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New Book: Emergency as Security–Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad

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Emergency as Security–Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad


Kyle McLoughlin and Maximilian Forte



Introduction: Emergency as Security


The individual works in this volume of the New Imperialism are meant to contribute to a critical anthropology and sociology of security in the neoliberal context. Daniel Goldstein (2010) argues that the post 9/11 world has entered a new phase of global history characterized by the “security moment,” a state in which interactions at both international and local contexts are fundamentally influenced by concerns over individual and national security. That is to say anxieties over attack, disaster, and physical violence have become essential factors in political regulation, commercial interest, and public interaction. Perhaps no more emblematic of these concerns is the American led “war on terror,” about which George W. Bush stated during his address to the special joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, that,




“freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail”. (Bush, 2001)


Waged in the name of domestic and international security, the “war on terror” provides, in part, a contemporary definition of security as a social construct. Security concerns physical bodies, feelings of terror or of threat, and the destruction of property or interruption of commerce. Absent are additional understandings of security concerning stability of food sources as in food security to combat malnutrition or starvation, access to health care, or ensuring that everyone has full employment under the banner of job security (Goldstein, 2010, p. 491).


The war on terror and the aftermath of 9/11 cemented a new cultural understanding of security, the foundation of which is built upon a neoliberal capitalist ideology of individualized risk management and privatized response in conjunction with the retreat of societal safety nets and the privatization of the environment. However, Goldstein adds an important dimension to this: security understood in the narrow sense above, “is a characteristic of a neoliberalism that predates the events of 9/11” (2010, p. 487).


While there is always a risk of producing overdetermined accounts that also leave little room for the agency of the so-called powerless, it can be useful to think of neoliberalism as a globalized bundling of diverse concepts and concerns. These have a profound effect on how security is conceived and practiced in the contemporary period. It is a globalized bundle that includes,

“the dissemination of a universal culture (consumerist), enemy (terror), political system (procedural democracy), mode of hyperconsumption (transnational corporate power, global economy), development aid (substantial U.S. influence over the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization), and environmental security factors (ozone depletion, global warming), among several others”. (Astrada, 2010, p. 5)

The neoliberal context holds security to be that of stability of the market and the guarantee of unobtrusive state structures to economic development (for more on the relationship between neo-liberalism and the new imperialism, see Jalbert’s chapter in this volume). In effect, this model demands that a country be sufficiently prepared to deal with the turmoil produced by liberalization, in essence privatization and deregulation of the economy and the erosion of any kind of social safety net. States attracted/attractive to transnational capital then become increasingly aggressive in their enforcement of social stability. Too much trouble from popular movements could mean the flight of investment or additional market instabilities. As Goldstein puts it,


“‘Security’ calls on the power of fear to fill the ruptures that the crises and contradictions of neoliberalism have engendered and so functions as a principal tool of state formation and governmentality in the world today, albeit one that is constantly challenged and negotiated by a range of local actors and state subjects”. (Goldstein, 2010, p. 487)

As grassroots demand grows for state intervention for the protection and fulfillment of a more popular will, a fundamental contradiction emerges. The demands of the people represent a spirit the liberal democratic state is theoretically beholden to, yet at the same time the structures and individuals that comprise the state thrive on systems of unequal accumulation perpetuated through capitalism. When the disparity between the promises of the economic system and the reality grows, social movements or popular struggles begin to form in response, thus representing inherent insecurity in the continued accumulation of property and wealth (Harvey, 2005). Such contradictions, when amounting to crisis, plainly reveal the state’s true loyalties to financial or ideological interests as popular movements can quickly find themselves labelled as threats to national security (as discussed in McLoughlin’s chapter in this volume).


Goldstein, following Sawyer, thus notes what he calls a “key irony of neoliberalism” which lies,

“in the contradiction between its rhetoric—which depicts the state as a minor player in the open field of free capitalist activity—and its reality—in which the state operates as manager, actuary, and cop, maintaining this open field for transnational business by creating laws, enforcing policy reforms, and controlling dissent among citizens whose own economic interests run counter to those of industry and whose social rights impose unwanted and expensive restrictions on transnational industry”. (Goldstein, 2010, p. 494)

This understanding of the neoliberal context for security is increasingly relevant as more crises arise exposing the fundamental contradiction between the declared loyalties of state structures to their citizens and those states’ clear collaboration with transnational capitalist interests to continue to prosper at the expense of those same citizens, many if not most of whom are already marginalized by the reigning socio-economic system.


As identified by both Jalbert and Noel in this volume, neoliberal securitization “responsibilizes” citizens for their own security, even as state security infrastructures become bloated to hitherto unimaginable proportions. Some thus highlight this process through an analysis of the National Strategy for Homeland Security published under President George W. Bush in which “the state assumes for itself a ‘supportive’ role in administering security” (Goldstein, 2010, p. 492), while “making each of us ‘accountable’ for and accountants of our own security, calculating the many forms of risk and exposure” (Hay & Andrejevic, 2006, p. 337).


Instead of attending to what some call “human security” (with rights to employment, health care, education—see Goldstein [2010, p. 491]) the neoliberal state, especially as led by the dominating example/model of the U.S., pushes an “absolute security agenda”. This absolute security agenda is simply an inflated version of traditionalist concepts of security in the West, as in defence against the threat of external attacks. As Marvin Astrada explains, the absolute security agenda consists of: 1) hypermilitarization; 2) intimidation; 3) coercion; 4) criminalization; 5) panoptic surveillance; 6) plenary security measures; and, 7) unabashed interference in the domestic affairs of select states (Astrada, 2010, p. 3). This compounds the challenges mounted on societies undergoing neoliberal transformation outside of the U.S., in seeing their states increasingly working on behalf of private corporate interests, plus serving as instruments of U.S. power: “the U.S. ASA rests on the notion that the international system of states is an extension or an instrument of U.S. power rather than a system and/or society of states comprised of functionally sovereign entities” (Astrada, 2010, p. 3).


In the maintenance of daily needs such as work, housing, and food, the state withdraws. This fundamental lack of basic, “human security” exposes countless communities to the structural violence of poverty and environmental racism. Non-governmental organizations have sought to mitigate some of this disaster by shouldering the various needs that used to be under the purview of national government including vaccinations, food support, and emergency relief. In becoming akin to private, parastatal organizations, NGOs have been presented with multiple crises on which they build themselves further as prostheses of a state-in-absentia. This has caused some to characterize the formation of a new NGO-Industrial Complex where work by charity and aid organizations sometimes resembles profiteering (see Noel, this volume). Lucrative public funds for disaster relief feed the coffers of seemingly countless NGOs which in turn can exacerbate the human suffering of a crisis by providing the illusion of an effective response while in fact doing little to mitigate the suffering of others.


With these circumstances in mind and this all too brief exploration of some of the key factors in the neoliberal relationship to security, contributors to this volume explore the relationship of these concerns to some aspects of anthropological and sociological thought. Unique to this series of volumes, apart from the presentation of more theoretical works than in previous volumes, are the diverse refractions of imperialism considered by the contributors. These include contributions on the gendering of imperialism, as well as environmental or eco-imperialism. Others range from the military-industrial complex, to the nonprofit-industrial complex, to the militarization of media and entertainment, and the militarization of anthropology. The domestication, or re-domestication of the ideologies and technologies of imperialism also concerned more than one author in this collection.




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