguarding’ outlook of the status quo ante. (That, of course, is one of the ironies of finding Stand Up To Racism on the police list: SWP politics in this day and age is a formally militant version of the most timid, prissy sort of liberalism available.) If we are worth anything, surely, we are dangerous; which means we must reject the state’s right to judge, which in turn means we reject it for everyone - even bitter enemies like National Action and Islamic State.
‘Avoiding extinction for real’ Weekly Worker October 17 2019.↩︎