“When you have a power that is designed to be unaccountable and has been unaccountable for so damn long, the reforms that stick to it just make it stronger and more efficient as they cover it in a veneer of legitimacy,” says author Brendan McQuade. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with abolitionist criminology professor and activist Brendan McQuade about how securitization has shaped popular ideas about what it means to be free, and how we can build something better.
Music by Son Monarcas and Amaranth Cove
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot of this show about building the relationships and analysis we need to create movements that can win. Well, today, we are really going to nerd out. Because in addition to talking about the abolition of prisons, we are going to talk about the abolition of security. Some of our listeners are probably nodding, and some are probably wondering what I’m smoking, but yes, we are going to talk about the anti-security critique, Karl Marx, mutual aid and more. But I think we’re ready for this, because as my friend Ruth Wilson Gilmore recently said, “Activists throughout the history of struggle have been nerds.” My guest Brendan McQuade and I definitely fall within that proud tradition, so here we go.
As regular listeners know, I am a prison-industrial complex abolitionist, so for me, winning means building a world where there would be no perceived need for the prison system. People’s needs would be met, from health care to food, housing, education and conflict resolution. When harms occurred, we would have developed responses that are not rooted in punishment. And of course, the monstrosity that is the prison system would no longer exist. But the carceral state is bigger than the prison system. So in addition to cages, what would we have to eliminate in order to end the system of control that punitively monitors people’s lives and manages their movements? Surveillance and control, as extensions of state power, are ever-growing in our health care system, schools, workplaces, in the family regulation system (often referred to as the “child welfare system”), and other areas of our lives as well. These manifestations of policing are tentacles of the prison industrial complex tightening to maintain order in an unstable world, devoid of safety nets. Securitization, as exercised by modern states, creates systems of exclusion, containment and disposal. These efforts supposedly reduce insecurity – at least for protected member groups, like U.S. citizens. But whose interests and well-being are really being protected by measures defined as “security”?
I know many of us have been conditioned to think of “security” as a good thing. When I organize marches and actions, we use the word “security” to describe our collective safety planning efforts, because we have come to understand security as the creation of safety, organized in response to potential threats. But what about when the word “security” is used to describe the maintenance of conditions that ensure suffering? And what if the maintenance of that kind of “security” is destroying the world?
My friend Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and the author of Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Surveillance. Brendan was the first person to introduce me to the concept of anti-security and its relationship to abolition, and I asked him if he could try to break that idea down for our audience a bit.
Brendan McQuade: Anti-security is a collective project of critique. We’re a small group, mostly of academics in the U.K., Canada, U.S., and Turkey. And we’re trying to understand and write about security without becoming part of security. So when we talk about security, we usually talk about it as if it’s an unambiguous good. Who doesn’t want to be secure? How could anyone possibly have a problem with the idea of security? But the problem isn’t so much what security promises, namely safety, but how it packages that promise. “Security” communicates an entire world view. In liberal theory, which forms most of the apparent common sense in contemporary politics, liberty, security and property are linked concepts. Everything revolves around the idea of the self-contained and property owning individual, which is often simply asserted as human nature.
So think of foundational works of Western political thought by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke or Adam Smith. All of them start with the premise that humans are individual. We are born alone, we die alone. And in this conception, we can only be free if we’re liberated from the demands of others. We can only be free if we’re separate from them. We can only meaningfully be individuals if we own property. And we can only maintain our property if we’re secure against the threats of others. So when we talk about security, we accept the premise that we are alone in a cruel world and already and always at war with each other. Individuals and households, peoples and nations are always at odds. That’s just what it is to be human.
Of course, that’s a lie, a fabrication. As Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist and naturalist argued over 100 years ago, mutual aid is a factor in human evolution. We’re social creatures and as such, we’re collaborative, we’re not alone. In fact, if you consider the grand sweep of human history, the idea of an individual that owns property is the exception. The rule is communal living on commonly held land. So let’s think about those three classic European thinkers I mentioned a minute ago, Hobbes, Locke and Smith. What they were describing was not human nature, but the nature of humans in a particular moment of history. They were describing an emergent order. They were describing capitalism.
So capitalism begins with a separation of people from the land and people from each other. The bourgeoisie needs free and right-less proletariat to work for a wage, not peasant communities connected to the land and with customary rights to subsist upon it. Capitalism also individualizes skills and knowledge, and turns them both into property. Those peasant communities shared, reproduced and passed on knowledge about their environment and the skills needed to live within it. Capitalism not only takes control over the organization of work, it revolutionizes it. It makes it as efficient and profitable as possible and makes people as powerless and interchangeable as possible.
So to put it crudely, there’s a progressive de-skilling. The craft of peasants and artisans is broken up into the simplest tasks, technology replaces humans in the name of efficiency, and different forms of work are transformed from communal practices into alienated drudgery that workers have little to no control over. As this process unfolds, the basic needs of the population are increasingly separated from their capacity to provide for them. So in previous modes of organizing human life, basic needs were usually met by the people themselves in some kind of communally organized subsistence economy.
Under capitalism, however, all the accoutrements of life from the basic necessities of survival to the most silly and vulgar consumer thing are provisioned to the population through the market, through commodity exchange or by the state through social policy. What this means is that capitalism is an order of relentless change. Capitalism is a generalized order of insecurity that requires a politics of security. So here we return to that connection between a particular conception of liberty, understood as individual freedom from others, the right to own property, and the need for security.
This is why Marx wrote in 1843 that security is the supreme concept of bourgeois society. The concept of police, expressing the fact that the whole of society exists only in order to guarantee to each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property. So this line comes from a piece called “On the Jewish Question” where Marx was responding to claims being made in Germany that Jews had to renounce their Jewishness, become German and fight with Germans in order to gain political rights. Marx’s response to this was that the freedom won by gaining recognition from the state is an unreal universality. Jews can’t simply renounce their Jewishness. We can’t volunteer away history. These differences will persist and will be used to discriminate against each other.
So this argument should be very familiar to people on the left. Okay, Black people have the right to vote in the U.S., but that didn’t end racism because racism persists in the accumulated power differences between Black people and white people. The right to vote and anti-discrimination laws don’t erase the racial wealth gap. The right to vote on paper is an unreal universality. It exists as a formal right but it doesn’t mean that Black and white people are really substantively equal in their life chances and choices.
So the point about security as the supreme concept of bourgeoisie society takes this argument one step further. It’s not just that legal recognition by the state, political emancipation from masters is not freedom. This recognition actually deepens capital’s control over our lives. So again, the whole of society exists only in order to guarantee to each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights, his property. Freedom then is the freedom to compete in the market, to accumulate property, and importantly, to call on the state and its violence to keep that property secure.
So that’s the brief intellectual history of security as it’s been defined since what we refer to as the enlightenment. It’s important because when we hear security invoked today, we’re not hearing what we think we’re hearing. The state will not protect you because your life has inherent value. The state will protect you if you can control enough property to really count.
KH: In our conversations, Brendan introduced me to a document called Anti-Security: A Declaration. It was written in 2010 by Mark Neocleous and George Rigakos. The document begins with the words:
The purpose of this project, put simply, is to show that security is an illusion that has forgotten it is an illusion. Less simply, that security is a dangerous illusion. Why ‘dangerous’? Because it has come to act as a blockage on politics: The more we succumb to the discourse of security, the less we can say about exploitation and alienation; the more we talk about security, the less we talk about the material foundations of emancipation; the more we come to share in the fetish of security, the more we become alienated from one another and the more we become complicit in the exercise of police power.
As someone who has spent long hours studying the trappings of security in the United States, from the Shotspotter microphones in my city to the high-tech hunting grounds of the southern border, those words resonate deeply with me. The idea that security is a fetish that we participate in may be unsettling, but to me, it feels undeniable. Everyday, people in the U.S. accept the conditions that generate violence as inevitable, while fixating on responses to violence that serve next to no purpose. Our government has de-legitimized investments in the common good, while pouring seemingly infinite amounts of money into the military and police without question. In a society that has slashed its social safety nets, with no plan of reconstructing them, we are told more surveillance and control will stabilize our situation. When those interventions fail to generate safety, we are told deeper investments in surveillance and control are needed. Consequently, many people, even those negatively impacted by this cycle, begin to think in these terms, demanding more police surveillance. The creation of a different social context, in which our own insecurity is not maintained by the state, by way of the maintenance of inequality, is almost unimaginable to most people. So they cry out for surveillance, control and violence to repair their situation. It’s a failing approach, and we all bear witness to that, but in most people’s minds, there is no alternative.
As Neocleous and Rigakos wrote:
Security colonizes and de-radicalizes discourse: hunger to food security; imperialism to energy security; globalization to supply chain security; welfare to social security; personal safety to private security. Security makes bourgeois all that is inherently communal. It alienates us from solutions that are naturally social and forces us to speak the language of state rationality, corporate interest and individual egoism. Instead of sharing, we hoard. Instead of helping we build dependencies. Instead of feeding others we let them starve… all in the name of security.
So how did we get here? To understand that, we need to talk about the evolution of policing.
BM: Most accounts of police begin in the 19th century with the first uniformed public police departments, but the word has a longer and incredibly revealing history. The term police was first used in 15th-century Europe. At this time, police meant what we’d now call social policy. It encompassed welfare, education, urban planning, workforce development, and of course, policing. This is the original expanded concept of police that Marx mentioned in “On the Jewish Question.” This is what’s sometimes called the “older police science.” It’s a pre-disciplinary conversation, so this is before social science was a thing, and it was a conversation among statesmen, jurists, moral philosophers and proto political economists. Their main concern was order in prosperity in the broadest sense.
So my friends and I in the Anti-Security Collective — we’ve returned to this original and expanded concept of police in an effort to grasp the expansive set of institutions through which policing takes place. Policing is not just law enforcement, it’s order maintenance in the broadest sense. The work of this order maintenance cuts across the public and private. The state does it; private actors do it as well. There’s also something important about the moment when policing emerged. I mentioned the term was first used in the 15th century. This was the beginning of what historians called the “early modern period.” This was an extended epic of systems transition when the modern order of things was still being consolidated and older ways of living were still being systematically destroyed.
The plebs and the proles and the working class in the making were entangled in both circuits of capital accumulation and the vestiges of pre-capitalist’s economy centered on the commons. The idea of police emerged to organize the violent intervention of the state to transform the commons into private property, dispossess and uproot the people from the land, and rebuild social order through the market. Police power is thus the patriarchal discretion of the head of household applied to the problems of the city or polis, the Greek word for city and root of both police and policy. So while the meaning of the word police has changed over the centuries, the basic nature of police power has not. The police are not here to protect you. They’re here to protect the order of private property and the continued accumulation of private wealth.
So the essence of police power is not violence but discretion, the ability to decide whether to use violence in any conceivable situation. So consider the most basic police interaction: the stop. The reasons for it have never been clear. Walking too fast, walking too slowly, being stationary are all grounds for a stop and have always been used unfairly and unequally. The courts have always refused to define discretion because to define discretion would be to limit discretion. So this isn’t just an individual matter; it’s institutional. The courts won’t tell police they can’t drop a bomb on a house as they did in Philadelphia in 1985, or use a robot to kill an active shooter with a bomb as they did in Dallas in 2016, or use lethal force against an autistic man having a mental health crisis as they did in Augusta, Maine, in October 2021. The courts won’t tell police ahead of time what is reasonable or necessary since all situations are always and forever unpredictable.
So what is police? Discretion, or the expression of state power as an executive prerogative to act as seen fit. The discretionary nature of police power means that police do not enforce the law and are not accountable to it. Police handle the law after the fact to justify the way they decided to restore order. So law is based on a liberal conception of society composed of free, self-governing individuals. The exercise of state power is legitimated through the rule of law which respects individual rights. Police power, however, is based on a classic conception of society as a household and the state as the master. The defining characteristics of police power is the discretionary and virtually unlimited power of the householder over his household. Police then don’t deal with law; they deal with threats.
The law will never hold police accountable because the police are not meant to be accountable to the law or enforce the law. Police is the patriarchal power to manage people and things in the name of good order. So this is why abolition is the only logical response to the police. When you have a power that is designed to be unaccountable and has been unaccountable for so damn long, the reforms that stick to it just make it stronger and more efficient as they cover it in a veneer of legitimacy.
KH: In Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, Truthout’s editor-in-chief Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law describe the many ways prison reforms have further extended the surveillance and control of the carceral state, exerting power over targeted communities within the medical system, public schools, their neighborhoods, and within their own homes. As Maya and Victoria write, “Some people are surveilled from birth — whether the eye that’s on them is that of the police, child protective services, a parent’s parole officer, or state welfare agencies.”
This landscape means that some people live their entire lives navigating dragnets of the carceral state. The Anti-Security Collective calls the deeper set of relations at the core of those dragnets the security capital nexus.
BM: So there’s a relationship between capitalist economies, which are premised on infinite and endless growth, and thus infinite and endless change. There’s a connection between that and the varied apparatuses of security that are used to administer this order, to keep it creaking along, to keep it from pulling itself apart. And I think one of the basic things that the state does is it subsumes all conflict within it. It turns all forms of resistance into something that can expand and enliven and relegitimize state power. The Democrats are in office and we see that all over, the selective appropriation of radical language and radical critiques to on the one hand mollify descent and on the other hand relegitimize the system.
So I think when we reject security, we reject this idea that the state is going to help us and we start thinking about what we can do to not just help ourselves but to transform the state and transform the work of the state from administering poverty and assuring that we live atomized lives apart and transforming it into a communal anti-state so to speak where the separation between people’s needs and their capacity to meet them is eliminated and people have the freedom to take control of their lives in the most basic way.
KH: Prison abolitionists have a long history of organizing projects to create safety in their communities without the intervention of the carceral state. The Creative Interventions Toolkit, for example, was the product of a years-long effort, in which abolitionists worked with people who were facing interpersonal violence, to create a new vision for violence intervention. As an organization, Creative Interventions sought to “strengthen community-based systems to resist
violence in all of its forms.” As the group wrote in the toolkit: “For CI, the community-based approach is one in which everyday people such as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, members of community organizations such as faith institutions, civic organizations or businesses are the people who take action to intervene in violence.”
Many more examples of community-based safety strategies can be found in One Million Experiments, which is a virtual zine project co-organized by Project NIA and Interrupting Criminalization. Readers can use the project’s website to explore “snapshots of community-based safety strategies that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe.” In fact, I highly recommend checking out the One Million Experiments podcast, which is a collaboration between AirGo and Interrupting Criminalization that really explores the ideas behind the project and some of the efforts that it uplifts.
We’ve also talked about Get In Formation: A Community Safety Toolkit on this podcast, which is a resource from Vision Change Win that helps organizers and activists with safety planning for protests and much more. Its authors refer to that work as security, but if we can hold that contradiction for a moment, remembering that language is a grappling process, rather than a finite set of conclusions, I would ask you to grapple with me a bit further. Because Brendan has a way of referring to these kinds of efforts, and to mutual aid more generally, that I find fascinating. He describes these projects as “commoning against security.”
BM: Abolition is closing the prisons and defunding the police, but it’s also something bigger. It’s creating different institutions to manage the problems that we now leave to the police and prisons. And I think the way we build those different institutions is by commoning against security, by coming together to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other, to care for each other, to build systems to care for each other that don’t rely on the intervention of the state, whether through the armed police or the soft social police, for the state to come in and fix the problem for us or make the problem go somewhere else and disappear and preserve our right to live atomized lives apart.
And I think the one thing I would say is, like, sometimes when you talk about abolition, it’s viewed as an extremist position. Like it’s just an off the wall position. But I can think of nothing more extreme than accepting the routine violence and now under COVID, like just mass death that is normal. In my perspective, abolition is not an extreme position, it’s an incredibly sensible one and it’s one that starts with incredibly practical things and opens up to systems transition. What do I mean by this? If we think about police abolition, we start with the obvious defund the police, reduce police budgets by 50 to 80 percent, narrow the mission of police departments to the investigation of reported crimes, create non-police alternatives for so-called problems of public order connected to things like drug use and mental health.
But then from there, it’s what I was talking about as commoning against security, work to recreate the commons and work towards a new order based on cooperation not competition, based on meeting human needs and not advancing the endless and infinite accumulation of private wealth. So I think this begins with a certain social democratic common sense, a universal right to housing, health care, livelihood, unemployment, but it doesn’t end there. Our mutual friend, Mariame Kaba, often says that defunding police is the floor. And to this, I will add that the ceiling is communism. I don’t mean 20th-century state socialism, but I mean the communism of the commons. So a world of decentralized communal life where we all work together to care for each other.
KH: I know we have wandered pretty far into abolitionist nerd territory, so for those who are not aware: Many prison abolitionists are socialists, some are communists, some are anarchists, and some don’t identify as any of those things. We all share the goal of eliminating systems of social disposal and annihilation, which means ending capitalism. We have a lot of friendly disagreements about how to do that. But I have learned a lot from abolitionists who hold all of those ideological perspectives, so I think it’s important for us to explore these ideas together. Because I don’t think anyone among us is carrying around a universal formula for justice-making in an era of collapse.
But circling back to the matter at hand, something about that phrase “commoning against security” really resonated with me. Because I think it captures something about the work that many of us are doing, and also, the moment and context in which we’re doing it. We are isolated in so many ways, and our experiences of one another are so often reduced to the commercial. When we create new social pathways, reclaim space, and extend aid to one another, we are organizing life-giving projects, but we are also acting against disposability. We are acting against our atomization and isolation. We are overriding the impulses that individualism has ingrained in us and recommitting ourselves to compassion in a cynical era. In the face of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment, we are embracing what Monica Cosby has called a “refusal to abandon.” I believe in that work.
In his book Pacifying the Homeland, Brendan wrote, “While security discourses rest on assumption of risk and mutual hostility (a war against all, waged among both individuals and nations), the critique of security invites us to consider what relations produce these conflicts and how they have been managed.”
I hope we will all accept that invitation, because I think it’s an important one. We have the power to generate modes of safety and care within our communities, and to work together to address root causes of harm. Many of us have been turned against one another, very effectively at a time when we need each other the most. There are many disasters on the horizon, politically and environmentally, and I think “commoning against security” is the kind of energy we are going to need in these times. I also hope you all will check out One Million Experiments, the Critical Interventions Toolkit and other resources that we will be including in the show notes on our website. These projects are a great source of inspiration, and you just might discover something that you want to join or create in your own community. And don’t forget to check out Brendan’s book Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision. Trust me, it’s an essential resource.
I want to thank Brendan for joining me today, and I would like to thank all of our listeners for nerding out with us about abolition and anti-security. Please take care of yourselves this week, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision by Brendan McQuade
- Ant-Security: A Declaration
- Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law
- Understanding E-Carceration: A Book Launch (featuring James Kilgore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore)
- You can explore snapshots of community-based safety strategies that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe at One Million Experiments.
- You can check out the One Million Experiments podcast here.
- You can find the Creative Interventions Toolkit here.
- Whose Security Is It Anyway? is a toolkit created by Project NIA that shares strategies of resistance to the increased securitization of non-profit spaces.
The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).
For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.
The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.
Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.