Leverhulme Trust

Apocalypse soon: Security, subversion and the struggle for a human future

The anthropological research for Ruben’s Major Research Fellowship (2023-26), funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is concerned with building a synthetic and wide-ranging understanding of the growth of global security agendas in a time of seemingly proliferating crises.

From the war on terror to financial and migration crises on through the Covid-19 pandemic and mounting climate and geopolitical risk, governing through crisis has become the ‘new normal’. As hopes for progress in human affairs have crumbled, the future itself seems to be in crisis – read through a set of overlapping and seemingly intractable ‘wicked problems’ of climate change, of inequality, of democracy, and more. Crisis, which denotes a moment of decision, shows signs of congealing into paralysis: a future not just of crisis but in crisis.

Into the breach steps security. Various paradigms and practices of security are being revived and developed at a stealthy pace to address our concatenation of crises. From health to climate security, and from border to biosecurity, security thinking is helping to redefine a proliferating array of social and political problem areas. What are the causes and consequences of framing, say, public health in terms of health security, migration management in terms of border security, or environmental change as climate security? How do the securitised framings of such problem areas interact?

We can split security into a demand side, or freedom from ‘harm’ or danger, and a supply side, or capabilities and apparatuses of control. The expansion of security today can be seen as a combination of accelerated growth across its demand-side and supply-side axes. On the demand side, calls for more security or safety have come to dominate a range of policy areas from both left and right while filtering into institutional and corporate management. If ‘freedom’ was once a lodestar, ‘security’ today seems to take its place. What does this ‘securitisation’ do to politics and the possibilities we collectively see for a better future?

Meanwhile, the supply of security solutions is radically increasing, drawing justification from the expanded harms. These solutions or capabilities include not just technologies such as border fences or drone systems but also pervasive forms of health security tracking; online surveillance for a combination of commercial and security purposes; and advances in artificial intelligence deployed to a range of areas from welfare to warfare. It also fundamentally involves non-technological shifts as social relations and institutional practices are reorganised for security ends.

A starting point for this project is that the rising demand for security is frequently not met by the escalating supply of security capabilities. The result of this mismatch is an acceleration of growth across both demand-side and supply-side axes, as unsatisfied demand keeps driving more capability innovation. Investigating the intricate (mis)matches of demand and supply will be key to this project, moving across a range of domains from the policing of urban crime to the patrolling of borders, and from ordinary workplace risk management to the population management and defence systems deployed by global powers.

This is of necessity a broad investigation, drawing on interviews, multi-sited fieldwork and a wide range of secondary sources. The aim is to produce a wide-ranging map of how security is defining political presents and future possibilities. The stakes are high. In many parts of the world, security thinking and practice is reshaping not just formal and institutional politics but also relations between states, individuals, and corporations. Meanwhile, various forms of protest and criticism are brewing – and these protests themselves (over borders, lockdowns, surveillance, climate policy and more) show how security is becoming a central arena of politics. So do struggles over who gets to define security in the formal political arena. Among the central issues here are questions of human freedom, integrity and equality in a world of vastly expanding yet uneven security capabilities. What kind of future do we seek politically, and will it be ‘secure’ for everyone? By investigating the growing struggles over security – its causes and consequences, its winners and losers – we may gain a much richer appreciation of the wider struggle for a liveable future.

Updates will be posted on Ruben’s website in the course of research.