The austerity-security symbiosis

There are different ways in which austerity and security come hand in hand in contemporary political affairs. Three examples include Greece’s financial crisis and the socio-economic and political insecurity generated from the ideological disputes on whether to carry on with neoliberal driven polices promoted by the Troika; the British austerity narrative promoted by the Conservatives alongside policies and bills preventing terrorism (i.e. Government’s Draft Investigatory Power Bill) and narratives of human rights which, while aiming to provide an environment of welfare and wellbeing for all, tend to be driven by mechanisms that authorise state actors to use force and repression (i.e. housing eviction officers) on the one hand, and to facilitate (or control) citizen participation initiatives (i.e. neighbourhood renewal partnerships in the UK and the US or citizen security programmes across Latin America where police are a key partner on the other.

I argue that security and austerity are two different narratives whose convergence has consolidated in the 21st century.  Their symbiosis cuts across different dimensions of analysis: from the macro to the micro level and from the remote sphere of the global financial system to the concrete sphere of people’s daily lives. We cannot assert that one depends on the other in a unidirectional way. Instead, they feed into one another and they reinforce and benefit from one another. Three premises help me to explain this symbiosis.

I will borrow the phrase by Owen Worth to explain the first premise: austerity as a defence of neoliberalism. This premise sets the foundation of power differences between the powerful (protector) and vulnerable (in need of protection), which are implicit in the relationships developed behind any understanding of security.  This premise has been helpful to insert fear of the social instability that a fiscal/financial crisis may bring about, especially if irresponsible public or private debt is not restrained. The 2015 elections in Greece to stay in or out of the European Union or the Cameron-Osborne decision to incur in policies of fiscal austerity (low taxation and budget cuts, followed by an accentuated retreat of state services) are good examples that portray that if austerity is not pursued chaos, collapse and disorder will rule society instead. Therefore, austerity becomes a weapon to defend the middle and lower-income groups of the population from the undesired consequences of a fiscal/financial crisis that if untackled, in a later stage, contributes to political and social anxiety -as people begin to fear losing their jobs, savings, and welfare support (which they lose anyway)- while encountering protests and social revolts that increase perceptions of insecurity.

The second premise states that ‘austerity needs of security’; it derives from debates on the legacies of authoritarianism co-existing alongside neoliberalisation. The Latin American case is a good example to develop this point. In the 1980s, after neoliberal economic reforms were introduced in the region (characterised initially by a long-term fiscal austerity period), several governments began losing legitimacy as the safety nets that the state provided to specific sections of the population (i.e. trade unions or peasant confederations) began to withdraw. As a result, protests, dissident groups and social mobilisations emerged throughout the region. The governments, who introduced neoliberal economic reforms, responded through violence and repression by using tactics of the authoritarian past to maintain social control and national security. Thirty years afterwards, the term ‘neoliberal authoritarianism’ has cropped up to describe the political state of affairs of two of the region’s economic powers – Brazil and Mexico: nepotism and impunity, collusion with transnational corporations and violation of human rights by state armed forces and police (in many cases these abuses are carried out in the name of security over the fight against drug-trafficking).  To this scenario, a new wave of fiscal austerity hitting the region since autumn 2015 has to be factored in. It is too early to tell the extent to which security tactics will fare, but it is indeed an arena that deserves attention. Its contrast with Europe is of equal interest given that governments have tended to enhance repressive and invasive strategies as austerity becomes normalised.

Finally, the third premise contends that the ‘development of security narratives need their austerity counterpart’. It derives from the academic work by Bourdieusian scholars who argue that neoliberal policies do not only repress, but also recreate repression through mundane, daily living practices carried out by both governmental and non-governmental actors. Applied to contexts in western Europe and the Americas, narratives of security are formed by a continuous investment (or co-investment with businesses) in penalisation (i.e. respect of the rule of law, development of penitentiary-probation systems and of armed forces and police), while traditional welfare policies retreat and new ones contribute to deepening flexibility and individual responsibility across the population, in particular addressing the poor. Through the promotion of different forms of work (in the formal or informal economy; as an employee or self-employed) citizens have to learn to provide for themselves (housing, education, leisure). This gradual self-provision requires security measures to ensure that social order is maintained. Security takes a multi-varied form that may range from omnipresent surveillance systems to the management of unintended effects of individualisation and privatisation, such as vigilante groups (which state actors either aim to supress or reintegrate into the system to regain social control).

Dr Valeria Guarneros-Meza is a core member of the CURA team as well as Lecturer in Public Policy at the Department of Politics and Public Policy at DMU.

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