Austerity, security and conflict

policia-bogotaIn today’s post Alke Jenss reflects on the synergies between austerity, security and conflict in the Latin American context.

In the Americas austerity programmes are nothing new. Neither is the loss of sovereignty concerning economic and social policies. Think of Mexico’s debt crisis in 1982 which set off a range of structural adjustment plans focusing on spending cuts and privatization in the region, or think of Argentina in 2001, and the similarities to European crises and “crisis management” will jump to your eye. Or think of Chile, where the Pinochet dictatorship was representative of a liberalization laboratory deeply dependent on austerity measures and its repressive framing. Its imagery of necessities has carried on until today.

Now, there is talk of “intelligent austerity” supposedly needed to confront the structural reduction of growth in the region, based on the “end of the super cycle of raw commodities” (CEPAL). “Intelligent austerity” is supposed to avoid excessive cuts that would affect growth and thus taxes. The UN Economic Commission on Latin America (CEPAL) has warned that the cuts in (public) investment could lead to exactly that. So, austerity is once again on the table in Latin America.

One interesting example for renewed budgetary restraints on the national and the municipal level, considering the fall of commodity prices, is Colombia where one must ask what implications austerity politics has for the current peace process between the government and guerrillas. Three points can be made:

Firstly, the peace process hasn’t affected austerity measures even though original causes of the conflict have likely been exacerbated by cuts to public spending (extreme inequality, rural isolation, violent appropriation of land, missing life perspectives). Because of the fall of commodity prices of raw materials so central to Colombian the export structure, the cabinet has agreed to reduce the investment side of the national budget by 10 %. To combat the fiscal deficit is its central concern, especially since a fiscal balance-regulation was introduced in 2011; the Banco de la República’s high interest rates focus on inflation control. In 2016, the Santos government also tried to cut running costs by introducing an “Austerity Plan” for its own public administration personnel.

Secondly, austerity measures have not seriously undermined the exorbitant security budget. The armed conflict, interestingly enough, has never been presented as the costly undertaking it is, even though the expansion of the military budget between 2002 and 2015 in absolute terms is diametrically opposed to austerity – if you took the latter literally. The internal defence budget alone has revolved around 9 billion Euros since 2012 which are fed into the military fighting of guerrillas annually. Additionally one might consider costs of infrastructure damage. This makes it far more costly to maintain the war than to end it, even though the allegedly high payments to demobilized guerrillas were one point used by those opposing the peace deal subjected to referendum in October 2016. With this and other arguments focusing on the threats that FARC fighters represent to parts of society, the campaign for a ‘no’ vote succeeded . However the campaign leader, Álvaro Uribe, never mentioned that during his government term demobilized paramilitaries formerly involved in illegal economy were awarded ample support for setting up legal businesses.

Third, the politics of austerity deeply embedded in Colombian politics affect the chances for what we might call “sustainable” peace entwined with social justice. A transformative idea of peace which by definition encompasses social justice is hardly possible with an economic austerity policies, with so many people earning only minimum wage or being in long-term displacement with no realistic perspective to return to their villages. It is remarkable enough that the FARC guerrilla agreed to the peace process on the terms that the economic model as such would not be put under scrutiny. The agreements on agrarian reform might be far reaching but in a context favouring large-scale export focussed agrarian industries, where smaller producers under pressure and public investment is cut, reality will rather cement the extreme rural inequality co-produced by decades of forced displacement and violence directed at grassroots campesino movements.

The fourth point is relevant beyond the context of the Colombian conflict. It’s the punitive take on poverty that represents austerity policies’ flip side in Latin America. It will likely persist even if the peace deal is realized with some modifications due to the referendum: prison populations have grown excessively in the Americas (see the World Prison Brief), i.e. from 126/100.000 inhabitants in 2003 to 231 in 2014 in Colombia or from 156/100.000 inhabitants in 2003 to 214/100.000 inhabitants in 2014 in Mexico. Mexico is another fundamental example where the narratives of security and austerity feed into each other in simbiosis, yet affect only parts of the highly stratified society, while some, close enough to transnational capital flows and political, boast their cars and mansions on social media. It seems quite ironic that often, the latter have been union leaders on the one hand and sons and daughters of those entrepreneurs at least bordering on illegal economy with their negocios.

As UNDP reports for the region confirm, most inmates however, complemented meagre income with what is now called narcomenudeo (small scale selling of drugs) or committed crimes such as theft or robbery. They, as the clients consuming the by-products of the drug economy, seem to sit on the lowest steps of the social classification ladder. What role do these segments of population play for society in countries such as Colombia or Mexico? They fill in the large segment of low-skilled, informal and badly paid jobs whose access to social policies is worse than ever after historical structural adjustment has conflated already selective social security programs. The gruesome numbers of police killings and disappearances underline that these social sectors are denied the most basic rights based on class and racial classifications. Austerity and punitive measures are closely linked and reinforce each other. Arguments against a raise in minimum wage are usually based on austerity and the competitive advantages narrative. But as increases in minimum wage would mostly go into consumption this might even have positive effects on domestic demand. It would break the assumed linkage between reduced spending and more growth. As things stand, they provide a growing social base for illegal economy.

Security discourses in turn legitimize policies which leave out social questions or subsume them under a theme of threat. How this relation of austerity and the production of insecurity for parts of society plays out can be observed in contemporary Latin American.

Alke Jenss is a researcher and lecturer at Bielefeld University, Germany and has worked on insecurity and the state in Latin America.

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.

PhD Opportunity at CURA: Securitisation in Urban Policy Making

CURA are delighted to offer a PhD scholarship on Securitisation in Urban Policy Making. The scholarship is available for up to three years full-time study starting October 2016 and provides a bursary of £14,296 PA in addition to University tuition fees. It is available to UK or EU students who are suitably qualified and have outstanding potential as a researcher. Deadline for applications is 29th March 2016.

In offering this scholarship the University aims to further develop its proven research strengths in urban governance, austerity and crises. It is an excellent opportunity for a candidate of exceptional promise to contribute to a stimulating, world-class research environment. The post holder will be contributing to CURA’s interest in crisis and securitisaton in urban policy-making. Interested candidates need to submit a 1500-word proposal addressing one or more of the following issues:

• Are subnational levels of government impacted by national security policy and what are the implications for urban governance?

• How do different ‘modes of governance’ incorporate coercive strategies in urban policy-making process?

• What power relations are developed between state and non-state actors in the securitisation of urban public policy?

• To what extent do community cultural practices infuse meaning to government practices in contexts of violence and insecurity?

Proposals with a focus on countries in Europe and/or the Americas will be preferred, but proposals conducting research in other world regions will be considered.

For a more detailed description of the scholarship, the subject area at DMU and an application pack follow this link. Completed applications should be returned by 29th March 2016 with two supporting references and an academic transcript. Applications are invited from UK or EU students with a Master’s degree or a good first degree (First, 2:1 or equivalent) in a relevant subject. Please quote ref: DMU Research Scholarships 2016: BAL FB1.

Please direct academic queries to Dr Valeria Guarneros-Meza on +44 (0)116 2577038 or by email on For administrative queries contact Morgan Erdlenbruch at

Application deadlinePlease quote ref: DMU Research Scholarships 2016: BAL FB1.