What size, the security state? – 13 October 2011

N.b. I’ve given myself a slender 500-800 words on this topic. Deliberately restricted by way of self-discipline. Write shorter, write better?

Also before starting: I wanted to give a plug to a ‘Linkedin’ group. If you’re on Linkedin and are interested in intelligence and security, please search for “(Secret) Intelligence Studies and Research Group”. 

I think there are two plausible answers for this question, amongst a sea of possibilities. I think the plausible variants cluster around preserving a steady-state, and a second which is expansionist in securing influence and rolling back threats. This is not the difference between a passive and an aggressive stance, because to stave off threats even the steady-state variant has to be aggressive too.

But I want to approach this question from a micro-level human security stance, and consciously skirt a direct answer until the end of this short essay. What does the size of the security state do for me, the ordinary voter in middle England? The validity of this approach is partly its novelty, literatures tend to focus on other concerns, and the reality of the separation from political elites (witness my trip to Westminster yesterday) from the realities of daily British life could not be starker.

The provision of security to the individual can be divided into a misapplied version of Zizek’s (2006) ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ violence dichotomy. Subjective violence being the experience of being mugged or facing terrorist violence, for example, whilst objective violence is the conditioning fear of authority, ‘the violence inherent in the system’, as I’m sure he didn’t say. Both forms of violence are important to the individual, with subjective violence being the one they would focus on when asked. Intelligence-led policing has done little to the clear up of offences against the person (and the fear of such crimes), certainly in inner-cities, where the fracture of authority from gangs of youths  renders it impotent and policing is exclusively reactive. For those who fall foul (randomly or by design) to organised criminal activity (and here we might be talking drugs, prostitution, fake goods, etc) then there are clearer dovetails into policing and intelligence activities. Schools of thought that prevail in these areas look to respite in economic growth (be it Keynesian or trickle-down) and to the punitive-rehabilitative justice systems. In terms of subjective violence, therefore, for the majority of middle England the real-world impacts of the security state is slight, something more likely to be encountered watching the news, attending the cinema or watching BBC drama output. It is within the ‘objective’ violence sphere that I would like to argue that security state is important to the ordinary middle-Englander.

Objective violence is steady-state violence. It is the protection of key institutions and key people within those institutions. It is the guardian of confidence and self-assurance in society; the biggest problem during the 2011 riots was the erosion of confidence in mainstream society. Put more simply, ‘the government and authorities have lost control of the streets’. But objective violence is also about protecting an economic way of life. Objective violence is pro-growth and reviles attempts to rip off intellectual property (proceeds from fake goods have also been used to fund terrorism, of course), and to do harm to legal business activities (which is why anti-arms trade and environmental protestors receive so much attention). The protection of the means of internationally significant wealth creation is important for market sentiment and thus the number of jobs being created and pension fund performance, the country’s international standing and as a place where international businesses would like to do business: the first and last of these factors being important to the middle Englander.


Objective and subjective violence has dovetailed with the issue of counterterrorism/counter-radicalisation. Middle England’s fear is both the threat of subjective violence (7/7 or its equivalent) but also the threat from a shift in its core values, societal cohesion, an understanding of what it is to be British etc etc. And it has been the ‘contest’ stream which has sought to contain, rebut and refute extremist political ideologies and language that the dovetailing of subjective and objective violence occurs. The small ‘l’ liberal in me thinks that one should allow extremists to try and find a vocal  (but never violent)platform because the stupidity of their views will always fail in the ideas marketplace. But the violence of the 2005 attacks (for example) linked to a form of politico-religious ideology obviously means that it is very difficult to find a compelling argument against any efforts to curtail the propagation of such an ideology, and therefore hopefully roll-back threats from violent terrorism. For a nation, though, the post 2005 measures (and perhaps even those of the 70s and 80s in the reds scares and miners strikes) and the extent to which we interact with each other can be monitored and stored (be it by government or private agencies) means that politically and ideationally middle England has clustered, much as the parties have clustered, into a floating form of Social and Christian democrat position.

It is useful to understand the security state’s work in the context of how it advances the interests of middle England (Scotland and Wales), an electoral cleavage which currently thinks of itself as under the cosh. And it is from this perspective that we can see the majority of its work is hidden – the protection of core political, and economic function goes on largely unnoticed by the majority of the population and it is in the mediation of difference (be it religious or political difference, those which fall outside of the mainstream) that the ordinary population should keep a wary eye on the security state, because a reclassification of what is ‘normal’ could capture the unsuspecting. The appropriateness of size is related to function, and the appropriateness of function is related to political choice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: