An interesting thread I’m following up from Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. This is Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev on ‘guard labour‘:

Another dubious first for America: We now employ as many private security guards as high school teachers — over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980.

And that’s just a small fraction of what we call “guard labor.” In addition to private security guards, that means police officers, members of the armed forces, prison and court officials, civilian employees of the military, and those producing weapons: a total of 5.2 million workers in 2011. That is a far larger number than we have of teachers at all levels.

What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today.

How widespread could this become in the event of mass technologically-induced unemployment? One of my favourite dystopian fictions, Lazarus, imagines a world in which great status accrues to a warrior-class of guards amongst a population of citizens, living besides a vast population of non-persons:


I find this interesting because it suggests Guard Labour could (does?) serve a socio-cultural function, as well as a structural one. It inculcates a mentality of guarding ‘us’ against ‘them’, offering opportunities to achieve status within the social order to those who might otherwise struggle to do so. But how would this intersect with the practical reality of actually guarding the wealthy elites? After all, military robotics is advancing at a remarkable pace:

From Countdown to Zero Day, by Kim Zetter, loc 1000-1018:

When Chien joined Symantec, antivirus researchers were like the Maytag repairman in those iconic ads— they had a lot of downtime. Viruses were still rare and tended to spread slowly via floppy disks and the “sneaker net”— carried from one computer to another by hand. Customers who thought they were infected with a virus would mail the suspicious file on a floppy disk to Symantec, where it might sit in a desk tray for a week or more before Chien or one of his colleagues wandered by and picked it up. Most of the time, the files turned out to be benign. But occasionally, they found a malicious specimen. When that occurred, they dashed off some signatures to detect it, then threw them onto another floppy disk and mailed it back to the customer along with instructions for updating their virus scanner. 

It wasn’t long, though, before malware evolved and the landscape changed. The introduction of Microsoft Windows 98 and Office, along with the expanding internet and proliferation of e- mail, spawned rapid- spreading viruses and network worms that propagated to millions of machines in a matter of minutes. The Melissa virus in 1999 was one of the most notorious. Launched by a thirty- one- year- old New Jersey programmer named David Smith, it came embedded in a Word document that Smith posted to the newsgroup. Smith knew his target audience well— he enticed them to open the file by claiming it contained usernames and passwords to access porn sites. Once opened, Melissa exploited a vulnerability in the macro function of Microsoft Word and e- mailed itself to the first fifty contacts in the victim’s Outlook address book. Within three days the world’s first mass- mailing virus had spread to more than 100,000 machines, a spectacular record at the time, but quaint by today’s standards. In addition to spreading via Outlook, it slipped a nerdy Scrabble reference into documents on infected machines: “twenty- two, plus triple- word- score, plus fifty points for using all my letters. Game’s over. I’m outta here.” 

Melissa was relatively benign, but it opened the way to other fast- moving viruses and worms that would dominate headlines for years. 3 As the threat landscape expanded, Symantec realized it needed to halt infections faster, before they began to spread. When the company first entered the antivirus business, it was considered a good response time to turn a threat around— from discovery to delivery of signatures— within a week. But Symantec aimed to reduce this to less than a day. To accomplish this, the company needed analysts in multiple time zones to spot viruses in the wild when they first appeared and get signatures out to US customers before they woke up and began clicking on malicious e- mail attachments.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly might have noticed, I’m a fan of Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy. I’ve interviewed him about it a couple of times: once in 2010 and again in 2013. Whereas he’d initially offered the notion to illuminate a potential trajectory, in the sense that we risk becoming post-democratic, we more latterly see a social order that might be said to have become post-democratic. He intends the term to function analogously to post-industrial: it is not that democracy is gone but that it has been hollowed out:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.

Crouch is far from the only theorist to have made such a claim. But I think there’s a precision to his argument which distinguishes it from the manner in which someone like, say, Bauman talks about depoliticisation. My current, slightly morbid, interest in representations of civilisational collapse has left me wondering what entrenched post-democracy would look like. Asking this question does not refer to an absence of democracy, for which endless examples are possible, but rather for a more detailed sketch of what a social order which was once democratic but is now post-democratic would look like. While everyday life might look something like that which can be seen in Singapore, ‘the city of rules’ as this Guardian article (from which the picture is taken) puts it, I think there’s more to be said than this. However we can see in Singapore a vivid account of how micro-regulation can be deployed to facilitate a city in which ‘nothing goes wrong, but nothing really happens’ as one ex-pat memorably phrases it in that article. Is it so hard to imagine efficiency and orderliness being used to secure consent, at least amongst some, for a similar level of social control in western Europe or America?

Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian
Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian

Perhaps we’d also see the exceptional justice that intruded into UK life after the 2011 riots, with courts being kept open 24/7 in order to better facilitate the restoration of social order. There’s something akin to this in mega sporting events: opaque centralised planning overwhelms democratic consultation, ‘world cup courts’ dish out ad hoc justice, the social structure contorts itself for the pleasure of an international oligopoly upon whom proceedings depend, specialised security arrangements are intensively deployed in the interests of the event’s success and we often see a form of social cleansing (destruction of whole neighbourhoods) presented as a technocratic exercise in event management. We also see pre-arrests and predictive policing deployed to these ends and only a fool would not expect to see more of this as the technological apparatus and the political pressures encouraging them grow over time.

These security arrangements point to another aspect of a post-democratic social order: the economic vibrancy of the security sector. There is a technological dimension to this, with a long term growth fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ coupled with an increasing move towards ‘disruptive policing’ that offers technical solutions at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but we shouldn’t forget the more mundane side of the security industry and its interests in privatisation of policing. This is how Securitas, one of the world’s largest security companies, describe the prospects of the security industry. Note the title of the page: taking advantage of changes.

The global security services market employs several million people and is projected to reach USD 110 billion by 2016. Security services are in demand all over the world, in all industries and in both the public and private sectors. Demand for our services is closely linked to global economic development and social and demographic trends. As the global economy grows and develops, so do we.

Historically, the security market has grown 1–2 percent faster than GDP in mature markets. In recent years, due to current market dynamics and the gradual incorporation of technology into security solutions, security markets in Europe and North America have grown at the same pace as GDP. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years.

Market growth is crucial to Securitas’ future profitability and growth, but capitalizing on trends and changes in demand is also important. Developing new security solutions with a higher technology content and improved cost efficiency will allow the private security industry to expand the market by assuming responsibility for work presently performed by the police or other authorities. This development will also be a challenge for operations with insourced security services and increase interest in better outsourced solutions.

Consider this against a background of terrorism, as the spectacular narrative of the ‘war on terror’ comes to be replaced by a prospect of state of alert without end. We’ve not seen the end of the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen a spectacular narrative become a taken for granted part of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be narrativised any more because it’s here to stay. Against this backdrop, we’re likely see an authoritarian slide in political culture, supplementing the institutional arrangements already in place, in which ‘responsibility’ becomes the key virtue in the exercise of freedoms – as I heard someone say on the radio yesterday, “it’s irresponsible to say democracy is the only thing that matters when we face a threat like this” (or words to that effect).

Crucially, I don’t think this process is inexorable and it’s certainly not the unfolding of an historical logic. It’s enacted by people at every level – including those who reinforce the slide at the micro level of everyday social interaction. The intractability of the problem comes because the process itself involves a hollowing out of processes of contestation at the highest level, such that the corporate agents pursuing this changing social order are also benefiting from it by potential sources of resistance being increasingly absent or at least passive on the macro level.  This is how Wolfgang Streeck describes this institutional project, as inflected through management of the financial crisis:

The utopian ideal of present day crisis management is to complete, with political means, the already far-advanced depoliticization of the economy; anchored in recognised nation-stated under the control of internal governmental and financial diplomacy insulated from democratic participation, with a population that would have learned, over years of hegemonic re-education, to regard the distributional outcomes of free markets as fair, or at least as without alternative.

Buying Time, pg 46

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 12.10.11For the last few weeks the CPU usage for Sociological Imagination’s server had been running at 100%. Having had this experience before, I was assiduously avoiding any unnecessary memory intensive plug ins and keeping everything regularly updated. Given that the site was starting to crash on a regular basis, I investigated further and found near continual traffic coming from China, trawling through comments and old pages on a second-by-second basis. Unsure of what else to do, I tried country blocking China. The CPU usage almost immediately fell down to its usual level of 10%-30%.

I just tried removing the country block and it immediately went back up to 100% (I took the screenshot a moment ago) with the same questionable traffic showing up. It’s now gone back to about 36% but I’m tempted to reimpose the country block given that it seemed to entirely solve the problem last time. This seems utterly absurd though. Does anyone have suggestions for alternative strategies to protect the site? Weirdly, it doesn’t seem to be happening on any of the other sites I manage (all hosted on the same virtual server) but perhaps this is just a matter of time.

The process of trying to rationalise mine over the last few days has left me newly aware of how outdated the username and password system is. With a lot of effort I’ve managed to get it down to 55 accounts with their own username and password, as well as a few that use Twitter or Google ID to sign in. I’ve also been surprised at my inability to delete my data & accounts on some sites.

This is an interesting read on alternatives to the traditional password system. It seems obvious that something systematic has to change here. As sinister as I find google’s attempt to establish the ubiquity of the Google ID, its continued rise seem inexorable just because I can’t see any scalable alternative to this problem other than widespread social sign in. I’ve also deleted a lot of accounts in the last few days which don’t use social sign in that I would have kept if this wasn’t the case.

I’ve been increasingly aware in the last six months of my reticence to sign up to anything that requires a new username and password. I feel like I’ve now begun to put this into practice, with a list of all my active accounts, as well as an inclination to cut further. Ideally I would like to have 2 step authentication on my core accounts (Twitter, WordPress, Google) and be able to sign into everything else using one of these.

What worries me is that I’m sure I must have missed some of the accounts.

An absolute must read essay in the Guardian by the novelist John Lanchester who was given access to the GCHQ files by the Guardian:

The totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would need no broader legal justification than that: it really does allow a government to do anything it likes. It was at this point that I became convinced that Snowden’s revelations are not just interesting or important but vital, because the state is about to get powers that no state has ever had, and we need to have a public debate about those powers and what their limits are to be.

Lanchester reads Snowden files:

At a moment of austerity and with a general sense that our state’s ability to guarantee prosperity for its citizens is in retreat, that same state is about to make the biggest advance ever in its security powers. In public, the state is shrinking; in private, it is shrinking until it gets just small enough to fit into our phones, our computers, our cars, our fridges, our bedrooms, our thoughts and intentions.


People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn’t a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it’s a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes.

We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don’t, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.