• Left Security Policy – Navigating Between the Pathos of Civil Rights and the Lived Realities of Voters

  • By Dirk Burczyk | 01 Mar 18
  • In what follows I would like to explore possible answers to the question of public security from a radical-democratic, basic-rights-oriented perspective. This requires first staking out the political framework in which a left politics of public security would move. Then I will outline what left answers to the dominant discourse of ‘domestic security’ might look like.

    Freedom and security in neoliberal times

    From the 1940s, welfare-state reform processes have – in different ways and at different times – gone hand in hand with social liberalisation and a reinforcement of the liberal constitutional state. Put simplistically, the subaltern classes gain power, ‘their’ party forms the government. In economic terms, however, a welfare state means that the state is responsible for the welfare of the citizens and in turn gains legitimation from this – and this involves interventions not only in the distribution of wealth but generally the regulation of essential economic factors, which are no longer left to the ‘free play of the market’.

    This connection between welfare state and democracy precipitously ceased at the beginning of the economic recession of the 1980s. Herbert Schui has explained that this was already preceded by a break with the central premises of Keynesian policy, specifically the abandonment of state regulation and expansive redistribution, and instead of this the welfare state was put on a credit basis.1 This was followed, again not everywhere with the same intensity and speed, by a social- and economic-policy rollback. This rollback, accompanied ideologically and culturally by the excessive emphasis on individual self-realisation, occurred simultaneously with a restitution of the old concept of the night-watchman, or minimal, state. Of all parties, Germany’s FDP was the purest advocate of this political construct. Its electoral programme for the 2017 Bundestag elections leaves no doubt as to what the only functions are it thinks the state should have: The state is to look after security from criminality and terrorism, satisfy capital’s needs through sufficient resources for education and research, and, for the rest, refrain from any form of regulation.

    From the beginning, the topic of ‘domestic security’ within the neoliberal bloc has been what I think of as a ‘complement’ to the neoliberal promise of freedom. It attracts conservative forces that feel repelled by the blurring of class boundaries in education and culture, from the results of the emancipatory strivings of women, homosexuals, ‘foreigners’, etc. – and at the same time have always had a grudge against supposed dirigiste interventions into ‘the economy’. The withdrawal of the state from regulating society’s economic sphere – as expressed in privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation of all areas of public services, in the abandonment of redistributive taxation, and the discontinuation of welfare-state protection from poverty and impoverishment – is creating a massive sense of insecurity among citizens. The state, which has declared itself to be incapable of acting in certain major spheres and has left these to ‘self-regulating market forces’, is at least to provide protection of life, limb, and property. The rebellion of the petty bourgeoisie – which has long ago accepted the guiding principle ‘let everyone look out for themselves’ as the everyday translation of neoliberal paradigms and finds its civil-society and political-party expression in PEGIDA and AfD – is not directed against the unreasonable sacrifices demanded by an unleashed market (its criticism of ‘paternalism’ and ‘bureaucracy’ actually affirms these sacrifices) but against the real and imagined threats in everyday life.

    Promising security at the cost of sometimes massive encroachments on fundamental rights, this hegemonic bloc is finding acceptance for its political programmes of toughening criminal law, mass storage of telecommunication and flight data, preventive and police powers of intervention including unlimited orders of ‘preventive custody’, video surveillance, and the transfer of certain security competences from the federal states – where democratic control is more likely – to the federal government.

    The traps of a defensive and socially uncontextualised conception of fundamental rights

    The ‘preventive security state’ as a complement to the neoliberal unleashing of the market has been little analysed and criticised in this context, and this is now a significant weakness of the social and political left. The left’s criticism is directed against individual measures and in this it – completely justifiably – invokes individual basic rights anchored in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic. The critique, as Wolf-Dieter Narr and others have laid out in an impressive publication on the sixtieth anniversary of the Basic Law, consists of the case practice of the Federal Constitutional Court.2 It enquires into the formally correctly passed Law and subjects the commensurability of the stipulated restrictions of fundamental rights to a doctrinal examination. It thus limits itself to looking at basic rights primarily (or even exclusively) as individual defensive (or negative) rights against excessive state intervention into the personhood and freedom of the individual. The character of basic rights as a complement of democracy, which would mean not only freedom from restrictions but also the freedom for self-determined participation in the self-regulation of society, drops out of sight. Reduction to individual defensive rights make the very critique of the preventive security state compatible with neoliberal discourses of ‘self-realisation’. In terms of the above-mentioned historical connection between the welfare state and democracy, what needs to be done is to connect the struggle for basic rights, on the one hand, with the struggle for social participation and security that puts people in a position to actually use their rights, and, on the other hand, with a struggle for the (re)conquest of the economic sphere by politics.

    There is a further trap of isolated understandings of basic rights, which can only be indicated here: In 2013 the Federal Minister of the Interior Hans-Peter Friedrich, not exactly an intellectual beacon, raised security to the status of a ‘super basic right’. This was enshrined by the Federal Constitutional Court in its judgement on the Federal Criminal Police Office legislation, which stressed ‘that the security of the state […] and the security of the population are constitutional values of the same rank as other highly valued constitutional rights’ (1 BvR 966/09, Rn. 100). A putative right to security, derived in a doctrinal legal manner from the governmental responsibility to protect the life and limb of people in Art. 1 GG, is not only to more strongly enshrine the legislative provisions for security and defence from threats; in fact, the security state is being accorded a greater theoretical weight in relation to other fundamental rights.

    The supremacy of security discourse

    We must be clear that the expansion of the preventive security state is not at all a matter of a plan – carried out through boring propaganda and parliamentary majorities – to arm the state against future uprisings of the subaltern classes. The overwhelming majority of the population wants this expansion, just as the subversion of the welfare state could rely on broad popular consent. In both cases the societal discourse was directed against the subaltern classes and the marginalised – the lazy unemployed, the foreigners resisting integration, delinquent youth, drug addicts, the uneducated, and whoever else could be used as a projection surface for the threat to prosperity and security. Thus, the concept of ‘security society’ has also been proposed to capture current developments beyond a fixation on the state and law.3 High approval ratings of ca. 80% for measures like the extension of video surveillance in public areas show how deeply rooted the wish is in the population to use such controls to deal with threats of any sort.

    The Bild tabloid published an opinion poll, regarding the percentage of people afraid of various threats who believed that the police could not help them. (That Die LINKE’s voters in some instances accounted for the highest percentages alongside AfD voters points to a specific difficulty for progressive politics as a whole.)

    ‘Security’ here is like an unreachable carrot held in front of the donkey, for the threat is ubiquitous and hard to get hold of. Nowhere is this so clear as when security authorities and ministers of the interior talk about the ‘abstract danger of attacks’, with the constantly repeated phrase ‘Germany’ is ‘in the crosshairs of international terrorism’. The bromide that ‘absolute security cannot exist’ is presented as wisdom, as the intellectual capacity for differentiation. And the annual publication of the police criminal statistics offers the opportunity to inject still other threats into the discourse: At the end of the 2000s it was youth criminality that suddenly increased and then disappeared; in 2015 it was burglaries that were to give citizens gooseflesh (although the numbers were far below the highpoint in the 1990s); in 2016 the refugees were to provide a statistically actually negligible rise in criminality.

    What is mainly needed here is a rationalisation of the debate. The constant talk of all kinds of threats makes for insecurity, which serves to legitimate and lend support for measures to expand the preventive security state; the diffuse idea that even with this the world cannot be rid of dangers ensures that this clockwork, driven by security politicians, government representatives, professional associations (‘police unions’), private security firms, and the media (‘crime sells!’), keeps working.

    ‘Don’t panic!’

    In all of this there are still plenty of opportunities to give the debate over public and private security a more objective basis. As an example we can cite the Bochum study on ‘Criminal Phenomena in Long-term Comparison Using as an Example a Large German City’, which has been running for a few decades now. With the example of Bochum it shows the paradox of the fear of criminality: in cases of unchanged or even sinking levels of criminality more citizens are afraid of being victims of a crime in the near future. Prof. Thomas Feltes, the Study’s director, places this increasing fear of criminality in the context of increasing material insecurity, fear of EU disintegration, and the consequences of globalisation. These things, however, are not tangible, and therefore this ‘insecurity is projected onto the area of criminality’.4

    But the difficulties of injecting reality into the debate can be seen in the conflict over increased penalties for attacks on police officers. Since 30 May 2017 such attacks (even a jostle qualifies as an attack) have been punishable by a minimum penalty of a half year, mitigating circumstances no longer being recognised. Representatives of the opposition in the Bundestag, liberal journalists, and civil-rights groups have in the broadest sense pointed out what should be pointed out – that the new sentences are disproportionate, the increased penalties have no preventive effect, that there is a danger of an indirect restriction of the right to demonstrate by frightening people that they can be prosecuted even without instigating a clash with police. All completely right and well argued. But no one had the confidence to point to the Emperor’s new clothes, that is, that the increased acts of violence against police officers, generally asserted by trade unions, politicians, and the media, plainly and simply are not verifiable (if anything, it is the opposite that is true), and that a new registration method now used in police criminal statistics has led to a completely unusable exaggeration of the real situation. The Police Criminal Statistics, PKS, are pure raw statistics for the police’s processing of criminality, that is, up to the point that it is given to public prosecutor’s office. It says nothing about the actual number of preliminary investigations nor about the number of sentences, etc. As such, it counts the complaints made to the police (listed as acts) and the suspects. A few years ago a ‘victim statistic’ was introduced into the PKS for selected groups, among them police officers. Since several police officers at a time often become ‘victims’ of one reported offence this figure is much higher than the reported acts and accused/suspected perpetrators – and it was precisely with this victim count that the federal government’s draft law operated.

    Problems even on home ground

    It has become evident that the political-party left can only answer the question of more security from crime and violence in the context of its social-policy programme. But it is not so that the wheel has to be reinvented here. ‘The best crime prevention is a good social policy’, is a programmatic principle all comrades engaged in domestic policy can recite in their sleep. Indeed Die LINKE sees itself – as a party that stands in elections in which it seriously, and in part successfully, strives for government participation – confronted with the challenge of naming concrete steps, especially on this issue. It must also recognise that the shifts in the population have not left its own electorate untouched. Among them too the need for solid ground has shifted away from social questions and towards questions of security and order in everyday life.

    This should in no way lead to raising security and order to the status of a third pillar of left policy alongside social security and the expansion of basic rights and democracy. ‘Law and order is a Labour issue’ was the background chorus to ‘old Labour’s’ swansong in Great Britain.5 The consequences are well known. In speaking purely about criminality it is hard not to be drawn into the slang of the institutional authorities and conservative domestic politicians (whatever party they belong to). There is nothing the left can gain from this unless it ties the concept of security to that of social security. That is the first point.

    Second, the rationalisation of the debate has to be an elementary component of a left policy of public security. This means a realistic look at the actual criminal activities. And it also takes in the question of the causes of specific manifestations of criminality.

    Third, the expansion of the competencies and powers of the state’s security authorities deep into the preliminary phases of concrete dangers has to be countered with a return of criminal law to the protection of individual objects of protection – life, limb, freedom of the individual. Instead of deploying ill-defined expanded resources against so-called suspected terrorists’, the gains from which are only conjectural (whether someone might have perpetrated an attack if he was not shackled, was not in custody, had not been deported, etc.), the focus of criminal law as well as the police’s right to protect against threats should be on dealing with concrete or concretely imminent dangers. In the police laws of countries there can be no unlimited authority to order custody, dragnet controls, to institute special powers in the case of ‘places at risk’, or the like; groundless mass data storage must be prohibited. Petty offences, such as ‘fare dodging’, petty theft of low-value items, the possession of small quantities of narcotics, ‘victimless’ criminal offences such as unauthorised entry into a country or unauthorised stay, must be decriminalised.

    Fourth, this constitutional safeguard must be upheld by parliamentary and civil-society oversight. This includes a requirement that law enforcement officials wear badges or show other identification, the establishment of independent police commissaries with extensive rights of control, appropriately equipped data protection authorities, parliamentary control committees for the deployment of covert powers of intervention (telecommunications surveillance, undercover agents, etc.) as far as these are necessary.

    Fifth, this return of police activity to the core areas of averting danger and of law enforcement needs to be accompanied by a structural reform that enables the police to work in the local area, close to the citizens, and be approachable and reachable. Only in this context and with a cleansed criminal law is it possible to determine how adequate the personnel resources of the police are.

    Sixth, Die LINKE of course also wants to protect fundamental rights and democracy against those who want to suppress them on behalf of whatever inhumanely motivated order. The motto here is: It is we ourselves who have to look after ourselves! The best protection for the Constitution are self- conscious citizens who defy racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of group-focused enmity. They cannot be helped by any authorities for the protection of the Constitution if these systematically escape democratic control, but only by publicly supported institutions of civil society that clearly make such incursions into fundamental rights and democracy known, name their vehicles and together with educational institutions impart knowledge and capacities for a democratic commonwealth.

    Seventh, the threat to security and freedom from the dangers of information technology is becoming increasingly tangible for many people. Here too we need to press for a realistic assessment of the dangers. Instead of wasting resources on government ‘hack-back’ and an attendant militarisation of ‘cyber space’, IT infrastructures have to be bolstered and capacities for their secure use sensitive to data protection comprehensively communicated.

    Eighth, it remains true that the best way to prevent criminality and the fear of criminality is a good social and economic policy that offers a minimum of social security, curbs free market forces, guarantees the community’s capacity to act in the securing of public services, and offers help and support to those who have become victims of violence.


    1. Herbert Schui et al., Wollt ihr den totalen Markt? Der Neoliberalismus und die extreme Rechte, Munich: Droemer Knaur, 1997, pp. 45ff.
    2. Wolf-Dieter Narr, Heiner Busch, and Dirk Vogelskamp (eds), Das würdige Grundgesetz und seine Fäulnis: 60 Jahre Grundgesetz, 60 Jahre Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 6 November 2009.
    3. Tobias Singelnstein and Peer Stolle, Die Sicherheitsgesellschaft. Soziale Kontrolle im 21. Jahrhundert, Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2008.
    4. http://news.rub.de/wissenschaft/2016-08-23-kriminologie-so-sicher-fuehlen-sich-die-buerger-einer-grossstadt.
    5. On the widespread criticism of this see, for example, Robert Reiner, ‘The Law and Order Trap: Contemporary Popular Discourses on Crime Continuously Feed an Authoritarian Law and Order Agenda’, Soundings 40 (2008).