Police in Portland during the George Floyd uprising. United States – August 9, 2020. Photo: bgrocker / Shutterstock.com
William I. Robinson’s new book The Global Police State is a crucial reflection on power, capitalism and war globally. At the same time, it provides readers with perspective on police power in the United States, particularly in the wake of last summer’s protests and demonstrations for Black lives and against white supremacy and police violence in the US and beyond.
The uprising, which carried on for months in cities and towns across the US following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the largest popular movement in the country’s history.
Released in August of last year, as demonstrations entered their third month, The Global Police State provides an accessible and compact overview of repression and corporate expansion into policing and surveillance.
Far from offering reformist solutions to what the author describes as a “crisis of humanity,” the book is effectively a treatise against capitalism and centralized power.
The concept of the global police state, according to Robinson, takes into account three aspects. First are the “omnipresent systems of mass social control, repression, and warfare promoted by ruling groups to contain the real and the potential rebellion of the global working class and surplus humanity.”
Second is what Robinson calls “militarized accumulation or accumulation by repression,” by which he is referring to capitalist gain to be made through participation in a “veritable global war economy.” One of the strengths of the book is the author’s ability to zoom in and out of unrest, police repression and militarization in different parts of the world.
Finally, there’s “the increasing move towards political systems that can be characterized as 21st century fascism, or even in a broader sense, as totalitarian.” Of which, of course, Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are exemplary.
Robinson’s writing is concise, his examples concrete and his theoretical advances build on years of his own research. Robinson, who was politicized alongside African freedom fighters in the period after independence struggles, is a veteran of critical globalization theory with a direct connection to social movements.
The author devoted much of the 1990s to advancing a structural critique of global capitalism, marking the differences in the shift from world capitalism, which he argued went into decline in the 1970s. The rise of transnational corporations and global corporate conglomerates has defined this shift.
Robinson’s own work in Latin America, particularly in Nicaragua, informs a powerful and sophisticated synthesis of the structural constraints facing leftist parties who have come to govern in the hemisphere.
While he writes that “these governments challenged and even reversed some of the most glaring components of the neo-liberal program… leftist rhetoric aside, the Pink Tide governments based their strategy on a vast expansion of raw material production in partnership with foreign and local contingents of the [Transnational Capitalist Class].”
These reflections are, in a sense, a clear call for nuanced understandings of left rule, in Latin America and beyond. “There emerged an evident disjuncture throughout Latin America — symptomatic of the worldwide phenomenon on the Left — between mass social movements that are at this time resurgent, and the institutional party Left that has lost the ability to mediate between the masses and the state with a viable project of its own,” writes Robinson.
Overall, The Global Police State packs a truly dystopic punch. Robinson outlines his own theory of global capitalism and globalization and then delves into the key aspects of the current crisis of capital. This theoretical work is necessary, he argues, because the global police state has emerged largely in response to uprisings led by poor and working-class people around the world.
Robinson then develops on his notion of militarized accumulation, which “coercively open up opportunities for capital accumulation worldwide.”
Finally, he outlines the ongoing “threat of twenty-first century fascism and the global reform project to save capitalism from itself.” His refusal to participate in feel good liberalism is a refreshing departure from much US commentary on the Trump presidency.
Marxism plays a central role in his political analysis, and he explains the current relevance of Marx’s theorization of capitalism in a manner that feels at once authoritative and accessible.
Throughout The Global Police State, Robinson leans on official reports and statistics, never removing his theoretical considerations from actually existing capitalism. The section on digital surveillance and the tech industry’s participation in “war on immigrants” is devastating. He describes how arms manufacturers, together with tech companies including Amazon, IBM and Zoom, collaborate with ICE and DHS, and have found ways to profit from state-sanctioned racism, violence, deportation and detentions of undocumented people.
As I read, I could not resist reaching out to Robinson to ask for an update, and about what he saw in the streets last summer.
“I witnessed the brutal police violence and also palpably felt you people’s yearning for radical change as they risked life and limb in the streets,” he wrote back. “The anti-racist insurrection in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd was the first full-scale uprising in the United States against the global police state.”
In a recent interview on Democracy Now!, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, told host Amy Goodman
…We’ll be fighting to make sure that when we talk about — when the Movement for Black Lives talks about defunding police, that we’re talking about all police, including ICE and Customs and Border Patrol; when we talk about abolishing prisons, that we’re talking about all of them, including detention centers; and when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about all Black lives, including those of our people that are in this country without papers.
The connections and struggles Woodard Henderson names point to a future horizon in which broad and powerful movements again rise up, defunding the police, abolishing prisons and destroying white supremacy.
In this context, The Global Police State is a valuable resource for readers to become familiar with the theoretical architecture of repression and capitalism, and better navigate (and avoid) the murky waters of reformism and empty promises.