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Civilizing Security

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A book recently published by two criminologists, Ian Loader and Neil Walker, titled Civilizing Security (CUP, 2007), aims to provide some useful reflections on the way that the state manages security in the world today. Essentially their argument is both that genuine security has a ‘civilizing’ effect on social relations – the less fearful and anxious people are, the less likely they are to do dreadful things to each other – and that the state’s management of security itself requires on-going ‘civilizing’, by which they mean subject to democratic accountability.

I’m still reading through the book, so now is not the time to comment on the overall project, but I can’t resist responding to some things they’ve said about Elias and the concept of civilization. On page 17, they make some comments about the relationship of their book to Elias and his understanding of ‘the process of civilization’. It’s in a footnote, no doubt a belated response to reviewer’s query about the book’s title and its relationship to Elias’s work. The note is worth quoting in full:

We should make it clear…that our title is not intended to reference, or to signal an explicit alignment with, the work of Norbert Elias on the ‘civilizing process’ (Elias 1939/1978, 1939/1982). Elias’s historical sociology of long-term developments in the cultivation of manners, regulation of passionate drives and the control of private violence clearly has some overlap with the argument outlined here… But the idea of civilizing security is, for us, much more specifically about the practice of taming private violence by redirecting the passions that security and threats to it arouses into and through political and legal institutions and regulating the violent potential of those public institutions. Here our inspiration and debt lies rather more in Mahatma Ghandi’s famous response to being asked what he thought of western civilization. In replying that ‘it would be a good idea’, Ghandi supplied an immanent critique of the claims of western governments to be ‘civilized’ couples with the thought that ‘civilization’ remains, for all the atrocities that have been carried out in its name, a desirable and unfinished political project.

There are a number of things one can say about this passage. First, it’s striking that Loader and Walker refer only to The Civilizing Process, and not to anything else Elias wrote, especially The Germans, and only to the very first translation, split into first volume in 1978 and the second in 1982. There appears, then, to be a population of very senior and influential scholars in areas such as criminology who haven’t noticed that subsequent editions of The Civilizing Process have been published, and who don’t feel inclined to read beyond that book. In fact, and no doubt this is wholly unfair, for me this referencing practice suggests that Loader & Walker are merely relying on secondary summaries of Elias.

This impression is reinforced by my second observation, which is Loader & Walker’s claim for the primary difference between their account and Elias’s approach, namely that their book is ‘much more specifically about the practice of taming private violence by redirecting the passions that security and threats to it arouses into and through political and legal institutions and regulating the violent potential of those public institutions’. In fact this is precisely what Elias’s work is also about, so it’s a distinction without a difference. Their assertion that they’re more interested than Elias was in civilization as ‘a desirable and unfinished political project’ further suggests that they haven’t read the conclusion to The Civilizing Process, nor even the extensive secondary literature on Elias which consistently makes a point of emphasizing the significance of the arguments there for even a rudimentary understanding of Elias. They are worth quoting with respect to the concerns of Civilizing Security:

Only when the tensions between and within states have been mastered is there a chance that … the common pattern of self-control expected of people can be confined to those restraints which are necessary in order that they can live with each other and with themselves with a high chance of enjoyment and a low chance of fear – be it of others, be it of themselves …Then it need no longer be the exception, then it may even be the rule… that condition to which one so often refers with big words such as ‘happiness’ and ‘freedom’: a more durable balance, a better attunement, between the overall demands of people’s social existence on the one hand, and their personal needs and inclinations on the other. If the structure of human figurations, of people’s interdependencies, has these characteristics, if the co-existence of people with each other … functions in such a way that it is possible for all those bonded to each other in this manner to attain this balance, then and only then can humans say of themselves with some justice that they are civilized. Until then they are at best in the process of becoming civilized. Until then they may as best say: the civilizing process is under way, or, with the old Holbach: “la civilization … n’est past encore terminée.” (2000: 447)

It was precisely Elias’s concern, then, to outline how unfinished the pursuit of a peaceful, happy and secure life was, and to identify the main institutional, social and psychological prerequisites essential to the gradual attainment of that aspiration.

Finally, it’s become popular to quote Ghandi’s reported response to the question concerning Western civilization ‘it would be a good idea’, in order to convey the idea of the on-going nature of civilization as a process. I’ve already pointed out how this was exactly what Elias was arguing, but there are also more things one can say about Ghandi and how he understood the concept of civilization which are important to keep in mind, and which may make us less inclined to quote him. Leaving aside the question of whether Ghandi actually said this (another version of the comment is “I think that it would be something worth trying!”), in fact Ghandi said a few things which suggested he actually didn’t think civilization, at least in its Western form, a good idea at all. He saw western civilization as being concerned solely with material progress – better-built houses, clothing, agricultural techniques, technology – but at the expense of morality and religion. In Indian Home Rule Ghandi wrote:

This civilization is irreligion, and it has taken such a hold on the people in Europe that those who are in it appear to be half mad. They lack real physical strength or courage. They keep up their energy by intoxication. They can hardly be happy in solitude. Women, who should be the queens of households, wander in the streets or they slave away in factories. For the sake of a pittance, half a million women in England alone are laboring under trying circumstances in factories or similar institutions. This awful act is one of the causes of the daily growing suffragette movement.
This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. According to the teaching of Mohammed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it a Black Age … It is eating into the vitals of the English nation. It must be shunned. Parliaments are really emblems of slavery … Civilization is not an incurable disease, but it should never be forgotten that the English are at present afflicted by it.

In reality Ghandi didn’t even remotely consider specifically ‘Western’ civilization a ‘desirable’ political project, for a range of reasons that aligned with a variety of internal critics of the West – its effect on the environment, its insatiable developmentalism, its secularism, hedonism and neglect of morality, the pace of everyday life, the emphasis on consumerism, the absorption of women into the paid workforce, its imperialist orientation to the rest of the world, especially, of course, India. In anything that idea is more a feature of Elias’s writings, although even there one has to recall his general avoidance of a normative position on civilization as well as his account of processes of decivilization.