Rethinking Security: The Nation-State As A Barrier To Emancipation


In the contemporary world, there are a plethora of sources of insecurity, some traditional such as the threat of war or poverty and some relatively contemporary such as the threat of environmental degradation. People expect that nation-state governments work to protect them from such threats, within the context of environmental security it is expected that the state introduces legislation that protects themselves from the effects of environmental degradation whilst also working to reduce emissions. Equally, within an economic context, they are expected to have policy measures in place which protect them from destitution. In this way, the raison-d’être of the nation-state can be perceived as a guarantor of security. In recent times this hasn’t been the case. Not only are there high levels of poverty around the world, but there have also been high levels of environmental degradation which now threaten the very existence of the planet. Nation-states around the world are therefore failing to fulfil their function. However, not only are they failing to provide security, but they are also systematically decreasing individual’s security. The nation state’s shortcomings as a guarantor of security have been well documented in recent times and this explains the rise of global protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion—movements which, at their core, are anti-system and anarchic. Security is often articulated in terms of how the state is failing to provide security however, systematic state oppression which renders the individual ever more insecure now requires equal attention.

Firstly, the state enacts security through its role as the agent of securitization. Securitization is where an issue is presented as a security threat which in turn legitimizes the use of exceptional political measures, for example, increased surveillance. The act of securitizing a group, individual or movement legitimizes emergency politics that can be at the detriment of the civil liberties of the individual. An example of this is the securitization of terrorism which has facilitated a rise in surveillance. Surveillance is a threat to each and every individual and alters the behaviour of everyone due to the Panopticon prison effect which has been diffused into the wider society. This has the effect of modifying societal behaviour due to the constant uncertainty as to whether one is being surveyed by the state. This has been facilitated by the rise of new technologies which have given the perception of increased freedom whilst making it easier for the state to monitor the actions of the individual. For example, technology facilitates a rise in consumer data collected by companies such as Google, which is then handed over to intelligence services, meaning that anyone can come under surveillance. This is further highlighted through looking at a recent statistic that states that a suspected person who has 100 friends on Facebook can all be put under surveillance without a warrant and this can be expanded to a potential 2,669,556 connections.

The increase in state surveillance provides a barrier to the emancipation of the individual which can be defined as freedom from human constraints which stop them from doing what they would freely choose to do and subsequently means that society remains in a perpetual state of insecurity. However, an even larger, ever-present and existential threat emanates from the state’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear realists’ arguments in favour of maintaining nuclear weapons are predicated upon an ontological assumption that nuclear weapon deterrence brings about security; this is however predicated upon a false assumption of rationality of actors. Nuclear realists in fact also argue that ‘in the hands of an irrational adversary, nuclear weapons are dangerous, but turned to rational purposes by responsible states; nuclear weapons are the ultimate source of stability and power’. This is problematic because of the assumption of the rationality of state actors and this has recently come to the forefront of the radioactive security discussion due to questions regarding the rationality of President Trump. Though it is far from a certainty that he would ever use America’s nuclear arsenal, the world and therefore the individuals within it are more insecure. This is reflected in the doomsday clock, a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe, which is currently at two minutes to midnight meaning that the future of civilization is in grave danger. Regardless, the threat of nuclear war is and always will be present and this subjects the individual to a perpetual paradox where the only thing securing them from nuclear annihilation is the threat of it. Within these conditions, emancipation from the threat of war isn’t and never will be possible. The existence of nuclear weapons and the state’s monopoly over them constitutes an existential threat to the individual that cannot be reversed unless the current nation-state system is reconsidered.

The state, therefore, provides numerous barriers to emancipation, from the monopoly of violence through control of Nuclear weapons through to more mundane threats emanating from surveillance. Emancipation, unlike security which is a zero-sum concept, is at no-one’s expense and this is articulated by Ken Booth, an International Relations theorist, who states that ‘I am not truly free until everyone else is free’. This notion of emancipation is at best utopian within a Westphalian system which consists of an irreversible nation-state system as security is always at someone’s expense. For example, western states argue that through bombing and intervention in the Middle East, individuals within these western states are more secure, however, those residing in the Middle East are consequently more insecure due to the constant threat of state-based terrorism. Security is therefore always at someone’s expense and emancipation cannot be achieved within our current global political system.

It has therefore been ascertained that the state prevents the emancipation of the individual, thus rendering the individual in a perpetual state of insecurity. This is largely due to the security of the state is at the expense of the security of the individual especially looking within the contexts of radioactive security and surveillance. Through deconstructing the role of the state as a provider of security for the individual in this way, it is possible to break down the prevailing ontological assumptions of the state as a harbinger of security and demonstrate how it is the source of threat to the individual. Insecurity is made perpetual by the nature of the nation-state, whose control of the security discourse and monopolization of state violence is key to the oppression of its own citizens and maintaining its raison d’être. The state, therefore, creates a perpetual condition in which it is impossible for the individual to obtain emancipation, this subsequently means that security is unattainable, and the individual must live in a state of constant insecurity.

In recent times the nation-state has not only failed to guarantee the security of their own citizens, but it has also systematically reduced individual’s security through policies and measures which increase the security of the nation-state yet work to the detriment of individual’s security. Through deconstructing the state in this way, the very existence of the nation-state system must be called into question and serious questions must be asked. Is the state working in the interests of the people? Is the nation-state system fit for purpose? What are the alternatives? Given the rise in global, anti-system movements, it is likely that these questions will become more pertinent and more commonplace within global political discourse in the months and years to come.

Luke Entwistle