Marxist Legal Theory: Security

by | 9 Jun 2020

Key Concept

This is part of a series of key concepts in Marxist legal theory organized in collaboration with our friends at Legal Form: A Forum for Marxist Analysis of LawAll articles in this series, including the present one, will appear concurrently on Legal Form and Critical Legal Thinking.

The concept of security has significant implications for a Marxist theory of the state, law, and political economy, offering conceptual resources for linking all three in a renewed critique of capitalism.

In “On the Jewish Question”, Marx makes the weighty contention that “security is the supreme social concept of civil society”, adding that it is “[t]he concept of the police”.1Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” [1843], in Robert C. Tucker (ed), The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edn (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978) 26, at 43. He continues: “expressing the fact that the whole of society exists only in order to guarantee to each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property”. Until rather recently, Marxist scholars have left this pronouncement largely unexamined, focusing instead on the administrative role of police and security in the protection of private property;2Steven Spitzer, “The Political Economy of Policing”, in David F. Greenberg (ed), Crime and Capitalism: Readings in Marxist Criminology (Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1981) 314; Steven Spitzer and Andrew T. Scull, “Privatization and Capitalist Development: The Case of the Private Police“, 25 (1977) Social Problems 18. the historical rise3Stephen R. Couch, “Selling and Reclaiming State Sovereignty: The Case of the Coal and Iron Police“, 11 (1981) Insurgent Sociologist 85; Robert Storch, “The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England 1840–1857“, 20 (1975) International Review of Social History 61; Robert Weiss, “The Emergence and Transformation of Private Detective Industrial Policing in the United States, 1850–1940“, 9 (1978) Crime and Social Justice 35. or recent resurgence4George S. Rigakos, “The Significance of Economic Trends for the Future of Police and Security”, in Jane Richardson (ed), Police and Security: What the Future Holds (Ottawa: Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, 2000) 176–79; George S. Rigakos, The New Parapolice: Risk Markets and Commodified Social Control (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); Steven Spitzer, “Security and Control in Capitalist Societies: The Fetishism of Security and the Secret Thereof”, in John Lowman, Robert J. Menzies, and Ted S. Palys (eds), Transcarceration: Essays in the Sociology of Social Control (Aldershot: Gower, 1987) 43. of private security and its institutional and membership conflation with public policing;5Nigel South, “Private Security, the Division of Policing Labor and the Commercial Compromise of the State”, 6 (1984) Research in Law, Deviance and Social Control 171; George S. Rigakos, “Beyond Public-Private: Toward a New Typology of Policing“, in Dennis Cooley (ed), Re-Imagining Policing in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005) 260. Other (non-Marxist) research has more explicitly made reference to the institutional “blurring” of public and private policing, as well as the movement of personnel and information using an “old boys network”. See Clifford D. Shearing and Philip C. Stenning, “Private Security: Implications for Social Control“, 30 (1983) Social Problems 498; Clifford D. Shearing, “Unrecognized Origins of the New Policing: Linkages between Private and Public Policing“, in Marcus Felson and Ronald V. Clarke (eds), Business and Crime Prevention (Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press, 1997) 219. the class position of the police officer in capitalist society;6Robert Reiner, “The Police in the Class Structure“, 5 (1978) British Journal of Law and Society 166; Robert Reiner, The Blue-Coated Worker: A Sociological Study of Police Unionism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978); Cyril D. Robinson, “The Deradicalization of the Policeman: A Historical Analysis“, 24 (1978) Crime and Delinquency 129. and the intimate connection of policing with state intelligence,7M. T. Klare, “Rent-a-Cop: The Private Security Indusry in the U.S.”, in L. Cooper et al. (eds), The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U.S. Police (Berkeley: Center for Research on Criminal Justice, 1977) 104. reactionary politics,8Bruce C. Johnson, “Taking Care of Labor: The Police in American Politics“, 3 (1976) Theory and Society 89. and the undermining of revolutionary movements, including labour organizing9Sidney L. Harring and Lorraine McMullin, “The Buffalo Police 1872-1900: Labour Unrest, Political Power and the Creation of the Police Institution“, 5 (1975) Crime and Social Justice 5; Lorne Browne and Caroline Brown, An Unauthorized History of the RCMP, 2nd edn (Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel, 1978). and Black resistance,10Nelson Blackstock, COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom (New York: Vintage Books, 1976). through subversion and criminalization.11Steven Spitzer, “Toward a Marxian Theory of Deviance“, 22 (1975) Social Problems 638.

These critiques formed an important part of social and academic radicalism in the late twentieth century, and were associated with the growth of critical criminology,12Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young, The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance (London: Routledge, 1973). critical race theory,13Derrick Bell, Race, Racism, and American Law (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973). and second-wave feminism.14Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1974 [1963]). While undeniably critical in orientation, such agendas have also lent themselves to cooption by the security apparatus as criminal justice reforms. Reforms embraced by the liberal state, at least rhetorically, include initiatives to ensure the protection of individual liberty in the face of expanding surveillance, to guarantee fair and equitable treatment for all citizens regardless of race, to involve police in responding to violence against women, to develop a softer “intelligence-led” response to labour militancy, to regulate the expanding private security industry, and even to involve the police in community-based policing with former colonial subjects.

More recently, the transformation of radical critiques into ministerial mandates, and the related reduction of critique to “security intelligence”,15George Rigakos, Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 100. has fuelled a radical rejection of security among some theorists, in keeping with Marx’s general critique of the limits of bourgeois rights. This rejection, or commitment to “anti-security”,16Mark Neocleous and George S. Rigakos, “Anti-Security: A Declaration“, in Mark Neocleous and George S. Rigakos (eds), Anti-Security (Ottawa: Red Quill Books, 2011), 15–21. has also been driven by the seemingly unassailable position of security in liberal discourse, amplified in the post-9/11 political climate. This has prompted a general “critique of security”17Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008); Mark Neocleous, “Against Security“, 100 (2000) Radical Philosophy 7. , a theoretical and political turn to “pacification theory”,18Mark Neocleous, “Security as Pacification”, in Mark Neocleous and George Rigakos (eds), Anti-Security Ottawa: Red Quill Books, 2011) 23; Mark Neocleous, George S. Rigakos, and Tyler Wall, “On Pacification: Introduction to the Special Issue“, 9 (2013) Socialist Studies 1; Mark Neocleous, “The Dream of Pacification: Accumulation, Class War, and the Hunt“, 9 (2013) Socialist Studies 7. See further Rigakos, Security/Capital. and the formation of an Anti-Security (“antisec”) Studies Group.19This loose affiliation of scholars, students, and activists hosts seminars, panels, and workshops, and has produced a series of edited works and special volumes that thematically reinforce the agenda of a general critique of security. Needless to say, the political orientations of its members vary substantially. While I use the label “antisec” here, this ought not be confused with the “Anonymous” antisec group, which is a hacktivist community dedicated to destabilizing parasitic computer security companies that both recirculate malware and sell solutions.

These critiques differ from their twentieth-century counterparts in two key respects. As a theoretical starting-point, these contemporary radical scholars take Marx’s statements about the supremacy of security seriously, extending it forward to a theoretical and political denunciation. Their project has included a “Declaration”, which is intended to open up space for the advancement of radical views of security.20Neocleous and Rigakos, “Declaration”. For translations in French and Turkish, see, respectively, “Anti-sécurité: une déclaration“, trans. Memphis Krickeberg, 77 (2016) Vacarme 52; and “Anti-Güvenlik: Bir Bildiri“, Başlangıç (7 April 2015). This declaration states that security is a “dangerous illusion” and identifies it as a blockage on politics, diverting attention from exploitation, alienation, and material inequality, and also fostering complicity with police power. The ubiquity of security is also called into question. Security, the authors argue, grafts itself onto every social problem, colonizing and deradicalizing discourse: “hunger into food security; imperialism to energy security; globalization into supply chain security”; and so forth. “Security makes bourgeois all that is inherently communal”, alienating us from natural or social responses toward the language of state rationality, corporate interest, and individual egoism.21Neocleous and Rigakos, “Declaration”, 20. The effect is that “instead of sharing, we horde. Instead of helping, we build dependencies. Instead of feeding others, we let them starve … all in the name of security.”22Neocleous and Rigakos, “Declaration”, 20. Security is also critiqued for its fetishization and for being a sort of “special commodity in capitalist relations, playing a pivotal role in the exploitation, alienation and the immiseration of workers”. The security commodity “attempts to satiate through consumption what can only be achieved through revolution”.23Neocleous and Rigakos, “Declaration”, 21. In short, rather than viewing police science as a “backwater field”24Mark Neocleous, “Theoretical Foundations of the ‘New Police Science’“, in Markus D. Dubber and Mariana Valverde (eds), The New Police Science: Police Power in Domestic and International Governance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006)17. of bourgeois criminology, or holding on to the possibility of a more virtuous security that could “be magically unsheathed by a righteous ruling authority [as] if the Left were to free Excalibur from its stone”,25Rigakos, Security/Capital, 99. these scholars centre both the idea and the pacifying practices of pre-disciplinary police science26George Rigakos et al. (eds), A General Police System: Political Economy and Security in the Age of Enlightenment (Ottawa: Red Quill Books, 2009).  for understanding the fabrication of capitalist social order and its maintenance through security.

Second, as a programmatic reorientation of Marxist engagement with security, these scholars challenge a series of “false binaries” that serve to obfuscate and reify security, reinforcing its linguistic and political power. These binaries include (1) liberty and security, (2) public and private, (3) “soft” and “hard”, (4) “barbarism” and “civilization”, (5) domestic and foreign, (6) pre- and post-9/11, and (7) exception and normality. The “declaration” contends that Marxist analyses ought to reject these binaries as unnecessary distractions that only serve to reinforce bourgeois liberalism. For example, with respect to the liberty-versus-security binary, its authors argue that “liberty is security and security is liberty”. The ruling class will always allow security to triumph over liberty because, from the start, “liberty has never been intended as a counter-weight to security. It is always liberty for the sake of security. Liberty has always been security’s lawyer.”27Neocleous and Rigakos, “Declaration”, 16 (original emphases). On long-standing concerns about the privatization of security and policing, the Anti-Security Declaration is also clear that “no post-hoc juridical determination about accountability, legal standing, uniforming, or legitimate use of force” matters much in the face of “the historic inter-operability of public and private police, state and mercenary armies, corporate and government security, or transnational corporations and international relations”. This is because “[t]he public sphere does the work of the private sphere, civil society the work of the state”. For antisec scholars, “[t]he question is therefore not ‘public versus private’ or ‘civil society versus the state’, but the unity of bourgeois violence and the means by which pacification is legitimized in the name of security”.28Neocleous and Rigakos, “Declaration”, 16–17. As a Marxist research agenda for the critique of securityparticular emphasis is placed on the creation and maintenance of the wage-labour system by tracing the historical formation of police and arguing that the core compulsion to create and exploit productive workers29George Rigakos, “‘To Extend the Scope of Productive Labour’: Pacification as a Police Project”, in George Rigakos and Mark Neocleous (eds), Anti-Security (Ottawa: Red Quill Books, 2011) 57. continues unabated in contemporary imperial and domestic modes of pacification.30Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (London: Pluto Press, 2000). These elements manifest as overlapping strata of (1) dispossession, (2) exploitation, and (3) commodification. While their targets of intervention may vary, these three strata produce and rely on: (a) violence or the threat of violence; (b) the legal, institutional, and police subversion and suppression of non-capitalist forms of subsistence and exchange; (c) the circulation of “moral education” for ideologically entrenching and maintaining pro-capitalist economic practices and norms among workers; and, finally, (d) the establishment of an institutional and ideological ethic of security that identifies threats to any of these aspects as threats to the state of security and the private property relations it supports.31Rigakos, Security/Capital, 27. Relatedly, the fetish of security and its ideological ubiquity and power have also been challenged. Marxist scholars have been prompted to enter the “mist enveloped sphere” of how security is sold and circulated, both materially and culturally.32Spitzer, “Security and Control in Capitalist Societies”.

We can therefore say that “security is hegemony”33Rigakos, Security/Capital, 102 (original emphasis). –and that capitalism is fundamentally “overwritten by security”, given its ubiquity, reach, and role as the final arbiter in all social transactions, from cocktail parties to global pandemics.34Rigakos, Security/Capital, 99 The way in which security overwrites the entire capitalist machinery35The argument goes further. Considerations of ideology (Althusser) and hegemony (Gramsci) are considered blind without centralizing security. See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation)“, trans. Ben Brewster, in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127; Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Geoffrey N. Smith and Quintin Hoare (London: New Left Books, 1971). See also Rigakos, Security/Capital, 97–99. is evidenced by everyday practices of production, consumption, and reproduction, such that the circuit is saturated with security. Often operationalized as “risk management”, security unleashes a wide array of agents (accountants, managers, lawyers, marketers, security consultants, etc.), who support and sell the promise of security but nonetheless require that the consumer and the producer remain unfulfilled–a want that exemplifies the modern circuit of (in)security through commodification. I have summarized this aspect of security elsewhere as follows:

  1. We are alienated from the production of commodities as we ourselves are commodified. Their production becomes mysterious to us, losing their use-value relative to their transactional exchange-value. They become “social hieroglyphics” that increasingly signal insecurity.
  2. The interpenetration of the security commodity and commodities in general through processes of valorization and prudentialization increasingly imbues all commodities with security meanings.
  3. The mass proliferation of commodities in a world capitalist economy facilitates the mass proliferation of insecurity, as security becomes a marker of distinction embedded in the commodity.
  4. Because every new and upgraded commodity signals the previous commodity’s failure or obsolescence, our consumer culture is based on a generalized insecurity in which the attainment of more security is a marker of status distinction.36Rigakos, Security/Capital, 87–88.

An engagement with the concept of security holds promise for Marxist state theory and legal theory. It is ideologically and materially “the supreme social concept” that binds them both to political economy. While Marx could not have foreseen an explosion in the productive forces of security, ranging from the local to the geopolitical, he recognized the legal and political sanctity of the concept as the keystone of the bourgeois state. Fundamentally, capitalism is damned to be (in)secure, since it is based on the incessant dispossession and exploitation of the working class. Marx knew all too well that private property, based on blood and plunder, has always been rationalized in the name of security. This notional insight is revolutionary in itself, but when concretized and understood as the motor for creating productive workers, the security-industrial complex reveals itself, both materially and ideologically, as “the blast furnace of global capitalism”, fuelling the conditions for the system’s perpetuation while feeding on the surpluses it extracts.37Rigakos, Security/Capital, 123.

George S. Rigakos is Professor of the Political Economy of Policing at Carleton, Department of Law and Legal Studies.

Call for contributions to ‘Key Concepts’.


  1. Gramsci, a reader of Marx, left us an embryonic development of the Marxist theory of the state: ‘hegemony’ is ‘coercion’ (security) + consensus (transformism, ‘passive revolution’, etc). This work of Professor Rigakos shows us that the embryo has developed.

    • Thanks Gabriel. I think there is tremendous untapped potential here.

  2. The notion of security in capitalist mode of production is linked to the protection of the state whose rôle is double: (1) repress through its repressive apparatus (police, army) the working class amidst a ferocious class struggle; (2) maintaining the wage system, condition sine qua non for reproduction and accumulation, supposing beforehand the reproduction of the working class at large scale. The security in Marxist perspective is related to the private property which according to Proudhon is theft, supposing itself the idea of brutal force doomed to its protection.

  3. so sad the numbers for the references leads nowhere :/


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