Security Assemblages: Airport Security, Flexible Work, and Liberal Governance

By Lippert, Randy; O'Connor, Daniel | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Security Assemblages: Airport Security, Flexible Work, and Liberal Governance


Lippert, Randy, O'Connor, Daniel, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Security has become a more intense focus of public debate and concern following the events of September 11, 2001. In North America, especially, much media and political discourse has centered on the private security workforce charged with the provision of airport security services and, specifically, the quality of service it provides. In response, it is widely claimed that a "sea change" (1) is occurring in the character of security governance and that we are witnessing a radical shift in the way security workforces at airports and elsewhere in society are recruited, trained, and managed. Absent from current debate about security governance is recognition of an earlier, more important development and its intersection with current trends in work and governance. Here we refer to the development of "mass private properties," described by Clifford Shearing and Philip Stenning as a "quiet revolution" in security governance, (2) and the way in which this development intersects the onset of advanced liberalism (3) a nd the current trend toward the flexibilization of work arrangements associated with the new economy. (4)

What has happened since September 11 is less a sea change in airport-security governance and more a problematization of the character of security governance. (5) Efforts to deal with this problematization have far-reaching implications, not only for the way we understand security and its limits but also for the deployment of security assemblages in other domains.

In this article, we first discuss previous perspectives on private security, with an eye to both highlighting gaps in this literature and gaining insight into what may be emerging in airport-security governance. In particular, we identify significant omissions concerning the nature of the private security workforce, the ways it is governed, and the state as both producer of mass private properties and consumer of security services. This body of research indicates that the processes of commodification combined with the spatialization of mass private properties are important factors to be considered. But in doing so, it can offer only a partial explanation. The provision of security also entails the governance of working populations. We therefore proceed to elaborate a distinct framework, employing concepts such as flexibilization (6) and assemblage (7) drawn from research on the new economy and governmentality, in order to understand the current context of security governance better.

From the new-economy literature dealing with the flexibilization of work, we discuss trends in its management and the character of private- and public-sector work; namely, the outsourcing of noncore activities and the creation of quasi-public special agencies. Although the governmentality literature has paid little attention to the governance of work, it is our contention that these forms of governance are consistent with those deemed to operate "beyond the state" (8) but within advanced liberalism.

Consonant with these notions, we demonstrate that a focal point of recent debate about airport-security governance in Canada is the quality of the security workforce conducting passenger screening and how this workforce should be governed. We argue that what has been occurring in airport-security governance since September 11 is neither a return to what came before the quiet revolution nor business as usual. These events have indeed led to a recognition that reducing the cost of delivering public services also tends to reduce both the quality of service and of the workforce that delivers it and that this can have far-reaching effects. Yet, we argue that this recognition is simply that: a recognition of a serious limitation or failure. As such, it is leading not to a sudden, wholesale shift to a new security assemblage but to one that is configured using mostly old parts. In Canada, this new assemblage entails deployment of a new special agency, funded through the responsibilizing strategy of airport user fee s, to govern the airport-security workforce "at a distance. …

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Security Assemblages: Airport Security, Flexible Work, and Liberal Governance
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