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Contemporary Trends in the Study of Society 2019

SOAS University of London
BA International Relations & Social Anthropology
Course: Contemporary Trends in the Study of Society
Course code: 151802041-A18/19
How can anthropological analysis of “security” and violence disrupt liberal myths?
Essay AS2 TERM 3 2019
Tutor Damian Walter
Word count: 3000
Integral to liberal promises over their long durée of ideational articulation and practical
implementation is the notion of liberal ideology as constituting the ultimate solution to
humanity’s suffering. By way of a linear evolutionary path of economic and political progress
marked by freedom and tolerance each and every man and society will allow mankind to reach
its peak potential and achieve a life in perpetual peace. Liberalism has thus historically been
advocated as a force for good: bringing light to dark times and dark corners of the world,
engendering indiviudal and collective emancipation against tyrannic authorities, imbuing
mankind with equal rights and responsibilites, and when deploying force doing so justly in the
name of necessity (Asad 2003; 2010, Mehta 1999). Critical attention to lived experiences of
violence and the complex and contested meanings and realities of (in)security, however,
fundamentally upsets such references to a liberal promise. By focusing on how liberal narratives
of benevolence are constructed through particular political-legal frames of rationalisation and
differentiation, from Cold War to Global War on Terror great power policies and the military
and legal systems of humanitarian intervention, this paper explores how anthropological
analysis of security and violence can disrupt liberal myths.
Liberal myths in the anthropological imaginary
For long anthropologists have engaged with the systems and structures, ideas and practices,
professed ideations and lived realities of liberalism (Asad 2003, Bell 2014, Losurdo 2011,
Mehta 1999, Vora 2018). As often as this engagement has been active and critical, the history
of the anthropological discipline paints an equally vivid picture of implication and complicity
(Asad 1973, Kuklick 1993). Perhaps because of its record of facilitating a knowledgeproduction centred around the construction of backwards exotic Others as encountered by the
superiority of Western progressive society (Kuper 1988, Said 1989), anthropology’s dealing
with its own colonial past has been transcendental to the point of “reinvention” (Hymes 1972,
Sinclaire and Jobson 2016). Almost four decades of disciplinary crisis brought into being a selfreflexivity and sensitivity towards its own methods, subject-matters, theory-building tactics and
intellectual agendas many other disciplines can only dream of (Bunzl 2005, Harrison 1991).
The postmodern and poststructural reworking of anthropological knowledge-production1 from
Including the integration of analytical and practical attention to just how knowledge is produced not only
within the own discipline but as part of any ethnographic exploration.
the 1960s and onwards2 has equipped the discipline with key tools for inquiring into the past
and present production of liberal thought and workings of liberal rule. It is therefore in the
articulation of anthropology as a method for and theory of cultural critique, juxtaposition, and
comparison this paper embarks, attempting a critical evaluation of liberal myth-building and
the practices they spawn through juxtaposing the frames and systems invoked by liberal powers
to rationalise and justify their use of force against grounded (counter)experiences of (in)security
and violence. Key to anthropology’s ability to locate and challenge the means by which liberal
projects of exploitation and hegemony are justified and rationalised through the construction of
narratives of necessity and well-meaning (the discursive projection of good intentions), is the
discipline’s history of constant attentiveness to the intersections of the local with the global and
particularity with (claims to) universality. The same goes for the long worked out habit of
placing lived experiences and material realities next to theoretical abstractions of structure and
discourse. (Appadurai 1991, Behrouzan 2016, Tsing 2004; 1994)
The myths of interest to this essay revolve around various interconnected claims to
universality, equality and liberalism as the bringer of peace and security, such as through
democratisation, marketisation and (individual, social and financial) liberalisation (Brown
2003, De Angelis 2003). In other words, liberalism as a global force for good (Beate 2005,
Doyle 1986, Wai 2014). Such accounts of peace and (emancipatory) progress deployed to
rationalise liberal forms of (everyday) warfare are ultimately upset by paying attention to how
conceptions of and experiences with (in)security diverge between state narratives and citizen
realities, along with localised stories about violence where state and international policies of
force are received and made real (Beate 2005, Kienscherf 2011). The following sections will
explore the production, operationalisation and lived realities of these myths using cases from
American and British policies of national security mobilised within varying frames of fear and
instances of liberal order-making expressed through the institutions and structures of
international humanitarian law (IHL).
Dictating security policy, living insecurity: ethnographizing the liberal promise
“The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and
destroy it where it grows… This is not … just America's fight, … what is at stake is not just
America's freedom. This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight. This is the fight of all
who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom” George W. Bush declared in an
See: Bourdieu (1990), Boyer (2002), Fischer (2018), Lyotard (1979), Marcus and Fischer (1986), Marcus
address to the Congress and Nation in late September 2001 (Washington Post). “The United
States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe.
We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free
trade to every corner of the world” the US National Security Strategy (NSS 2002) read a year
later. In her speech addressing the public following the attack on Westminster in 2017 Theresa
May announced, “the terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of
all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty,
democracy and freedom of speech. These streets of Westminster … are ingrained with a spirit
of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe” (GOV.UK). Accordingly,
when advocating his support for Bush’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tony Blair professed that “for
all their faults and all nations have them, the US are a force for good” (The Guardian). Emerging
from the rhetoric and message common to most state justifications for Global War on Terror
(GWOT) measures is consequently the promise of safeguarding and spreading the conditions
for a “liberal peace”. Wherein “a pacific world order based on liberal democracy, market
economics and the rule of law” is to be achieved through “West-led engagement in the world’s
conflict spaces and institutional innovation in global governance” (Rampton and Nadarajah
2017, 441-2). As theorised by many interested in the agendas and interests underlying policies
mobilised under GWOT banners since 9/11, the multiple and varied practices of
counterinsurgency (COIN) especially deployed by leading Euro-American powers such as the
UK and the US share the common (rhetorical) goal of extending this liberal zone of peace
globally (Gilmore 2011, Kienscherf 2011).
When comparing these frames of justification – whereby state policies of prevention
and response are mobilised through testimonials of protecting national, and by extension, world
security – with the nature and outcomes of the practices they generate, liberal peace appear
more as the perpetuation of a benevolent visage through which to legitimate and preserve global
liberal rule. Attesting to this, Kienscherf (2011, 531) demonstrates how US COIN doctrine
rather than constituting a “programme of global peace and stability” seeks to pacify
“recalcitrant” populations across the globe and render them governable within (neo)liberal
logics of accumulation and exploitation. This is done by way of a biopolitical project
distinguishing between what liberal proponents designate as “dangerous” versus “safe” forms
of life, in other words deeming eradicable people who either refuse or challenge neoliberal
governmentality (2011, 530) 3. Furthermore, US GWOT strategies are continuously justified
For a discussion on the Foucauldian notion of governmentality including the restructuring of time, space and
minds to abide by liberal ideological and material concerns, see: De Angelis (2003 14-15), Kienscherf (2011),
through terror-related politics of fear animating the various tropes concerned with preserving
national security and world peace through participatory democracy, free markets and
(universal) human rights. However, when following these strategies to their implementation on
the ground results point in the opposite direction: conditions for democracy both domestically
and in the locations of intervention such as Iraq (Lafer 2004, Laffey and Weldes 2005),
Afghanistan (Egnell 2010, Mahendrarajah 2014, Ucko 2013) and Libya (Wai 2014) are actively
undermined while even concerns for US national security is ultimately trumped by efforts to
enable and facilitate (neoconservative) private capital accumulation4.
Two main issues are of importance here, introducing the critical work enabled through
anthropological analysis: firstly, the way in which state references to national security are
rendered hollow by the practical outcomes and interests ensured in their name; secondly, this
brings attention to how security is differently defined, envisioned and lived not only between
state and citizen discourses and experiences but between different citizen bodies. “‘Security’
calls on the power of fear to fill the ruptures that the crises and contradictions of neoliberalism
have engendered and so functions as a principal tool of state formation and governmentality in
the world today” Goldstein (2010, 487) notes laying out the frameworks for a critical
anthropology of security. This focus engages with how the contemporary “security moment”
comprises both state attempts to maintain neoliberal hegemony through security related frames
and the formulation and enactment of alternative local (citizen-based) security regimes.
Foremost, however, such an anthropology begs the question of how (in)security is lived. The
following section will provide key examples of security’s corporeal reality, tracing UK and US
based cases of incarceration and rendition, citizenship deprivation and plutonium-induced
“states of insecurity” in post-Cold War New Mexico.
Set in the ethnographically multisited field of globally dispensed ordinary detention
centres and extraordinary prisons, Li (2018) traces the physical articulations of US imperial
hegemony as expressed through the global “carcarel circulation” (471) of “out-of-place
Muslims” (456). Focusing on the cases of Umar (Algerian) and Imad (Egyptian) resident in
Bosnia-Herzegovina since the 1990s war whose Bosnian citizenships were revoked upon being
deported by US command in the wake of September 11 – Umar to the extraterritorial prison of
Guantánamo (GTMO) and Imad to his country of origin – Li offers an alternative account of
Laffey and Weldes (2005), Lafer (2004), Rampton and Nadarajah (2017), Wai (2014).
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) is a key example of this ‘neocon’ “movement”, see:
Cubukcu (2018), Lafer (2004).
GWOT practices promoting liberal world peace5. Rather than telling a story of increased
security and enhanced liberal values, the realities of extraordinary renditions, ad-hoc
denationalisation, detention and incarceration are characterised by human rights violations,
prevention of due process, extrajudicial violence, and the dispersal of responsibility whereby
great powers such as the US guarantee their own impunity (Li 2018). Similarly, Kapoor and
Narkowicz (2017) have studied the proliferation of state practices of arbitrary citizenship
deprivation and the effective “unmaking” of citizens by the UK government through passport
removals and temporary exclusion orders legitimized by defending national security against
potential terrorist threats. Demonstrated in the stories of the eight British Muslim interviewees
whose passports were removed by the UK government on fragile evidentiary bases (starkly
prejudiced and often based in speculation rather than proof (2017, 11) is the violence done by
state policies in the name of security, ultimately creating rather than preventing conditions of
insecurity for designated bodies of the citizenry.
Consequently, the narratives arising from such anthropological lenses elucidate and
confirm the necessity of acknowledging security – discursively and practically, rhetorically and
lived – as complex and contested. Exploring the post-Cold War everyday practices and
experiences of indigenous communities in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Masco (1999, 204) found
the US Southwest to constitute a “subaltern international space”. Herein, US nuclear policies
to fend for national security against the external threat of the Soviet Union de facto resulted in
the endangering and demolition of domestic lands and nationals. (A policy to no small degree
engendered by the economic interests emerging around the rise of the plutonium industry for
instance facilitating the usage of depleted-uranium by US and UK soldiers in the Second Gulf
War. Another instance of “slow violence” erased from public and legal scrutiny as the eco- and
biological aftermaths of chemical warfare lack the immediate spectacle of kinetic warfare but
continue to reap victims for generations to come (Davis 1993, Masco 2017, Nixon 2011). “The
social imaginaries where concepts of ‘national security’ meet practices of ‘national sacrifice’”
(Masco 1999, 204) demonstrate a lived reality wherein the indigenous communities of New
Mexico continue to (literally) bear the consequences of more than five decades of nuclear
security policy. In bringing home the liberal promise of national and global peace and stability,
the US effectively produce spaces of insecurity and everyday (corporeal and environmental)
violence as much within its own boarders as across its numerous sites of overt and covert
For a genealogy of the operationalisation of incarceration practices within liberal rule, see Khalili (2012).
intervention. A violence, again however, only allowed to reach particular groups within the
Naming violence: liberalism’s exclusive universality
Another way of exposing the hollow promises made within liberal declarations of democracy,
progress, peace and universality is through paying critical attention to the politics of naming6
and the construction of frames of justification for the liberal use of force within the international
structures, systems and institutions of international humanitarian law (IHL); a key embodiment
of the discrepancy between liberal values as professed and the practical mechanisms and
realities of their implementation. IHL offers a crucial window into ways in which liberal ideals
have always been attained through policies of exclusion and differentiation. As demonstrated
by Anghie (2007), Krever (2014) and Mégret (2006) the present structures of international law
originated in the efforts of colonial powers to legalise and justify continued colonial rule.
Accordingly, the ultimate ‘peace-policing’ bodies of the international community today like the
United Nations (with particular emphasis on the Security Council) and the International
Criminal Court (ICC) share records of enabling certain uses of force while criminalising others
along the lines of differentiating between legitimate (civilised, just) and illegitimate (savage,
unjust) violence (Asad 2010, Mamdani 2009). Such a politics must be situated within the longer
frame not only of liberal order-making (Rampton and Nadarajah 2017) but liberal war-making
constantly seeking ways of rationalising its usage of force and engendering of violence.
“What distinguishes warfare by powers that claim adherence to liberal principles is the
invocation of law and legality as structuring the conduct of war” Khalili (2012, 4) notes, along
with “a discourse of humanitarian intent”. As seen in the biopolitical division between wanted
(protectable) and unwanted (killable) forms of life in US COIN strategies, “liberal
counterinsurgencies” depend on such processes of racialisation whereby “a racial hierarchy
resolves the tensions between illiberal methods and liberal discourse” (Khalili 2012, 4-5).
Attention to the recent history of militarised humanitarian interventionism especially since the
invocation of the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2006 (Asad 2010, Mamdani
2009, Wai 2014) and the cases deemed prosecutable by the ICC since its inception in 2002
(Krever 2014, Mamdani 2009) illustrate a liberal monopoly over the international use of force
and the structures and institutions with which to legitimate and rationalise it while criminalising
its illiberal counterparts.
See Trouillot (1995).
Intervention under the banner of R2P and legal indictment through the ICC can be
legitimised in cases of “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes” (Mamdani 2009,
53). Comparing the cases of intrastate conflict in Darfur and Acholiland, and US COIN warfare
in Iraq, Mamdani (2009) found the institutionalisation of the practice of dispensing Krever’s
(2014) notion of a “victors’ justice” safeguarding “victors’ impunity”. While US violence in
Iraq and Ugandan state violence against counterinsurgents in Acholiland were rationalised and
hidden from legal purview, the ICC chose only to name the violence in Darfur as genocidal
despite the former conflicts shedding as many to more lives. Furthermore, blame was directed
only at president Omar al-Bashir in the case of Sudan and at the Lord’s Resistance Army in the
case of Uganda. (Harry, Lydiah and Srinivasan 2009, Mamdani 2009) Effectively, these cases
demonstrate how “the Court’s selective and highly politicized interventions have operated to
reproduce one-sided narratives of complex conflicts, demonizing some perpetrators as hostis
humani generis, while legitimating military interventions in the name of humanity” (Krever
2014, 97). Again, anthropological analysis holds crucial potential as a conduit for locating such
ways in which victors’ justice, neo-imperial pursuits and racialized differentiations of violence
are both facilitated and framed: equally by way of scrutinising discourse and documentproduction within IHL institutions (see Kelly 2009, Merry 2006) and through reporting on the
lived experiences of violence, conflict and militarism from the sites of intervention.
From British, Bosnian and Middle-Eastern Muslims’ to Native and Hispanic Americans’
personal narratives and corporeal accounts of state practices in the name of national security,
starkly different realities than those envisioned in liberal rhetoric emerge. Attention to
experiences of how security policy is not only enacted but lived demonstrates the ultimate
tendency of state performances projecting liberal promises of peace and justice to produce its
own states of insecurity, normalising and institutionalising various forms of violence. Apart
from rendering visible and heard the lifeworlds of those at the receiving end of security regimes’
state-centric and status quo inclined imaginations of safety and threat and the responses
formulated as a result, anthropological analysis enables the key juxtaposition of such lived
experiences with the politics going into the production of knowledge and difference on which
liberal myths depend for their naturalisation and implementation. Corporeal realities must be
explained within an understanding of just how state and international institutions and structures
(wherein and through which domestic security policy and international humanitarian law is
conceptualised and implemented) name, define and differentiate between just and unjust
violence, safe and dangerous forms of life, protected and killable bodies, rational and irrational
values and practices. Without such parallel insights into how liberal pillars of universality,
equality, freedom, justice, progress and peace are not only politically and legally but also
socially and culturally produced, it would be difficult to fully elucidate and explain
circumstances such as how it comes that US Cold War national security policy helped render
(some) foreign populations safer than (selected) parts of its own. Indeed, by way of grounded
anthropological theory and ethnographic inquiry into reality as lived, liberalism’s hailed
emblems of inclusivity and benevolence can be exposed as at all times dependent on logics and
practices of exclusion and force.
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