The Politics of Security: Policing, Dictatorships and Resistance

Reviewed: Anti-Security,Edited by Mark Neocleous and George S. Rigakos, Red Quill Books, 2011.

The book Anti-Security represents a frontal attack on the concept of security, its internal logic, the politics surrounding it, and the institutions that employ it as a rationale.

There’s something invigorating about a new line of attack.  It provokes, even where it doesn’t succeed.  It reveals new strategic possibilities, and so makes further attacks more available.

Anti-Security is one such offensive.  The collection, edited by Mark Neocleous and George S. Rigakos, represents a frontal attack on the concept of security, its internal logic, the politics surrounding it, and the institutions that employ it as a rationale.  Most of the ten chapters focus on some aspect of policing, though others discuss Argentinean death squads, pay-day lenders, and the discourse of human rights.  The dominant thrust of the critique is Marxian, though it is also Foucauldian and anti-Foucauldian by turns, and in one chapter, anarchist.

The book announces its aims at the outset:

“The purpose of this project, put simply, is to show that security is an illusion that has forgotten it is an illusion. . . .  Fleshing out how we got here is the first challenge; showing how damaging this has been is an even greater challenge; doing this in a way that contributes to a radical, critical and emancipatory politics even more so.” (15)

Of the three challenges, the book meets the historical (“how we got here”) most successfully, while its assessment (“how damaging”) frequently seems exaggerated, and its constructive aspect cannot escape a trap of self-reference.

The opening salvo, boldly titled “Anti-Security: A Declaration,” is the rhetorical high point, which would be fine if the analysis of the chapters made good on its claims.  Unfortunately the stirring notes of the prelude do not build, but only echo briefly and then fade.

The best chapters — Mark Neocleous’ “Security as Pacification,” George S. Rigakos’ “‘To Extend the Scope of Productive Labour’,” and Michael Kempa’s “Public Policing, Private Security, Pacifying Populations” — come at the beginning, and the book could have been very much improved by ending shortly after page 100.  These chapters center on the concept of “pacification,” tracing its history back to the Spanish conquest, and demonstrating how its logic informed the creation of the Thames River Police at the beginning of the nineteenth century, “Broken Windows” policing at the end of the twentieth, and the occupation of Iraq in the opening decade of twenty-first.

After these, the fourth chapter, Gaetan Heroux’s “War on the Poor” provides local detail of poverty and zero-tolerance policing in Toronto, but fails to advance the analysis beyond observations already familiar from other contexts (especially New York).  The fifth, Olena Kobzar’s “Poor Rogues and Social Police,” seems to have wandered in from some other collection: concerned with the politics and economics of pay-day lending, it barely invokes the idea of security and does nothing to contribute to our understanding of it.  Will Jackson’s “Liberal Intellectuals and the Politics of Security,” then, offers “a scathing critique and a wholesale rejection of human rights as tools for critique” — in which it is argued (correctly) that in taking the present structure of society for granted liberal intellectuals end up serving as apologists for power, and (wrongly) that “human rights” is a derivative concept dependent on “security,” which is primary.  In “Security and the Void,” Ronjon Paul Datta pits Althusser against Foucault, and only succeeds in proving that one set of fallacies can contradict another.  And finally, in “All the People Necessary Will Die to Achieve Security,” Guillermina Seri breaks from the North American frame that has (without acknowledgement) ruled throughout the rest of the text, and recounts Argentina’s experience with coups, dictatorships, and “reformed” policing.

The seventh chapter, Heidi Rimke’s “Security: Resistance,” ought — for reasons of both politics and argumentation — to have served as the book’s conclusion, reminding the reader that the population is not merely the object of politics, but also an actor.  Offering an analysis of the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto, Rimke treats the dynamics of police violence in response to popular resistance, not as exceptional, but as exemplifying the relationship between the citizenry and the state.  She argues that the demonization of anarchists, in that context, is in fact an ideological attempt to shut out the idea of resistance altogether.

None of these essays, taken one by one, is especially bad, and several of them are even very interesting. But after the first hundred pages it becomes increasingly unclear what it is they are supposed to have to do with each other.  As the analysis branches out, its force is diminished, and the bold challenge of the initial declaration cannot support, and is not sustained by, the bulk of the book.  At the end, Anti-Security is one of those tragic assemblages where the parts are worth more than the whole.

There are two main causes underlying the weakness of the collection.  The first is a failure of definition.  Despite a “Call” to “name security for what it really is” (21), there is not even an attempt to define the term, or the proposed antidote, “anti-security,” until page 194.  There Rimke writes:

The concept of anti-security can be understood as a means of addressing, challenging and moving beyond the hegemony of security. Given that the concept of security depends upon the concept of insecurity for its knowability, the notion of anti-security moves beyond the binarism underpinning the pacification efforts of Official narratives.  Understood as the most powerfully productive and repressive trope of contemporary politics, the emphasis on security means that at some fundamental level the order of capital is an order of insecurity.  It is through this politics of in/security that the current wave of state repression is structured and legitimated, demonstrating first and foremost the dominant concern of securing the insecurity that results from capitalist accumulation and political power.

So: anti-security must be understood in terms of security, which can only be understood in terms of insecurity — which, we are told, is a defining feature of capitalism.  She later adds a syllogism: “if security is pacification . . .  then anti-security is resistance.” (195)

In the following chapter, Ronjon Paul Datta offers his own definition, which gets us no closer to conceptual clarity:

I view securitization, in its broadest sense, as a concern with shaping what a group of people with some say and power over a social circumstance, don’t want to have happen (i.e., ’emergencies’ generated in the void), or minimally, or a concern with finding ways of mitigating the concentration of catastrophic money costs of the emergence of events that adversely effect people’s plans (hence, for example, the preference for ‘civil remedies’ in resolving litigation). (218-19)

Translated, with some difficulty, I believe the idea here is that security refers to anything done to prevent things that powerful people don’t like.  I suppose that’s fair, as far as it goes.  But notice how broad a category that is:  It would seem to include, for instance, imprisoning political dissidents, censoring the press, locking the doors, vaccinating children, weeding the garden, and preventative maintenance on everything from critical infrastructure to private automobiles.  It also assumes, as a matter of definition, that security exists as an expression of power, and that it is defined exclusively according to the agenda of the most powerful groups.

This expansive but one-sided definition is typical of the book’s approach.  Leaving security largely undefined allows the word to refer to a concept, a commodity, a field of activity, a perspective, a logic, an agenda, a set of institutions, and the affiliated personnel.  By eschewing precision, the authors can then treat dissimilar things as identical based entirely on the label affixed to them.  Thus the opening “Declaration” announces:

We understand . . . that security today:

–  operates as the supreme concept of bourgeois society.

–  colonizes and de-radicalizes discourse: hunger to food security; imperialism to energy security; globalization to supply chain security; personal safety to private security. . . .

–  is a special commodity, . . .  embedding itself into all other commodities, producing even more risk and fear while intensifying and distracting us from the material conditions of exploitation that have made us inherently insecure. (20-1)

The “supreme concept” line, borrowed from Marx, is supposed to stand in for a definition, in much the same way that a piece of scripture can substitute for moral argument.  The line occurs repeatedly throughout the book, once as follows:  “Escaping the logic of security requires politicizing security, naming it for what it is — the supreme concept of bourgeois society” (185).  Of course, telling us that a concept is “supreme” is somewhat different than “naming it for what it is.”

To learn what it is supposed to be we need to turn back to the source material, where we find Marx criticizing the “Rights of Man,” and quoting from Article 8 of the French Constitution of 1793:  “Security consists in the protection accorded by society to each of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights and his property.”

The very next line contains the alchemical Marxian reformulation:  “Security is the supreme social concept of civil society, the concept of the police, the concept that the whole society exists only to guarantee each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property.”  He then goes on:  “Civil society does not raise itself above its egoism through the concept of security.  Rather, security is the guarantee of the egoism.”[1]  According to Marx, security is the “supreme social concept” because is it identical with economic individualism.

This argument, never explicated in Anti-Security, is central to the analysis relating security to the development of the capitalist state, and the efforts to equate security policies to neoliberalism.  Likewise, it is for precisely the same reasons that Will Jackson deletes human rights from the emancipatory agenda, citing “their equation with liberal individualism.” (184)

In Anti-Security the “supreme concept of bourgeois society” becomes, also, the supreme concept of Marxian critique.  But the attempt at demystification only further mystifies, projecting onto the notion of “security” a coherence and universality that cannot be found in the word’s ordinary usage.  Is the security of the “social security check” really the same thing as the security in the “maximum security prison”?  Is the security backing a personal loan really the same as the security of the “Department of Homeland Security”?  Ironically, the effort to deconstruct the security myth only ends up reifying it.

Furthermore, the attempt to unmask the power relations attached to the ideology of security cedes a kind of sovereign control over what security is and is not.  It’s notable, for instance, that there is only the passing mention of the security practices activists employ to defend themselves from state repression.  Under the terms of the analysis offered here, activist “security culture” is either a contradiction in terms, or else it reveals an unfortunate ideological contamination.  Security, from the Neocleous-Rigakos perspective — mirroring the perspective of the state — is only a weapon of repression, not a tool of resistance.

The minimal attention paid to the security measures adopted by social movements points to the second major failing of the book — its inability to escape the confines of the academy.  It is clear from reading any page of Anti-Security that it is a book written (with one exception) by academics, for academics.  This is not just a matter of tepid, vague prose.  It is also not solely a matter of authorship or audience.  The conventions of academic research and presentation — those norms determining everything from which questions seem relevant, to what counts as evidence, to how conclusions are formulated — exercise a distorting effect on radical thought and limit its practical applicability.  Social theory becomes a kind of intramural sport, a game college professors play amongst themselves in their off hours.  This sort of scholarship draws from, relates itself to, takes aim at, and addresses other scholarship; the world outside the academic debate is, in a sense, less relevant than the previous debate.

Security is treated here solely as a conceptual problem, and anti-security, whatever it may be, only operates at the level of discourse.  As the opening “Declaration” proclaims:

“The Call of this Declaration is that we:

–  Name security for what it really is;

–  Stand against the securitization of political discourse;

–  Challenge the authoritarian and reactionary nature of security;

–  Point to the ways in which security politics shifts attention away from material conditions and questions, in the process transforming emancipatory politics into an arm of the police;

–  Fight for an alternative political language that takes us beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois security and its police powers. . .” (21, emphasis in original).

Presented this way, resistance becomes a matter of rhetoric.  It consists entirely of naming, taking a certain kind of stand, issuing a challenge, making particular points, and finally, fighting — but only fighting for “an alternative political language.”  In sum, “The Call of this Declaration” is only a call for further declarations.

Anti-Security begins with a declaration, and ends without a conclusion.  Its dialectic produces no praxis, only an anti-climax. There is no effort here to connect theory to practice; there is not even the suggestion that we should. Nevertheless, there is much in the volume that is interesting and insightful, and if I’ve been brutal in my criticism it is only because the book fails to meet its own aims. Perhaps, however, the book can stand as a challenge to the rest of us, to finish its work, to surpass its analysis, to not only interpret the world, but to change it.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy.  He is a volunteer with Rose City Copwatch, in Portland, Oregon.


1. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans., Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1967)  236.  As an aside, I’ll just note that from our present perspective, an essay on “the Jewish Question” makes for an awkward place to find a renunciation of human rights.