Coercion and Co-option in the Militarised Neoliberal State

By Hamish Robertson 


In this final part of this three part series, I would like to briefly explore some aspects of how our ruling elites and governments help reproduce these intersectionalities to their own advantage. More particularly, I look at how we are co-opted and coerced into a denial of our participatory role in state violence enacted in our names. I do this by connecting current trends to more established historical ones, including logical connectors to how various racisms have been institutionalised and regulated in favour of established socio-political orders. I then conclude this by suggesting that we need a more incisive sociological imaginary to unpack and, where possible, repudiate the ways in which contemporary states and their servants co-opt us into their regimes of power and dissociative violence. This is perhaps one strategy for beginning the process of civil demilitarisation.

The role of visual authority

The visual authority of the state was once fully uniformed and accessible to all. The soldier was a soldier, the policeman was a policeman, the nurse a nurse and so on. The uniforms were known and familiar to everyone because they were public knowledge but things have become much more complicated in recent decades. In particular, under neoliberal regimes, the state has seen fit to privatise many once public functions, processes and activities. We saw this with the extension of the ‘Gulf War’ into an increasingly global strategy shared by governments of various persuasions. Outsourcing, once an industrial cost-saving strategy that delivered manufacturing jobs from the developed to the developing world (and destabilised established employment patterns), has now become part of the scope of military activities – similar to mercenaries but with more deniability. Prisons have been privatized to a much greater degree as crime and its management have become ‘monetizable’. Security businesses abound and operate both onshore and off-shore, including the operation of asylum-seeker facilities and the like. The wicked problems of our age appear to have lost their potential for solution (where’s the profit in that?) and instead are treated very like those that supposedly avail themselves of military solutions, and with similar consequences.

What we see then is a gradual privitisation of state violence and its consequences. This often involves the uglier, public relations-unfriendly kind of violence that the state is increasingly committed to – forms that frequently negate the purported values of the liberal democratic state. The argument seems to be that we don’t have to hide the nasty stuff quite so much if we privatise it, the corporation will do that for us – that is, on our behalf, because we are still complicit in these processes and their outcomes whether we like it or not. Thus we and our societies are complicit in drone attacks, illegal detention and torture, off-shore ‘processing’ and the fairly appalling geopolitics that seem to be producing and reproducing these circumstances. And of course in many places simply not counting the consequences of state violence and the violence perpetrated by the servants of the state is a sufficient strategy in an equation that is also on the rise and which can best be summarized as ‘no data, no problem’.

Loïc Wacquant has been writing for some years now on how the United States perpetuates the traditional modernist war against the poor through its welfare and prison systems, with the added dimension of ‘race’ being fundamentally central to the whole equation. The regulation of African-Americans was big business under slavery, then after slavery and it remains big business today through poverty, crime, the drug trade and the associated regularisation and regulation of these ‘social’ problems. The institutionalisation of race and racism to justify this regulation is now so deeply a part of the American political fabric that it appears normal to that society. Policing race is a major part of the American judicial system and its associated infrastructure. A less well-known but very interesting aspect of this policing regime is that it emerged shortly after the Civil War (the Black Codes) and has only extended and refined itself since then. Even now prisons are closely associated with entrepreneurial capitalism because they possess a captive labour force that can’t go on strike, change jobs or seek welfare.

Outside of the United States, it is also the case that many other colonial settler states have criminalized the remnants of their indigenous peoples and, having waged actual wars of dispossession against them, followed this with social-policy driven strategies that often include physical removal, child theft (acculturation is for their own good), concentration (reserves, ghettos etc.), economic dependency, welfare dependency and then a strategy of self-destruction through alcohol, drug use and suicide. While the patterns are rarely precisely the same, there is a frightening level of similarity across many sovereign states in both the inputs and outputs of such systems. Typically indigenous imprisonment rates, and even deaths in custody, in countries like Australia and New Zealand, are usually far above those of the settler populations. Private prisons (see above) can have worse death rates than publicly run prisons, assuming that these people actually make it to prison alive in the first place. And this is far from guaranteed because there is a general acceptance of the use of greater state and non-state violence against such populations. One suggestion to consider is that in many settler states indigenous peoples continue to be punished because their presence and their historical treatment negate the founding myths of such states. Or to put it more simply, they are punished for managing to survive colonisation. Here too the modality is often a war without end and no intention of a peaceful resolution.

One odd thing is that we have a tendency in these regimes to criminalise resistance of any kind, from the moderate to the extreme. Thus criminality is almost always disporportionately associated with the colonised. These scenarios can become almost ridiculous in their analysis by certain parties, with genetics even being dragged in (as of course it has in the past) to ‘explain’ the criminality of the colonised (science yet again explains ‘their’ deviant behaviour). The same argument is rarely turned back on the colonisers themselves because they are the imposed norm and only occasionally is ‘criminality’ examined as a toll of socio-political ordering and control. As with militarism and policing we seem to accept the ontology of crime unquestioningly. More problematic still we find the idea that our systems have their own powers of generativity (armies need conflict, police need criminals, prisons need prisoners, hospitals need patients etc.) difficult to accept and continue to portray them as simply reactive to external, independently generated problems. The problem being that while many scientists rightly criticise this type of extrapolation, there is an established history of using race (racism’s major tool for heavy lifting) to justify the treatment of marginalised others. Curiously in a kind of inversion of this, these groups are often recognised in the settler societies for their military contributions more than they are for their civil accomplishments. ‘Bad’ genes may be acceptable in one domain but not in another.

These scenarios also almost always involve similar geographical strategies because the geography of social regulation and exclusion often relies on a quasi-military approach to territorial management and control, with the added dimension of self-regulation that social stigma can bring to the equation. The linking of violence to geography was such that African Americans who needed to travel across the Jim Crow South relied on the Green Book for information about safe places to eat and stay – because they were physically and psychologically at risk in many places. Forced spatial containment on ‘reserves’ and the like has been a characteristic of historical approaches that have their modern civil equivalents. Such groups were traditionally expected to linger in rural areas and, furthermore, to keep to their own ‘spaces’ if and when they settled in urban centres. Many public housing projects in many countries still reflect this spatial strategy. Not all policing, it is clear, involves or indeed requires the physical immediacy of a police force. Normalising in-group and dominant group forms of violence serve to reinforce many of these situations to the point where it becomes difficult to visualise an alternative.

Militarism, Policing and Social Order

The transfer of knowledge and practices between military and civil domains continues apace. Big data and related predictive analytics are gaining momentum across both domains. Originally linked to military mapping, social mapping emerged in the Victorian era with poverty, disease and crime as the main foci. Crime mapping has become a commonplace in civil policing in recent decades and yet it is frequently dissociated from other congruent social domains such as poverty, unemployment or public health. Now we see both advanced geographic information systems analysis and big data analytics being used to ‘predict’ where crimes will occur and, increasingly, who (at the group and individual level) will commit them. Policing is increasingly using technology in its extended role as social regulation, and science and technology are seen to make these processes ‘objective’. At the same time, facial recognition systems and software fail the application test on a variety of ‘minority’ groups flagging at the same time the limits of the presumed objectivity and ability of such technology to track ‘typical’ individuals, and of course, the notion of the embodiment of the archetypical individual.

One of the features of the past few decades that illustrates this rising tide of military and quasi-military symbolism in our societies is the militarization of police forces. Traditionally, the military were the model for a variety of uniformed civilian services with which we have all become familiar, typically including ambulance staff, fire services, postal workers, public transport workers, immigration personnel (recently rebranded as ‘border forces’ a title worthy of deconstruction in and of themselves) and police. Most of these services were established in the 19th century when the possibility of directing civilians into behaving in a more ‘orderly’ fashion was already, as noted above, gaining rapid appeal. Here to we have to accept that the state sees its citizenry as partial (some are in and others are out) while policing has traditionally had and continues to involve some degree of covert surveillance work against selected citizens and other non-state actors.

In many places this pattern was well-established prior to the development of the universal franchise and the claims to civil society which we now readily accept because of their unquestioning repetition (we were always democratic apparently). In recent years however, we have frequently seen the role of police become more intensively focused on (a) civil surveillance and (b) para-military tasks associated with gun violence, terrorism and related threats to the state. Their use against organized labour and labour protests was already well-established by the 1980s. This obviously includes armed police services or sections thereof and, in some countries, the acquisition of equipment that makes police look more like a scaled down extension of the military (tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon, armoured cars, helicopters). Some commentary has emerged on this in the wake of the Ferguson incident in the United States and there is a growing academic critique of the use of such weaponry against citizens. While not all countries follow exactly the same trajectory, we can see this general pattern in the neoliberal economies where the eternal trade-off seems to rest between scaling up the physical and moral authority of the state and the associated dilemma, under neoliberal precepts, of paying for all of this security.


This brief series of pieces is an exploration of a number of growing issues and their possible connections associated with what I see as the continuing, expanding and diversifying encroachment of militarization on society at large. I see the militarisation of everyday life as a creeping form of oppression that relies on tried and tested historical methods in combination with new and emerging techniques and technologies. The discourse around this process is almost always one of protection in the neoliberal, notionally democratic societies in which many of us live. And it is ultimately tied to dominant values which can be questioned to a degree but which resistance to is increasingly criminalised. That these processes now draw on new digital as well as conventional analogue methods means that we are subject to an expansion of the entire paradigm. Connecting these seemingly often disconnected parts is a major issue for a more historically nuanced sociology of our times.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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