On the Militarisation of Everyday Life

By Hamish Robertson


We live in world that increasingly applies military solutions to problems ranging from local ‘threats’ to the geopolitical disruptions as the norm. Across the political spectrum there is an increasing acceptance of the belief that military strategies provide solutions to complex problems. Those who protest this vision of the world gain limited traction. Such is the scope of this view of the world and so pervasive its effects that we have reached a state that can be described as the militarisation of everyday life. Everywhere we look we can see states, peoples and splinter groups committed to the idea that an adequate military strategy, mainstream or insurgent, will resolve some particular problem of the day, decade or generation, resulting in the progressive encroachment of militarism on daily lives.

So where does this perception come from and why does it persist? What needs to change to ‘demilitarise’ everyday life? This article is a short introduction to and exploration of some of the issues at stake presented in two parts. This exploratory article is in three parts. This, the first, examines the enduring and progressive nature of the militarization of civil and civic life. In the second part, we consider the way in which the modern state co-opts us into its militarized strategies, supported by these historical processes and emerging regulatory and surveillance technologies. The third and final part considers the way in which militarisation becomes hegemonic through its normalization in society and in social institutions once seen as distinct from if not immune to such practices.

The nation state is a relatively recent and frequently unstable construction. It intersects with a variety of both historical and modern concepts of collective governance that are complicated by the fluidity and uncertainty of language, discourse and geography. Calls to ‘ethnic’ states or to ethnos, race, biology, language and history almost always involve a reductionist fiction of sharing enforced at ‘other’s’ expense. One of the features of the 20th century has been the continuing re-invention of the nation state as a singular entity bent on controlling diversity within its boundaries. This has frequently involved the creation of authority through a hyper focus of the threat ‘within’ or closely external to the territorial state.

After a century or more of this dichotomous strategy of inclusion by exclusion, it is possible to map the increased use of militarism as a mechanism for maintaining the fiction of the singular people in the singular nation state. Each new – or old but refurbished for our time – conflict raises the stakes in a discourse increasingly centred on the claimed ‘values’ of the state and the nation. So where does all of this come from and why is it so persistent? Our suggestion is to start with the Victorians, or at least the Victorian period, to reprise the art of governance that we have inherited and its instruments of authority and control.

Scouts, sports, schools and symbols – a very brief context to militarisation

In the 19th century the British state began to expand and extend its model of social conformity for the upper and upper-middle classes to the nation as a whole. Uniformity in education and the rise of quasi-military or military-inspired organisations like the Boy Scouts saw the spread of this concept of uniformity. Team sports expanded in this period, located at the meeting point of growing leisure time (Veblen anyone?) and activities that could keep the masses safely entertained in an orderly fashion and expressing solid bourgeois values.

In many boys’ schools, both traditional and emergent, cadet systems were introduced, and persist, in various settings but more particularly in many of the more ‘elite’ private schools. The association between masculinity, militarism and social conformity was a central feature of the period and one whose values are still present in part because educational systems (public or private) and the state are mutually constitutive. This issue has recently been taken up by the Society of Friends (Quakers) in the United Kingdom in what they have termed ‘the new tide of militarisation’ including the stifling of opposition to wars, and the promotion of the ‘unseen march’, that is the increasing militarisation of education.

The First World War saw the refining of a number of these strategies in ways that have proven remarkably persistent over the past century, especially in legitimising military responses to social and civil problems. Indeed, the nation state’s ability to effectively mobilise (i.e. both conscript and militarise) the whole population provided the opportunity for testing methods and processes that continue to illustrate how readily uniformity and indoctrination work together across a variety of social domains, particularly when enforced by the authority of the state. As well as the rise of propaganda and the criminalisation of pacifism and dissent, the end of WW1 saw the emergence of the communist-anticommunist trope of wars which characterised the remainder of the century. Identifying, locating and attacking ideology become a mainstay of some streams of contemporary geopolitics, political and religious discourse.

The ability to enforce conscription and to punish resistance to military service on the basis of personal or religious beliefs has proven extremely effective in managing forms of dissent in many contemporary societies. Even the concept of ‘patriotism’ has become intimately tied to support for militarism rather than the more specific notion of the defence of one’s own country. This has the dual aspect of making all war ‘patriotic’, even when deemed illegal by the United Nations, and resistance to any war as a potential or actual unpatriotic act. As a result failure to support the state’s military actions is becomes, by definition unpatriotic. With resistance stigmatized, passive acquiescence becomes a form of support.

Universal conscription also operated, and operates, as a strategy for taking young men, and more recently women, and acculturating them to systems that included a coercive hierarchical approach to both behavior and thought. These same systems stand largely outside civil processes when it comes to regulation and punishment, with their own institutional logics. After a century or so of this active process of militarism and miliatrisation, elements of both these experiences and logics been normalised by individuals in positions of power and influence, and in and through knowledge systems such as science and technology.

The symbolism of nation-building, especially in colonial contexts, has often relied on an extension of militarism to establish and validate the origins of the contemporary state. In Australia, for example, these various militaristic and symbolic threads have been linked through the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) mythology. More specifically, this mythos places the founding of the ‘modern’ Australian nation on the shores of Gallipoli in Turkey, in the midst of an extended, bloody and ultimately failed, military campaign.

The conflation of symbolic military with civil virtues continues to perpetuate and confuse exactly what a contemporary democratic state is meant to look like and how it is meant to function. The multiple historical exclusions (Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, GLBTI, and women to a large extent) continue to be largely absent in the reification processes of such mythologies. The symbolic birth of the Australian identity, crafted on the beaches of Gallipoli is represented exclusively in both ‘fact’ and fiction, by young, healthy, white, males. Female munitions workers, nurses or Black/Indigenous/minority (take your pick) soldiers are located in parentheses, that is bracketed or presented incidentally, and as incidental, to the main argument.

Even the elderly survivors of this and other conflicts are seen in the light of the specific time – specific moment even – of their military engagement. All lives before and after, are lost to the creation of claims to a collective identity based on experiences shared by a relative few for a relatively brief period of time. Representations of valor are tied to the actual and symbolic damage done to the embodiment of youth. Which is why, of course, honours are awarded to those soldiers who, if not killed ‘in the prime of their lives’ while ‘making the ultimate sacrifice’, are discharged by virtue of physical, but not mental, suffering and sacrifice. This almost impenetrable discourse has been refined for a century or more such that its lack of tangible meaning is made even more difficult to expose by the enormous affective symbolism attached to it.

A Wider Sociology of Militarisation?

It is one thing to have a sociological analysis of these historical elements of what we can call creeping militarisation but perhaps what we also need is an overarching sociological theorisation of the process itself, in addition to the study of its constituent parts. Obviously the process is not the same everywhere but there are similarities that exist across the neoliberal economies and their societies. Militarisation, which has long been transportable and adaptable, is becoming increasingly so under neoliberalism which posits itself not simply as an ideology but as of value to society as a self-evident truth. When the largest weapons traders in the world are at the centre of determining what wars are legitimate or not then clearly we have a need for analysis that goes beyond the atomistic claims of the nation state or that remark on the trouble with the internet being that terrorists can access information that they need to commit atrocities.

Perhaps attendant here is a need for a sociology of escalation? The state tells lies about how open and liberal it is, how tolerant and reasonable it is and yet the consequences of defending these claims progress in the opposite direction. We have been actively sold a discourse linking freedom, innovation and exploitation since the late 1970’s such that several cohorts have grown up with these conditions as the norm. The consequences seem to be escalating, with demands for more security, more uniforms, more regulatory powers, more privatisation and more barriers to designated ‘others’. This pattern requires of us a sociological analysis. Political theory may make a critique but is unlikely to offer either solutions or even alternatives under prevailing conditions.


This first part of my discussion is aimed very briefly at showing the continued impact of militarization in through what Raymond Williams termed residual (historical symbolism), dominant (normalisation of military logics and actions) forms of culture. In the next part of this series, I will discuss the most current (dominant culture in Williams’ parlance) convergence of state, industry, democracy and military components of our societies through the rise of neoliberalism. Power and practice go together rather nicely as can be seen in the massive growth in ‘think tanks’ under neoliberalism. If we are to re-think the language, practices and outcomes of this everyday militarisation, we need not just alternative ideas but alternative means of distribution for such ideas and discussions.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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1 reply »

  1. This is an old but still relevant sociological appraisal


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