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“Your Security Terrorizes”: An Interview with Ana Ivasiuc

That is an alternative political project worth thinking about: how to replace security with solidarity? In this light, I am profoundly against using the word ‘security’ in progressive political activism. To claim that the security of the subaltern is important, too, is to be blind to the fact that the powerful and propertied can never take that claim seriously in a system built on the primacy of property and of capital.

In response to current debates around the George Floyd protests’ claims to defund, dismantle and transform the police, LE contributing editor Agnes Gagyi spoke to anthropologist Ana Ivasiuc, a researcher on securitization. In order to understand how the Roma are securitized in Italy, she has carried out ethnographic research of formal and informal policing on the peripheries of Rome. Her research encompasses urban issues such as (de-)gentrification or the materiality and visuality of insecurity, as well as the moral underpinnings of the racialization and targeted policing of Roma in a recent-historical context marked by the multiplication of security laws, discourses, and such private citizen practices as neighbourhood patrols.

GA: The issue of structural racism in US police practice is often discussed as a specificity that follows from the US history of slavery and white settler colonialism, combined with channeling surplus military equipment to civilian police as part of the military-industrial complex of a dominant global military power. While they provide important points of orientation, holding on to these specificities we might lose from sight the broader process that articulates contradictions of global capitalist crisis in what researchers have addressed as the global trend of securitization. Could you summarize what you see as the main points that research on global securitization makes, and how you think these relate to current events in the US?

The current events in the US are the inevitable outcome of a racial capitalism that has two brutal principles at its core: that capital and its unbridled deployment is above people, and that people are not equal. Capitalism requires social stratification in order to extract labour, and the subalterns it creates in the process are highly racialized. Instead of claiming that we are dealing with a crisis of capitalism, and that it is possible to fix it, or, like Gargi Bhattacharya put it in her recent book, to create a more ‘cuddly’ capitalism, it is important to understand how capitalism inherently produces crises. Since the rise of capitalism, resources have been increasingly concentrated at the top while the rest of the population has been increasingly precaritized: capitalism produces inequality, as Thomas Piketty documents in his most recent book. The economic and financial crises of the last fifty years – starting in the seventies, then with the ones that have facilitated austerity measures in the nineties, and the financial crisis of 2008 – are not unfortunate singularities but the core of how capitalism works through cycles of accumulation and dispossession. The more the 1% accumulates, the more poverty it produces, and the more policing is necessary to keep the impoverished underdog from overthrowing an unjust social order. This has been richly theorized by scholars like Loïc Wacquant as the punishment of the poor at the core of the neoliberal governance of social insecurity. As precarization increased, so did the perception of insecurity, throughout all social strata. The current complex, then, is specifically the prison-industrial complex created by the processes described above. The US stands out as the extreme model of a society grounded in the naturalization of inequality – primarily along race lines – and the supremacy of capital and profit; as Larry Ward very aptly put it, the USA really is a ‘business that tried to become a country’. It is the country with the highest per capita incarceration rate of almost 700 per 100.000 inhabitants, and perhaps not so coincidentally, it is also the society in which security is one of the most productive cultural frames that has multiplied fears exponentially, leading to a veritable culture of fear. Predictably, this culture feeds enormous profits to the security sector, from private security companies to products such as alarms, video-surveillance devices, pepper sprays, or self-defence courses. In the meantime, petty and non-violent misdemeanours are increasingly criminalized, and so are structurally produced conditions such as homelessness. Globally, the puzzling question is how and why we have never felt so insecure despite crime rates consistently falling, something that Jean and John Comaroff, in a recent book, took to signify a society obsessed with crime trying to make sense of itself amidst a sense of global disorder. Capitalism, with its inherent crises, is one very good place to start answering the question.

Photograph taken by Ana Ivasiuc, April 2016, Rome.

GA: Your research on the securitization of Roma and migrants in Europe has uncovered various intersecting layers of the ways in which “security” is produced as an interface of socio-economic conflicts and alliances within the current global crisis. Can you talk a bit about the complex dimensions of securitization in the cases you studied, in terms of how formal and informal aspects of policing, or macrostructural and community-level priorities relate to each other in those situations?

My research uncovers a thread that parallels similar global developments. If in the eighties the word sicurezza – meaning both safety and security – appeared sparsely in newspapers and signified bodily integrity (thus safety), it morphed in the nineties into the notion of collective social and cultural survival that we now recognize in European debates about migration, for instance. The observation that security has not always meant what it does today is a powerful prompt to examine it critically and to denaturalize it. The production of insecurity, then, needs to be placed against larger dynamics of space and community making. When new periurban neighbourhoods are built according to a profit-maximizing logic, public space decreases, socialities move from the public square to the shopping mall, and various figures of non-belonging Others start to seem threatening in the post-pedestrian empty streets. Research has shown that the lack of availability of public squares where people can socialize in urban settings correlates with the increase of far-right voting behaviour over the last two decades, so the link between capitalist profit-making and the rise of authoritarianism, like Peter Bloom argues in a recent book, proves true in the Roman periphery. But research has also shown that the Roman suburbanites who are more likely to express feelings of insecurity are the ones that have experienced economic hardship, so capitalism’s crises produce and exacerbate the sense of insecurity which translates into fear of others all the while the neoliberal ideology of (un)deservingness, scarcity of public resources, and a rolled-back state continue to be the prevailing doxa. Over less than two decades, the budget allocated for social interventions was cut by a staggering 95%, while precarization advanced unimpeded. It is in this context that a plethora of security laws and decrees are debated and passed in Italy, responding to the needs of citizens to have their insecurities taken seriously. We witness misdemeanours from the fascist code of 1925–30 reappear as felonies: begging is outlawed in some places, including, through a remarkable irony, Assisi, where St Francis established the order of mendicant monks. Fascism returns both as ideology grounded in particular moralities about order, and in practices such as informal policing, with ‘decent citizens’ taking things in their own hands to enact security. Like I show in an upcoming article in the International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, there is a link between race, the urban materiality of (de)gentrification dynamics, and the politics of ‘defending’ their homes that neighbourhood patrols enact. Such processes started to happen much earlier in the USA and were admirably unpacked by scholars such as Setha Low and Mike Davis. But urban fears and informal policing are increasingly enacted in European countries, too, reproducing instead of quenching insecurities all the while exacerbating processes of racialization of migrants and Roma. That Europe started to resemble more and more the USA is worrisome, to say the least.

GA: In expert debates on the issue of securitization, you earlier maintained that instead of a focus on how structural crisis produces the security industry, research should pay more attention to the concrete conditions and agency through which people deal with crisis effects. Can you elaborate on this stance, and on how you think about the relation between emancipative politics and security?

The problem with security is that it has colonized all areas of life and of thought. It has been naturalized as something desirable and attainable, and it is hard to claim a position against security. When a notion becomes a hard to contest trope (like democracy or human rights, for instance), it is time to raise a skeptical eyebrow and ask: what lies underneath the discourse? Who and what drives and feeds it, and for whose benefit does it ultimately work? I approach security critically, and instead of adopting it as an inherently positive project I look at both how insecurity is produced structurally and through the agency of particular groups – such as the waning suburban middle-class in Rome – and at the effects of security projects on subaltern populations such as the Roma. Inevitably, the kind of ‘security’ that I encountered in my research is always exclusionary, and always harnessed against race and class Others.

I do not believe in an emancipative potential of the notion of security, for three reasons. The first is that a recent-historical examination of the emergence of the notion as we understand it in our times connects it to dynamics of exclusion that materialized both at national and at local level in Europe and North America to begin with. At national level, in the nineties, migration was the first domain in which the notion of security started to become prominent in different Western European countries simultaneously, leading to heated debates that framed immigrants as a threat. At the local level, it is amidst dynamics of gentrification that the middle-class started to employ the notion of security in order to exclude various Others, in what Neil Smith defined as the ‘revanchist city’ in the nineties USA, and which has recently also emerged in Europe.

Secondly, security as a trope has the incredible power to depoliticize debates and to mask the real issues at stake, such as increasing accumulation by dispossession and the continuous channeling of public resources into private hands. When things like immigration or urban poverty are framed as public order and security issues, social policies are precluded in favour of increasingly repressive measures that invisibilize, punish, and exclude the poor. The call to defund the police that is now gaining momentum with the Black Lives Matter protests implicitly claims that resources need to be allocated elsewhere than to repression. Austerity politics has normalized the idea that social spending needs to be cut to preserve economic stability and to promote growth, but the supremacy of security has meant that military and police spending have not been subjected to the same principles. Quite on the contrary, and quite blatantly. Of course, things are more complex than just the opposition between security and social policies, and the gender dimension cannot be overlooked: both education and health are primarily occupied by a female work force and seen as feminine prerogatives of reproduction, whereas police and the military are predominantly male professions and associated with the prevalent model of masculinity.

Finally, security is a Western bourgeois notion that has risen together with the liberal core principle of liberty. Mark Neocleous, for instance, in his Critique of Security, draws upon Western political theory to show how in liberalism security is equated with liberty of property, and that the problem for bourgeois society is the threat that the ‘dangerous classes’ pose to property, which, in turn, requires a police project. With the proliferation of the trope of security, we have recently witnessed how security has started to displace other rights such as housing. Squatters, for instance, are securitized and evicted based on the sanctity of property. It is accepted that ‘concerned’ and ‘decent’ citizens take things in their own hands in the name of security and organize neighbourhood patrols (including to defend middle-class spaces against squatters), but squatters are denied the same strategy to take things in their own hands when the state is incapable and unwilling to ensure affordable housing for all, and when the interests of capital take precedence in public policies. That is one of the contradictions that reveals the cracks in the system, and how property is implicitly at the core of security.

It might be, then, that thinking of some emancipatory possibilities of security is our own wishful thinking more than a feasible progressive political project, at least in Europe and North America. Throughout my research in Rome, the only sign of contestation to security that I found was a poster in one of the more destitute areas of Rome, towards the Eastern periphery and close to a number of social centres – places of leftist and anarchist politics where a range of alternative projects are run. The poster said: Your security terrorizes, annihilates, divides. Let us build territories of solidarity. I found it a powerful slogan, one that doesn’t hesitate to recognize that security is not ‘ours’ to begin with and has never been, and that displaces bourgeois security in favour of solidarity. That is an alternative political project worth thinking about: how to replace security with solidarity? In this light, I am profoundly against using the word ‘security’ in progressive political activism. To claim that the security of the subaltern is important, too, is to be blind to the fact that the powerful and propertied can never take that claim seriously in a system built on the primacy of property and of capital. We have to stop feeding the huge, ugly troll that security has become, and give power to alternative vocabularies. Solidarity seems like a good start.

Ana Ivasiuc is a social anthropologist whose research interests span securitization, urban anthropology, formal and informal policing, migration, development, Roma activism and the racialization of the Roma. She is the co-editor, with Sam Beck, of Roma Activism: Reimagining Power and Knowledge (Berghahn Books, 2018), and with Huub van Baar and Regina Kreide, of The Securitization of the Roma in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). For her 2017 piece Securitizations of Identities and Racial Eastern-Europeanization, she has received the Herder-Council for European Studies fellowship. Her upcoming project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung and carried out at the Center for Conflict Studies of the Philipps University in Marburg, is a comparative ethnography of informal policing in Germany and The Netherlands and an examination of the emergence of vigilantism and its connections with transformations of urban space.

Agnes Gagyi is a social movements researcher focusing on Eastern European politics and social movements in long-term global historical perspective. She is member of the Working Group for Public Sociology “Helyzet”.

By Agnes Gagyi

Agnes Gagyi is a social movements researcher focusing on Eastern European politics and social movements in long-term global historical perspective. She is member of the Working Group for Public Sociology "Helyzet".