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Telos 170 (Spring 2015): Security and Liberalism

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When Edward Snowden, on June 9, 2013, revealed his identity in a video interview posted on the website of the Guardian, he invoked the intellectual framework of liberalism in order to explain why he had leaked a massive trove of secret documents about the spying and data collection practices of the National Security Administration (NSA) and its partner agencies. Having regularly witnessed the legal abuses of the NSA as a technical assistant for the CIA and, subsequently, as an employee of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden explained that “over time [the] awareness of wrongdoing builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it . . . until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who’s simply hired by the government.”[1] “Target[ing] the communication of everyone” and “ingesting it by default,”[2] the NSA (Snowden alerted viewers) acted in the name of securing the American people but without the citizenry’s knowledge. This amounted to an “architecture of oppression”[3] that endangered the survival of democracy and could only be rectified by reestablishing the principle of publicity. The premise of Snowden’s argument—which is echoed by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who first broke the story[4]—holds that the politics of security, and particularly the invasive surveillance practices of the intelligence community, are propelled by an anti-democratic thrust that undermines the rules of liberalism and can only be absorbed by bolstering the political culture of liberalism.

While Snowden and Greenwald subscribe to the idea that security and liberalism are contending forces, recent critical theory has essentially turned this relation upside down. Liberalism, many critics across the humanities and social sciences now insist, is a type of political rule that employs the logic of security. While many writers point out that liberal theory, beginning with Hobbes, understands security to be the state’s raison d’être (the expectation of safety being the most important reason for the individual to enter a social contract), others have pushed this argument further by taking up the ideas of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben (among others): security, on their view, sits at the core of liberalism because security provides the rationality for biopolitical rule, which has in recent years come to be recognized as the actual project of liberalism. If life is inherently contingent, the argument goes, political power can only be solidified by enabling life to flourish while simultaneously controlling it. In liberal regimes, political targeting (of both individual and collective bodies) is therefore not carried out primarily in a top-down manner but instead “democratically,” by the people themselves. Self-monitoring practices in everyday life, ranging from security cameras in the home to health applications and devices like Fitbits, provide evidence for the theory of liberalism as a biopolitical security regime.

The articles collected in this issue take up the debate of the relation between liberalism and security from the perspectives of different disciplines, including literary studies, intellectual history, political theory, international relations, and sociology. The purpose of this interdisciplinary exchange is to provide a view of the scope of liberalism and security that extends beyond the current narrow debate of surveillance and the war on terror. To make sense of security, it is necessary to place it in the larger context of modern attempts to manage the contingency that is itself the defining characteristic of modernity. Contingency also structures liberalism’s attempts to create and control the conditions of liberty. Security and liberalism are thus issues that surpass limited understandings of political theory and critique by addressing the project of making possible a life form conceptualized against the horizon of an open future. The interdisciplinary scope of the essays collected here serves another purpose as well: reflecting on the multifaceted range of liberalism and security from the vantage point of divergent disciplinary discourses appears as the most promising way of deepening and enlivening a debate that has tended to become entrenched in the fixed and predictable positions of an academic conflict between liberalism and its critics.

John Hamilton’s philological contribution focuses on the figure of the procurator in Roman poetry and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in order to highlight the contradictions inherent in the acts of taking care of and representing another. If, etymologically speaking, security is the removal of care, then the procurator is a quasi-liberal agent of security whose legitimation grows out of his capacity to represent another by taking on the care of which the other is relieved. Such a transfer of care, Hamilton shows, is bound to create new insecurity.

By revisiting canonical liberal thinkers from Hobbes to Tocqueville, Johannes Voelz demonstrates that in the liberal imagination, entering a social contract does not lead to the attainment of security. Positioning himself against revisionists who argue that liberalism justifies its authoritarian tendencies with the imminent realization of security, Voelz stresses that the liberal conception of security calls for an acceptance of irreducible contingency. In a similar vein, Vibeke Schou Tjalve and Michael C. Williams reconstruct how mid-twentieth-century American intellectuals like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, historian Arthur Schlesinger, and political scientist Hans Morgenthau critiqued the liberal imagination from within by rallying around the concept of “realism.” For Tjalve and Williams, postwar realism amounted to a “skeptical liberalism” aimed at the moderation of security, the control of fear, and the taming of enmity.

Christopher Daase shifts the discussion to recent debates about human rights and human security. He demonstrates that policy makers and academics have recently begun to justify humanitarian interventions that violate international law on the basis that while such interventions may be unlawful, they are said to conform to the “emerging norm” of the so-called “responsibility to protect.” Daase argues against the concept of the “emerging norm”: an outgrowth of the notion of human security, it leads to a conflation of law and morality and ultimately weakens both. Elena Esposito addresses yet another aspect of the contemporary landscape of security by dissecting, from the perspective of systems theory, the illusory promises of financial risk management. While Esposito argues that economists, in an attempt to undo uncertainty, confuse their projected models of the future with the necessarily uncertain future, she also discovers more promising approaches—exemplified by the stress test that U.S. banks had to undergo after the crash of 2008—that use uncertainty as a resource rather than treating it as a problem to be solved.

If Esposito discovers an embrace of uncertainty within a liberal economy hostile to uncertainty, Branka Arsić finds a cultural version of such an island of uncertainty in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, a cultural hero of nineteenth-century liberal America, appears, in Arsić’s reading, as the revolutionary thinker par excellence. Conceptualizing the self as always receptive to change, Emerson creates a philosophy and politics of self-shattering unsafety, which he articulates by distancing himself from the liberal precepts espoused by John Locke. Reading Herman Melville’s manager figures in “Bartleby” and Benito Cereno, Jeffrey Hole provides a solemn counterpart to the Emersonian celebration of the emancipatory self-abandonments of insecurity presented by Arsić. Melville’s managers, Hole suggests, silently but violently secure the liberal order of imperial capitalism. To these impersonations of liberalism, humanity appears as a value only at the moments of its destruction.

Hole’s view of liberalism as a thanatopolitical regime is accompanied by Timothy Melley’s reading of American culture from the cold war to the war on terror. For Melley, the American liberal security state is characterized by secrecy and the disempowerment of the public. As Melley’s analysis of the popular genre that he calls “security melodrama” contends, public culture in the liberal security state romanticizes covert action and makes it appear as reinforcing liberal democracy. Honing in on the contradictions of cold war liberalism, Andrew Gross concludes this issue by reconstructing the fierce debates surrounding the first Bollingen Prize of Poetry, awarded in 1949 to convicted fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound. The decision to honor Pound’s Pisan Cantos served to prove just how secure artistic freedom and democracy were in the United States. But by detailing George Kennan’s role in the controversy, Gross demonstrates that while liberal ideals, such as artistic freedom, served to contain communism, containment nonetheless relied on the security state’s capacities of coercion.


1.  ”NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things,'” Guardian video,, 12:34, June 9, 2013, 1:48–2:06.

2. Ibid., 2:47.

3. Ibid., 6:58.

4. For Greenwald’s account of the NSA affair and its aftermath, see his No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014). The NSA’s war on electronic privacy, in Greenwald’s view, renders impossible the existence of a free society founded on the liberal principles (articulated by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis) of the “right to privacy” and the “right to be left alone” (ibid., p. 172). As Greenwald puts it, “We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person” (ibid.).

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