Security ideology and video surveillance

Originally used exclusively in private and commercial spaces, video surveillance is today rapidly increasing in public spaces. Nevertheless, it isn't the only device put in place by governments in the name of "preventing and repressing deliqnency."

New databases (such as the STIC, repository of at least 5 million names, people who have been convicted but also suspects, crime victims and witnesses to affairs investigated by the police), new interconnections between already existing files (such as the fiscal and social files kept since 1999), increases in police personnel (up 121 percent among municipal forces between 1984 and 1997), multiplication of the kinds of police specialists (foot-patrols, anti-crime brigades), sharp increases in private "police" forces (for example, the 700 people in the RATP's "Groups for the Protection and Security of the System") and, finally (logically?), the rapid increases in the prison population (up 39 percent between 1983 and 1997) -- these phenomena paint a disturbing picture, especially if one considers the discourse that accompanies and justifies them.

This discourse, which one calls "security," is centered on the urgent and absolute necessity of maintaining order (by force, eventually). This order is conceived of like the organization of society itself: according to the principles of authority, hierarchy and obedience. This is the meaning of the theme of "no-rights zones," referred to, in security discourse, as lawless zones, where "one doesn't know the law of the Republic or the Penal Code" [footnote 1]. And behind the constant references to the "law of the Republic" and "the Republic" itself, one discerns the moralizing and paternalistic conceptions of authority. They are there, in the theme of the loss of family references: "The recomposition of families rhymes with the decomposition of authority (...) The meaning of the law disappears at the same time as [the disappearance of] paternity" [footnote 2]. One also hears evoked a new concept: "incivilities," which without doubt mark the re-emergence of the idea that there are good and bad morals. Security discourse also frequently stigmatizes immigrants by denouncing "zones of ethnic peoples" [footnote 3] as responsible for insecurity. Other authors are less allusive: "Immigration constitutes the principal terrain for youth violence" [footnote 4].

[Text missing in original?] Calling for the restoration of a moral and traditional order that is in decline due to the presence of immigrants -- this doesn't really constitute a new discourse. It is in fact a 1980s discourse that, along with an extreme-right electorate, is reappearing on the political scene. The only novelty of security discourse today is the fact that it seems to have contaminated the entire electorate, to the point, of [apparent] unanimity.

This consensus is a big part of the accelerated evolution of security ideology in Leftist government, which, since its return to power in 1997, has signed local contracts for security and police forces, around the time of the very well-covered symposium, "Free Citizens in Safe Cities" (also known as Villepinte's symposium). This conversion to total-security isn't taking place without another, older conversion: to total-liberalism. And it is necessary to find out if, within the countries where ultra-liberalism is imposed more durably than it was in the 1980s, security ideologies and devices are more developed than they were in the 1990s. Moreover, one notes that organizations (such as the Manhattan Institute in the United States and the Institute of Economic Affairs in Great Britain) and "experts" (such as Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead) have contributed the most to popularizing neo-liberal theses that make the [ideology of] savage capitalism of the 19th century seem tame by comparison, and, today, are devoted to propagating an authoritarian, often racist, security ideology [footnote 5].

Since the governments in France and in the rest of Europe are engaged in a "veritable society-building plan," in which the repressive apparatus will silence stray impulse to revolt against ultra-liberal economic interests, the necessity of resisting capitalist and authoritarian politics seems, more than ever, the order of the day.


(1) Lucienne Bui Trong (principal commissioner of the "Urban Violence" section of General Intelligence [trans: the French FBI] from 1991 to 2000), France-Culture, 3 December 2000.

(2) Julien Dray, The state and violence, 1999. Dray is "national official for security" in the Socialist Party.

(3) Republicans, have no fear! statement published in Le Monde in September 1998 and co-signed by Regis Debray, Max Gallo, Mona Ozouf, Blandine Kriegel, Paul Thibald, Olivier Mongin and Jacques Julliard.

(4) Christian Jelen, The war of the streets, 1999. Note that this now-deceased author was a journalist at the Point and occasional collaborator with Marianne and History. Furthermore, to better understand the mechanism of security discourse, one recommends the book, Stop which violence? by Sylvie Tissol and Pierre Tevanian, Editions Dagnorno/l'Espit Frappeur.

(5) For a detailed analysis of the situation in Great Britain and the United States, as well as of the connections between ultra-liberal and security theories, see Prisons of misery by Loic Wacquant, Editions Raisons d'agir.

(Included in No to Electronic Watchtowers: Elements of Reflection on Video Surveillance. Translated from the French November 2003 by Bill Brown.)

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