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In Conversation - Towards the Rally of the Impossible Professions, London, September 20th, 2008
Mark Neocleous, author of the new book "Critique of Security", talks to Natalie Wulfing of the London Society New Lacanian School.
They begin by discussing how the French publication Le Nouvel Âne (LNA) came about and mention the history of Inserm (French National Institute for Health and Medical Research) in France and the recent move to regulate university departments as well.
Mark Neocleous: In France there is a longer history of the national curriculum. In Britain, well, in a sense, a certain semi-autonomy has been sustained. In teaching it comes through 'Bench Marking', set by agencies slightly removed from direct political control. This satisfies the State's desire for properly audited courses, and the Universities find it useful for marketing, of course. Most academics have reconciled themselves to this, in terms of teaching their discipline.
In terms of research, the RAE [the Research Assessment Exercise], is a huge audit of research that is done in every university department. The last one was 2008, it was submitted at the end of 2007 and covered 7 years of research from 2001 to 2007. In taking part in it we show that we lost a battle begun in the 1980s. When the Conservatives first tried to introduce it in the 1980s they wanted to plough the vast majority of research funding into a few core universities. The academics said that this was unfair and unreasonable, and the conservatives introduced a very different process, which did not plough all the money into a few core universities. However, when New Labour came to power they took the idea up and ran with it. This made it more difficult for academics to resist because many academics tended to think that a Labour government is better than a Conservative government. So in effect what you are getting now is a consolidation of what the Tories wanted to do in the mid-1980s. In other words it is another moment in which the Labour Government achieved what the Tories could only try to achieve; another example of Blair as the incarnation of Thatcher, New Labour as neo-liberalism.
The extent to which we lost that battle is seen by the way that young academics now are just nurtured into the system; for them it is part of their being. When they do their PhD they realise they have to do their publications and get research grants, they are immersed in that culture from the outset, to the extent that it has become self-perpetuating.
Natalie Wulfing: I am part of a group of Lacanian psychoanalysts who are associated with a large school in Paris, with links to Europe and across the world. In France there is a renewed push to regulate via quasi-scientific proof - reduced to numbers and figures and excluding human interaction. Our colleagues want to learn from the UK experience, where this is much more advanced.
In our UK national health system, for instance, we now see the signifier 'Risk' and risk aversion being stuck onto this regulatory movement, so when we saw the title of your forthcoming book we thought it was fitting and sounded interesting. Perhaps you could start by telling us what it is about?
MN: Risk and Security are obviously intimately connected but Security is more immediately political. The literature on Risk is largely from a mundane sociological position, and ultimately is not very interesting. Beck, Baumann, for example, are just talking about ontological insecurities. 'Security' itself is much more of a core political concept.
My book stems from an earlier one I wrote in 2000 on the idea of Police, called The Fabrication of Social Order. In that book I picked up on the centrality of security and insecurity to the idea of police, arguing that it is the logic of insecurity which underpins the police concept. But there has been a massive proliferation of talk about security since then, partly because of the attack on the World Trade Centre but also partly because much of the academic Left has focused on the idea of security. In doing so they have sought to expand the idea of security and, it seems to me, to use it to rethink collective politics. Everything could be attached to it: environment, gender, education, food… You name it, and it can be a security issue: 'x'-security. My instinct was this definitely wasn't the way to go. What I really wanted to do instead was to ask: what happens if we try to think politics outside or beyond security? What does that do? What I try and do in the book is to say that the idea of security is related to a concern for order, but that this 'concern' really opens the door for a stress on the power of the State on the one hand and Capital on the other. So the worst way to try and challenge State and Capital is through the idea of security, since this is their idea. Instead of expanding security, then, we need to critique it. And this really takes us in one direction: 'What happens if we think politics without security?'
NW: And can we?
MN: One instinctively thinks that security is a good thing, and in the banal sense - in an obvious sense - it seems it. However, if we start thinking 'what does it mean?' it quickly unravels. It unravels both at the political level and at the personal level. Within security there are all sorts of insecurities; the logic of security presupposes insecurity. This is politically important because what it means is that once that step is made it becomes easy for the state to manufacture all kinds of insecurities in order to push through any new legislation. At that level, the argument is obvious. The question is: what do we do about those things?
Here is where I think the academic left has made a mistake in trying to simply expand security. My feeling is that it has done this as a way of trying to rethink collective politics. But any of those things people talk about in security terms - environmental security, gender security, and so on - can be articulated and defended without the language of security. Rather than attaching Security to gender or environment, it makes more sense to talk about these things in terms of human need. You can talk about the need not to be attacked in the street, or for the planet to survive, without invoking the language of security. The mistake that some have made is to mistake security for solidarity. This is what has happened to the Left over the decades: the traditional sense of solidarity has gone, and is being replaced by notions of security.
NW: Traditional Solidarity is gone, that is it.
MN: Yes, a collapse of solidarity has gone with the collapse of the Left. But it's worse than that, because on one hand, the State - ruling elites - have seen an opportunity in Security politics. Anything and everything is now an 'emergency' and questions of emergency are always regarded as matters of national security. In the last decade this has become clearer, where the state has essentially said 'We can fill this void with yet more security'; it is a political opportunity. On the other hand the academic Left has given up certain kinds of tradition which knew how to talk about human need and solidarity. There has been a real shift in collective politics.
NW: I think you call it liberal assumptions, somewhere.
MN: One of the things I try to do is to trace the history of Security in liberal thinking. It's easy to show that liberalisms' central category is security rather than liberty. Marx once made an incredibly astute comment. He was reflecting on the bourgeois rights of man and noted in passing that Security is the supreme concept of bourgeois society. I try to show how this is the case. He's absolutely right: if you look back at Bourgeois thought, liberty always gives way to security. Security has a long and very liberal history; that is where it belongs.
More recently, within the rise of neo-liberalism, it has helped shift politics to the Right. There's a lovely story in the run up to the 2005 election in the UK. The Labour Party put security at the centre of the agenda, and did so explicitly in order to 'win' the idea of security from the Right. One Labour Minister pointed out that traditionally the Right has security, but we, by which he meant the Left, have equality. But now, he said, we have to have both. But to do this they just followed the line of the Right - that security is the most fundamental value.
So, I'm suggesting we need to try articulating a different political language. This was one of the things Marx was trying to do: think beyond the horizon of bourgeois thought. Which means thinking beyond the narrow horizon of security.
NW: A preliminary step. How do you see the poverty of communal life and collective action in Britain? Do you go as far as articulating the language of security with this kind of fallout?
MN: One of the reasons it's so popular is it doesn't take much for a State to point to a whole range of insecurities and then to say that we, the State, must act. More interesting, more problematic, is that it doesn't take much for the State to fabricate insecurities. Once that process takes place, it has a momentum of its own. There's an interesting document produced by MI5 in 2004 and reissued in 2005 about how universities and large organisations can help in the 'war on terror'. One piece of advice was to trim the bushes and small trees around entrances. Think about what that does. No terrorist attack has ever happened by a terrorist jumping out from behind a tree near an entrance to a building or planting a bomb there. My university actually did send an email around after this document arrived, and now the bushes at the doorways are all trimmed back! But think: how many times do people go in and out of their work or university building in a day? Now, every time they go through a door they are supposed to feel secure or insecure. So, something as mundane as going for a sandwich becomes a question of security - or reminds people of their 'insecurity'. The other piece of advice was that everything should have a place and should be kept in that place. Once again we have the relation between order and security. But stop for a moment and ask: if something is out of place is it really a security issue? Is 'mess' a terrorist issue? This kind of fabrication is difficult to resist, especially when the State claims knowledge of the real extent of our vulnerability. I think partly we just need to point to the absurdities. For example, do you remember the Tanks that were situated at Heathrow airport when we a terrorist threat was feared? No one has ever stopped a terrorist attack with a tank. They are designed for battle fields, or controlling people on the street. So deploying them on the runway was a fabrication. Maybe one thing we should do is just point to the absurdity, the stupidity of these things.
NW: And how did we get here, on what ground is this language built?
MN: It suits certain powers - State, Capital - to make people think they are insecure. Marketing insecurity sells all sorts of commodities. Capital relies on insecurity - it is driven by it. Its foundation is the system of private property: this is integral to capitalism as a system. But Capital also presents itself as the solution to this problem: because one solution is the consumption of more and more commodities, commodities presented as providing security.
Historically the Left also made a big mistake here. In the 1930s there was a noticeable shift where people on the Left started saying that the problem of capital is the problem of insecurity. The insecurity that comes with illness, unemployment, old age. The outcome of this fear was a new system, the system of Social Security. But it was a system of social security in which what was ultimately 'secured' was the 'social' itself - the system of Capital. The mistake of the Left was to start seeing the problem of Capital as one of insecurity, whereas the problem of Capital is exploitation and alienation.
But, well, there's a melancholy dimension to this argument. I realise there is no way out of this logic of security now, for us. But we have to make a stab at saying what if, what if we start not thinking of security? What if we start thinking beyond security? We are often told that security is a gift of the State; I like to suggest that maybe we need to return the gift. This is a reference to a song by The Gang of Four. The Gang of Four was a punk band from the late 1970s. Their song 'Return the Gift' is about the winner of a TV competition, in which they win lots of consumer goods. They think that winning will liberate them from the system, free them from work. But the trick in the song is that they realise there is no liberation. Winning just immerses them even more into consumption, the world of commodities. They become trapped within it. I'm suggesting that although we should try and return the gift of security, we remain trapped. There's no way out - or at least it feels like there's no way out of the system of State and Capital. Resistance is difficult.
NW: It seems to me that resistance in Britain comes more often than not from the right, which is surprising. I am thinking of movements such as the defenders of Fox hunting or the petrol price protesters.
MN: One way to think about it, to shift it slightly, is to ask 'what would a mass mobilisation in the name of security look like?' I would say that it would look more like fascism than anything else. This tells you something of what the politics of security is about.
NW: We live in totalitarian times.
Totalitarianism is a problematic term, even more problematic than fascism. Interestingly, the term was driven by the politics of security. As soon as it was clear that fascism had been dealt with, there was only one thing that could go under the Totalitarian label - and that was communism. This took place within the framework of 'national security' after World War II. Moreover, all of those new academics that started research on 'totalitarianism' in the post-war period were largely funded by the CIA. There's a whole range of concepts that emerge in American academia, from 1947 onwards that were funded and pushed by security elites. Modernisation and development studies, communication studies, the discipline of international studies, were all driven by the national security state in America. Academics said 'give us the money we'll do the research' and it's unbelievable, huge. Between 1947 and 1971 the CIA funded around about 1000 academic books. That's roughly a book a week: an academic book a week published and funded by the CIA.
Part of this work was on the nature of 'totalitarianism'. But categorising States as 'totalitarian' is a very liberal manoeuvre, straight out of Cold War political science. It implies that we can distinguish between the Liberal Democratic States and 'Totalitarian' States which don't follow the rule of law or parliamentary procedure. You say 'we live in totalitarian times'. Well, it's more complicated than that and relates to the reactionary moment within liberal democracy. It also goes back to Security politics because security is what is put forward as the grounds for not following proper parliamentary procedures within liberalism. Whenever a liberal democracy says that we have to suspend democratic procedures, it is because of 'security'. We need to identify these moments within liberal democracies in which reactionary shifts occur and be aware of the possibility of fascism emerging from within them. Fascism doesn't come from outside, but emerges from within, and if it is to come to the fore again it will be in the circuit between security and emergency, between emergency powers and the 'security situation'. This circuit creates a moment for a shift to the Right, a fascist mobilisation. I don't think it helps to say we live in a fascist regime, but it does help to ask what is it that liberal democracies do when they abandon constitutional procedures, because it is always done on the grounds of security.
And if we don't accept the logic of security, then it is easier for us to say No to that suspension of liberties, to that suspension of rights.
Janet Low Blog