Corey Robin’s Jacobin essay is getting a lot of attention, including from Jon Western at the Duck and Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns & Money. I don’t think that it detracts from Robin’s essay to note that the argument he’s making is long-standing in international-relations scholarship. It appears in David Campbell’s seminal Writing Security and, more recently, in the form of “securitization theory” (PDF), complete with similar invocations of Thomas Hobbes.
Scott’s criticisms of Robin gets at an ongoing issue with securitization theory. Scott notes that security threats, particularly in the context of warfare, have also led to the expansion of rights:
To bring Klinkner and Smith, Dudziak, and Graber into the discussion security has not only been the most powerful justification for the suppression of rights; it’s been the most powerful justification for the expansion of rights. The two major expansions of civil rights in American history were the result of an incredibly bloody civil war and the Cold War.
Indeed, securitization theory often suffers from, among other problems, and overly simplistic story. Speech acts by powerful actors–or some similar processes–render an object an existential threat to a political community. A state of exception comes into being. Rights suffer. The endless debates about securitization theory have, of course, complicated that story. But what’s interesting about Scott’s quick empirical criticism is that it brings, in essence, work on state formation into the picture. Bellocentric theories of state formation have long held that warfare, and the mobilization for warfare, constitute significant moments for the evolution of the state.
First, leaders need resources to prosecute warfare. In order to obtain these resources, they strike bargain with constituencies and interest groups. This bargaining process involves claims and counterclaims, assertions of rights and obligations, and so forth. It can take a variety of forms of routine and contentious politics. Regardless, resulting bargains often reconfigure the parameters of the state and state-society relations. For example, the American Civil War not only results in the end of slavery, but also marks the transition from the “Philadelphian System” to something resembling a modern national-state.
Second, the end of wars sometimes create situations in which states enjoy “excess capacity.” The process of wartime mobilization leads states with prerogatives, infrastructure, and social technology above-and-beyond that which they previously enjoyed. This creates opportunities for, and sometimes interests that favor, maintaining and redeploying that capacity: in forms such as a permanently larger military apparatus, expanded policing of civil society, greater welfare provision, and so forth.
There’s nothing inevitable about either sets of processes, of course, and one goal of work on state formation is to understand how, and why, they play out in historically specific ways. The important point: claims about securitization dynamics would benefit from closer engagement with work on state formation and institutional change. The latter presents a more complicated understanding of how national-security claims and warfare, warfare impact the nature and scope of state power–one that contextualizes securitization processes and might help account for their variable effects. This is the case regardless of whether those claims come in the language of scholarly publications, in opinion essays, or blogs intended for a more general audience.