Security and the Police of Souls: An Interview with Mark Neocleous, Part II

Read Part I here.

Nicholas: Article Twenty-four in “Fundamentals of Pacification Theory” mentions “Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiatives” and the state’s urging citizens to partake in “shared responsibility” (i.e. If You See Something, Say Something neighborhood watch programs). As you write, these initiatives “inform and empower a broader range of people and institutions to become part of the architecture of security” and serve as “intelligencers of the modern world.” Relatedly, these programs have been challenged by the Skid Row-based Stop LAPD Spying Coalition in Los Angeles, amongst others, who instead frame them as part of the security state’s “architecture of surveillance.” Would you explicate upon the role surveillance and intelligence play with regards to security?

Mark: The choice of the term ‘surveillance’ is yours. I don’t use it in that Article in the Chapter. Indeed, I tend not to use it very much at all. My argument is about security, not surveillance, and I tend to avoid using the term where I can.

Nicholas: Why?

Mark: Because it would begin to look like too much like it’s trying to be part of surveillance studies, when in fact it is pitched at a large and critical distance from surveillance studies.

Nicholas: Can I push you to say a little bit more about that?

Mark: The problem with the concept of surveillance, and thus in a sense the big problem with surveillance studies, is that the concept works in a catch‑all way. It’s taken for granted that the state wishes to engage in surveillance, and once surveillance is taken for granted there is not much more to be said or done other than to point to the fact of surveillance. This means in turn that any new technology, any new policy, any new institution can be read as part and parcel of the process of surveillance. As a consequence, the concept of ‘surveillance’ ends up explaining not very much at all, and no meaningful analysis ever really emerges. This produces what is, for me at least, a major incoherence at the heart of surveillance studies. What this means is that the extensive empirical work that takes place in surveillance studies – some of which is very good indeed – fails to do little more than repeat the mantra ‘surveillance’, in a kind of desperate attempt to find yet more evidence of surveillance, again and again.

Have you noticed that one never gets the articulation of a theory of surveillance within surveillance studies? Look at the titles of the books in the field: Surveillance Studies: An Overview, Surveillance Studies: A Reader, Surveillance Studies: A Handbook, and Surveillance Studies: Monitoring Everyday Life. And then one gets a whole host of ‘Surveillance and x’-type books: Surveillance and Space, Surveillance and Film, Surveillance and Security, and so on. Is there a book called, say, Surveillance: A General Theory? Or Theory of Surveillance? My point is that ‘surveillance’ is in many ways a concept in search of a theory. What is that theory? Well, the first thing we know for sure is that Marxism is certainly not that theory and Marxism should certainly never aspire to be it. It is not at all clear what role the concept of ‘surveillance’ might play in a materialist analysis. How do we integrate surveillance with a concept such as class, or state and civil society, or commodity, or exploitation, or primitive accumulation? Maybe the sociological background and orientation of ‘surveillance’ renders it essentially incompatible with materialist theory, and maybe that is also why so much of surveillance studies is inflected with a kind of muted Foucauldianism, despite the fact that the word ‘surveille’ in the title of the book that gets translated into English as Discipline and Punish is one of the most problematic terms in Foucault’s oeuvre. And I guess the muted Foucauldianism of surveillance studies might then also explain why it relies so heavily on the Panopticon and panopticism, terms which again do very little to enhance our understanding.

On a different point entirely, my phrase ‘architecture of security’ wasn’t intended as any kind of reference to Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s phrase ‘architecture of surveillance.’ Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s use of ‘surveillance’ makes perfect sense given what it is trying to capture under the term ‘architecture,’ namely a conglomeration of technologies and institutions and the way in which these act as a unity. It’s perfectly reasonable to use the term in this way. But it’s important not to try and structure a whole discourse or movement [solely] around it.

Nicholas: Even accepting your point about surveillance, my broader question still stands concerning intelligence and things such as suspicious activities reporting. In particular, I was interested in asking you about them as regards to security. Much of your work has argued that part of the challenge with lodging a critique against security not grounded in critical theory and a broad conception of police/police power, as well an understanding of (bourgeois) order, is that one ends up reinforcing security discourse by speaking in its terms (i.e. food security, housing security, social security, and so forth). The question I was building to concerns how the idea of pacification provides an entry point into lodging a critique against security (an anti-security) when, as you’ve argued, the latter effectively presents an analytical blockage for those seeking to challenge it? I was going to get to that question by first asking you about intelligence and actions such as the suspicious activities reporting.

Mark: The analytical blockage you mention is one way in which we can think about the difference between the critique of security and something like surveillance studies because the critique of security is a critique of something that we are told we all somehow desire. This means the critique has to consider not only the various practices carried out in the name of ‘security’ but also the fact that security has been presented to us as a fundamental human right ever since security appeared in the original declarations of rights in the eighteenth century. Rather than take this historical fact for granted, which would mean uncritically accepting that security is a human right and leaving it at that, the critique of security instead asks why security came to figure so strongly in those documents of the bourgeois revolutions. The critique of security asks after the connection between security and bourgeois thought in general. In other words, the key question to ask is why security is such a dominant concept in bourgeois ideology.

The overwhelming power of security as an idea and an ideal is precisely why it is an analytical blockage. This is why so-called ‘critical security studies’ within academia has held back from developing an actual critique of security – in a sense, critical security studies is part of the blockage. But security is also now becoming a blockage for much of the Left which is too quickly and easily adopting the language of security. Take one of the examples you mention, ‘food security.’ There are few needs more fundamental, more sensuous, and more sociable than food which is one reason why food has historically been an incredible mobilizing force from eighteenth century bread riots through to twentieth century salt marches. The radicalism of the Panthers’ attempt to actually ensure that children have a good breakfast lies in this very idea of food as a basic need from which other needs can then be satisfied and human capabilities realized – and I say this regardless of the important debates between the Panthers about whether this detracted from other kinds of action. So we have food as a fundamental human need and a powerful foundation for political action precisely because it is such a fundamental need but all of that is now being subsumed under the idea of ‘food security.’ This subsumption is its nullification. It kills the radical potential in an idea such as hunger. It subsumes food into an object of political administration by the security state. To put it another way, socialism isn’t about ‘food security,’ it’s about satisfying human needs. The same applies to all the other things that are now having ‘security’ attached to them. The point is, the more we succumb to the discourse of security, the less we talk about the things we really need to talk about. The more we talk about security, the less we say about exploitation. The more we talk about security, the less we talk about human needs. The more we talk about security, the less we talk about the actual material foundations of emancipation.

Thinking of this blockage is one way of thinking about developments such as the suspicious activities reporting. What is of interest to me about suspicious activity reporting is less its operation as, say, a form of surveillance, and much more the means by which it interpellates us as the agents of security to the point where we are expected to constantly think security and to experience ourselves and others in security terms. This is not something new but is inherent in the logic of security, and we can learn a lot by thinking about this history. Let me get at this in a roundabout way.

For reasons which I won’t go into now but which are to do with the book I am currently writing, I have been working my way through the transcripts of the hearing in 1954 of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer had been director of the Los Alamos project and a leading figure behind the development of the thermonuclear bomb – he is often described as the ‘father of the atomic bomb.’ At some point in the early 1950s, he gradually came under suspicion of being disloyal to the American state. This was a period in which millions of people had to undergo ‘loyalty tests’ to show that they were patriotic and nationalistic enough not to be considered a security risk. The loyalty tests that ensued were a kind of charade, part of the theatre of security. People were asked questions about their reading habits, sexual preferences, membership of clubs, choice of friends, and so on. This is what Oppenheimer faced, including questions about the fact that, for example, his brother’s wife was in the Communist Party and that he had been a member of the Consumers Union. The Hearing also called a series of witnesses to answer questions about Oppenheimer’s character and habits, and many of them declared that they didn’t think Oppenheimer was disloyal in any way. Regardless, the Hearing eventually decided that Oppenheimer was a security risk.

Now, we might note in passing that despite the ridiculously flimsy nature of the accusations against Oppenheimer and the fact that more than enough witnesses said they did not see him as disloyal, the fact that he was nonetheless still regarded as a security risk is a reminder that the security system will always find security risks if only to prove that the security system is working as a system. Once you have the concept of a witch, you are surely going to find some witches. But that’s not why I am mentioning the Hearings here. Rather, I want to pick up on a comment made by the Board at the Hearing, which is the Board’s suggestion that every person must in their own way be a ‘guardian of the national security’ – that’s their phrase – and that because everyone should be a guardian of national security it is right that the state ‘searches the soul’ of any individual whose loyalty is in question. This is such a lovely phrase that we should really think about what it means. One obvious interpretation, which was made at the time by The Economist, hardly the most radical of journals, is that this constitutes a claim to divine prescience beyond that attempted by totalitarian states. True as this might be, we can make a different point which is the idea that in the mind of the state, security should be in our very souls. Security should be part of the work of the good soul. Security is soul-craft. What might this mean? Well, it means that we can and should expect our souls to be constantly examined by a security state that seeks omniscience. It also means that in searching our souls the state might find something that we ourselves did not know was there. It also suggests that people should constantly search their own souls for any doubts about security. Security is not just a technology of the self, to use Foucault’s phrase, but part of the government of the soul.

Maybe this is where we need to situate the suspicious activities reporting for it is part of a world in which intelligence-gathering is to be conducted not just by the intelligence services but by the people themselves, on each other. This is how security comes to make each and every one of us a suspicious person. ‘If you see something, say something’ is a slogan which also needs to be understood as ‘if you do something someone will be watching you.’ On the one hand, this is how security separates us from our fellow human beings. Security doesn’t bind us to others – it alienates us. On the other hand, and as regards soul-craft, security is increasingly central to our own loss of self to the extent that in the name of security we might at some point have to start suspecting ourselves of having suspicious thoughts, desires, or intentions. And what then should we do? Turn ourselves in, of course. Security demands it. And, to go back to the discussion from just a moment ago, this seems to me to be a more powerful, more pressing and far more troubling idea than simply labeling it surveillance.

Read the full interview in the Anti-Security Issue of The Socialist.





Nicholas Walrath

is an independent researcher who examines issues revolving around policing, police power/war power, security, the political imagination and surveillance.

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