ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


Security for Sale! On Selling What Cannot be Bought

Essentially, all things security are nowadays up for sale. From spy gadgets to state-of-the-art optometric surveillance systems, a large and booming market facilitates trade in trinkets and innovative machines. Services of security are readily available too, especially for consumers with somewhat deeper pockets. Armed guards, operators of body scans, and bag searchers are all hired out by competing companies. As fans of the Danish hijacking drama Kapringen know, even negotiations with perpetrators of security threats can be outsourced to specialized entrepreneurs. If we flip the page on security as a ‘social contract’ between citizen and state, we thus find that security can also be a commercial contract between partners in business. These commercial contracts can be held to light, we should study their ‘genre’ as a historic marker and wonder what security provision by private companies says about our twenty-first century – but we would have to do so in a manner that is historically specific.

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Members of an EU training mission in Somalia; source:

 Hired guns and protection-by-proxy

The media hardly mentioned it, but late last year the Dutch government did some significant catching up. Following a two-year old ‘declaration of intent’, the Cabinet finally decided on the frameworks for allowing hired guns on merchant ships. Instead of counting solely on the Dutch Navy to secure passage through dangerous waters and pirate lairs, shipping firms will be permitted to hire armed servicemen from private companies. The road is now paved for ‘new, special legislation’. The ‘specific conditions’ of deployment will be based on similar legislation adopted in Belgium, France, Germany and the UK. From the lack of public attention (shipping firms excepted) to the commonsensical reference to other countries, the adoption of these extraordinary security measures has really unrolled in a ‘business as usual’ kind of way.

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Charts of ‘high-risk areas’; source:

So, in the near (?) future, Dutch shipping firms will be able to enter into commercial agreements with various business providing ‘security solutions’. In exchange for about 45,000 dollars a four-man team of armed surveillants – strikingly often former British servicemen – can help facilitate safe passage through a high-risk area. Private contractors may even deploy separate ships dedicated to the protection of a client.

Still, according to government regulations, shipping companies should always seek support from marine officials first. Only when navy assistance cannot be provided are companies allowed to hire a private contractor instead. In effect, such protection-by-proxy thus amounts to an outsourcing of state responsibility. In situations where the official armed forces cannot provide, a privately employed guard may get on deck.

The need to historicize private security

This outsourcing of state responsibility has made private security provision seem like a highly contemporary thing. The private security sector is seen as a unique token of a globalized world in which the state has largely been side-lined by multinational corporate power. Accordingly, the private contracting of security has been charted as a symptomatic feature of a neoliberal age. The rise of the private security sector, in this sense, could only really have commenced with neoliberalism’s expansion over the last twenty years or so. Though the scales and scopes of the industry today may be unprecedented, a truly historical outlook would show us that private security has actually been around much longer.

At the recent European Social Science and History Conference in Valencia a complete panel was dedicated to private security. The young historians David Churchill and Pieter Leloup both pointed to the existence of security industries in more distant historical eras. A significant security industry was booming in Mid-Victorian Britain and governmental responsibilities in protecting ports and patrolling streets have been outsourced to private enterprises since at least the early 1900s.

Private security is by no means exclusive to the neoliberal context of our globalist era. This opens up the potential and the need to historicize private security as well. We should begin to question how private enterprise has tried to capitalize on security concerns and threat perceptions. Surely, such inquiry would open up new perspectives on the sorts of interests that have been at stake in security politics throughout the ages. These perspectives remain obscured if we continue to treat the private security sector as a highly contemporary thing. In discussing private security and its relation to the public sector, much can therefore be gained by being historically specific, by paying attention to differences and similarities across times and places. Historical study and historically informed critiques will help us to weigh claims about supposedly unprecedented and completely new ways of providing security.

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Suspects on Somali waters; source:

Can security be bought?

To return to the dangerous seas of today, private security companies also generate new insecurities. A leaked video shows a private security guard spraying ‘warning shots’ over a small vessel with one person in it. Over the last few years, numerous innocent Somali fishermen have been killed because they were taken to be pirates. On the vast expanses of the sea it might be unclear who is who. What can seem threatening does not have to be an actual threat. Yet, if you are being paid to confront danger, you perhaps do not take too much time to think and be certain, especially in a juridically muddled context where preventive violence may not have legal consequences.

The private security sector likes to hear its services being called a ‘highly effective deterrent’ of shipping raids. True as this may be, we can also flip the question. We should wonder whether ‘deterrence’ is really the same as ‘security’ and question the relation between the industry’s PR presentation and the confrontation with a perceived threat. Simply preventing attacks does not mean that piracy will disappear. Stationing an armed guard on deck does not do anything about the complex underlying causes of a security threat like piracy. Actually, we may ponder whether the disappearance of threat would really be in the interests of private contractors at all. As long as there is a seemingly irregular and unpredictable danger out there, companies can continue to sell their ‘expert’ services in controlling these uncertainties. The threat itself is not confronted, but the fear of uncertainty is momentarily bought off. The slogan of one big maritime security firm says it all: ‘The Trident Group eradicates fear of the unknown….’