Prem Sikka
Professor of Accounting
University of Essex
“Zero-Tolerance” is the latest political slogan to replace the “Back to Basics” and the “Short Sharp Shock”, so disastrously popularised by the Tories. Like many other political slogans, it has considerable appeal. It taps into the insecurities of many by offering protection from anti-social acts. There is little debate about the nature of the so called ‘anti-social’ acts, or their relevance to democracy. I want to argue that  contrary to its image “zero tolerance” harbours enormous ‘intolerance”, which when carried to its logical conclusion will silence public dialogue and reform.

‘Zero-tolerance’ makes political capital out of people’s insecurities. At the same time it does not provide legitimate channels for people to express their concerns. It  fails to recognise that dissent is an essential part of the renewal of liberal democracy. It fails to recognise that many of the social ills have been highlighted by individuals and groups excluded from contemporary politics. The protests and actions of these groups form the basis of many of the rights that we take for granted today. This is evident from the history of trade unions, universal suffrage, the chartists and others.

Much of the working class history is littered with challenges to traditional forms of law, politics and democracy. One can do no better than revisit E.P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”. Thompson argues that the  industrial revolution created the conditions out of which a new structural group - the modern working class arose. This new structural formation was composed primarily of wage earners, similarly situated within the productive relations of a capitalist economy. As  wage earners, they were exploited economically by the capitalist class which owned and controlled means of production and used harsh disciplines to extract economic surpluses from them. They were oppressed by the state, which legitimised capitalist exploitation and hardly gave any rights to the workers. These workers, including young children, were forced to work long hours and live in unsanitary conditions. Over a period of time, workers collectively accumulated common experiences rooted in the harsh realities of industrialisation and common sufferings. They identified  ‘class domination’ and the state as a new system of oppression. On numerous occasions they had violent and non-violent confrontations with the capitalist class and the state. The confrontations and the harshness of industrial capitalism gave rise to leaders, organisers,  radical orators, street theatres, worker associations, mutual aid societies and politically and intellectually charged newspapers and pamphlets. As the workers ability to organise and mobilise resources grew, they disseminated, dissected and internalised new political doctrines and further refined modes of class confrontation. Thus by the early nineteenth century, a considerable body of fragmented theories, shared experiences, thoughts and values came into existence and enabled workers to conceive alternative forms of  society. As part of their continuing collective struggles, workers shifted class struggles to the political sphere as this enabled them to secure  ‘class concessions’ which individual capitalists were not willing to grant. Over a period, they secured  concessions on education and working conditions and paved the way for what eventually  became known as ‘citizenship rights’. Working class movements, such as, trade unions, became a major vehicle for securing  ‘rights’ from employers and the state, and eventually created rival political institutions (e.g. the Labour Party). The success/failure of workers’ movements has played a major role in the emergence of  the modern ‘welfare regimes’ which many now consider to be an essential part of human rights. With “zero-tolerance” our society would have been much the poorer.

Today, the political system requires mass loyalty, but the established political institutions are unable to accommodate diverse demands. As the workers’ movements became increasingly politicised, and as their demands are met or managed (e.g. welfare state) by the state and other institutions, they have been absorbed into main stream politics (e.g. trade unions, the Labour Party) and persuaded to favour incrementalist rather than radical politics. This absorption itself is a now a source of conflict and polarisation between the highly institutionalised modes of  representation of  ‘core‘ interests (e.g. employer interests) and a variety of  alternative interests.

The traditional social movements (e.g. trade unions etc.) have now been supplemented by a variety of protest and direct action groups concerned with civil rights (gays, lesbians and other minorities), peace, age discrimination, the disabled, animal welfare, feminism, environmental degradation and many others. Their challenges to the established order signal tensions between democracy, rights, individual aspirations and corporatist arrangements  which enable the powerful to colonise the political agendas and silence others. The protest groups seek to delimit potentialities for change by arguing that life is not governed by some ‘invisible hand’ of fate, but by the highly visible social institutions which can be challenged and changed. Deprived of a place at the usual corporatist table, reformers have little choice but to operate, at least partly, outside the established institutional frameworks and problematise the established laws, intellectual climate and moral values. “Zero-tolerance” does not create any space for those campaigning for an alternative vision even though liberal democracies are routinely renewed by direct action. On the contrary, it creates a climate in which alternative voices can easily be labelled as ‘anti-social’ and ‘undesirable’, and silenced.