Technopolitics of Security

Security Dialogue recently published a special issue, edited by Frank I. Muller and Matthew A. Richmond, which explores how technologies condition the way that security is enacted and experienced.

Security technology. Image by Pexar from Pixabay

We argue that as well as human actors, such as police, militaries, private security companies or criminal groups, objects and technologies also shape everyday experiences of, and political debates around, security. While it is often assumed that state security forces are responsible for guaranteeing citizens’ personal safety and the integrity of their property, we show that technologies themselves heavily shape and often constrain these capacities.

We refer to this mutual relationship between technologies and politics as technopolitics. As we discuss in detail, technopolitics refers to the intentional design and use of technologies to enact political goals – in this case security goals. However, we note that such attempts often produce effects that are not intended by their designers. Technologies may fail, work in unexpected ways, or be reappropriated by other actors pursuing different political goals. As such, they may alter logics of political contestation, creating both challenges and opportunities for different human actors. We note that an important tendency is for security technologies to be increasingly future-oriented, attempting to predict and shape the behavior of different actors, including police and citizens.

One current example is the use of crowdsourced big data in the policing of cities. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, a publicly accessible website called CrimeRadar was tested, inviting citizens to report on incidents of criminal behavior that they witnessed in their local neighborhoods or elsewhere in the city. CrimeRadar would gather and map these security incidents in order to visualize “the safety levels in specific locations and times.” It thereby promised to make “crime data more accessible and transparent” so as to “improve security for citizens.” In this way, the website/technology was to use reports to predict future crimes and make urban residents and visitors aware of places that may be dangerous at certain times of the day.

Crime Radar, screenshot from:

CrimeRadar is a telling case of security technopolitics. Having received critical comments on social media, the project was put on standby, pushing the developers to revise the “intentional or unintentional achievements” of the use of this technology. Reflecting on the technology’s embeddedness in local politics and conflicts, and its potential misuse by conservative demands for tough-on-crime policing approaches, the developers set out to further study the social impact of big data based crime prediction technologies. In this direction, a technopolitical analysis conceives such platforms as private initiatives that present themselves as a corrective to the perceived inability or unwillingness of state actors to reduce crime rates. They present users with information about crimes that have not yet occurred. Like a weather forecast, such platforms, and the maps they produce, tell users where and when to expect criminal behavior so they can adjust their own behavior accordingly. The average user does not know how such data has been produced and processed. Although relying on reporting by citizens, which may be subject to error and misuse, the publicly accessible maps give an impression of authority and objectivity. Furthermore, the website tends to reproduce the unintended outcome of shaping public attitudes towards specific places – contributing to what has been described as stigmatization of those places and those who live there. The special issue explores diverse other examples of technopolitical security interventions and their intended and unintended outcomes in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Kingston, Guatemala City and São Paulo. Collectively the issue furthers the material turn in critical security studies and identifies some of its key analytical implications. In doing so, it traces the complex, contingent and ambivalent interactions between technologies and politics in the production of security. Finally, it sheds new light on the way sovereignty is performed and contested, locating this in quotidian interactions between people and people and things.

Private Security Contractors and the porousness of International Enclaves

Photo: Jethro Norman

International green zones like Baghdad’s ‘Emerald City’ or Kabul’s ‘Kabubble’ are usually understood to be insular, ‘bunkerised’, and sealed off from the outside world. However, my research with private security contractors in Mogadishu shows that these enclaves are far more porous than we assume.

In a recent article in Security Dialogue, I argue that international enclaves have an inherent ‘plasticity’ that is not captured by the motif of the bunker. Mogadishu’s green zone is populated by a diverse and fluctuating array of actors, including African Union Peacekeepers, UN agencies, diplomatic staff, various humanitarian actors and ‘frontier’ businesses. The image of the bunker aptly describes the physical and psychic experience of many of these individuals. However, private security contractors, often overlooked in the wider literature, tend to spend more time in these spaces, have less restrictions on their mobility and can reach ‘outside the wire’ in ways that many of these more transient international workers cannot.

In the article, I explore how these security contractors often assume the role of gatekeepers: ferrying high-profile diplomats between secure compounds, meeting and greeting wide-eyed aid workers at the airport, or providing sanitised security briefs to international agencies. I highlight in particular their use of risk mapping as an important technique that doubly reproduces the city as ‘red’ and the international enclave as ‘green’. These exercises also have their own internal logic, effectively allowing security contractors to define and measure their own success. Security contractors are therefore heavily invested in the binary image of a safe green zone and a dangerous and unpredictable red zone, because it confers power and legitimacy to them and their actions.

The paradox, however, is that in playing the role of the gatekeeper, security contractors frequently transgress the boundaries of the green zone. Beyond the façade of the self-contained enclave, their mobility is reliant on ‘local’ and diasporic Somali partners who navigate the complexities of Mogadishu on their behalf. Indeed, some contractors have emerged as opportunistic power brokers connecting Somali entrepreneurs to international resources within the green zone. In turn, these Somali partners may invest and profit not only from security, but also from the commodification of (exclusive) entertainment and hospitality within the green zone. As investment has intensified, increasing numbers of Somali (and East African) circulate into the green zone to work as cooks, cleaners and couriers, thereby rendering it ever more porous.

Through the example of Mogadishu, this article helps us to rethink spaces of international intervention, and the everyday practices of the actors within them. The idea of a sealed off, bunkerized green zone is actively produced by and to the benefit of multiple actors residing outside as well as inside the blast walls. However, taking this binary for granted risks obfuscating the complex relationships and practices that cut across the green zone’s apparently neat boundaries.

Book Review: On Posthuman War: Computation and Military Violence

by Mike Hill 2022. London: University of Minnesota Press. 237pp. ISBN: 978-0-8166-6090-2.

In the past two decades, talks about ‘everywhere’ and ‘endless’ wars have become familiar refrains among scholars of critical security studies. Whether as a strategic consequence of the use of new weapons and media or as part of a political discourse aimed at justifying armed intervention domestically and overseas, the blurring of traditional analytical categories – the battlefield, wartime, combatants and civilians – is key to current understandings of the changing character of war. On Posthuman War: Computation and Military Violence turns our attention back to these claims to radically rethink their implications. The destitution of the boundaries between war and peace in the twenty-first century – author Mike Hill suggests – are not epiphenomenal to technological capability or political agendas. Instead, these transformations are symptomatic of a new mode of military violence actively engaged in “the technical redefinition of what it means to be a human being” (3). To understand the peculiarity of contemporary war, we need to capture the emergence of the human at the intersection of the cultural, biological, material and computational realms.

‘Hill presents a far-reaching and thought-provoking analysis, whose theoretical elocution hints at the importance of revisiting claims that are often taken for granted in critical security studies.’

            Hill’s analysis foregrounds the role of computation as conceptually and practically central to posthuman war. As the author’s systematic exploration of military engagements in demography (chapter 1), anthropology (chapter 2), and neuroscience (chapter 3) shows, contemporary war-making sees human beings not simply as friends or enemies, soldiers or civilians, but as the quantifiable outcome of calculation and categorisation processes. In so doing, On Posthuman War simultaneously adds to Foucauldian debates on the liberal way of war and on recent conversations on posthumanism in security studies. First, the book offers a critical reading of military violence that furthers the ontological reach of Foucault-inspired analyses: if in Clausewitz’s military thought war is ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, and in Foucault’s famous dictum politics is ‘the continuation of war by other means’, posthuman war focuses on “the means themselves”, and on how notions of humanity are computed as the very means of violence (5, 35, 48). Further, this study provides a previously underexplored entry point into posthuman theorisations of war and security. Building on Badiou’s mathematical reading of ontology, speculative realist philosophies and Bergson’s theories of mind, Hill is less directly interested in the historico-political question of “the human” per se (see, for instance, Cudworth and Hobden, 2015; Moore, 2020; Wilcox, 2017), and instead focuses on its radical reliance on far-reaching dynamics of numbering and scale today. As the Western military lexicon becomes populated with ideas of systems, networks, big data and ubiquitous enemies, war extends not just beyond the bodily capabilities of human beings, but it fundamentally concerns the very “definition of the humanity, the primacy of communication, and the way reality is understood” (5).

            In putting forward this computational understanding of posthuman war, the author develops a set of conceptual tools that enhance, but also disrupt, critical frameworks in war and security studies. These interventions carry serious political implications, suggesting that some well-established categories of critical analysis – ethnicity and race war, culture and community, cognition and identity – may be myopic to the multiplicity and (in)calculable potentiality of posthuman war, which encompasses the totality of social relations down to the neural impulses in our brains. In this respect, the book develops at least two significant lines of argument. The first one revolves around the notion of ‘identity infiltration’. Borrowing the phrase from the US-produced Terrorist Recognition Handbook, Hill deploys it as a metaphor to understand how apparently peaceful state activities, like the census, use computation to co-opt, explode and weaponise identity and racial diversity (chapter 1). Rather than upholding liberal ideals of inclusion, the multiplication of ethnic categories in the US census – and their countless combinations – has arguably enabled illiberal practices of state violence that see identity as fluid and multiple and thus conceives of all citizens as potential targets.

Secondly, building on identity infiltration, On Posthuman War emphasises the largely neglected materiality of computation in contemporary war. Exploring increasingly data-driven counterinsurgency practices (chapter 2) and state-of-the-art research in military neuroscience (chapter 3), the author shows how the turn away from fixed and phenotypic notions of identity does not translate into purely culturalist and immaterial forms of war-making. The real-time virtualisation and digitalisation of the battlefield seems to ignore subjective understandings of ethnic community in favour of an accurate depiction of its physical properties – from the geography of the ‘human terrain’ in counterinsurgency to brain activity and corporeal ‘terrain’ in neuroscience. As martial violence becomes computationally sustained, identity categories are functionally replaced by the materiality of the battlefield. ‘Whiteness’ here exists not as a racial marker but as a realm of calculability: this is the ‘whiteness’ of armed civilians who cannot be classified as friends (blue) or foes (red) (123) or the ‘whiteness’ of the axons that regulate data-transmission in the brain (the so-called white matter). Through a deep exploration of the importance of computation in contemporary military violence, On Posthuman War exposes human subjectivity as the by-product of an entanglement of data and matter which exceeds the critical purchase of categories like race and gender (contrast this, for instance, with Wilcox, 2017).

‘As demography, anthropology and neuroscience place computation at the heart of martial violence, the subjects of war are to be found not simply within fixed categories of racial identity, cultural communities or human cognition, but at the dynamic intersection of matter and data.’

            Hill presents a far-reaching and thought-provoking analysis, whose theoretical elocution hints at the importance of revisiting claims that are often taken for granted in critical security studies. However, the book leaves some important questions unanswered, especially in relation to the politics of the human, identity and race. The author clarifies that “to say that war extends into the formerly neutral territory of the human being per se is not to disregard the historical record”, as his focus is strictly on “how computational intelligence takes part in the expansion of military violence” more recently (2-3). Yet, this general lack of contextualisation begs the question of whether the book’s main conceptual pillars – the human and computation – can be truly considered “formerly neutral” (2) or “neither good or evil” (12). On the one hand, the premise that the human constitutes a “formerly neutral terrain” of war risks inheriting the understatement of racial violence that characterises Foucauldian security studies (Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2019). From this perspective, it is hard to claim any novelty in the permeation of war within the domain of the human without overlooking how slavery and racial violence have been “fundamental to the idea of the human that formed the basis for biopower” (Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2019: 5-6). If anything, it could be argued that the “redefinition of what it means to be a human being” (3) has historically been productive of the difference between war and peace, masters and slaves, liberal states and barbaric peripheries. On the other hand, while the book makes an incisive case for the role of computation in warfare, its statement of a shift away from identity and race as politically consequential categories might be difficult to accept without reservation. With critical scholars like Ruha Benjamin (2019) and Katherine McKittrick (2014, 2021) emphasising the relevance of mathematics, computation and algorithmic decision-making to racial violence – from the reduction of Black life to numerical inventory in transatlantic slavery to premature death sentences in predictive policing – it still seems analytically important to consider how computational systems produce human beings while simultaneously dehumanising others in advance (McKittrick 2021: 113).

            On Posthuman War presents a powerful analysis of contemporary warfare in an age when numbers define what counts in and as war by reshaping the concept and substance of humanity. As demography, anthropology and neuroscience place computation at the heart of martial violence, the subjects of war are to be found not simply within fixed categories of racial identity, cultural communities or human cognition, but at the dynamic intersection of matter and data. Thanks to its deep theoretical elaboration on these phenomena, this book will be of interest to scholars engaged in debates on the liberal way of war and on the (post-)human in critical security studies, as well as to theoretically-inclined military sociologists. By offering an underexplored perspective on key assumptions informing these fields today, On Posthuman War provides serious tools for critical analysis which – perhaps not without some caution – promise to stimulate transdisciplinary conversation on the posthuman face of war.  


Benjamin R (2019) Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cudworth E and Hobden S (2015) The Posthuman Way of War. Security Dialogue 46(6): 513-529.

Howell A and Richter-Montpetit M (2019) Racism in Foucauldian Security Studies: Biopolitics, Liberal War, and the Whitewashing of Colonial and Racial Violence. International Political Sociology 13(1): 2-19.

McKittrick K (2014) Mathematics Black Life. The Black Scholar 44(2): 16-28.

McKittrick K (2021) Failure (My Heart was Full of Misty Fumes of Doubt). In: McKittrick K, Dear Science and Other Stories. London: Duke University Press: 103-121.

Moore L (2020) Posthuman War: Race, Gender, Technology, and the Making of U.S. Military Futures. PhD Thesis, Centre for Gender Studies, University of Cambridge.

Wilcox L (2017) Embodying Algorithmic War: Gender, Race and the Posthuman in Drone Warfare. Security Dialogue 48(1): 11-28.

Book review: Counterterrorism Strategies in Egypt: Permanent Exceptions in the War on Terror

by Ahmed M. Abozaid, Routledge, 2022, pp. 176. ISBN: 0367714639

Abozaid starts his book “Counterterrorism strategies in Egypt; permanent exceptions in the War on Terror” with a personal encounter with security forces. This opening is a powerful reminder for security scholars how counter-terrorism policies, post-colonial legacies and legal protection are not merely conceptual lenses but part of our everyday lives and encounters with the state. The book aims to unpack counter-terrorism discourses and practices as modes of control and domination. The book provides an empirical rich and thorough analysis of “the history of terrorist and opposition groups in Egypt, and the methods and techniques that Egyptian authorities have employed to combat these groups” ( Abozaid, 2022: 124). While the empirics of the book are grounded in Egypt, Abozaid makes three important contributions that are of interest to a broader community of scholars in (critical) security studies and terrorism studies.

The book provides an empirical rich and thorough analysis of “the history of terrorist and opposition groups in Egypt

First, the book illustrates the importance of decentering Europe and the US as dominant places of (counter)terrorism knowledge and practice. The second chapter of the book is a genealogy of the Egypt’s legislative, judicial and police institutions, starting from the colonial period (1882-1956) and the post-colonial era (1956-2017). This genealogical approach shows how colonial laws in 1914 are foundational in the current counter-terrorism discourse and practices. British colonialism enforced its own rules to control both the Egyptian population and the country’s resources. As such, it took it upon itself to propose the legal understanding of “terrorism” as any act that would challenge its authority. Using legislation to denounce political resistance as ‘terrorism’ the British authorities adopted a series of laws to oppress Egyptians and to allow for excessive use of force against potential revolutionaries.

Contrary to common scholarly argument that bound Egypt’s state of emergency the post-colonial era and the reformations of 1956, Abozaid powerfully proposes that this state of emergency was first set in 1914 by British colonial powers. This historical analysis decenters the US’ and European narrative on the timing and relevance of counterterrorism measures. I propose that future research in security studies can benefit from a comparative focus on post-colonial societies, as the case of Egypt is not unique.  Other post-colonial scholars have described similar practices in other countries including British colonial rules in India (Parashar, 2020) and France’s violent counter-terrorism measures in Algeria (Evans, 2012). In all these contexts, colonial imaginaries of “terrorism” were mobilized to pass laws that ultimately function to police and surveil populations, to govern them in a way that makes political contestation impossible, and to allow for exceptional means to inflict violence. Abozaid here draws on post-colonial theorists to explain how these colonial practices are then continued by post-colonial rulers, essentially perpetuating the discourse of “exceptional threats” to legitimize contemporary counterterrorism practices. The book draws on Fanon’s work that explains how “the colonized always dream of taking the colonist’s place”. In other words, the elites in post-colonial locales that take over control after independence often reproduce colonial forms of domination and capital (see also Salem, 2020). These novel elites or bourgeoisies, continue to be trapped in a global capitalist system where former colonies exist in a dependent relationship with the imperial metropole. As a result, the bourgeoisie does not only continue to serve the capitalist interest of the metropole, but they “tend to rely on violence and tyranny as a system and a method of governance” (Abozaid, 2022: 51). This historical approach offers a refreshing take on counter-terrorism policies, not taking 9/11 or other Western-centric moments as the starting point of inquiry but showing the long colonial origins of current counterterrorism laws.

This historical approach offers a refreshing take on counter-terrorism policies, not taking 9/11 or other Western-centric moments as the starting point of inquiry but showing the long colonial origins of current counterterrorism laws.

Second, through the conclusion that counter-terrorism legislations are inherently coercive and deployed for domination, Abozaid argues that we need to shift our attention to an actor that has been overlooked in traditional terrorism studies: the state. In critical security studies, scholars have previously paid attention to questions of state violence, in particular studying the ways in which Western states engage in racist practices of surveillance, policing and prosecuting (for example Abu Bakare, 2022; Barkawi & Laffey, 2006). What the examples in the book show, however, is how state counter-terrorism discourse is inherently violent and coercive. This is a fundamentally different analytical take on counter-terrorism practices, where violence by the state is not an (unintended) consequence of otherwise reasonable security measures. Quite the opposite, the examples in the book illustrate an origin of these laws in violent politics that order social and political life. The implications of this take on counterterrorism measures is that superficial calls for respecting human rights are meaningless. It requires a fundamental different assessment of what counterterrorism intends to do, which in authoritarian states can be a tool of control and oppression of particularly civil society organizations and independent journalism. As such, these accounts challenge the Eurocentric assumption that the state is the target of terrorist attacks and evil insurgents and shifts our attention to the ways in which states can be the perpetuator and inflictor of severe violence. This violence is not a side-effect of countering terrorism, but the core purpose.

Third, by shifting the attention to the state as a violent actor, Abozaid empirically challenges the security-stability nexus. This is an argument frequently deployed by states to legitimize exceptional measures that infringe on human rights. The nexus is based on the premise that a secure society can be achieved by political stability. Based on this nexus, violent and coercive measures that oppress political contestations are legitimized as leading to more security on the long term. The book, however, empirically illustrates that non-coercive methods such as dialogue and allowing groups to pursue their political goals through legitimate means historically worked better in reducing violence by non-state actors compared to violent and coercive methods in the name of counterterrorism. As such, the book deepens our understanding of the various governmental approaches to counterterrorism and illustrates empirically that Egypt’s ‘soft’ responses were successful. As such, the book really contributes with empirical evidence that stricter counter-terrorism measures are not only ineffective, or unnecessarily violent, but they are even counter-productive.  

While the book’s argument and empirical data are compelling and rich, the international element is surprisingly absent. Counterterrorism measures are not only domestic regulations, but states are often obliged by international law to adopt counterterrorism practices and regulations. The UN provides technical assistance to states to formulate counterterrorism strategies. International organizations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) monitor and evaluate countries on their compliance with counterterrorism financing regulations. As such, the domestic practices of states to counter terrorism can better be understood as obligatory transnational practices, and the international dimension of counterterrorism laws is essential, yet understudied in the current analysis. A future analysis could investigate this transnational element of countering terrorism, particularly as Egypt is the future co-chair of the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum. Yet, we know very little about how countries in the Global South are pushed or drawn into these transnational counterterrorism regulations and institutions, and how they in turn shape this field of law and practice.

Similar to how Abozaid starts each chapter with a personal reflection on encounters with counterterrorism policies by the state, I propose to finish with a recent reflection by the UN special rapporteur for Human Rights in Counter-terrorism: the special rapporteur flags the misuse of counterterrorism discourse by two countries in the Middle-East: Saudi Arabia and Israel. The article discusses how counterterrorism misuse is linked to consolidation of authoritarianism and oppression of human rights globally. Yet, the lessons from Abozaid’s book can deepen this analysis, by attuning to the post-colonial aspects of both the Israeli occupation and Saudi’s role in the region, and centering state violence as an objective rather than a consequence of counterterrorism laws.


Abozaid AM (2022) Counterterrorism Strategies in Egypt: Permanent Exceptions in the War on Terror. Routledge.

Abu-Bakare A (2022) Seeing Islamophobia in Black: Contesting Imperial Logics in the Anti-Racist Moment. International Political Sociology.

Barkawi T and Laffey M (2006) The postcolonial moment in security studiesReview of International Studies 32(2): 329-352.

Evans M (2012) Algeria: France’s undeclared war. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parashar S (2018) Terrorism and the postcolonial ‘state’. In: Rutazibwa OU and Shilliam R  (Eds.) Routledge handbook of postcolonial politics. Routledge, 110-125

Salem S (2020) Anticolonial afterlives in Egypt: The politics of hegemony. Cambridge University Press.

Counterterrorism in the absence of terror on home soil: Everyday practices of policing in Ghana

The unexpected and catastrophic nature of terrorist attacks has called for the implementation of precautionary measures aimed at combating the threat of future attacks. Across the globe, this has given rise to the proliferation and circulation of counterterrorism measures and models – also in countries that have not experienced terrorist attacks on home soil.

AMISOM Public Information, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This circulation is not simply a one-way process involving the direct transfer of Western models measures and models. Instead, it involves processes of translation and appropriation, as global norms and trends diffuse into and intersect with localized security logics and at times contradictory or competing rationalities.

In my recent article in Security Dialogue I explore how Western counterterrorism measures and models becomes entangled with local security logics in Ghana – in a country that has not been directly affected by domestic terrorism, but has recently become a strategic key site for external counterterrorism interventions. Examining how police officers in the Counter Terrorism Unit of the Ghana Police Service perceive of and seek to preempt terrorist threats that have not yet materialized, I illuminate the ways in which preemptive measures are translated, appropriated and operationalized in local practices of policing.

[W]hile aimed at locating terrorist threats, everyday practices of patrolling primarily become a matter of policing ordinary flows of people, goods, and information

In everyday practices of policing, Ghanaian officers seek to translate fuzzy representations of terrorist threats into suspicious signs and potential dangers. Here, foreigners from countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria especially represent a key target. These foreigners, the officers suggest, pose a threat to security in Ghana because they are involved in criminal activities ranging from prostitution, arms and drugs trade, fraud, and money laundering to armed robberies, kidnappings, and contract killings. While only a minority uses Ghana as a space for terrorist recruitment and terrorist planning, it is important to monitor the activities and movements of these people, the officers argue, owing to the potential linkages between organized crime and terror. Attempting to pinpoint foreign criminals in the area, the officers patrol residential settlements and abandoned construction sites that may be used as hide-outs. However, while aimed at locating terrorist threats, everyday practices of patrolling primarily become a matter of policing ordinary flows of people, goods, and information.

Through the case of Ghana, the article demonstrates the significance of moving beyond the bias toward Western perspectives if we are to shed light on the emergence and multiple manifestations of contemporary security responses to the global War on Terror. By doing so, it becomes clear that domestic counterterrorism approaches are shaped by local, context-specific security logics. Tracing everyday practices of counterterror policing in Ghana, we see how these logics are productive of a modality of counterterrorism that ends up being mainly and a matter of attempting to be perceived as being in control – that is, of demonstrating a presence in the face of more tangible security concerns in crime-ridden neighborhoods, rather than acting upon potential future threats.

‘May peace not cost us our lives’: Reading Colombia’s peace process as hegemonic crisis

The Colombian government and the guerrilla group FARC-EP envisioned to make history when they sealed the 2016 Peace Agreement, which ended one of the longest standing armed confrontations in human history and promised the cessation of protracted violence. In post-accord Colombia, however, this promise has been eclipsed by setbacks in the implementation efforts, political polarization, and atrocities against human rights defenders (HRDs). In my research, I encountered HRDs across the country to get their perspective on the significance and prospects of the peace process amidst societal conflicts and political violence.

Protest HRDs in Colombia – Photo by Author

HRDs represent a key oppositional voice in Colombia that has tirelessly mobilized for the transformative agenda of the 2016 Peace Agreement, which stipulates social, political, and economic reforms. Yet, despite the significance of human rights organizations for Colombia’s political landscape, research has, so far, only engaged little with their evaluation of a peace process that is at risk of dying down even before it has been fully born.

Based on fifty qualitative, in-depth interviews with representatives of human rights organizations, I propose understanding the peace process as a ‘hegemonic crisis’, a term that I borrow from Gramscian-inspired debates on de-constructionist and post-foundational philosophy. What the term helps us understand is that HRDs do not perceive of the peace process as ‘the passage’, or transition out of armed conflict towards a distant, and perhaps utopian, yet aspired state of peace. Instead, they foreground that the 2016 Peace Agreement came to unsettle a narrative, which the circles of power in Colombia had propagated to bolster their policies: that is, that the sole reason for conflict and ravaging violence lies with the ‘terrorist threat’ posed by left-wing guerrillas. This has led to a crisis of commonly accepted imaginaries about violence and injustices that plague the country, and, thus, opened a window of opportunity for HRDs, who have historically argued that the path to social justice must recognize the violence perpetrated outside the scope, yet under the pretext of the armed conflict.

‘HRDs teach us that linear conceptualizations of war-to-peace transition can obscure how violence results from underlying political conflicts, where imaginaries of the past, present, and future are at stake’

In the eyes of HRDs, however, the recognition of structural causes and shared historical guilt in the 2016 Peace Agreement has posed a threat to those elites and societal sectors who have economically and politically benefitted from an ever-more authoritarian political order forged in violence and legitimized by the struggle against ‘internal enemies’. Under the banner of former hard-line President Uribe and his party, the Democratic Centre, the political right-wing in Colombia mobilized against the vision of peace expressed in the Peace Agreement, gathering sufficient support to vote it down in the 2016 peace referendum and to win back the presidency in 2018. According to HRDs, ‘peace’ itself has turned into the subject of fierce contention, ‘antagonizing’, or conjuring up political hostilities in post-accord Colombia between those who demand a profound transformation of the political order to guarantee justice, and those who want to restore the old order as a mere ‘farce of peace’. In this time of crisis—in-between the declared end of armed conflict and the deferred dawn of a new post-conflict order—violence against HRDs qualifies as political in the sense that its objective is to silence oppositional voices and, thus, to impose a docile consent for the vision of peace embodied by the political right-wing.

The testimonies of HRDs suggest an alternative view on the peace process that neither depoliticizes violence as common crime and a mere challenge of post-accord governance, nor reduces it to the mere harbinger of yet another bloody ‘graveyard peace’ in Colombia. HRDs teach us that linear conceptualizations of war-to-peace transition can obscure how violence results from underlying political conflicts, where imaginaries of the past, present, and future are at stake.

Book review: Biopolitics After Truth: Knowledge, Power, and Democratic Life

by Sergei Prozorov, Edinburgh University Press, 2021, 192 pp., ISBN: 9781474485784

Rarely does a book of political philosophy manage to triangulate three themes of public interest as effectively as Sergei Prozorov’s Biopolitics After Truth: Knowledge, Power, and Democratic Life (2021). Its main topics—biopolitics, ‘post-truth,’ and post-Soviet Russia—not only speak directly to pandemic politics but also address the relationship between Russia and the West that has become a matter of intense public concern since the election of Donald Trump and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The latest in a trilogy of books on biopolitics written by Prozorov and published by Edinburgh University Press, Biopolitics After Truth extends and combines Prozorov’s earlier analysis of Soviet biopolitics in  The Biopolitics of Stalinism: Ideology and Life in Soviet Socialism (2016) and theory of affirmative biopolitics developed in Democratic Biopolitics: Popular Sovereignty and the Power of Life (2019) in order to diagnose the problem of post-truth and provide a strategy for resistance to it. The book weaves together continental philosophy, contemporary political theories of post-truth, and a study of post-Soviet politics with clarity and concision to diagnose the emergence of post-truth authoritarianism. In doing so the book engages debates in international political theory, security studies, continental philosophy, and studies of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, and will be of interest to scholars of these topics.

‘The book weaves together continental philosophy, contemporary political theories of post-truth, and a study of post-Soviet politics with clarity and concision to diagnose the emergence of post-truth authoritarianism’

Prozorov takes pains to distinguish the post-truth condition from the simple observation that political actors lie and the ancient observation that there is a relationship between knowledge and power. The worry is that dismissing post-truth as ‘nothing new’ risks a passivity or indifference that is itself the result of a post-truth condition. For post-truth, in Prozorov’s account, is about indifference to the question of truth rather than a questioning of truth or the promotion of lies. It is what Prozorov, drawing on Alain Badiou, calls a ‘regime of equivalence,’ (14) in which all statements are taken to be commensurable and substitutable according to a common measure. This is a useful conception of a much-abused term but does not necessarily indicate its novelty. Kant, for example, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, identifies neither dogmatism nor skepticism but ‘indifferentism, mother of chaos and night in the sciences’ (100 [A x]) as the gravest enemy of enlightenment and critical thought. This is not to disagree with Prozorov’s concern—urgency can be lent to a problem by its persistence as much as its novelty.  

The book is adept at drawing out the consequences of the link between biopolitics—government that ‘has taken the living processes of the population as its object’—and truth as a political technology. “Biopolitics is a mode of government,” Prozorov explains, “that claims a foundation in the scientific knowledge of life” (19). Here Prozorov’s analysis provides a useful lens on conflicts over vaccination and other public health measures in response to the pandemic. At stake in these conflicts is not only the question of evidence and misinformation (i.e., the rejection or acceptance of scientific expertise) but a disagreement over the purpose of government. The rejection of ‘truth’ in this sense is not simply a matter of delusion or misinformation but is bound up with the rejection of the biopolitical notion that the aim and purpose of government is the cultivation of life and the health of the population. Those who reject pandemic public health measures in their entirety also reject a set of very broad and very old justifications of modern political authority.

Prozorov, however, mounts an effective critique of the idea that being indifferent to truth is a means of gaining freedom from government or contesting political authority. Post-truth politics is not only a cultural phenomenon but a ‘domestic technology of governance,’ one which Prozorov argues is being exported to the West by post-Soviet Russia (91). The post-Communist order in Russia gained legitimacy, according to Prozorov, not by developing its own ideological system but rather by ‘radicalizing to the point of absurdity the ideology critique that weakened and eventually doomed the Soviet order’ (111). Russia is thus a case in point of Prozorov’s general identification (along with Latour) of post-truth with the generalisation of a critical attitude. Prozorov does not mistake this phenomenon as an effect of critique itself, however, or of poststructural critiques of truth, which remain invested in the question of truth and the distinction between truth and error. This post-ideological production of legitimacy lends itself to authoritarian politics because without any standard of truth ‘power can be exercised without any limitation’ (21).

Hence the need for a strategy for resisting post-truth authoritarianism which Prozorov finds in the idea of an affirmative biopolitics. Drawing on Foucault’s lectures on the Cynic practice of truth-telling, parrhesia, Prozorov develops a conception of truth-telling that institutes the distinction between truth and error through life activity that designed to demonstrate truth rather than argue for it. In its focus on performative efficacy over content it has some similarities with the move from proof to expression that Prozorov argues characterizes the post-truth era. This element of affirmative biopolitics means that it is ‘not associated with the objectification of life in the apparatus of government but rather with the subjectivation of living beings in resistance to and confrontation with these apparatuses’ (147). This points to a broader challenge raised by Prozorov’s analysis, which is the difficulty of separating subject from object, freedom from domination, and life from death.

‘Prozorov … mounts an effective critique of the idea that being indifferent to truth is a means of gaining freedom from government or contesting political authority.’

Prozorov uses Foucault’s Subjectivity and Truth lectures to argue for a gap between the subject and discourse that permits the subject to make use of discourse for their own purposes. Yet what is powerful about Foucault’s account of biopolitical government is the way subjectivation and objectivation are elements of a single process that relates knowledge and power. This is evident in the dual meaning of the word ‘subject’ is which one is at once subject to domination, that is, made an object of power, and produced as a subject with agency—no gap is required. It is similarly difficult to separate a politics of killing (or thanatopolitics) from a biopolitics aimed at the cultivation of life. Foucault does not present us with a choice between subjectivation and objectification, cultivating and eliminating life—in biopolitical order, each entails the other. It is not clear that choosing one element of these related processes can provide a way out of this predicament. Affirmative biopolitics is a kind of ‘living truth to power,’ so to speak, yet the truth of one’s (sexual, psychological, intellectual, emotional) life is a crucial element of the functioning of modern biopolitical government. Truth can be a weapon of the powerful and the weak, of freedom and of domination. Political decisions within a biopolitical condition lie in where, how, and by whom forms of subjectification and objectification, life and death are decided and distributed. The indifference that threatens the biopolitical regime of truth is thus also an indifference to these political questions. In this sense, Prozorov makes an urgent and timely defense of politics.

One force that organizes and justifies these decisions, according to Foucault, is racism and the ‘colonizing genocide’ that accompanies it (257). Prozorov has explored this topic in detail in The Biopolitics of Stalinism where he distinguishes between capitalist and Soviet biopolitics. While historical and geographical variations of biopolitical governance are clearly significant, consideration of the commonalities of modern biopolitics would help address a question raised by the contemporary activists that Prozorov argues exemplify affirmative biopolitics, Russian punk band Pussy Riot and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg: What is the relationship between biopolitics and geopolitics today? If Pussy Riot’s prayer to the Christian Mary to rid the world of Putin invokes a geopolitics of state conflict, Thunberg’s demands for action on climate change invoke geopolitics understood as a relationship between human beings, the earth and its inhabitants, and political order. In this context it would be useful to return to the beginnings of species thinking in the natural history of the eighteenth century when Kant was inveighing against indifferentism. This is not long after the birth of modern biopolitics when the link between human progress and exterminating violence is forged by analogy with ‘nature,’ a link that is far from broken today. Prozorov’s politically attuned philosophical analysis is well-suited to addressing these and many other questions provoked by Biopolitics After Truth. Perhaps the trilogy should become a tetralogy.   


Foucault M (2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (Vol. 1). Edited by François Ewald. Macmillan.

Kant I (1998). Critique of pure reason. Edited by Paul Guyer and Allan W. Wood. Cambridge University Press.

Prozorov S (2016). Biopolitics of Stalinism: Ideology and life in Soviet socialism. Edinburgh University Press.

Prozorov S (2019). Democratic biopolitics: Popular sovereignty and the power of life. Edinburgh University Press.

Book review: The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State

by Rizwaan Sabir, Pluto Press, 2022, 256 pp. ISBN: 9780745338484

The contemporary surveillance state of the UK and its allies is in many ways the bureaucratic par excellence, with its logics, language and processes operating through seemingly deliberate and elaborate sets of contradictions and linguistic sleights-of-hand. It is simultaneously vague, due to its characteristically administrative and ambiguous tone, yet clearly racialised and politically focused on its targets; it is surreptitious whilst continuing to post explicit and intense reminders of state power; and it is detached –sanitised– though, nevertheless, deeply personal, violent and traumatic. In The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State, Rizwaan Sabir highlights these points through a first-hand account of how, as a Master’s student at the University of Nottingham in 2008, he was arrested and detained under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 for downloading a document named the ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ as a part of his postgraduate dissertation on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. A document, we are soon to discover, freely available to download from the US Department of Justice website (as well as other government sources), accessible via the University of Nottingham’s own library services, and able to be purchased in various UK high-street bookstores such as Blackwell’s. It is by design that the document’s title is suggestive of nefarious and underhanded intentions, as the document –an easily accessible ‘compilation of material drawn from various military, intelligence and law enforcement manuals’– was previously rebranded as the ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ by US prosecutors to link US Embassy bombing suspects to Al-Qaeda, and, conveniently, create a guilt-by-association framework for future counterterror profiles and arrests. From this, Sabir is subsequently and swiftly drawn into the nexus of profiling, surveillance and counterterror pre-emption that permeates the day-to-day functions of present Western states.

The Suspect…reads as an examination and critique of the routine and assumed-as-neutral logics that strengthen and give shape to the legitimacy of the surveillance state’

At its core, The Suspect contributes an understanding of how ‘typical’ security practices such as profiling and surveillance are contingent on the creation of insecurity, and –contrary to conventional wisdom– the unexceptional nature of this. It chronicles how surveillance processes are increasingly normalised, articulated as mundane and legitimate by the state in order to pre-empt and monitor security threats (as well as co-opt dissent), and, from this, become largely accepted by the wider public – a seemingly meagre cost in order to live in a ‘safe’ liberal democracy. However, the account that Sabir puts forward is a detailed and vivid rebuttal of the moral and practical legitimacy of such perspectives, and a testimony of the wider harms that, incidentally or strategically, are often lost through attempts to navigate the mystifying labyrinths of bureaucratic process. Here, harm and insecurity are not framed as transgressive, rogue elements, but functional parts of the derivative, contested make-up of ‘security’. Consequently, The Suspect renders visible –and draws together the theory and practice of– this contingent insecurity, broadening and deepening our appreciation of what could or should be a focus of our –critical– attention. As such, it is a book that should be of great interest to those concerned with the politics of (in)security, state power, surveillance and its harms, and the racialisation of counterterror practice.

As noted, it is easy to see Sabir’s story as an exceptional, singularly erroneous form of over-reach conducted by the security state, yet he is clear in making the crucial point that his tale is but a single traumatic node in the wider, established, process and bureaucracy that ceaselessly profiles, monitors and interferes in racialised lives. The single raindrop never feels responsible for the flood, so the saying goes, and this thought would frequently return to me over the course of The Suspect’s 200-plus pages. Across the book is a clear understanding of how completely embedded and routine surveillance measures are towards racialised populations, and the depth and breadth of those individuals and institutions who, willingly or implicitly, contribute to their functioning. Indeed, one cannot help but notice the rota of –almost surrealist– individuals who, working as components within the grander security apparatus, offer sympathetic (and sometimes empathetic) condolences to Sabir as they continually intrude, provoke and cause lasting harm: “I am Italian, and I am sometimes stereotyped as being part of the Mafia so I know how you must be feeling”, one Department of Homeland Security agent nonchalantly tells Sabir after questioning him in an interrogation room at JFK Airport. Drip, drip, drip…

The Suspect, then, reads as an examination and critique of the routine and assumed-as-neutral logics that strengthen and give shape to the legitimacy of the surveillance state. Nevertheless, it is also an intimate and personal answer to a question, the implications of which are all too frequently understood by those who were, or still are, the obsession of the state: what happens when its focus and resources are groundlessly fixed on you and those you care about – is the price, then, a meagre one? To this, Sabir invokes his experience of the confusion, dissonance and cascading strains attendant to what one could reasonably label the contemporary panopticon. What is evident across The Suspect is that one’s awareness of the state’s shapeless remit is, in and of itself, a key feature of surveillance and its consequent disciplinary power. Although you may live in full knowledge that you are a ‘person of interest’, you will almost certainly not be cognisant of the particulars underpinning your surveillance. Paradoxically, when one attracts the attention of the state, the ambiguities which constitute its response(s) become increasingly apparent. What is inferred from this is the potent, stupefying appreciation that at any moment you may be the focus of a capricious and formidable gaze. The ensuing reaction to this is, as Michel Foucault theorised at length, that contingent logics of discipline and control are internalised and consolidated to form a continuously self-policing, and subsequently compliant, subject. It is control that not only endures but does so from a distance, both in space and time; it is the creation of lasting insecurity through securitisation.

‘Sabir invokes his experience of the confusion, dissonance and cascading strains attendant to what one could reasonably label the contemporary panopticon’

During the writing of The Suspect, a decade after his initial arrest, Sabir describes how he still felt that his ‘entire existence […] was exposed to the surveilling eyes of the security and intelligence services’. Whilst lecturing, Sabir notices an unfamiliar face in the crowd, someone who is not a student: a ‘middle-aged man […] frantically taking notes of everything I said’. Stress levels increase and Sabir starts to wonder if he is an intelligence agent briefed to log Sabir’s research on counterterrorism, if his presence is an intimidation tactic, or simply there to ‘send a message’. It transpires, after several deflective responses, that the man is a ‘note taker’ for a student entitled to additional learning support. Nevertheless, Sabir’s reflection is a significant one: ‘the traumatic and harmful effects [of the state’s legally sanctioned violence] were still looming over me’. At several other points, Sabir recounts how the UK government’s creation of him as a surveillance subject leads him down avenues of paranoia, distrust and helplessness. It is an insightful, brave and fundamentally necessary component of the book. It captures the personal costs and harms of surveillance that are too frequently ignored, swept away and justified by those in power, and it is a counter to the fatuous idea –habitually put forward by the surveillance state and its lackeys– that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to be concerned about (and please proceed about your business as normal).

‘Once you are marked as a ‘‘subject of interest’”, Sabir notes, ‘it is difficult to become ‘uninteresting’”. The ease with which one can be placed into the category of ‘suspected terrorist’, and the subsequent revocation of fundamental rights, should not only trigger alarm bells inside the minds of citizens within liberal democracies, but the ongoing harms inflicted from such ‘routine’ acts should be widely understood by the same citizens as a shameful and continuous moral failure by the state. Furthermore, these are harms which are too often and too easily overlooked when, conceptually, we assume security is merely ‘state-centric’. The Suspect is a crucial account of the personal and communal costs of surveillance, profiling and (in)security, and can be understood through the lens of resistance, not least due to its content, but also through Sabir’s closing recommendations to assist in helping those affected by the state’s counterterror measures. Attendant to these are notions of defiance and healing, yet we are also implicitly invited to consider other wide-reaching questions: What harms are missed when our focus is too narrow and superficial? What possible avenues for human emancipation have been preventatively stifled by these logics? how do we affect the modern security agenda?

It is perhaps unsurprising that there is a short reference to George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in The Suspect – unsurprising because, after all, who better to show us the dystopian horrors of routine, bureaucratised, authoritarian, surveillance practices than the person behind ‘Big Brother’, ‘doublespeak’ and ‘the capturing of the inner mind’? However, it is a different piece by Orwell that I feel is more suited to signify Sabir’s contribution. In Why I Write, Orwell champions the ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’, and the desire to ‘push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’. To resist the surveillance state and re-calibrate our assumptions surrounding security there are many unpleasant facts that one has to face head-on – The Suspect provides a number of these unpleasant but necessary truths first-hand, and emphasises the urgency with which we have to contest them.

The single raindrop never feels responsible for the flood

Book review: Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafied America

by C. Birchall, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2021, 244 pp. ISBN 978-1-5179-1043-3

Why is it that debates about trade-offs between supposed binary opposites of secrecy and transparency, and between secrecy and security, so often feel unsatisfying? As Clare Birchall acutely points out in her new book, Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafied America (2021), to question transparency in liberal democracies today is (seemingly) to be opposed to progress, to be corrupt, or to be antidemocratic. However, in this era of digital data and the power and economic value associated with its flows and accumulations, Birchall’s important work joins a school of scholars such as Jodi Dean, Alasdair Roberts, Lisa Stampnitzky and Shoshana Zuboff (to name just a few) in critiquing the narratives of secrecy, transparency, revelation/exposure and surveillance capitalism.

Birchall highlights that datafication has reinforced the monopoly that the state, in combination with big tech companies, has on secrecy in the form of surveillance, in which citizens become more transparent to the state through the accumulation of myriad data points. Meanwhile, attempts to make transparency more symmetrical, through programmes such as open government data for example, end up delegating responsibility to citizens to use and make sense of that data. As Birchall shows convincingly in the book though, the end effect of these initiatives is that they offer responsibility without power in a way that conversely curtails political agency or real change. In highlighting the unsatisfying results of initiatives in the name of transparency, Birchall sets the stage by suggesting that despite commonplace narratives that assume transparency is an unequivocal good, this is a moment in which visibility and revelation have lost most of their force.

Building on her scholarship in a series of articles (2011, 2015, 2017) and extending them into this book length treatment, Birchall makes the argument that progressive social goals would be better served by a radical form of secrecy, especially in this contemporary moment that sees state and corporate forces hold such an advantage over control of digital data. Calls for more transparency on the part of the data holders, or more privacy for data subjects, often seem to be the clarion call for those objecting to the unequal distributions of agency and political power that emerge in what Zuboff elsewhere has provocatively described as the ‘age of surveillance capitalism.’ However, in her book Birchall shows us the importance of moving beyond calls for privacy, and to interrupt the tension between state security and the public’s right to know, by presenting a compelling reformulation of secrecy as a key part of performing a digital ‘right to opacity,’ drawing on the work of Edouard Glissant. She does this by presenting a gradual and logically organised argument over the course of the early chapters to illustrate the shortcomings of transparency and privacy, as they are commonly enacted today. As she states in the preface, the book is intended to trouble “the vectors of secrecy and transparency to make room for more equitable distributions of power.” (p. ix). This book therefore presents a reassessment of secrecy and transparency as ideas, practices, and resources, and by temporarily reversing the values and promises of secrecy and transparency, she goes against the conventions of routine discourse to make a valuable intervention.

This book … offers crucial insights for scholars working on issues of security, war, critical terrorism studies, state and covert operation, networked technologies and algorithms, sensate regimes of war and affect, data and transparency and post-truth regimes, intelligence, surveillance, science and technology… the list goes on!

In order to reassess the ideas, practices and resources that secrecy and transparency present to us as critical scholars, Birchall therefore sets out to answer three questions. First, “how might transparency, in contrast to the high hopes placed in it by a range of political pundits, organisational and management theorists, and campaigners, actually delimit the scope of the political and serve agendas that are far from transparent?” Secondly, “can we imagine, or think with, a secret or secrecy that could act in the service of, rather than against, a progressive politics?” And thirdly, “how can we represent the relationship between secrecy and transparency in a way that avoids the dead ends of current debates?” (p. 2). Given the excellent conceptual nuance and empirical depth of the arguments though, the book would perhaps be unlikely to work as an introductory or undergraduate-level text to begin with. By treating secrecy and transparency as malleable, floating ‘empty signifiers’ (a la Ernesto Laclau) rather than fixed opposites, she begins to show scholars a framework for how we can think, and write, with the possibility of harnessing secrets and secrecy for progressive aims. As such, this book is a valuable and timely contribution to a growing literature and discipline dedicated to studying secrecy, one that would be most useful to scholars from across the social sciences and humanities.

First of all, this book and its conceptual framework is an important resource for security scholars. The discipline needs to pay attention to secrecy as both an epistemological but also ontological concern: its power, allure, affect and capacity for interpellating subjects. Through their genealogies of the secrecy and transparency in Enlightenment and American thought, Chapters One and Three in particular offer convincing critiques of the ways that transparency and secrecy can, and do, act as carriers of (liberal or Enlightenment or capitalist) ideology. But this approach in turn also offers a way of destabilising those assumptions, of ‘thinking against the grain,’ as Birchall described it. This book therefore offers crucial insights for scholars working on issues of security, war, critical terrorism studies, state and covert operation, networked technologies and algorithms, sensate regimes of war and affect, data and transparency and post-truth regimes, intelligence, surveillance, science and technology… the list goes on!

What unites these topics is an assumption about the power of hermeneutic suspicion, the sense that if we document and critique international affairs, if we can just ‘open’ up the information, uncover a ‘truth’, that ‘we’ as scholars can bring about political change, make a difference. Instead, this book prompts us to think more explicitly, and therefore more reflexively, about what such a critical project is founded upon if openness and transparency are predicated on a series of otherwise unquestioned assumptions of their good. For those interested in configuring secrets as a properly political subject, it is necessary to sidestep the debate as constructed by mainstream discourse, as this book amply demonstrates. But even if we are not researching matters directly related to secrecy or transparency or their cognate topics, this book still offers an important set of resources to critical security scholars, to international relations, and beyond.

Secondly, and related to previous point, this book explores a critical approach to, or conceptualisation of, ‘politics’ that shifts away from liberal and emancipatory ideals or that are automatically predicated on assumptions about the atomised individual as the basic operating unit, and its concept of representative or participatory democracy. Drawing on Jaques Rancierre’s ‘distribution of the sensible,’ and Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitude’, I found Birchall’s definition of politics (for example on p.98 and p.108) to offer a useful starting point for an alternative communitarian politics, made up of singularity, rather than atomised individuals. This in turn points to some alternative theorisations of politics than those critiqued by Browning and McDonald and others in critical security studies. This book also provides some lucid theorising on the relationships between resistance and revelation, obfuscation and politics. That said, there is plenty more work that needs to be done on these relations, particularly on what counts as a ‘revelation,’ and exploring how resistance can manifest or become available through these practices.

Secrecy, transparency, security, all have a temporal orientation, or a capability to act as a form of timing that need deeper theorisation if we are to understand how the ideologies of secrecy (or transparency) may change over time, or can effect political change over time, as Birchall urges.

Security scholars could be well placed to do this, given recent interest in how it is not just human agents, but also non-humans who can be ‘readers’ or ‘seers’ or ‘makers’ of secrecy and secrets and security. The book has a focus on US and there is still much more to be gained for theorisations of secrecy by engaging with non-Western contexts, as Birchall herself would be the first to tell us. But also, there could be more work done on the role of temporality in/of secrecy, and not just state or government secrecy but a more broadly cultural look, such as that deployed in the book. Secrecy, transparency, security, all have a temporal orientation, or a capability to act as a form of timing that need deeper theorisation if we are to understand how the ideologies of secrecy (or transparency) may change over time, or can effect political change over time, as Birchall urges.

Book review: Dying to Serve: Militarism, Affect, and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army

by Maria Rashid, Stanford University Press, 2020. 288pp. ISBN: 9781503610415

Plenty of social scientists and humanities scholars are preoccupied with the technics of warfare, such as lawfare, drones, “low intensity warfare” and the shifting spaces of war. Yet, attention to a traditional means of war, that is, the institution of the military and its constituting labor force, the soldier, remains necessary. Fordespite its ever-expanding technologies, war-making continues globally to require human bodies willing to do its violence work. Permanent war requires production of instruments—and subjects—of violence. Thus, it remains pertinent to consider questions such as: How does the military retain its power when it all-but-guarantees the death of its subjects? How do subjects of violence consent to endure violence to their own bodies, and also bodies of those they love? And broadly, what is the nature of modern militarism, and how is it (re)produced?

Maria Rashid’s Dying to Serve is fundamentally concerned with answering such questions. It works out how it is that people become complicit in human sacrifice in the name of a nation-state, and how the powerful Pakistan military brings this about. The Pakistan Army remains amongst the top ten most powerful militaries in the world, with an all-volunteer force of approximately 560,000 active-duty personnel (as of 2020), and a history of interference in political and democratic processes. Given that the Pakistan military keep its secrets close and often censures critique, the book is striking in the range of evidence it gathers from this institution, as well as in the critique directed towards it. While the book emerges from political science, Rashid also draws on a broad range of theoretical traditions in anthropology, critical theory, geography, psychology, and sociology, and employs a feminist ethnographic method. Its multiple analytical registers—of gender, class, history, and geography—will be useful to students of many disciplines, especially scholars of critical military studies; anthropologies of institutions, affect, and masculinism; and feminist research methods.

Thirteen months of ethnographic research in five villages in district Chakwal in the Pakistani Punjab, a historically military region, forms the heart of this study. It covers both the institutional practices of the Pakistan Army, as well as the practices and meaning-making that subjects engage in living and dying in military service. The work’s key premise is that affect is deployed as a technology of rule: statecraft is invested in governing the affective selves of subjects. The evidence and analysis shows how the military controls, suppresses, and invokes affects such as grief, fear, attachment, and loyalty through policies of recruitment, training, and compensation, and orchestrated spectacles of mourning, that, for Rashid, together highlight the military’s gendered governing practices. Illuminating these practices uncovers how political, affective, and gendered subjects of militarism are produced, and how collusive relationships—between the military institution and its subjects who stand to suffer significant losses (soldiers and their families)—are sustained. Ultimately, it shows how these relationships fashion the appeal and presence of militarism in contemporary society.

‘Dying to Serve is elucidating the materialist grounds on which militarism stands, undergirded by a historical colonial political economy that is reworked for contemporary Pakistani militarism.’

This political ethnography, comprising more than 100 interviews with a spectacular range of interlocutors, offers a gripping view of military events, institutions, and subjects, and takes us on an arresting, oftentimes harrowing, journey with the subaltern—“non-commissioned,” “junior commissioned,” and disabled—subjects of the Pakistan military. Chapter 1 introduces the author’s implication and interest in the book’s themes, and expounds on its theoretical and methodological interventions. Chapter 2 begins with a reflexive ethnographic snippet of Rashid’s attendance of a “Defence day” celebration in the manicured lawns of the Pakistan Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, alongside a couple thousand attendees. Readers are subsequently eased into what lies behind the stage through a critical examination of national military commemorations. Chapter 3, then, take us to district Chakwal, and attends to the historical and contemporary political economy of this rural region. It lays out how and why this place came to be a “martial” district during British colonial rule, and traces the afterlives of that history in the discourse, policies, and practices of the present-day Pakistan military.

The next three chapters are grounded in rural Chakwal, and study the affects produced in the “sipahi” (soldier), his family, and their village towards military training (chapter 4), death (chapter 5), and compensation (chapter 6). Rashid contends that these affects tie soldiers, their families, the army, and the nation together in a narrative where masculinity, sacrifice, and nationalism interplay and produce a militarizing sensibility in broader society. Yet, the analysis remains attentive to moments of disengagement from the project of militarism, and in this way, allows for the emergence of an ambivalent subject. In the same spirit, chapters 7 and 8 highlight moments where the relationship between the military and its subjects is tested; first via the figure of the disabled soldier (who did not die in battle), and then through the vexed relation of Islam with the “war on terror.” The concluding chapter recapitulates how affect serves as a powerful technology of rule that affixes relationships of oppression, but can also engender ambivalence. This is deemed not insignificant, especially when one considers the systematic compensatory and remunerative regimes firmly in place to maintain consent and legitimize the military’s claims on the bodies of soldier-subjects.

This book is based on the premise that subject formation is mutually constitutive between subjects and the powers that form them. The analysis takes place at a variety of scales: the national, district, village, household, and individual. These are portrayed not as nested, but as contradictory and dialectical. One of the strengths of Rashid’s narrative is the use of evocative imagery from each of these scales to explore how the affective and material relationships crafted within militarism implicate the post-9/11 Pakistani Punjab. This approach treats militarism as a sociological phenomenon that manifests in social relations and practices, encompassing modes of economic production, popular culture, and hierarchies of race, gender, and class. With deepening scholarly interest in views of power formations “from below,” this work is a welcome contribution to understandings of the social relations of war-making.

Grief features centrally in this text. How it comes to be inhabited by gendered subjects is painstakingly rendered; and moments where it “overflows” are carefully attended to for their potential to unsettle military-scripted narratives. The ethnographic examination shows, however, that such grief-laden moments “paradoxically become the very junctures that permit a return to hegemonic power” (p. 136). Thus, grief serves a powerful technique of governmentality, but significantly, also contains its contradiction. Women appear as key figures in these economies of loss, and in Rashid’s analysis, their affect is instrumentalized by the military towards creating a hallowed culture of military death. Similar to other feminist scholars of militarism (such as Joanna Bourke, Cynthia Enloe, Catherine Lutz and others), Rashid highlights the tenuous relationship between women, militarism, and nation, showing how the female subject is central to the masculinist imaginings of militarist discourse.

One of the most important contributions of Dying to Serve is elucidating the materialist grounds on which militarism stands, undergirded by a historical colonial political economy that is reworked for contemporary Pakistani militarism. Throughout the text, subjects’ material relationship to the military—first as the soldier’s stable employer, and after his death, through the paternalistic dispensing of compensation to next of kin—remains crucial, alongside the affect deployed for meaning-making and garnering sustained consent for war-waging. Utilizing recollections by families of dead soldiers, and reminders, or hauntings, of these men visible in village homes and public sites of commemoration, this work is a rich study of the critical role of affect as a medium that allows power to diffuse through society. Laying bare the “sacrifice” rural working-class people make for the project of militarism, this book offers a profound critique of the culture of militarism by exposing its economies of loss.

Zahra Khalid is a PhD Candidate in Geography at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.