Increasing the resilience of society
The responsibilities of security are of the highest stakes. Operating in a variety of different places, they must protect against multifarious possibilities of threats and attacks. Failure to prepare for the imaginable and even the unimaginable is no longer politically acceptable.
As they protect people, resources, infrastructures and technologies, security professionals also preserve as far as possible the continuation of a way of life: a societal ethos. Yet history is a process of social change and security is part of that changing way of life. In this article, I consider how that societal ethos has changed in less than fifty years and how concepts and ideas about governance have fed, and responded to, those changes. As security builds resilience to future possibility, how is the very idea of resilience contributing to the need for greater securitisation?
A brief history of resilience and economy
In 1973, amid the rupture of the Oil Crisis, C.S. Holling developed a concept of ecological resilience. His ideas have since spread into the economic, psychological and security sectors. Holling argued that ecological systems were fantastically complex and that the only reason they survived ruptures and shocks was because they were able to rapidly absorb and adapt to change.
In a forest that had only seen long, dry seasons six times in the last 300 years, the biodiversity of different species was maintained by a worm that, during these unusual dry spells, severely depleted one type of fir tree. The dry seasons were effectively random but this instability reduced the chances of extinction in the ecosystem, that is, instability built long term resilience.
Ecology was fluid, ideas of stable homoeostasis as natural and beneficial were wrong; stability, or elasticity, impacted on the system itself, moreover, it could be in tension with the survival of all or parts of the ecosystem. The more an ecological system had sufficient stability and a capacity to change itself rather than rapidly return to the original status quo, the more resilient the system. He showed that planned interventions in the environment to maintain a system countered an ecological system’s own ability to sustain itself. What was needed was “…a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take”.
The ecological system was too complex to intervene without the possibility of catastrophic damage; the triggers of change were almost limitless and often random. Holling believed that human governance was putting life systems at risk. The solution was to support the existing resilience of an environment to human and natural inputs as opposed to trying to stabilise the existing system.
One year later, Friedrich von Hayek won the Nobel prize for economics, projecting his ideas of self-regulating economic systems to the fore. Hayek’s followers believed that less government intervention and greater political priority to private or individual profit making countered the economic stagnation and decline of freedoms which came with socialist-styled politics. The maintenance of economic stability by central government had failed, the private sector needed the freedom to be fluid.
By 1982, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations were pioneering ways to implement these ideas and within a generation the ideas had been adopted by nations across the globe. The contemporary turn to this neo-liberal global economic governance reflected much of Holling’s analysis – rupture and shock will happen, prepare for it; develop a sufficiently stable system architecture that also allows for fluid changes. The role of governance had changed. Based on debated ideas about ecology and economy, we were moving towards an age of resilience.
This was the latest performance (in a show going back to the works of Adam Smith and John Locke) of the latest ideas about the naturalism of the capitalist market merging with the latest theories about nature. The interpretation, ordering and movements of our material world (i.e. economy) was aligned with the interpretation, ordering and movements of nature and our place in that nature; a powerful synthesis that redefines core understandings of who and what we are in the world. The pursuit of profit as a (naturalised) key to solve the problems of governing complexity has brought with it a new type of governance and a new societal ethos too.
Those that adhered to these new ideas believed that the way to reduce the dangers of government controls was to devolve the responsibility of central governance to the ecology of economy through a private sector pursuing sustainable profits. Private companies, slowly took up functions previously held by the state. The security sector, like health, education and criminal justice sectors, has witnessed this very transformation. For example, private companies support security by doing roles previously done by police and military. National security is no longer secured just by the nation. Moreover, this securing of resources, infrastructures, technologies and people has to conform to an economic competitive sustainability.
Meanwhile, a new morality was developing in the global business sphere. In response to pressures to respect human and environmental rights at a corporate and ethical level, the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) opened up. Businesses had to balance what was profitable against what was ethically acceptable for their investors and customers. Models like Fairtrade sought to make the ethical a profitable feature, and big business followed, marketing philanthropy, happy workers and green credentials.
For some, CSR was sugarcoating a toxic pill. A resilient economy meant that, like the fir trees in an ecological system, parts of populations and environment that appeared to be collapsing could be abandoned in order to allow fluid adaptation and a more resilient future.
The success of neo-liberalism to meet its own objectives accelerated the speed of communications and trade in an ever smaller world. The movement of goods, services and people expanded geographically and quantitatively. Our material culture, values
and identities are in rapid flux. Social change appears to be moving faster than ever before. Competitive economic claims to resources and markets mediate with political processes. The competition and abandonment fuel a violent ethos.
Resilience and Competitive Security
The logics of competition that drive the market are remarkably similar to violent conflict. While a business seeks to “take advantage of gaps in the market and exploit competitors’ strength and weaknesses for business advantage”, the security sector “combats terrorists and other criminals always ready to exploit weaknesses in our defences”. (Incidentally, both quotes are from security sector magazines.) Competition or violent competition – we appear to be engaged in a similar intent to exploit or destroy the “Other” in order to gain. As we become fluid to change and build our own resilience, so too do terrorist and criminal groups. “We” are someone else’s “Other”.
Those that threaten “our” or “their” way of life, sometimes in the most disgusting inhumane ways, are navigating life on the terrain available to them. The seduction to rectify violent injustice through further violent injustice (while marching with banners of righteousness) will inhabit any suitable ideological vehicle that provides meaning. It does not seem to matter which side you are on, violence begets violence and around we all go.
We are all resilient these days, leaving in our wake a less resilient, more disposable, humanity. As the systems of economic, physical and environmental security are hit by the shocks and ruptures from our own complex activities, some people are more disposable than other people.
But no one is responsible for rectifying the injustice. Responsibility to rectify has been theorised out of the resilience equation – it smacks of stabilisation. The best form of governance now is to help people endure their local problems until these systems of security stabilise with a changed architecture. Nor does resilience guarantee greater security, it only offers continuation, including the possibility of perpetual everyday war. As the governance driving this approach to our lives is just a conceptual response to the world, are we caught in a scarier predicament – running round in a circle of resilience, creating further problems for ourselves and fortifying ourselves to the problems, which then creates further problems and so on? It’s quite possible that the social ethos that we are securing takes us on an unpleasant, and possibly dangerous, wild goose chase. Whoever said that resilience would feel good?
When dominant values include the exploitation of the weaknesses of others and security as private service, political violence and criminality will gain traction and impetus. A viable terrain for the growth of violence and organised crime is created when the social ethos of pursuing individual gains is put above the provision of social cohesion. Armed groups and organised crime know too well that their use of security is entangled in an ethos of individual gain. Yet aren’t we following a similar model?
When the provision of security joins the privatised competitive market we move closer to Thomas Hobbes’s 17th century experiences on the mode of governance prior to the sovereign state, that “war of every one against every one”. Now we have the imaginable future of King Lear. The nation state, defined by its very monopoly on the legitimate use of force, is giving away its kingdom – flattered by those who offer partnership but who soon move in on the King’s powerlessness. Curiously, we are not building resilience to this possibility.
The creation of a security market produces highly differentiated experiences of security. Socio-economic inequalities become replicated in our access (or rights) to safety. Such a scenario is hardly new, the difference now is the justifying market logic that prioritises the security of some over others. Often that security is obtained by delivering insecurity to others.
As we build resilience we make ourselves stronger (and thereby others weaker). Increase in threats is interpreted in the design of targets rather than an ethos of competitive threatening. This move towards securitisation will bring profits to investors in privatised security companies, but will it actually reduce the threat or address the ever increasing complexity that delivers further threats? In the rising waters of threats, the security sector is forced to follow an ethos of sustainable growth through resilience. Security becomes trapped in an endless game, raising the height of the fortifications, or changing the architecture, but never investing in ways to stop the waters rising.
A way forward
Global society is rapidly changing. Ideas about complexity will help us through those changes. But as long as we marginalise our social responsibilities in global and local economies, or conveniently align them to continued accumulation, then the complexities and spread of threats are unlikely to decline. We need a change from securing people and their things in specific places. Once we begin securing global humanity, and the ecological systems that support us, we will discover the social ethos we need.
Human political history is a trail of good ideas that went wrong. If the current social ethos is contributing to our insecurity then the principles of resilience need to be applied there too. Adapt or fundamentally change. It is not sufficient to engage in the logics of the endless battle of a sorcerer’s apprentice. For example, developing drones to defend ourselves that we then need to defend ourselves against. We cannot hold on to a way of life generated from economic thinking that delivers us into ever increasing, and ever profitable, securitisation. That is not security. It is only a response to the ideological sacrifice of ever present insecurity, where some are more insecure than others.
The discussion on security needs opening up to account for underlying ideologies that make ideas appear like common sense or normality. The people best placed to have those discussions are those who work in security. Not only are they well positioned to see some of the problems but they have a profound sense of social responsibility. Safety is a basic human need. Right now, resilience is applied in a narrow vision compatible with ideology and preserving the existing ethos. We need to discover how to extend security – in its fullest, most humane sense – to global humanity. How do we increase the resilience of humanity towards the ideas and actions of humanity itself?
Dr. Jonathan Newman
Department of Global Studies, Sussex University