Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification (book review)

Zhandarka Kurti (NYU Prison Education Program)

A reflection on George S. Rigakos, Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, sites of increasing global inequality and laboratories for new forms of surveillance, policing and security. Yet, unlike our nineteenth century predecessors, deindustrialization has rendered a large part of the world’s population superfluous from the formal labor market, all the while forcing many others to accept low wages and a precarious existence. As capitalist classes scramble to maintain previous rates of profit, security has emerged as both an important political project, and site of conflict for millions whose very existence is closely monitored and surveilled by the various appendages of the security industrial complex. In recent years, George S. Rigakos and other scholars have contributed to a robust Marxist and materialist analysis of security through a critical examination of its role in forging a social order that is conducive to capitalist accumulation. In this process, pacification emerges as an alternative concept to the security project of capitalist elites, which helps us to make sense of how social order is maintained and reproduced. The theme of pacification is taken up in previous collaborative efforts, such as in a special volume of Socialist Studies (2013), select journal articles published by Rigakos, and more recently in his new book Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification (Rigakos 2016).

As an active contributor to the anti-security project, Rigakos’ (2016) interventions are two-fold. The first is to unpack the relationship between security and capitalism and to demonstrate how pacification relies on dispossession, exploitation and commodification as a key process in the overall logic of capital accumulation. Here, Rigakos’ (2016) original intervention is to examine the commodification and productivity of security. Secondly, he presents a rough sketch of what the role of security could potentially look like in an alternative socialist social order.

If, as Henry Cleaver (2017) reminds us, the capitalist world is “a global work machine”, Rigakos’ (2016) contribution in Security/Capital is to examine the various ways that security helps to control, maintain and reproduce this machine. Here, he focuses on the historical processes of pacification that underpin the logic of capital accumulation, exploring the moments that employ dispossession, exploitation and commodification to discipline labor and make it productive. Rigakos offers us rich examples drawn from contemporary social life, which provide ample support and evidence for a materialist reading of how security aids the processes of pacification. For example, drawing on his experiences of working in an industrial bakery in West Toronto, he explains how even the most “productive” and disciplined workers participate in the “breakage,” or appropriating small items such as bread and other goods. Yet, this practice is quickly put to an end as management intensifies work production through the use of various security and surveillance mechanisms, which results in the termination of employment for those who were found to indulge in such customary practices. Rigakos is able to tightly bring this and other contemporary examples within a wider historical context of capitalism and make a clear analysis for how security fashions a ‘productive’ labor force.

Yet, the role of security goes beyond imposing work and controlling workers. In unpacking the relationship between security and capital accumulation, Rigakos insists that security not only becomes a “fundamental characteristic of the making of goods,” but also has become productive itself (75). In chapter four, he offers important examples of how economic activities have not only been perpetrated by the logic of insecurity but security, itself, has become an important part of the commodification and valorization process for the accumulation of surplus value. Taking us first through the world of private security companies, and then drawing on the example of Intelligarde –a Toronto based company—he examines how security guards’ patrol work is transformed into a vendible commodity. The written reports that security guards produce details on their activities, patrols, observations, and conversations with building residents, which are later collected, reviewed, revised and “then sold back to the client as proof of the ‘productivity’ of the security staff the client has contracted” (71). The commodification of security comes full circle. This is an important and thoughtful contribution to understanding how security can produce surplus value, which begs the question: can these forms of commodification of security open up new avenues of capital accumulation that could revive the declining rates of profit?

Returning to Rigakos’ example of workers engaging in the “breakage” of an industrial bakery in Toronto, we see the double role security can play in capitalist relations. While security guards, machinery, and surveillance cameras are deployed to increase the amount of surplus labor produced, they also simultaneously decrease the amount of workers needed to produce the commodity, which poses long-term problems with the valorization of these very commodities. Could we envision a world where the commodification of security could open up avenues of capital accumulation to manage the crisis anew? What role can security play as overall capitalist growth and productivity is on the decline? Will security perform increasingly a more repressive role? Rigakos’ work raises important questions like these that critical scholars should take up more seriously in the near future.

The future of security, especially its role in more egalitarian social orders, is discussed in the conclusion of the book. Relying on the case study of the Syriza victory in Greece, Rigakos tries to imagine how leftist governments can reshape and repurpose security for a liberatory social means. He argues that given the scope of pacification on everyday life, those of us who seek alternative post-capitalist futures must “plan” for a “painless political science that transitions us from capitalism to a new democratic, global economic system” (122). In part, this imagination towards a post-capitalist future is spurred by the collective energy unleashed by the recent waves of social movements, which have challenged Thatcher’s assertion that there are “no alternatives.” From Egypt to Greece, people have collectively gathered to challenge authoritarian regimes and, more importantly, austerity, which has been the main way capitalist states have managed the crisis. What does security and policing mean for those who are interested in a more egalitarian social world? Surely there are bourgeois institutions and processes for which we have no use for, but how will we manage our lives, reproduce ourselves, and maintain social order? Leftist parties in Greece and Spain emerge as two key examples for thinking through ways that governments can solve the problems of capitalism through socialist policies. Perhaps, to some degree, this moment reflects the limits of current waves of struggles and their power to be channeled into social democratic parties. We should also note that even leftist parties quickly forsake their base and concede to the demands of the capitalist system. Leftist parties were unable to dismantle the older institutions of social order and security. For example, in Greece, a synergy exists between police and the Golden Dawn with the former openly displaying nazi symbols on their uniforms, with personnel generally voting for the Greek
nazi party. Syriza did not dismantle the violent police; in fact, the defense minister ensured that no reforms were made to policing, arguing that they would jeopardize national security. Thus, the leftist coalitional government proved incapable of implementing reforms that would limit or curtail even the power of the police. Furthermore, as new political parties emerge out of social movements against neoliberalism and austerity—Syriza and Podemos in Spain being key examples—state power remains uncritically challenged, as these parties see the state as essential to carrying out their political project. Instead of destroying the power of police unions and limiting the power of the police in general, Syriza and other civil society members formed alliances to “democratize” the police.

While it is important to pay attention to Rigakos’ plea for building alternatives to mass pacification and security, it is unclear how this could happen through a program or a plan outside of a revolutionary moment. We are left with a post-capitalist vision which imagines that security structures and technologies can simply be harnessed to our ends without class struggle, a vision that has most recently gained traction in academic and leftist circles (Mason 2016). It is difficult, of course, to draw up prescriptions for an alternative social order while capitalist social relations prevail. Yet, this does not mean that the left should not support reforms that move in the direction of dismantling or limiting institutions of police, its unions and its power to reproduce the working class. However, these reforms will come from the power of collective action and social movements and not from union chiefs and bureaucrats concerned with keeping their jobs and “democratizing” their institutions. While there is a great value in Rigakos’ desire to see think of alternative forms of security, we can argue that leftist governments and states have been limited in their ability to forge such alternatives. Given that social peace and the rule of law are not value neutral, we can better understand the role of the state and by extension the police to forge, maintain and reproduce the capitalist social order. According to Mark Neocleous (2001), police science was a means of exercising overall state power, which is now reduced by criminologists to the study of police and its institutions. Given this, it is not clear how Rigakos’ conception of a socialist police science will deal with the question of the state and its role in reproducing social order. State power under “socialist” regimes did not do away with policing functions, if we think of the Chekas in the Soviet Union.

Yet, despite this critique, Rigakos’ new book makes very important contributions to the larger anti-security academic and political projects by unpacking the concepts of security and pacification as they relate to processes of capital accumulation both historically and in the contemporary moment. His conclusion spurs our imagination to think about the role that social struggles will play in forging the anti-capitalist socialist world many are struggling to inhabit in the future.

[The featured image above is of police in Complexo de Mare (Brazil) during the World Cup games 2014 – AP Photo / Leo Correa – via ]

Work Cited:

Cleaver, Harry. 2017. Rupturing the Dialectic: The Struggles Against Work, Money and FinancializationNew York: AK Press.


Mason, Paul. 2016. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Neocleous, Mark. 2000. The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power. London, UK: Pluto Press. 

Neocleous, Mark, Rigakos George S. and Tyler Wall. 2013. “On Pacification: Introduction to the Special Issue” Socialist Studies: The Journal for the Society of Socialist Studies 9:2 Winter 2013 

Rigakos, George S. 2016. Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

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