‘Security’ is a mutifarious notion. Its connotations bounce off in so many directions. Its implicit meanings and our anxiety about it bubble up from so many layers and recesses in our personal and social being. In the present context of nasty little wars around the globe and in the face of climate change, ‘security’ is now adumbrated in a new academic discipline—‘human security’; security is rapidly being technologised as ‘securitisation’ for states, like Israel and America, with unruly populaces; and everywhere there is a sense of ontological destabilisation—via, on the one hand, terror brought home to the West and, on the other, via capitalism’s own core engine of ‘creative destruction’, at the heart of ‘growth’ and ‘innovation’ and leading us who knows exactly where.
Within capitalism, nothing, for a long time, has been sacred, no public or private meaning absolutely secure. Very little has been secured in ritual or deep common cause, except, seemingly, in the constructs of the social form itself—in the sources of sentiment and the institutions that capitalism has spawned or been pushed to create. If there have been deeper sources of security, they have likely lived on in residual form as ‘countercultures’, where value and meaning survived away from the market—in families, and other institutions like churches and elements of local community, where values were derived in non-quantifiable terms, lived in ‘ritual’ and concrete practices, and ‘protected’ in the densities of communal life.
The construction of belonging, the institutions of care, and possibilities for recognition, all the basic work of culture and social relations, and fundamental to security, took particular form in the modern period. Contradictory formations sprang up historically, and were the focus of the divisions of the political field. Belonging through jingoistic nationalism comes to mind, on the one hand; care and recognition via universalistic sharing in ‘welfare’, on the other.
One was obviously febrile, offering a highly politicised source of belonging and self-recognition. Security cemented in sentiment by appeals to national character or patriotism might readily flip into destabilising behaviours and conflictual social relations, especially in late-modern multicultural societies. The other, for a good part of the twentieth century, seemingly offered an ongoing answer to the depredations of free-market capitalism. Seeking to embed a practical ethic in the state, it would be a vehicle for practical security via which a common people might also recognise itself in the care it offered to unknown others.
And indeed, the modern state, as an achievement of political activism in the modern period, did provide forms of security where capitalism itself could not. Humane schemes that would provide ‘social security’ meant monetary benefits and entitlements for those cast out of economy and society. A framework of fairness and arguments for equality recognised the potential tumultuousness of life in capitalism.
More broadly the state gradually laid down a complex framework for all manner of practical and everyday activities within which forms of community and continuity could be lived and imagined, and for periods even taken for granted. Schools, roads, health and housing policy, guided economic policy, various forms of regulation of danger could all be seen as aspects of a social state rather than a repressive one. Its institutions were an implicit backdrop to life, and it was within the terms of this realm of assumption that individuality and a certain range of ‘freedom’ were facilitated.
From the vantage point of nationalistic feeling we can see the modern deformation of people and state towards institutionalised racism, imperialism and war-making, though a certain security (of belonging and identity) have rested in the figures that symbolise the nation. From the vantage point of the hopeful social state, we may find a fateful blindness towards certain ‘others’ (as Bruce Buchan’s article in this issue shows) but also a broad, historically constructed source and setting for personal security, which moreover was part of a virtuous cycle in largely securing the loyalty/commitment of the group to each other and the state as well. Repression, heavy-handed insistence on compliance, were hardly necessary.
Marx’s famous statement that ‘Everything that is solid melts into air’ was addressed to the vast changes wrought to societies and life-ways in the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution, carried in distinctive economic arrangements (the relations of capitalist production) certainly led to the immiseration of the working and ‘residual’ classes in that time. But Marx’s phrase seems to have had an existential and ontological reference as well. From solidity to…air? Could people be sure of the worlds they took for granted? Marx’s observation can be taken as a comment on the power of the profit motive and relations of production to wreck lives and livelihoods, but it carries the aura of Marx’s still more basic and really rather strange sense of the power of the commodity as such.
The commodity, a handleable object (for that is what it almost always used to be), was also always something other than itself: a material object that contained a stairway to a transcendent space where any commodity might be exchanged for any other (in the nineteenth century, horses for hats, or a tonnage of coal for so much linen), so long as an equivalence (in price) might be calculated. Particular commodities could come to be worshipped, as any fetishised object in any culture. But the commodity form refers us to a very particular kind of object: one that is radically set free from its natural or natural-cultural reference points and underpinnings in pre-capitalist relations to inhabit an abstract space of endless possible equivalences and combinations. If people in the nineteenth century retained or constructed new elements of taken-for-granted life-worlds, or re-embedded relations to others and to place over time, these actions were against the grain of the power of the commodity and were always, in principle, open still to its power to disarticulate and recombine according to its abstract calculus.
If Marx felt that all that was solid might melt into air one hundred and fifty years ago, how much more is it the case today, when the commodity principle has penetrated so much further into life-worlds and now embraces so many more of the elements of taken-for-granted realities? Now combined with technoscience—in combination with its own distinctive social relations and capacities—the commodity principle is everywhere at liberty to destroy and recombine the elements of life-worlds, even biologies and bodies. Where scientific technologies and networked media work through processes usefully described as de-materialising—think data and information as the contemporary metaphor or robotisation as the answer to profit-making and the consequence in the redundancy of bodies in labour—just what can be taken for granted, and in what sense ‘taken for granted’, today? What does security—the necessity of being able to assume the contours of a relatively stable life-world—mean any more?
Today ‘security’ is at the top of the agenda of all Western states, and of many others as well, but only thinly, and deceptively, in relation to the ontological security discussed above. In the sense so topical today, security most commonly refers to a set of policies and institutional arrangements—including Australia’s Pacific archipelago of detention centres and our liberal prime minister’s Home Affairs super-ministry—for our protection from supposed violent incursions into our ‘way of life’. In an age of terror, most garishly and most successfully, the protection offered is of life and limb.
Terror’s specific achievement is the creation of fear by its visceral and arbitrary execution, an animal fear at the potential loss of physical integrity, which in and of itself undermines the social integrity of normal life. Instead it presses on the social bonds and on individual psychologies, promoting scares and violent reaction. Affect rules. When atrocities occur, even distant ones, we may identify with the humanity of those damaged, but in some more basic sense ‘we’ are drawn together, herding or communing in potential hurt and vulnerability. It’s why ‘lives and limbs’ work so well for those who wish to secure borders and mount ‘defensive’ attacks.
Of course terror politicised translates into the protection of ‘our way of life’, which further ramifies out to a defence of civilisation itself. We have seen it so many times before in international relations and bellicose responses to perceived or constructed threats. We are seeing them again today clearly as means to galvanise populations and blackmail allegiances. Garish, terrifying violence sits poorly against our ‘peaceful’ liberal societies, ‘remembered’ by the populace as secure, even if that is no longer the case—even if that security has been blind to its own conditions in the historical construction of a particular state form, as well as blind to those ‘countercultural’ traditions that kept the life-world relatively stable, despite the depredations of the commodity, until now.
If security is now everywhere raised as a question rather than taken for granted, one advantage is that we may better see capitalism and its basic inclinations—and today radically complemented by science and technology harnessed to the commodity’s open horizons—more clearly. One hears the oft-trotted-out notion in the media that capitalism has brought us all prosperity and progress, even if a defence of human values is now needed, and so on and so forth. But these liberal commentators have never faced up to the history of the social form they coyly spruik, or the enlightened spirit they blithely bestow. Do they really think that capitalism itself provided the security they value and the humane values they now promote? The violence is in the system: speak to the colonised peoples of our and other countries; think of the rotting humanity of the Manchester poor of the 1860s; look again at the sources of urban collapse and drug epidemics today; ask what the source is of the precarious work now on offer across the classes, of our dematerialisation in networks of information and the rise of robotic ‘labour’.
If today many are beginning to fear the rise of the repressive state in the heartlands of liberal democracy, we might remember that we are doubly insecure—in the melting of our taken-for-granted life-worlds and in the uses to which our fears will be put.